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Qantas was the first airline to develop a business class cabin, and since that time have regularly upgraded their business class product.

The new Skybed concept sees Qantas joining a small number of other airlines that offer sleeper bed type seats not just in first class but also in business class.

 
 
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Qantas Airways Skybed review

Qantas joins the elite 'lie flat sleeper seat' club

Although this aerial shot makes the Qantas Skybed look like a horizontal 'lie flat' seatbed, it is actually on an angle (foot lower than the head).

There's lots of leg room, and when seated, it is very comfortable.  It even has a massage function built in.

Part 2 of a two part review of Qantas Business Class - click for Parts  One  Two

 

 

Probably the most important part of your air travel experience is the seat you sit in, and attempt to sleep in.

The new Qantas Skybed represents the latest enhancement of an already high quality business class service.

The seat is much better than its predecessors, but there remains room for further improvement.


The Qantas Skybed seat

First announced in 2003, and now available on most (but still not yet all) of their 747s, the Skybed seat is a major improvement on Qantas' earlier business class seat, which in turn was also a major improvement on the seat it replaced, and so it goes back to the very first business class seats in 1979 when Qantas became the first airline to introduce a business class cabin.

Qantas hasn't rested on its laurels, and will be offering new improved seating on its A380s, the first of which is to take to the skies in mid October 2008.  In addition, there are exciting rumors of a partnership with leading UK wireless phone company, O2, in developing  O2 phones that will be 'airplane safe' and work onboard without the need for an in-plane pico-cell.

I've experienced five different types of business class seating on Qantas so far, with each new seat being appreciably better than the last.  One wonders how many more upgrades will be possible before business class matches first class and things can get no better.  Whatever that number is, based on my experience, there is still room for at least one more upgrade to get true comfort.

Seats are all forward facing, and they face directly forward rather than being on an angle.  I think I prefer Qantas' traditional directly forward layout more than either BA's alternating backwards/forwards layout or Virgin's angled layout.

The seats are placed within semi-circular 'cocoons' that stay rigidly in place and unmoving, even as you recline your seat.  This is good - you never have to worry about getting the seat in front of you rudely in your face.  It also means that if the person behind you is holding on to the back of your seat for support while getting in or out, you're not jerked about, because they're holding onto the rigid cocoon rather than directly onto your seat.

Each seat has three lights.  There is the traditional overhead light.  The second is a side light that is a sort of over-shoulder light, with a dimmer that makes a slight variation in light intensity.  This light is only useful when you're reclined far back into the seat.  Then, when you're reclined well back into your cocoon, there is a little touch-activated light on top of the cocoon that can shine down onto you.  It has two brightness settings.

Lighting is excellent when flying at night with the cabin lights dimmed, and there's no more than the usual amount of light spilling over from passengers in other seats.

A shortcoming of the seat was its tray table.  This unfolds out of the center armrest, but when opened, it is only supported by the center armrest hinge.  It does not rest on any support on the other side.

This means the table bounces up and down when trying to type on a laptop, making for a nasty blur on the screen, and requiring one to raise one's leg to act as a support on the far side.  This quickly becomes tiring, and for people with short legs would not be possible at all.

A very small design change to the tray tables would make a huge difference here.

A distinctive thing about the seat is that the arm rests are at different heights.  The center arm rest is higher than the outboard one.  This doesn't seem to be a big deal in terms of comfort, but it is a surprising design choice.

Talking about design, the Qantas Skybed seat has won an Australian Design Award, plus a Good Design Award from the Chicago Athanaeum Museum of Architecture and Design.  I can only assume the judges never actually experienced a 14 hour overnight flight in the seat before awarding their prize, never tried typing on a laptop on the tray table, and bizarrely have one arm longer than the other.

Storage space

I usually have a lot of stuff around me when I'm flying - books, MP3 player, headphones, document wallet, shoes, and usually computer too, and one of the problems with this seat was there was nowhere obvious to store much of this.  The traditional seat pocket in the back of the seat in front of you doesn't exist with these seats.

There were some clever little places, including even a space to put your shoes (in the middle leg between the two seats in front), but most of the places were too small to put anything useful in, and with a semi-bewildering array of different places to put things, I was worried that I'd forget something at the end of the flight.  What I'd hoped for was a single place to stuff everything - even a traditional seatback pocket in front - but such a low tech solution did not exist.

Sitting in the Qantas Skybed

The seat offers an extraordinary array of seventeen different electric adjustment buttons on its main console.  These comprise four preset positions, adjustments for seatback, lumbar support, and leg rest, plus also a seat massage button which causes various things to slowly move in the seat back in some sort of massaging pattern.

Qantas' earlier business class seats (and still featured on some planes) have 'only' 12 push buttons.

The seat was very comfortable for sitting in.  Some of the adjustments were linked to other adjustments - for example, to get maximum length out of the leg rest, you first had to swing it up then extend out the end of it and then extend the seat cushion.

And, talking about the leg rest - quite an important feature in these 'Economy Class Syndrome' times where we're now more sensitive to the risk of blood clots forming during long periods of uncomfortable sitting - the leg rest was too short for me.  I'm not unusually tall or long legged - 6' 0.5" (183cm) with a 31" (79cm) trouser leg length but I find almost all airplane seat leg/foot rests are too short.  I either have my feet hard up against the 'stop' at the end of the leg rest, or I don't fold open the stop and have my feet hanging over the end.  Neither solution is comfortable.

I can accept this limitation in coach class as a necessary trade-off, but in business or first class, I think it fair to expect something as basic as a long enough leg/foot rest be available.

Sleeping in the Qantas Skybed

I always envy the people around me who seem to effortlessly go to sleep as soon as the plane takes off, sleep soundly for the entire flight, and wake up, presumably refreshed, just as we come in to land.  This is not me, and I need all the help I can get to sleep on board.

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that the new lie-flat sleeper beds, found in an increasing number of airline first class cabins, and now making their way into business class too, offer the best chance at a good night's sleep.  In theory, this seems obvious.  But, in practice, I've had issues with lie-flat sleeper bed seats - I've formally reviewed BA's business class sleeper seats here, and have in the past flown on several other types of sleeper bed seat as well.  All have been a disappointment - too narrow, too short, and/or just plain too uncomfortable.  The one notable exception to this is the Virgin Upper Class Suite.

So it was with not very high expectations that I pushed the 'go flat' button on the Qantas Skybed.

Rather to my surprise, the Qantas Skybed doesn't become a true lie-flat bed.  The surface of the seat does become a straight surface, but this surface remains on a noticeable slope (8 degrees), rather than being parallel with the cabin floor.  Fortunately it is angled in a way that your head is higher than your feet, and when you adjust for the angle the plane flies through the air, the actual angle relative to gravity and the earth's surface is less than the apparent visual angle relative to the plane floor.

I'm quite happy sleeping on an angle, but unfortunately, because the seat becomes like a sloping board, one tends to slide down the seat over time, meaning one's feet end up hard against the footrest 'stop' at the end of the seat.  You'll need to either accept this or every so often pull yourself back up the seat again.  This became an uncomfortable hassle after a while.

I ended up deciding the most comfortable configuration was to have the seat more upright so that it was no longer a sloping board but instead had three parts on different angles, including a flat part to sit on and not slide off.

When trying to sleep, I immediately noticed the lit No Smoking signs on the cabin ceilings, which started to burn into my brain.  Some other airlines extinguish their No Smoking signs at night.  Sure, you can always use the eye mask supplied in the amenities kit, but I find them semi-claustrophobic and an unusual sensation that interferes with relaxing and going to sleep.

The monitor for the seat one row ahead and on the other side of the aisle was also shining directly into my eyes.  People with window seats would not have this problem, but aisle seated passengers can expect some light spillage from the aisle seat opposite and one row ahead.

One other inconvenience was where the control unit for the in flight entertainment was located.  It was in the side of the seat and was easily bumped and switched on.  Several times during the night I accidentally turned on my monitor, and I noticed other people who seemed to be doing the same thing.

At Seat Power

Each seat offers regular 110V power, with a socket that will fit most types of US/European plugs (except UK style).  This is very good news - you can connect any low current device to the socket.  Recharge your cell phone, or your MP3 player, as well as, of course, your laptop (if you have the necessary chargers with you).

But the reality of the power was not quite as good as the promise.  When first plugging my Dell laptop's charger into the power supply, the computer switched to the charger's power, but strangely was not recharging the depleted batteries at the same time.  After maybe ten minutes, the circuit overloaded and died.

I switched the computer off and the mains reset itself but when I turned the computer back on again, the same thing happened again.  Although I was the only person using the power supply in the entire cabin (and perhaps entire plane), it seemed inadequate for my single computer, and I had to alternate between using the computer, on battery, then turning the computer off and charging it.

And then, while the computer was off but having its battery recharged, the power supply died entirely.  Eventually the Flight Service Director managed to restart the power service, but after another half hour of battery charging, the circuit died again, and I gave up on further attempts to get power for my laptop on the flight.

A similar problem occurred on the flight from Auckland to Los Angeles, so this would seem to be a systemic problem rather than a 'one-off'.

In Flight Entertainment

With 11 - 14 hour flights between the US and the South Pacific, in-flight entertainment is a great help to whiling away the hours.

Qantas provide unbranded noise-reducing around the ear headphones to their business class passengers.  These are not very effective at all, compared to regular commercial noise reducing headphones, but they are of course much better than nothing.

There is a flaw in the logic of their design and operation.  To activate the noise cancelling, you need to plug the headphones into the seat socket (because the headphones don't have batteries, and instead take power from the seat).  Unfortunately, as soon as you plug the headphones in, you are immediately bombarded with whatever soundtrack you have selected, or a default soundtrack if none is selected.  It is possible to turn the volume all the way down, but if you do that, you still get an annoying amount of background static.  I tested this also with my Bose Quiet Comfort 2 noise cancelling headphones - plugging them in to the seat with the volume control at minimum was much noisier than leaving them unplugged.

The headphones are externally powered, with a strange three pin plug (one pin for power and two for the left and right audio) which means you can't also use the headphones for listening to your personal audio or video device (and also means there's, ahem, no point in forgetting to return the headphones at the end of your journey!).

Qantas is to be praised for offering noise cancelling headphones, but it needs to think this process completely through and provide a 'quiet' channel or in some other way make it possible to use the noise cancelling headphones without plugging them into the seat power and audio system.

Flight to Sydney

A rather confusing guide listed the different movies in apparently random order, and details the other features available on the seatback inflight entertainment system.

The screen is a very good quality 10.4" regular aspect ratio screen, set into the back of the seat in front.  This is a large size, and with enough resolution to provide smooth clear images free of obvious lines or pixelation.

There are 18 channels of movies (12 of the channels are available throughout the plane, the other 6 are only available in first and business class).  There are also 16 audio channels, ten games, and two special video channels - one with text based satellite news and the other with a moving map showing where the plane is and details of its journey and expected arrival time.

The satellite news channel shows brief text news items that rotate in a series over and over.  Several times during the flight a new set of items was downloaded and updated the earlier items.

Although the guide said that the elapsed time for each channel from the last time it started playing would be displayed when changing channels, this did not happen.  It did happen on the return flight, though, so was probably just disabled on this one flight.

Flight from Auckland

An even more confusing entertainment guide greeted me on my return flight.  Again, the movie information was not in any understandable order, and this time the channels the movies appeared on weren't shown, either.

However, there were tantalizing references to an 'entertainment on demand' system, suggesting one could simply request any movie at any time.  This was not available in reality, but the entertainment guide is an exciting hint of things to come, and will start appearing in planes from December 2005 (so Qantas is way ahead of the curve to be promising it in their monthly guide printed back in August).

The satellite news channel promised to display regularly updated news, but all flight long kept showing the same limited number of items, all of which were half a day out of date even at the beginning of the flight.

Of interest to classical music lovers

One of my most memorable musical experiences, to date, was on a Qantas Business Class flight between Wellington and Sydney, 25 years ago.  A stunning version of Schumann's Carnaval played by Yuri Egorov was on their audio channel, and seated next to me was a concert pianist.  The music and the company made for a marvelous flight.

Purely by chance, while 'channel surfing' through the 18 video channels on the flight back to Los Angeles, I happened upon a full orchestra and a pianist playing a strange looking (light colored wood) concert grand.  The camera angle changed, and I saw the name of the piano - Stuart & Sons - a manufacturer I'd never heard of before.

Intrigued, I plugged in the audio, and settled back to enjoy a solidly workmanlike studio performance of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto.  This is a piece of music that pretty much plays itself, which was just as well as the conductor was singularly unimpressive, but the pianist provided an excellent anchor to keep the work flowing.

I then found a write-up of the piece in the entertainment guide.  The Stuart piano is a recent Australian creation, drawing raves from cognoscenti around the world, and using a new method of string mounting to create a slightly clearer tone.  Move over, Steinway!

The concert is available on DVD, complete with fascinating extra features and a commentary by the pianist (Australia's extremely accomplished Gerard Willems) on an extra audio track.  If you have an international multi-standard DVD player, you might want to get a copy of what seems to be a magnificent DVD.  Here's a great review of this recording and several others on CD also featuring Willems and the Stuart grand as he plays his way through all the Beethoven sonatas and concerti.

Is there a better way to enjoy great music, than at 35,000 ft and 700 mph (we had a strong tail wind pushing us along at wonderful over the ground speeds), having enjoyed a brilliant meal, fine wines, and excellent service, while relaxing in a comfy chair with a lovely single malt?  If there is, I sure don't know what it might be!

Summary

The Qantas Skybed adds still further to their Business Class product.

A more comfortable seat, combined with new IFE options and other inflight services, helps to make even the longest journey seem short.

If you're wishing to fly somewhere Qantas operates, you may well choose to be like me and preferentially select Qantas over its competitors.  You'll almost certainly be pleased you did.

Read more in Part 1

In Part 1 we talk about all the other aspects that go to make up the lovely luxury that is flying Qantas Business Class.
 

Note : See also my reviews of Virgin's Upper Class and Premium Economy class and of British Airways' competing Business and Premium Economy classes.

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Originally published 12 Aug 2005, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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