Jennifer Coutts Clay’s book on the history and development of Jetliner Cabins makes you dream of first class luxury instead of the agony of economy class, of better food and maybe a better life. First class has always seemed like the Holy Grail of flying for me (I am 6' 2?) especially when going long haul, and Clay’s book, although it does cover the development of economy class cabins, is all about the amazing luxury and invention of the first class jetliner cabin.

Clay’s brisk history of the commercial and technological developments of airline cabins is wonderfully illustrated with some great shots of the most kitsch interiors ever, along with today’s modern cabins that you would be proud to call your living room. Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class cabin contains its own cocktail bar and beauty parlour! Okay, so it does cost you the best part of GBP7000 to fly to San Francisco but it would be worth it for 10 hours of pure luxury.

I’m not going to lie to you, everyone is going to skip over the chapters on the development of economy class cabins. We have all sat with our knees under our chins for long enough to know exactly how much progress has been made at the back of the plane, so really this book is about the old style glamour of flying that seemed to go missing from the 1970s until the late 1990s. Obviously this means the book heavily relies on pictures, all of which are selected carefully, including old and new advertising shots, design shots and original design drawings to show the development of the cabins through various stages.

Clay’s text is also very revealing and well written. She doesn’t intrude on the picture show but combines thoughtful and useful information that fits around the pictures perfectly. Although the book is divided into business-like chapters with titles such as ‘Product Branding’ and ‘Marketing Challenge’, they are written as heavy business guide text, more like a magazine article in a Sunday newspaper supplement – interesting, factual but brief and relevant to what you are looking at.

The turning point of jetliner cabin design seems, in Clay’s mind, to come in 1995 when British Airways introduced the sleeper seats, which were like their own self contained little cabin in first class. It cost USD800m to overhaul the BA fleet (along with strange new tail designs), and Clay has a point that since then first class travel – and to some extent business class cabins – have all been about ‘wriggle room’, and what can you do to top the sleeper seat’s development. As much as the kitsch early flying luxury is tres cool, the level of design being placed into modern first class cabins has it beaten hands down, for example theater lighting designers have been employed by Virgin to develop a mood lighting system that changes throughout the flight and Swissair took inspiration for their first class sleeper seats from a furniture design classic, the Charles Eames lounge chair!

CONCLUSION: Clay presents an eclectic and imaginative journey through a world that only a few of us get to experience. ‘Jetliner Cabins’ for all its pretence as a study of the design and history of airline cabins, is a trip to a better class of flying – an indulgence and a tease that makes you want to trawl the internet in search of the cheapest first class flight anywhere just to experience something other than cramp. This book is brilliantly illustrated and is a very enjoyable look through the curtain that separates economy from luxury.

M2 Best Books




ISBN 0-991-41011-4


Grateful acknowledgement is given to the airlines and other organizations credited in this book for permission to use their photographs.
There are other images, also credited, that come from publicly available sources, for example, company sales brochures and websites.
Pictures that are displayed without photo credits come from the Collection of J. Clay Consulting.