Flat beds in business class? That’s so 2016. Delta has decided to kick off the 2017 season with the newest, coolest trend in the pointy-end of the airplane: a door. The airline will now be installing suites on its longest-haul aircraft in Delta One business class. Each seat, er, suite, will have that uber-cool door on it. Of course it’s more than just a door, and while this looks tremendous, I do wonder if having a door is going to matter.
While complete details haven’t been released, we do know a fair bit about this. Runway Girl Network confirmed that this is some version of the Thompson Vantage XL seat (possibly the XL+). In other words, it’s like Delta took the seats it has on its 767s, sent them to the Russian Olympics team for a little workout, and then brought them back.
It’s true that the Delta 767 seats are inferior to other flat beds. They’re somewhat cramped, especially in the foot-well, and they’re narrow. But the XL is a very different seat. It’s a couple inches wider with bigger and better storage areas. It also can handle bigger screens. You can see the difference between the Vantage and the Vantage XL pretty clearly. The new Delta seat builds on this, and I have little doubt it’s going to be fantastic.
I’m sure the interior finishes will all be well-thought through, but the most notable difference will be that door to each suite on the airplane. These aren’t floor-to-ceiling, so don’t get too excited. It looks like it’ll block gymanasts or other vertically-challenged people from peering in but not much more than that. But still. It’s a door. JetBlue was the first to do this in business class when it put a door on alternating rows in Mint, but Delta is the first to do it for long haul travel, I believe. (First Class is a different story.)
This will first be installed on the new-delivery A350s next year, so you won’t see it for some time. Then only the 777s will be retrofitted. This will be in a 1-2-1 configuration, so that means it’ll have the staggered configuration where some seats will be “true” windows while others will be oriented more on the aisle. They have to alternate since feet rest under the table next to the seat in front.
The one thing that bothered me initially was that these individual suites could mean that couples really have no option to travel together. But that’s not right. The groups of seats in the center sections actually have a lowering divider so you can have a large private suite. It’s not the double bed I had on Singapore Airlines in Suites Class, but then again, this is business class.
The overall product, including finishes, looks good from the pictures Delta put out (which may or may not closely match what actually gets installed in a year). There’s no question about that. But can Delta really justify this? We do know that Delta is making a play for higher yield. The A350s will have only 32 of these onboard. That’s a third fewer than the 48 seats on the 747s that the A350s will replace. So it’s a lot less capacity up front and that should mean higher average fares.
It is also only going on to a part of the fleet. That sounds like annoying inconsistency, but there is clearly method to the madness. The 767s aren’t really all that long for this world. They’re also very narrow so this product would be a non-starter. But there are a whole lot of A330s and A330neos that aren’t expected to get this product. (To be clear, I don’t think Delta has said they won’t, but the airline has only announced that the A350s and 777s will get it at this point.)
Remember, Delta is looking at its A330s and A330neos to do shorter long-haul flights. They’ll be used for a lot of West Coast – Asia and East Coast – Europe flying. Think of the A330 as primarily a sub-10 hour flying machine. For that length of haul, Delta seems to think that the traditional doorless-flat bed with direct aisle access will be fine. But when it starts looking at deeper Asia flying, Australia, Tel Aviv, etc… then it’s a much longer haul. And that’s where these 777s and A350s will fit in. So Delta is making the bet that on ultra long haul flights, people will be willing to pay for the door.
What we don’t know is just how much more this is going to cost Delta. Certainly the one-time development costs weren’t cheap, but that’s the case for any new seat. The bigger question is one of density. I’m not sure how many more of the existing A330 seats would fit into the same space as 32 suites. Is Delta giving up density to make this happen? If so, then the airline is betting it can make it up with more revenue in each seat that remains. (I’m sure that’ll be helped by the elites not having room to upgrade anymore.)
Either way, it’s likely that Delta couldn’t make this decision with spreadsheets alone. (“Spreadsheets alone,” besides being a great band name, is also how United ended up with 8-abreast in business on a 777.) It can do research but it also has to rely on a real understanding of what travelers want. And if travelers want more privacy, then they’re going to get it. And Delta is going to lead the charge.
It certainly is a slap in United’s face since it has spent so much time on its Polaris roll-out. Is a door a game-changer? Maybe not, but it is a unique feature that will give the perception of Delta having a better product. This kind of thing, like mood-lighting at Virgin America, may not matter all that much but it’s something that helps build a brand.
Will it pay for itself? It’s hard to say. When you’re a company trying to lead, all you can do is make your best guess and hope it’s right. What say you?