Why Are Airplane Seats Called Suites?

Filed Under: Advice

Reader Stefan poses a question I hadn’t previously put much thought into:

Why are you (and others) referring to enclosed first class seats as ”suites”? A suite is a succession of something, like two or more rooms forming a suite in a hotel, or a certain type of musical work consisting of several parts after each other. A first class seat is not a ”suite” just because it is surrounded by walls and some sort of door. Where does this expression come from?

Now that it’s posed, I must admit, that’s a very good question.

Airlines have conditioned us to use the term “suites”

On the most basic level, many airlines have marketed their premium airplane seats as suites.

This is true in business class (British Airways Club Suites, Delta One Suites, Qatar Airways Qsuites, etc.) and first class (on more airlines than I can count).

British Airways Club Suites business class

Generally this refers to seats that have doors, though there are exceptions, like Japan Airlines’ Sky Suites, which don’t feature doors.

Japan Airlines Sky Suite business class

There’s no doubt that on some level the term has just been used long enough that we have come to accept it without questioning it much.

It’s not unlike how the term “social distancing” has been used during the coronavirus pandemic, in place of physical distancing. When you get in an elevator and there’s signage, shouldn’t it ask you to maintain your physical distance, rather than social distance? That of course assumes elevators aren’t the center of your social life. I digress…

Some airlines deserve credit for marketing their premium products uniquely while still being accurate. For example, All Nippon Airways’ new business class is called The Room, which I think is a fair descriptor for a business class seat with a door.

All Nippon Airways The Room business class

Meanwhile Etihad Airways’ A380 first class is called The Apartment, which also seems fair, since an apartment can be just one room.

Etihad Airways The Apartment first class

Arguably the only “real” suite in commercial aviation is The Residence on Etihad Airways, which features three rooms and butler service.

Etihad Airways The Residence living room

Etihad Airways The Residence bedroom

Etihad Airways The Residence bathroom

What’s the logic of the suites term, though?

For as long as flat beds have been around on airplanes, airlines have been trying to market a hotel-like experience. The idea is that you fall asleep in one city, and wake up in another, having gotten a good night of sleep. British Airways has been doing this for decades now, as you can see in this ad:

The way I view it, this is a concept that has stuck. Brussels Airlines was even more explicit than some other airlines when it recently introduced its new business class product, which it calls “a boutique hotel in the air.”

I think the adaption of the term “suite” is simply an extension of that. Suites are (generally) the best accommodations you’ll find at hotels, so not only do airlines want you to believe that you’re in a hotel, but they want you to believe that you’re enjoying the best accommodation by being in a suite.

For that matter, I think both airlines and hotels misuse the term “suite” in the same way:

  • A junior suite that has just one room without a separate living room isn’t really a suite, is it?
  • If you’re going to consider it a suite because it has a bathroom, then isn’t every hotel room a suite?
  • Instead hotels use the term suite to suggest that there’s a sleeping area and a living area (even if in the same room), and I think airlines are going for something similar; your “suite” can be used as a place to lounge and relax, or as a place to sleep

Bottom line

While it’s previously something I hadn’t put much thought into, I agree with reader Stefan that the use of the word “suite” to describe a seat on a plane is a bit of a stretch. I think it’s just a term we’ve come to accept even if it’s not terribly logical.

I’d speculate that the term comes from airlines trying to market their premium experiences as being hotel-like, and “suite” is a term that everyone is familiar with at hotels, and it sounds luxurious.

What’s your take on where the “suites” term comes from? Is there some alternative definition of the word I’m missing, or is my theory right? Can anyone who was involved in the marketing of these products chime in?

  1. I believe Emirates started using the term for their A340-500 F which had their first suites and the first F with closing doors IIRC and it’s stuck around with airlines adopting the name. I think it was also the first plane with their ICE system

  2. Was it first used by Singapore Airlines when the new First Class was launched on the A380? Don’t think the term Suites was used prior to that.

  3. And while we’re at it, why do so many airlines increasingly refer to passengers as “guests”? Better than “self-loading cargo”, but what’s wrong with “passengers”?

  4. Purely speculating here, but my take has always been the following: a suite is a space that has both a sitting/living room and a separate sleeping room. To your point the only “true” suite is the Etihad Residence. If you take a marketing spin to it, the fact that a FC seat converts from a sitting/living space to a sleeping space could allow you to describe it as a suite. Definitely a stretch but that’s how my brain justified the name!

  5. I am with Melvin on this one. I still remember how Singapore airlines marketed their new product a while back. “A class beyond first.”

  6. I also though SQ were the first ones, with a “truly” separate Suites class on A380 different from “only” first class on other aircraft types. Separate boarding passes, luggage tags, printed F&B menus… back in the day they even had separate fare classes, if I’m not wrong R, to distinguish from F, with a price premium on top of the non-A380 First Class on same routes

  7. This is a very nice patient explanation but the original question is taking this terminology too literally. We all know that Etihad’s products are not a “real” lobby (where’s the doorman?) or a “real” apartment. They are just marketing terms meant to link them to equivalents on the ground.

    I always joked that Etihad should have called their economy class “The Seat” and their lavs “The Bathroom”.

  8. Nothing frustrates me more than booking a suite at a hotel for our family, and basically getting a large room with a sofabed. On an airplane you pretty much know you are not getting a true suite. At a hotel you expect another room and a door, but its not always the case.

  9. “All Nippon Airways’ new business class is called The Room, which I think is a fair descriptor for a business class seat with a door”

    It looks much more like a pokey office cubicle to me, some poor wage slave trapped there doing work of stupefying banality (or evil).

    But I guess “The Cubicle” isn’t very glamorous…

  10. The meaning of a word can evolve over time, and in this case I don’t find the use of “suite” a big problem, as even the less frequent travelers won’t expect to get a hotel suite on the plane just because the airlines call it a “suite”, will they?

  11. This is considered a good question ? :)))

    While we’re on the subject let’s talk about the definition of “adjoining” hotel rooms . Adjoining hotel rooms are next to each other. Nothing implies you will have rooms with connecting doors to your children’s room while on your next vacay. And as always this is only a request not a guarantee.

  12. On the bathroom issue: sometimes, you still see “en-suite bathroom” in hotel room descriptions (and on some apartment listings as well), basically meaning that a bathroom is attached to the bedroom.
    As all hotel rooms (bar the…less reputable ones) would typically feature an “en-suite” and considering the minimum definition of suite means “two rooms of different purpose attached to each other”, we can indeed assume that suite is just a fancified term for room.

    Unless you’re staying at some uber-fancy “design” property where someone just thought that doing away with all kinds of doors and partitions is a good idea, most hotel rooms would technically meet that definition.

  13. If you think about it, the word “bathroom” is also a misnomer. There is no place to bathe in an airplane bathroom (well, except on Emirates), or in your bathroom at work or at the mall etc, or in your “half-bathroom” at home. Yet we call all of these “bathrooms.” Why? Maybe because all the other words sound silly or stilted (powder room, washroom, restroom…)

    The hotel industry has been pushing to downgrade the meaning of the word “suite” in a similar way. I find it annoying that a room with a bed and a sofa is a “suite”, but maybe that’s because, similar to “bathroom,” there isn’t really a good single word that describes “room with a bed and a sofa.”

  14. @snic
    Airplanes don’t have bathrooms: all the signs say Lavatory.

    Even on US airlines — though most Americans would rather suck a lemon than say that word out loud (and have even gone so far as to invent the completely ridiculous euphemism “half-bath”).

    The world I grew up in was comfortable with the word toilet. Though the slang word “bog” was also acceptable in informal use.

  15. I always assumed it was less about having a door and more about having a space that could be converted into multiple rooms (dining room, living room, bedroom). Literally it doesn’t meet the definition of “suite” (a series of interconnected rooms), but it’s also more than a “seat” (especially if you trust the airlines’ marketing departments…).

  16. ANA and LX should call their premium products ‘The Call Center’, as that’s what their rows of regimented, squared-off seats most resemble.

  17. As others have said, it was Singapore Airlines in 2007 creating a new class of service. They wanted the A380 to be beyond first class, so Singapore Airlines Suites class was invented. Then the word got copied and devalued by other carriers. Now I just understand it to mean “your personal place on a plane where you don’t just have to sit and stare at the back of the seat in front of you but which you can use in a variety of different ways”.

  18. There’s a one word answer to the use of the word “suite” – marketing.
    The only real suite in the air is one that contains multiple “rooms” and is almost a whole cabin.

  19. In my view “Suite” indicates some sort of private place for your own use. This may be understanding English in a lateral form, but this is not unusual in a evolving language (text and barbeque as verbs, for example)

    So I’m perfectly comfortable with the concept of closing my own door behind me, and using my exclusive space for resting, working, eating or sleeping.

    Thus, it’s the privacy that makes the word suite applicable. It has been carried further to areas without a door, which I admit is carrying it rather too far, but nonetheless, it is creating private space.

    Bottom line is it’s euphemistic and marketing lead. No problem with that.

    So is “low cost carrier” rather than “cheap ticket provider” LOL

  20. @Dan – whether this entry is useless or not is up to each reader. To me, a non-US resident, the credit card posts are useless because these cards are not available to people like me. I find this a light hearted post, and it is relevant to the general theme of this blog.

  21. That is precisely why whenever I get “upgraded” at a hotel to a junior suite, I remind the staff that a suite is a succession of – at least – three sepparate rooms : a bedroom, a living room and , of course , a bathroom. At first they look surprised, but inthe end they tend to understand. 🙂

  22. @YULtide, so true! Miss Manners would stress that one doesn’t charge their guests. So unless airlines want to earn free-loading “family” status with customers they should cut the crap and refer to us as passengers, lol!!

  23. Didn’t Virgin coin the term with their Upper Class Suites (flatbed business class) sometime in the early noughties?

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