When is a Bed Not a Bed?

By Richard Quest

There was a bit of good news for travelers recently when United Airlines, one of the world’s largest carriers, announced it would go fully flat-bed in business class. You could hear the cheer resounding from frequent flyers like me! This decision put paid, once and for all, to the rubbish that all beds on planes are equal.

A question: When is a bed not a bed? When it is angled lay flat. My back hurts, my legs ache and my clothes are all rumpled – and all because the airline, which claimed to have a bed, actually offered up a torture machine which I prefer to call a slide.

You know the ones: when you put the “bed” into the full recline, you end up on a steep angle. Over the next few hours you slowly, but inexorably, slide down until you are on the floor with your underpants under your armpits.

The trend of moving from seats to beds began in 1995 when British Airways became the first carrier to install fully flat beds in business class. Its major British competitor, Virgin Atlantic, followed, and so began “The battle of the beds.”

The problem became immediately clear: going fully flat meant taking up a lot of room on the plane (valuable real estate in the language of the airlines). As a result, individual airlines have patented their own ways of doing this. BA has alternate rear-facing seats while Virgin adopted a fishbone style, with seats off centre to the plane.

And then there were the airlines that decided not to bother spending the money and instead concocted a cheaper alternative: the dreaded angled lie flat seat. Sure, the seat goes flat but it is not horizontal. You end up sleeping on a slope.

Airlines that should have known better (including Lufthansa and Swiss) went for this cheaper option. The airlines justify the angle by saying the plane flies at a slight incline so you are really flat after all. How many ways can I say that this is rubbish? Rot? Nonsense? Insulting to the intelligence? Let’s be honest. These angled “beds” are uncomfortable and almost never offer a good night’s sleep unless you are so tired you would sleep on the floor. If you doubt me, read the reviews on travelers’ websites. Almost no one likes angled lie flat.

Thankfully, the days of the angled lie flat are inevitably coming to an end. Last month’s decision by United Airlines to become the only US carrier to “go fully flat” almost certainly sounded the death knell for the horrible angled contraption in the years ahead.

If you are not sure what sort of bed you are about to suffer, let me give you some tips. First, ignore all the advertising the airlines put out on this. Do your own research and find out exactly what sort of bed is being offered. I always look at flatseats.com (run by the excellent SKTRAX people, with detailed analysis of plane seats and reviews). It will tell you clearly what sort of seat it is and whether other passengers have found it comfortable.

If you do end up trapped with an angled lie-flat seat, I recommend that you recline the seat as fully as possible, THEN start nudging it back up again which actually will make the seat more flat. That will give you support and protect your back and legs. Eventually you will get to a position you can live with for the flight. Just.

Swiss International has a whole set of instructions in the seat pocket dedicated to telling you how to jog their seat (perhaps the fact they have to put the instructions should have told them not to bother buying the seat in the first place…).

In the end, I would always go for flat bed over angled lay flat. It’s a simple choice. A good night’s sleep or a night spent sliding to the floor. Let’s get rid of the angled torture trap for business travelers once and for all.

Richard Quest is a CNN anchor and correspondent based in London.

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