Who's Winning the U.S. Business Class Cabin Showdown?
For business travelers flying in and out of the U.S., this may be the most exciting travel news all year.
In recent months, all three major U.S. legacy airlines—American Airlines, Delta, and United—have unveiled eyebrow-raising designs for new lie-flat international business-class seats, some of which have already gone into service. Gone are the outdated seats and subpar onboard amenities that have long tormented frequent fliers. In their place are glossy offerings that can actually compete with international standard setters, like Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Qatar Airways, and Singapore Airlines.
So what can you expect? Here’s a run-down of all the details you need to know—along with our own best-in-class awards for the features that matter most.
Not all of American’s business class seats are created equal—and that’s because the airline has had several false starts deploying upgrades across its fleet since 2013. After three totally different configurations went into its 777-300ERs, 767-300, 787-8, and 777-200 aircraft, American confirmed in May that it had settled on a new seat for its remaining 777-200s, 787-9s, and A350-900s. Did you get all that?
If not, just know that new seats of some sort should be on all American Airlines planes within the next year or so. The newest seats, called the B/E Aerospace Super Diamond, were partially deployed in October—find them on 787-9s for longer domestic routes (i.e. Dallas to Los Angeles) and long-hauls to Madrid and São Paulo.
Luckily, they were worth the wait. The Super Diamonds are the largest business-class seats on American’s planes at 27.7 inches wide and 79 inches long when reclined to a lie-flat bed. There are 30 aboard each 787-9, laid out in a reverse-herringbone configuration.
The Perks: 18-inch entertainment screens loaded up with nearly 300 movies; AC and USB plugs; Cole Haan amenity kits with C&O Bigelow products; and menus designed by a rotating cast of James Beard Award-winning chefs. And really wide seats.
The Caveat: Inconsistency across the fleet means you could still get a business class seat on a 777-200 that doesn’t lie fully flat.
In August, Delta announced it would be creating the first all-suites business class in the entire industry—meaning each seat will be fully closed off by a door. The seats will appear aboard Delta’s 25 forthcoming A350-900 aircraft, which are due to begin service on the airline’s transpacific routes in the fall of 2017.
Delta also plans to refit its 777-200 aircraft with the new suites starting in early 2018. By the end of the process, about 20 percent of Delta’s long-haul fleet have the new suites (if all goes according to plan).
If the seats look familiar, that’s because the carrier used the same ones—but a bit narrower and without the privacy doors—for its Business Elite cabins in recent years. A350-900s will have 32 of them arranged in a staggered front-facing 1-2-1 configuration; each will be over 21 inches wide and recline to a length of up to 81 inches.
The Perks: High-resolution 18-inch screens with up to 300 movies, HBO, Showtime, 18 channels of live satellite TV (on select flights), podcasts, 2,500+ songs, and games. A USB port and universal power outlet for each seat. Heavenly bedding from Westin, Tumi amenity kits, and Kiehl’s products, as well as sleep suits on some transpacific flights. And the five-course dinners come with wine pairings from Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson.
The Caveat: Availability. Delta One will only be on 20 percent of the carrier’s fleet, on unspecified routes, and not until late next year.
Back in June, United announced a long-awaited overhaul of its international business-class service and amenities, including new seats. The cabins' name, Polaris, is chosen after the North Star. The new seats will debut aboard United’s forthcoming 777-300ERs in December 2016, followed by its future 787-1000 and A350-1000 aircraft. After that, the airline will put the new seats aboard its existing 777-200s and 767-300s.
On board, Polaris cabins will be laid out in a slightly angled and staggered 1-2-1 pattern; there are electronically controlled privacy dividers for the middle section. Instead of doors, the seats will have “Do Not Disturb” lights for privacy.
Each seat will be up to 23 inches wide and recline to a fully flat bed of up to 78 inches; at bedtime on long-hauls, the flight attendants will dress it up in custom bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue and leave behind matching pajamas.
Also part of the rollout? A series of nine Polaris-branded lounges, the first of which will open on December 1 at Chicago O’Hare (the rest will follow in 2017, in hubs like San Francisco, Newark, and Washington Dulles). They’ll have quiet areas with daybeds, pre-flight menus from Chicago-based chef Art Smith, cocktails by mixologist Adam Seger, and dedicated shower facilities.
The Perks: Amenity kits with Soho House’s signature line of Cowshed Spa products, food from Chicago chef Bill Kim, and wines selected by United’s Master Sommelier, Doug Frost.
The Caveats: Entertainment is less of a strong suit with Polaris. Their high-definition entertainment screens will be just 16 inches wide, with up to 150 movies and 185 television shows.
The Bottom Line
There’s no clear winner, but your priorities will help you choose the cabin that’s right for you.
If you want privacy… Delta wins hands down. With suite-style seats that have closing doors, the airline’s new business class will offer the most privacy, though the seats may not be as wide as some of the others out there.
If you want personal space… American pulls ahead with the widest seats of all three carriers and a reverse-herringbone configuration that ensures easy direct-aisle access for everyone.
If you want to book sooner rather than later… American Airlines’ new cabin is already operational on its newly delivered 787-9s, along with some refitted 777-200s. United is up next, with its December debut. By contrast, Delta’s seats won’t be available until late 2017.
If you want reliable availability… We don’t know which routes will be included in United’s Polaris launch, but the carrier still wins in this category. Why? Their rollout will be the fastest and the most comprehensive out of any fleet.
If you want great amenities… Go with either Delta or United. Luxe bedding by Westin and Saks Fifth Avenue, respectively, earns points for both style and substance.
If you want to stay entertained… Choose American or Delta. Both will have 18-inch screens with over 1,000 hours of entertainment, as well as in-flight Wi-Fi (for a price).