It can be tricky to tell how one airline's angled lie-flat business class seat is different from a reverse herringbone fully flat bed -- and figuring out just what the angled herringbone is takes a bit of illustration.
So we at Australian Business Traveller put together a handy guide to all the styles of business class seat and cabin layouts you're likely to see.
We've focussed on the key airlines with flights to Australia, but you'll find some weird and wonderful seats out there further afield, so there's some brief mention of those where appropriate.
And this guide is, as ever, updated to keep you abreast of the very latest in business class seats -- most recently with Cathay Pacific's brand new regional business class and Japan Airlines' trendsetting new fully flat beds with direct aisle access.
We'll start closest to home...
You'll find recliners on most domestic business class flights, as well as on longer flights on some cheaper airlines. (Air Pacific's business class to Los Angeles via Nadi, for example.)
Jetstar also uses premium economy-style recliners on its business class offering.
While comfy enough for a short hop to Perth, recliners are definitely below par in terms of comfort and sleeping options for flights over six hours -- from Australia to Singapore or Hong Kong, say.
The angled-recliner hybrid
In September 2012, Cathay Pacific brought out a much-spruiked upgrade to its regional business class for short flights out of its Hong Kong hub.
It slides forward and raises your legs up at an angle, putting you into a Z-bed kind of position, rather than reclining backwards into the lap of the person behind.
The airline's man in charge of seating told us that Singapore and Tokyo are on the cards for these seats in January 2013.
The angled lie-flat seat
Most medium to long distance flights in business class -- especially in the Asia-Pacific region -- have angled lie-flat seats.
There are several varieties of this seat, but they all recline to form a mainly flat surface to sleep on -- but sloping at an angle to the floor of the plane, rather than a full 180 degrees.
You'll find them in either a 2-2-2 or 2-3-2 configuration, depending on the airline.
The upsides of an angled lie-flat are that you can adjust the seat to a comfortable position for relaxing on a day flight.
But there's a significant downside they're markedly less comfortable than a fully flat bed if you prefer to sleep on your side or front. Plus, if you're wearing a suit or other smooth fabric, you're likely to slide down the bed when trying to sleep.
Read more about angled lie-flat seats -- and the fully flat beds often confused with them -- in our exposé of the lie-flat lie.
The forward facing fully flat bed
You'll find this self-explanatory type of flat bed on Qantas' Airbus A380 (and refurbished Boeing 747s), Virgin Australia's former V Australia Boeing 777 flights, plus a few other airlines like Garuda Indonesia or Air China in our region.
These come in rows, with either a 2-2-2 (most Airbus A330 or upstairs A380 configurations) or 2-3-2 (most Boeing 777 configurations) layout.
These are great for direct aisle access, but some people dislike having to tuck their feet into a small cubby-hole area when in bed mode.
The staggered fully flat bed
Giving everyone access to the aisle is one of the holy grails of long-haul business class, and the staggered fully flat bed layout is one way to do it.
Ahead of each window or middle seat is a small gangway that allows those passengers to slip out into the aisle without disturbing the person in the aisle seat.
The arrangement also means that you have a more private mini-suite, which feels more private. That's a real benefit for the long-haul flights where you'll see these seats -- from our region, Etihad flights to Abu Dhabi and Emirates' A380 flights to Dubai in business class.
The only real downside comes if you're in the aisle seats, which have a little less legroom. So if you're tall, head for one of the window seats instead.
Further afield, you'll also find staggered layouts in Swiss' swanky new business class and Finnair's long-haul flights.
Japan Airlines has the newest version of these beds, with an extra-spacious 2-3-2 layout for its 777-300ER planes.
Australian Business Traveller toured JAL's Tokyo workshop, and we have a full photo tour of this promising new business class.
You have the choice of an aisle seat with extra storage, or a window/middle seat with extra privacy -- but there's no "midnight vaulting" required to get over the person in the aisle.
The forwards-backwards fully flat bed
There are two variants to the forwards-backwards cabin layout: United's, where entire rows go head to head and toe to toe, and British Airways', where aisle seats face forwards and everything else faces backwards.
Downstairs on Boeing 747s, and on 777s, you'll find 2-4-2 layouts, while it drops down to a more exclusive 2-2 upstairs on a 747.
Slightly confused? Here's the seat map from one of BA's 747 layouts:
The upsides to the forwards-backwards arrangement is that they're fully flat beds that slide down to recline, so they're great for relaxing on a day flight and getting some sleep on a night flight.
However, there's a big downside: window and middle passengers need to clamber over the aisle seat's legs to get out.
BA's seats are private and have decent elbow room -- thanks to the extra space from the fact that the seats are designed so your elbows are on the other side of the divider from your neighbour's knees, so you get more space -- but some people feel they're more cramped than exclusive.
United's seats are pretty narrow, since everyone's elbows in the row are next to each other, but they do go flat.
The herringbone fully flat bed
Seats in a herringbone layout are always fully flat, facing into the cabin from three or four columns of seats, making a 1-1, 1-1-1 or 1-2-1 configuration.
These either fold forwards so you sleep on the padded back of the seat (Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand) or recline backwards so you sleep on the seat cushions themselves.
Upsides are privacy, direct aisle access to everyone and a good flat bed to stretch out on, although some passengers (especially people who sleep on their back) find them less comfortable than the forward-facing seats.
Downsides include fewer options for relaxing positions on day flights, and some window fans find it annoying to have to angle their heads to look out.
The staggered herringbone fully flat bed
Having invented the regular herringbone, the staggered herringbone "Dream Suite" is Virgin Atlantic's new idea for its slightly narrower planes, which can't fit two of the regular herringbone's angled seats together in a middle pair.
Instead, the staggered herringbone sees a zig-zag sort of pattern rather than the zip-like layout of wider planes.
In terms of flexibility, it's just about as good as the regular herringbone, but Virgin have also upgraded the seats a fair bit to give extra recline and a more modern cabin.
Take a look at our full photo tour of the new Virgin Atlantic staggered herringbone cabins for more.
The reverse herringbone fully flat bed
Cathay Pacific's new business class has a different take on the herringbone: window seats face outwards towards the window (unlike its older business class, where window seats faced inwards) and centre seats face inwards towards each other.
Everyone has direct aisle access, and there's a great amount of privacy all around.
There isn't really a downside to this sort of seat, which is why we rate it as one of the world's best business class seats.
For more on Cathay's new business class, check out our extensive coverage of the new seats and service.
The Lufthansa "playing footsie" herringbone
Lufthansa's new fully flat business class is an improvement on its older angled lie-flat seats, but there's a reason the German airline is the only one to have chosen this kind of layout.
Each seat angles towards its neighbour -- so while there's roughly a foot of space separating the seats at head height, you'll probably end up playing footsie since there's not much of a divider at foot level.
Plus, window passengers need to clamber over the person in the aisle seat to get out, which isn't ideal.
For more on what you might see in the future of business class seating, head on to our article on the latest airline seating innovations shortlisted for the Crystal Cabin awards this year.
And for more in-depth analysis and reviews from Australian Business Traveller:
- On the plane with Cathay Pacific's brand-new premium economy seat
- Lufthansa's all-new Boeing 747-8 fully flat business class seat: fantastic or footsie-prone?
- AusBT Food Week: seven days of all you ever wanted to know about business class food and wine
- So long to the non-reclining shell in Cathay Pacific's economy class
- Our full series of business traveller-specific guides to picking the best seats for your flight
About John Walton
Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.