The Future of Business Class for U.S. Carriers

The Future of Business Class for U.S. Carriers

Domestic airlines have long lagged behind their international competitors when it comes to providing a luxurious and comfortable premium cabin experience on long haul routes. American currently has the best offering of the three legacy carriers with the bulk of its international long haul fleet featuring private reverse herringbone seating in a 1x2x1 configuration.
This in on par with the hard product offered on many international airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways. In addition, American will continue to operate a first class cabin on its 777-300ER fleet long term, which will make it the only of the three major U.S. airlines to do so.

Delta eliminated international first class many years ago. Their business class product, Delta One, is good but inconsistent and not up to the level of international competition. United currently has by far the worst offering with most cabins offering almost no privacy and a far greater seat density.

All three of the major U.S. airlines have announced major changes to their business class products going forward:

  • United has announced the most comprehensive overall, which it is branding “Polaris.” This will include a new network of lounges, brand new custom designed seats, and a complete overall of its soft product.
  • Delta will be installing Delta One suites on certain aircraft which come equipped with privacy doors enabling them to completely close.
  • American finally settled on one seat design after installing different products in different planes for several years. Going forward, American planes will sport “Super Diamond” seats.

Here’s what they have in store.

United

Before the Polaris announcement was made, United had by far the worst business class experience of the US legacy carriers. With all the improvements that are being made, their product will be on par with their competition, and in some ways better.

New Lounges

United will be opening up a series of new lounges in major cities around the Globe. The first of these is already operational at United’s hub at Chicago O’Hare. These lounges will feature an improved selection of both hot and cold food, premium wine and spirits, and shower/spa facilities. For passengers who prefer to sleep or work as soon as they get on the plane, you can opt for pre-flight dining so you don’t have to be disturbed once you board. The other cities for which Polaris lounges are planned are Houston, LA, Newark, San Francisco, Washington (Dulles), Hong Kong, London, and Tokyo Narita.

New Seats

Many people in the travel community believe the seat is the most important aspect of business class. If you can’t get comfortable enough to get a good night’s sleep, then what’s the point of paying the extra money or miles for a premium cabin? United’s new seats are custom designed to meet multiple objectives. First, they will all be fully lie flat and offer privacy that doesn’t exist in United’s current cramped offerings. Second, a unique 1x2x1 configuration that alternates between forward facing and angled seats allows United to fit more seats into a given amount of space than current lie-flat seat types. United’s new 777-300ERs will have 60 seats in business class, whereas the existing 777-200s only have 40-50 business class seats depending on if they have a first class cabin or not. This should be good news for award availability going forward; if United continues to make the same percentage of business class cabin available for awards it will translate to an increase in the total number of premium cabin award seats available. The screenshot below depicts how the Polaris cabin will be configured on United’s new 777-300ERs, which will be the first United planes to feature the new seats.

Polaris cabin of new 777-300ERs
Polaris cabin of new 777-300ERs

New Soft Product

United has also completely overhauled the soft product including both the bedding amenities and dining options. United has partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue and will offer each passenger 2 pillows and two blankets. They also give you the option to ask for a cooling gel memory foam pillow. Additionally, you receive slippers to wear around the cabin.

United has partnered with chefs to create a new menu which has received good reviews thus far. You can choose “express dining” in which all of your food will be served at the same time, so you can get to sleep earlier if that is your desire.

Delta

In August of last year, Delta announced it would be offering the first business class cabin in the industry to feature an all-suite product. This means that each seat will have closable door, offering unparalleled privacy. The first planes to feature the seat will be Delta brand new A350-900 aircraft. Delta has 25 of these on order and they will service the airline’s transpacific routes beginning in the fall of 2017. The business class cabins will be arranged in a 1x2x1 configuration. This seat is an enhancement of the “business elite” seat that has been used in recent years (without the door).

Delta A350-900 Business Class Suites
Delta A350-900 Business Class Suites

Delta will also retrofit its 777-200 aircraft with the new suites starting in early 2018. That is currently the extent of Delta’s plans for these suites, meaning only about 20% of the fleet will have them, but as travelers we should be happy for any improvement we can get.

American

American experienced multiple problems prior to 2016 in acquiring a consistent business class seat across all the planes it flies. The 777-300ER was introduced with a seat made by Zodiac. 767s were outfitted with a narrower seat to accommodate the narrower body of that aircraft. A new seat was being designed by Zodiac for the 787 and 777-200 retrofits, but design and production delays made the seat unavailable, resulting in American suing Zodiac and terminating their contract. American finally decided on the Super Diamond seat made by B/E Aerospace.

American Airlines 777-300ER Business Class
American Airlines 777-300ER Business Class

This is a very nice seat that is in use by Virgin Australia and Qatar Airways. American’s standard business class configuration is a 1x2x1 reverse herringbone, which offers great privacy for those in the aisle seats. However, for some reason American decided not have the center seats installed with moveable privacy dividers, which significantly reduces privacy when the divider is stuck in the down position. It will be worth monitoring if AA ever fixes this problem as new aircraft roll out and old ones are retrofitted.