Mumbai: Jet Airways (India) Ltd has objected to a patent claim filed in India by British airline Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd for the design and technology used in its upper-class seats.

Hot seat: A Jet Airways first-class cabin. The airline, with flatbeds in its first and business class in overseas flights, will have to reconfigure its premium sections in case Virgin gets a patent for the seat design in India. AFP

In a pre-emptive action, Jet Airways has moved a pre-grant opposition to a patent application filed at the Chennai patent office by Virgin Atlantic for the design and technology of the flatbed seat and the so-called herringbone configuration used in its upper class.

Brtish Airways (BA) was the first to introduce a herringbone layout, with seats facing outwards. Virgin introduced an inward-facing herringbone layout, in which the seats faced the aisle of the aircraft.

The upper class of Virgin is the equivalent of first class and business class on other carriers. Virgin Atlantic, promoted by Richard Branson, holds a 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 to the UK, the US and Singapore.

A Jet Airways executive confirmed the carrier has moved against Virgin Atlantic’s patent application. He did not want to be identified as the case is before the authorities.

An email sent on 21 January to Virgin remained unanswered; the India representative was unavailable in subsequent phone calls, while calls made to her mobile phone were also not answered. A Jet Airways spokesperson declined to comment.

Jet Airways had unveiled its new first-class seats in 2007.

Being the priciest, first and business classes are critical 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.

Virgin Atlantic’s fight over the seats goes back to 2007, when it initiated legal proceedings against Premium Aircraft Interiors UK Ltd, 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 had also made the flatbeds for BA.

A UK patents 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.

A patent grant to Virgin in India will be a setback for Jet as it will have to reconfigure its first-class and business-class sections. Any change in first-class configuration will take at least three-four months.

Jet Airways has 22 aircraft, comprising 10 Boeing 777s and 12 Airbus A330s, which use such seats, with eight first-class seats on the Boeings and at least 30 business-class seats in both the aircraft.

“My client has opposed Virgin Atlantic patent claims here, on the ground that this design and technology has been in the public domain since long, and it is not qualified for patent grant under the restrictive provision of prior art," said Laxmi Kumaran, a patent lawyer and partner at New Delhi-based law firm Laxmi Kumaran and Associates, which is representing Jet Airways in the matter.

An early January hearing has been adjourned to February after Virgin sought more time to reply.

Shamnad Basheer, professor in intellectual property law at National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata, said, “Since prior art is the ground for opposition, Virgin’s claims can be disqualified due to lack of novelty, and known obviousness."

Denial on grounds of prior art means any invention that is known and in use before the date of the patent application (in India) will not be granted a patent. Similarly, if the previously known invention has been modified or innovated on later for the new claim, it can also be denied a patent right if the modification was obvious and could have been anticipated at the time of the first invention, according to Basheer.