Virtual reality goggles are tested at Hamburg’s Aircraft Interiors Expo © Samuel Kirby

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Florencia Pascual, a marketing strategist for a Hong Kong-based company called Formia, is showing off the Pope’s amenity bag. A miniature version of a carry-on suitcase, it contains everything the pontiff might have required during his recent Aeromexico flight from Ciudad Juárez to Rome: socks; eye mask; a card showing the Vatican’s coat of arms; green mandarin body butter by the Italian cosmetics brand Acca Kappa. But did he use it?

“I would love to see that picture if he did,” Pascual says, not referring to any item in particular. “Sadly we didn’t get that level of feedback.”

Formia is one of more than 500 companies to descend on Hamburg for the Aircraft Interiors Expo, a trade fair held each April. More than 180 airlines have come to do deals at the hangar-like Messe und Congress centre — some trailing entourages of papal proportions, others flying below the radar, bearing stacks of non-disclosure agreements. Desperate to woo the lucrative business class market, the airlines are locked in a luxury arms race and this is where they come to talk tactics and shop for their big guns: the flat beds and entertainment systems, carpets, coffee machines, cutlery and caviar. Products sourced here can have a major impact on an airline’s image and seat sales.

“At the Farnborough Airshow we show off the machines, but this is the place where the airlines make their money,” says François Caudron, a senior marketing executive at Airbus. He reclines in a Stelia Solstys business-class seat in a mocked-up section of an Airbus plane. The manufacturer has one of the biggest stands at the fair, which range downwards from the size of a large house. At a tiny stand about the size of a shed, Yves Lombaerts of Dejond, a Dutch firm, proudly displays his latest range of blind rivet nuts. “You cannot find a better blind rivet nut,” he says.

To see where the sexiest deals are done, I go to hall B5, where the seat manufacturers reveal their latest business-class offerings. Ever since British Airways launched its pioneering flatbed seat in first class in 1995, and in business in 1999, the race to go flatter and posher has transformed the industry, turning seats into suites. It’s no coincidence that the first Airline Interiors Expo took place in 2000.

At B/E Aerospace, which still makes BA’s “yin-yang” Club World seats, Mark Vaughan is showing off his new first-class suite for Swiss. I sit in it and he slides the door shut. The 32-inch television screen is bigger than the one I have at home. “When I started in the 1980s, business-class seats had a mechanical leg-rest and a pair of pneumatic headphones with no screen,” Vaughan says. “You could never have imagined where we are now.”

The new first class suite for Swiss © Samuel Kirby

Selling such expensive seats means fooling passengers into thinking that luxury can be found even in a modest amount of space. Design is critical, and there are multiple solutions to the 3D jigsaw puzzle of business class: yin-yang; staggered herringbone; “stacked-V”.

Jamco’s DoveTail seat has a layout like parquet flooring. James Park is the architect behind it, and the only cabin designer who can say he trained alongside the late Zaha Hadid. “A business-class seat is incredibly specialised,” says Park, 69, who runs James Park Associates in London and Singapore and fell into aircraft interiors after a job designing carriages for the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. “You must be able to sit in it for long periods, sleep in it, be entertained in it. It must have adjustability and withstand enormous impact. It mustn’t burn or give off toxins. All of these things go into it and they’ll only make a few thousand of them.”

Park says the intense and growing focus on business class, where tickets can cost several thousand pounds (and the seats several hundred thousand pounds to make) is upending the way airliners are conceived. “Aircraft, almost by default, have historically been driven by engineering,” he explains. “Manufacturers developed a vehicle that would fly, then put people in and seats in. Now their success is being measured more and more on what it’s like for passengers as much as the efficiency of the structure and engines.”

Cabin crew from Air Asia arrive at the show © Samuel Kirby

Social media is part of the reason, Park says. Websites abound where travellers compare and share videoed and written reviews of cabin experiences. At Airbus, Caudron agrees that increasingly informed and demanding passengers are turning planes outside-in. For the first time, the aviation giant has launched its own branded cabin. Airspace by Airbus will launch on the new A330neo later this year, and features ambient lighting of infinite shades and larger overhead bins, among other features. “If you buy an apartment with badly proportioned rooms, poor lighting and the windows in the wrong place, you can buy the best furniture in the world but it will remain a poorly designed apartment,” he says. “We have to provide the best possible apartment.”

At the Crystal Cabin Awards, a glitzy if seriously dull “industry Oscars” held on the middle night of the expo at the Atlantic Kempinski hotel, Sir Tim Clark, president and chief executive of Emirates, remembers the days when passengers came second, and only the champagne might be flat. “I went to see a first-class cabin in the 1980s,” he says. “Right in the middle was this 2.5-metre cube. It was brown, floor-to-ceiling, and surrounding it at random were these multicoloured seats on a lime-green carpet. I thought, ‘How could this have happened?’ Well, the design was the result of collective input from the airline’s board, their wives, and the cabin-crew union, who said they wanted the crew rest area in the middle. As for the colour of the seats, I think it was a different one for each wife.”

Jamco's DoveTail seats

A stroll round the expo suggests the gender balance in the industry hasn’t changed much but everything else has. At the Formia stand, which is at the neighbouring Catering & Onboard Services Expo, a special Turkish Airlines amenity bag for Hajj pilgrims includes a prayer mat and alcohol-free hand sanitiser. Round the corner, Han Lei, manager of Chinese firm Kaluga Queen, feeds me about £15 of Beluga caviar in one tiny spoonful. He supplies three tonnes of it (street value: about £8m) each year to airlines including Emirates, and has just had a meeting with Singapore Airlines, which gets through five tonnes of caviar each year. “Maybe we can do a deal,” he says, smiling.

Chances are that business-class passengers eat their caviar using cutlery by Sola, a Dutch firm. Hans Engels says the airline cutlery business was transformed in 2010 when a relaxation of aviation laws allowed knife blades to exceed six centimetres in length. He says colours have become a big trend. “This fork is very special,” he adds, cradling it. “It’s sprayed with glass because the airline said they had everything in white and wanted the cutlery to look almost white.” Which airline was it? “Actually, they went bankrupt.”

Doing business at a bar at the show © Samuel Kirby

Beyond forks, the developments in IFE, or in-flight entertainment, are perhaps most startling. At its vast stand, Panasonic Avionics gives tours of its business-class seat of the future. Made in partnership with B/E Aerospace, the Waterfront seat — which the privileged can expect to be sitting in by 2020 — recognises its passenger and adjusts automatically. A backlight surrounds the 4K UltraHD screen, emitting a flicker that is invisible to human eyes but which acts as a visual Morse code for smartphones, allowing seat and passenger’s phone to link up. An app then becomes mission control, adjusting the screen as well as the seat’s position, the passenger’s preferences for which are stored in their profile. Passengers can also “throw” content from their own devices on to the screen, and keep them powered using a side table equipped with conduction charging technology. Bluetooth headphones complete the wireless dream.

Smart seats even further into the future will use sensors to monitor if your glass of wine needs a refill, and command water when they sense you have woken up, says Mark Vaughan at B/E. James Park predicts that graphene will make screens paper-thin, freeing up yet more space for comfort. Among the hottest innovations right now, however, is the internet, which has been slow to arrive thanks to the understandable challenge of bringing WiFi to a metal tube travelling at 600mph. Manufacturers have cracked that problem and Panasonic, which boasts that it supplies IFE to all 10 of the world’s top-rated airlines, can already stream live sport to the air. Media companies are now selling “global aeronautical rights” to their output.

Aeromexico’s amenity bag, as offered to the Pope on a recent flight © Samuel Kirby

In another sign of the increasing speed with which new tech takes flight, several stands at Hamburg feature virtual-reality goggles. Nikolas Jaeger, chief executive of Inflight VR, a Munich start-up, invites me to try his software. When I put on an Oculus Rift headset, an in-flight menu fills my entire field of vision. I select The Martian, and am transported into a private cinema. As I look left and right, neighbouring plane seats have become suede cinema seats, and soon Matt Damon appears on the screen in front of me. The company hopes to sign a trial agreement with an airline by the end of the year. “It’s a way of taking the passenger out of the aircraft,” Jaeger says.

Innovation in business class has rolled backwards like an unleashed drinks trolley, improving the lot of economy passengers. And in many ways, and at eye-watering expense, the whole industry is engaged in a race to “take the passenger out of the aircraft”. The traveller today, from the guy in row 45 to the well-moisturised Pope up front, has never been so well fed, cosseted or entertained. But when planes begin to feel more and more like miniature hotels or sitting rooms, do we lose something of the romance and escapism of aviation? “It’s a very good question,” says Caudron, as he takes the weight off his feet in his Solstys chair. “But isn’t that the world we live in? We can’t afford to be nostalgic.”

Photographs: Samuel Kirby

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