Having just spent 11 hours on an airline seat - with more to come - including several hours when I was pretending to be asleep but wasn't, I couldn't help reflecting on them. The seat in question was KLM Business Class. KLM is in the majority of long-haul airlines who give you a seat which is flat but not horizontal, on a 60-inch pitch. Only a few airlines - BA and Virgin among them - give you a horizontal bed.
Overall, KLM's seat was pretty good, as sleeping on a hillside goes. They've done a better job than Lufthansa, who use what seems to be the same seat design - Lufty gives you absolutely nowhere to put your book, or your glasses while you sleep. KLM's version is full of handy cubby-holes. There is just one weird thing. The socket for the headset is at the very back of a cubby-hole under the armrest, and the plug is a complicated triangular thing that has to be orientated correctly. I ended up on my knees in front of the seat trying to get my headset plugged in. Then I accidentally pulled it out, and since I couldn't repeat my act of worship without disturbing my sleeping neighbour, I resigned myself to no more sound. Eventually I did get it back in, but I can't imagine how everyone else deals with it. Surely it wouldn't have been hard to put it somewhere more accessible, like on the front of the seat?
BA was (as far as I know) the first with the lay-flat seat, in about 2001. The design has evolved since, but it's still basically the same. It gives you a full six-foot horizontal bed, with the additional advantage of complete isolation from your neighbour. The upstairs window seats have complete privacy, and a handy locker you can reach without standing up - and of course a magnificent view of whatever you happen to be flying over, such as this picture of Greenland. It is about as close to perfection as an airline seat can get. My wife likes her favourite seat, 64K, so much that she refuses first-class upgrades so she can keep it.
Air France's first attempt at a flat seat was a disaster. Their Mark I version was at quite a steep angle, so you constantly slid downhill. Every ten minutes or so you'd wake up, as your torso slid down into the space under the seat in front. To make it worse, the footrest was only a couple of inches wide, barely enough even for your ankles. So when you woke up you would first scrunch your ankles into the footrest, then wriggle yourself back up the seat, the thin metal digging painfully into the bones of your feet. That was definitely not a relaxing flight. I'm told they've improved it since, though I haven't had a chance to try it. (I will in a couple of weeks, so maybe I'll write a paxrep then).
Virgin deserves an honourable mention - full marks, and maybe some bonus points too, for trying. But like an over-eager child they tried too hard and ended up spoiling the effect. Their seat is truly flat, rather than made up of a footrest, swab and back. The mechanism involved is truly impressive. Rather than just reclining until eventually it goes flat, like the others, the seat rears up like the Loch Ness Monster then suddenly collapses forwards, so you sleep on the reverse side of what you sit on. Unfortunately it's also rather hard, so not as comfortable as it ought to be. The biggest problem, though, is that the mechanism is so complex that you can't operate it yourself - you have to get the crew to do it. If, like me, you like to switch back and forth between prone and sitting - especially on day flights - you're out of luck. Once it's bedtime, it's bedtime until they serve breakfast. Though I did once have a fantastic flight from London to Tokyo which was so empty that I had a bed and a seat, on opposite sides of the aisle.
It's easy to tell whether your airline has horizontal or flat-but-not-horizontal seats, before you fly. Just go to seatguru.com and look at the pitch. If it's much less than 72 inches, the seat can't possibly be flat. (The exception is Singapore, who make the seat wider so your feet stick into your forward neighbour's armrest. Sadly, my only recent flights on Singapore were in First, so I can't comment on how well this works).
Meanwhile, the US airlines still haven't got to grips with even the flat seat, 10 years after BA pioneered it. Their websites will tell you they are "introducing it on selected routes", but I know nobody who has managed to fly on one of these selected routes. They don't include obvious ones like across the Pacific, that's for sure. I think maybe United is still stuck in the same timewarp as when its stewardesses were below pension age.