In-flight beds raise eyebrows

Snoring?: Virgin Atlantic's latest innovation - "double suites" - raises questions of public decency.

October 19, 2004|By Shelley Emling | Shelley Emling,COX NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - In a move that could give new meaning to in-flight entertainment, Virgin Atlantic Airways has introduced double beds for first-class passengers on selected flights.

"We are delighted that Virgin Atlantic is the first airline to offer this unique service" of what the airline calls "double suites," said Sir Richard Branson, the airline's chairman, in a written statement. "Now passengers can enjoy even `suiter' dreams next to their loved ones."

The announcement marks the culmination of a five-year goal by Branson to let passengers get "closer together" on long-haul flights.

He said many honeymoon couples fly on Virgin, and there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to cuddle up on a plane as they would at home.

But critics warn that Virgin has crossed the line when it comes to decency and that the airline runs the risk of alienating more passengers than it accommodates.

"This is unnecessary and unfortunate," Ann Widdecombe, a Conservative member of Parliament, told The Sunday Times newspaper. "There's an immense issue of public decency here because there are other passengers who will not wish to see or hear such things."

Allyson Stewart-Allen, who heads International Marketing Partners, a cross-cultural consulting firm, agreed that the maneuver could land Virgin in a lot of trouble.

"Some travelers may not want to watch the intimacy of other couples first-hand," she said. "Given airline cabins are already intimate spaces, what ultimately is Virgin trying to achieve with this offer, and will it make them more money?

"Perhaps they could make just as much money by removing the armrests from the seats in the economy cabin," she said.

But Phil Kessler, a San Diego businessman who operates www.milehighclub.com, said he applauds the airline for its foresight.

"Many of our readers have commented on how much more convenient this will be than skipping off to use the small airline heads to satisfy their airborne sexual fantasies," he said.

To be specific, Virgin's double beds are actually two separate, fully reclining, 33-inch-wide seats in the plane's premium Upper Class section. These seats can be flipped over and turned into flat beds, which become a double bed when the partition between the two seats is removed and the space between them is filled with a mattress.

While screens prevent occupants of these seats from being seen by nearby passengers, flight attendants and passengers walking down the aisles could observe them.

Virgin is offering the double-bed option, which can be requested at check-in, on three Boeing 747-400s that fly from London's Heathrow Airport to New York.

Virgin hopes to add the option to all of its Boeing 747-400s at Heathrow.

Henry H. Harteveldt, vice president of travel research for Forrester Research in San Francisco, said he views the move as a publicity ploy in keeping with Virgin's reputation as a sassy airline willing to push the envelope.

Earlier this year Virgin was forced to scrap plans to install bright-red urinals shaped like a woman's mouth in the men's room of its new first-class lounge at New York's Kennedy Airport after receiving a string of complaints.

"Virgin thrives on taking on the establishment," Harteveldt said.

Sir Richard, the colorful personality behind the Virgin Group, which includes Virgin Atlantic, is known as a daredevil who loves to stir up controversy.

He'll take his taste for adventure to reality TV on Nov. 9, when his show Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best debuts on Fox.

The show has Sir Richard taking contestants to far-off locales where they'll perform various stunts and be judged - and possibly eliminated - by him.

Harteveldt pointed out that other airlines, such as Lufthansa and American, already have lie-flat first-class seats arranged in pairs, while Qantas and Singapore have business-class seats arranged in pairs.

"Granted, an arm rest is in between, but anyone with the ambition or a contortionist's skills who wants to engage in airborne hanky-panky could do so," he said.

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