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
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
The seat is much better than
its predecessors, but there remains room for further
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
(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
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.
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
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
Flight to Sydney
A rather confusing guide
listed the different movies in apparently random order, and
other features available on the seatback inflight entertainment
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
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
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
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,
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.
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!
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
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
Upper Class and Premium Economy class
and of British Airways' competing Business
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12 Aug 2005, last update
28 Nov 2012
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