Back to the future

Design byHugh Aldersey-Williams

Who said: "We walk backwards into the future"? Was it a) Northrop Frye; b) Paul Valery; c) Walter Benjamin; d) Montaigne; e) Robert Burton; or f) Plutarch? They all seem to lay claim to the idea in various tongues and forms of words. Bright chaps - perhaps they could constitute a new line in those football shirts advertised from time to time in these pages, though I suppose the names would have to be on the front.

Anyway British Airways is about to prove it. Half of the seats in its new Club World compartments will face aft. It is the most startling feature of a redesign of its business-class seating that the company hopes will begin to revive its fortunes. For some would say that British Airways has been flying backwards for years. Last month it announced profits cut by more than half, with the promise of worse to come. It is still riven with staff disputes, and the low morale is all too apparent to customers. Nevertheless it ploughs on with high-profile design projects that seem to speak of a quite different company. First the tail-fin folk art. Then new offices by the Norwegian architect Niels Torp, showing off the latest thinking in democratic work environments. Now this attention-grabbing seat by a top London product-design firm called Tangerine.

It is to another Norse-blooded leveller that we should turn in order to understand what British Airways is up to. This year marks the centenary of the publication of Thorstein Veblen's classic work The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen noted the decline of the true leisure class even then. Today even Prince Edward has a useful job. But British Airways' euphemism "Club World" shows that the concept of the leisure class lives on in today's business class.

Corporations perpetuate, or where necessary invent, class distinctions not only in the air but anywhere there is money to be made from doing it. Obsessed with replicating the mannerisms of air travel, the private train companies have been particularly busy in this sphere. But it works anywhere a benefit can be linked, and a premium price assigned, to a patch of ground. Expect pay-as-you-go business-class motorway lanes one day soon. Unlike business-class flight, at least they'll get you to your destination sooner.

Unable to deliver this ideal, business-class seating aims instead to allow its patrons to make best use of their flying time. For some this means Veblen's "conspicuous leisure", the companion activity to his better-known "conspicuous consumption". An airline seat is more than a comfortable armchair at home. It is home, or must strive to seem so, for several hours at least. Tangerine's design is said to be the first to recline to provide a completely horizontal bed, and this feature will undoubtedly be used to sell the premium tickets. Today's business class, however, is not a simple analogue of Veblen's leisure class. For one thing, it is now those travelling in economy class who are ostentatious in their idleness. So the new Club World seats are also wired for telephones and laptop computers.

As its name hints, Tangerine emerged in the wake of the success of Apple Computer. The company has a good record of creating electronic products rather in that image, although for less lustrous clients. Ironically Tangerine can claim to be godfather - and no more - to the celebrated iMac computer, which was the styling triumph of one of its alumni. That product suffices nevertheless to show the kind of paradigm shift that design can produce for the right client. The British Airways seat marks a shift, although its revolution has involved more fundamental design work. The project required ergonomists and experts in aviation medicine, to make sure that it would be safe for passengers to fly facing backwards, and market research, to check that they would buy the idea. The rear-facing seat has different engineering from the forward-facing seat, to compensate for the forces experienced during take-off. To all appearances, however, the forward and backward seats look the same, paired in yin-yang islands. British Airways' boss, Bob Ayling, calls them love-seats. An artist's impression shows them scattered across the floor of a plane, looking like a club room - the airport executive lounge borne aloft.

British Airways is cagey about exactly how many seats will be put aboard how many planes in the course of the two-year, £200 million fitting-out. They will be placed as close as they can be while still allowing the passage of duty-free trolleys. The ingenuity of the design is that, even with close spacing, the passenger's privacy is preserved, as no one sits directly alongside or opposite anyone else.

The improvement is so considerable that the airline will have to refurbish its first-class seating next. The back of the bus, though, looks more forgotten than ever. British Airways is aware that the gulf has widened but is unapologetic about it and plans no improvements there. So much for the matey new Labour posturing of Ayling and the brotherhood-of-man symbolism of BA's controversial corporate identity. It was recently announced that the latter is to be ditched. When will Ayling go?

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war