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BA and Singapore in battle of the sky-beds

A BATTLE of the beds is the latest flashpoint marking the commercial rivalry to dominate the upmarket end of the international air travel market.

British Airways and Singapore Airlines yesterday issued writs to defend their respective patented designs for the "bed in the sky" seats that pamper corporate bigwigs, pop stars and cabinet ministers luxuriating in first class passenger cabins.

BA led all airlines when it introduced the "sleeper-seat" which reclines to a 6'6" bed, for first-class customers in 1996. Last year Singapore Airlines unveiled its own first-class "skysuites".

BA has issued a writ to force the Asian airline to stop using the seats and may seek compensation. Not to be outwrangled Singapore Airlines, having patented its seats, has launched proceedings in the city state "against BA for making groundless threats of patent infringement of [its] first class seat-beds."

The companies are to meet privately next week in a bid to settle the dispute, although BA is keen to stress that Singapore blinked first. "We have no expectations about this meeting," says a BA spokeswoman. "We're just turning up to listen to them."

BA is keen to defend its high market share among lucrative first and business-class travellers at a time when profits are being squeezed. Indeed, increasing the proportion of those seats on many BA flights is a central plank in the airline's strategy to boost future earnings.

BA appears determined to safeguard any perceived advantage it may have with big-paying flyers. "It's taken decades to come up with a flying bed," the spokeswoman said. "To the general public it might seem strange that one bed can differ from another, but inside the mechanisms are complex."

Yet with BA first class London-New York return fares starting at pounds 5,538, the perfect bed in the sky is something most of the general public can only dream about - if they can sleep at all, wedged into economy class seats that only seem to get smaller.