The original requirement for the Upper Class Suite was simple: Virgin Atlantic needed to introduce a flat bed into its upper class cabins. Joe Ferry, Head of Design and Service Design, and his team began by exploring a wide range of different configurations, including the use of seats with separate sleeping areas. Eventually they settled on the concept of a seat and a bed that were in the same space, but separate entities.
During the early concept phases Ferry and his team also spent considerable time with Virgin Atlantic‘s management discussing different seat design features and assigning relative priorities to each, so decisions could be made on what to include and what to remove from the final design.
As concepts developed, the team worked with Virgin Atlantic’s engineering function to understand whether particular concepts would be acceptable under safety and airworthiness regulations. It also brought in its first external support – in the form of Design Q, an automotive design consultancy used for its layout design and model making skills, which could help to produce 3D concept models to assist with evaluation.
At the end of this initial phase, Ferry and his team presented their concepts to the board, which gave the project the green light to move forward to the Design Development stage.
From concept to prototype
Once the overall concept was evolved, Virgin Atlantic began to involve more specialist outside design support, including a structural engineering firm to assist with the mechanical design of the new seat and to ensure compliance with the very stringent aircraft safety specifications. They also brought in furniture design specialist Pearson Lloyd, after briefing the agency to produce a hypothetical concept for a competitor product to understand its design language and style.
Ferry emphasises that the Upper Class Suite experience is a holistic approach covering much more than just the seat design, involving not just the cabin ambience but also associated service elements including limousine pick-up, in-flight massage and a range of dining options. The company brought in additional specialists during the design process to achieve this.
Another design agency, Softroom, was used to develop a concept for the whole interior ambiance and specialist lighting design consultancy DHA assisted with illumination concepts.
Pearson Lloyd used its own ergonomic experience to optimise the comfort of the seat concept and used ergonomic data that Virgin Atlantic Airways had commissioned from Qinetiq. Within 12 months the team had built a full-scale dynamic prototype seat for evaluation purposes.
The prototype Upper Class Suite business case was approved by Virgin Atlantic’s executive board and the seat design then underwent an extensive evaluation process. Members of cabin crew were seconded onto the design team to evaluate usability from a crew point of view and frequent flyers even came in to sleep in the test seat at Virgin Atlantic’s HQ. These extended test sessions were augmented by shorter review sessions in which the company’s top 50 passengers would come and assess the new design. Such user evaluation was important, says Ferry, but must be treated with caution as passenger feedback – which can be limited in so far as consumers are only able to react to what they have already experienced – won’t ‘take you to the next level.’
Once the board had approved the seat design, The Virgin Atlantic design team turned its attention to the manufacture of the seat. At this point in the process, input from external design consultants stopped: Virgin Atlantic and the consultants recorded the agreed design in a Detailed Design Specification Document and through it Ferry and his team became ‘guardians of the design’ throughout the engineering and manufacturing process. Here again, the availability of a working concept model was extremely useful, as without it, says Ferry, ‘the manufacturers would have said, “It can’t be done”.’ Manufacturing engineering took 24 months and at the same time the Virgin Atlantic design team conducted an extensive value engineering programme, looking for opportunities to reduce costs without affecting user perception of the product by, for example, ensuring that the leather seat cover designs make maximum possible utilisation of a single hide. The Upper Class Suite was delivered to aircraft in late 2003. Virgin Atlantic continues to use a similar process on other projects and is just completing a redesign of its Premium Economy class cabin.