Mumbai: Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd may finally get the design and technology used in its upper class seats patented in India after the Chennai patent office dismissed a challenge filed by Jet Airways (India) Ltd.
The British carrier had applied for the patent in 2004, but Jet Airways, India’s largest carrier by passengers, filed a pre-grant challenge three years later.
Seating rights: A Virgin Atlantic plane at the Heathrow International Airport in London. By Gill Allen/Bloomberg
“Our upper class suite design is industry leading and we take any attempts to replicate (it) very seriously,” said Greg Dawson, director of corporate communications at Virgin Atlantic. “We have also secured similar patent grants in many other jurisdictions around the world.”
A Jet Airways spokesperson said the carrier is yet to receive the order. “We shall peruse the order once we receive the same and accordingly decide on a future course of action,” the spokesperson said.
The patent office states in the order that the intellectual property right, a patent in this case, is not “merely a rearrangement” of an existing technology as claimed by the opponents, but has some kind of “concept-level thinking” or invention. Mint has reviewed a copy of the order.
British Airways was the first to introduce a herringbone layout, with seats facing outwards. Virgin Atlantic introduced an inward-facing herringbone layout, in which the seats faced the aisle of the aircraft.
Virgin’s upper class is the equivalent of first and business class on other carriers. The Richard Branson-promoted airline holds patent and design rights for the flatbed seating system in several countries, including the UK.
Naresh Goyal-promoted Jet Airways offers similar flatbed and wider seats in its first and business classes on long-haul international routes, such as the UK and the US.
“I feel the patent controller who examined the opposition case has done a thorough analysis of both the opponents’ arguments and the patent claims to conclude on the matter,” said Sumathi Chandrashekaran, an intellectual property lawyer who wrote about the order first on the blog Spicy IP. “It has also referred (to) an earlier decision by the European Patent Office on the same patent, which faced an opposition there earlier.”
Virgin’s fight over the seats goes back to 2007, when it initiated legal proceedings against Premium Aircraft Interiors UK Ltd, also known as Contour, the firm that designed the airline’s flatbed seats. The airline alleged that Contour had sold copies of the design to rivals, including Jet Airways, Delta Air Lines Inc. and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd, and that it was suing for infringement of patent. Contour also designed flatbed seats for British Airways.
A UK patent court on 21 January 2009 ruled against Virgin Atlantic, saying it had “failed to prove that Contour copied its designs”.
In October, however, an appellate court reversed that order, saying the patent was valid and had been infringed.
Being the priciest, first and business classes are crucial revenue earners for airlines that try to provide such fliers with the best possible amenities, including more space. For example, each first-class suite on Jet Airways—made by Britain’s BE Aerospace Plc—has 26 sq. ft of usable space, and has sliding doors for privacy.
“Jet Airways and Virgin Atlantic are expected to have a longish battle considering the nature of the case,” said a senior analyst with a domestic brokerage, who did not want to be identified. “However, this will not have any material impact on the company in the near term in the context of the outcome of this patent battle.”
The airline suffered a loss of Rs 713.6 crore in the July-September period, compared with a net profit of Rs 12.40 crore in the year earlier.
On Thursday, Jet dropped 1.3% to Rs 253.35 on BSE, while the benchmark index Sensex rose 2.2% to close at 16,483.45 points.