Virgin Atlantic has patented a new staggered herringbone layout for its Upper Class Suite product, allowing the carrier to increase density and grow revenue. The design is featured on its new Airbus A330-300s that start commercial service this month.
Whereas traditional herringbone patterns, including the style Virgin has used since debuting its custom-designed suite in 2003, form a “V” shape in the centre part of the cabin, Virgin has patented a staggered, cross-hatch version.
The effect is that the seats do not jut out as much into the aisle, creating room for an additional seat per row.
This is a critical innovation for its Airbus widebody fleet. Due to the narrower fuselage compared to its 747s, Virgin can only fit one suite in the centre row whereas it can fit two on its 747s (almost all of its competitors are four-abreast in premium classes owing to larger fuselage widths). Its new patent will allow Virgin to fit two seats in the centre row on its Airbus widebodies, which include A340s and a growing A330-300 fleet.
The APEX Editor’s blog earlier this year noted Virgin quietly loaded an A330-300 seat map showing four-abreast in Upper Class despite its Airbus widebodies only accommodating three-abreast. The design could also be used on the 787, which Virgin has 15 of on order, as the 787 has a cabin width approximately the same as the A330/A340.
While fitting one additional seat may seem trivial, the scale of aviation economics as well as revenue from premium classes will see this change significantly boost revenue. Virgin’s patented layout could allow it to fit approximately seven extra suites over its previous design. Assuming each A330-300 performs two flights a day, the new layout could add over USD1 million of revenue per A330 per year.
Additional revenue comes at a critical time given capacity constraints at its London Heathrow hub as well as its unsuccessful acquisition of Heathrow-based bmi. Relative absence of flight growth has plagued rival British Airways too, which over the past decade has grown revenue on declining passenger numbers by increasing the ratio of premium to non-premium seats.
There is no exact comparisons of how the layout will give Virgin an advantage over competitors, but there are some indications. Both Cathay Pacific and US Airways operate A330-300s with a James Parker-designed business product, one of the latest in the industry. (US Airways does not share any routes with Virgin, while Cathay uses 747s and 777s between London and Hong Kong, and A330s between Hong Kong and Sydney.)
In the A330-300’s zone A (doors 1 to 2), Cathay and US Airways fit 28 seats while Virgin will fit 33 despite the carriers using approximately the same amount of space for lavatories, galleys and closets.
Cathay and US Airways have seven four-abreast rows while Virgin also has seven four-abreast rows plus two extra seats along each side and one seat in the middle (other space is taken up by the carrier’s bar). This gives Virgin a boost of five seats compared to Cathay and US Airways. In its three-abreast configuration Virgin would have had two fewer seats.
Major competitor American Airlines will use the James Parker product on its 777-300ERs due to serve London, but Virgin’s new layout will give it a greater density.
Virgin has not disclosed seating width or pitch. Those figures would indicate if its design trades density for space or if it achieves better space utilisation while leaving passenger comfort intact. Virgin is expected to announce the details of its new suite before the first A330-300 enters revenue service between London and New York shortly.
Virgin has previously licensed its Upper Class Suite to Air New Zealand while a similar version was offered from Contour to Air Canada, Cathay Pacific, Delta and Jet Airways.