The U.S. airline industry has experienced a renaissance in recent years. As a result, the top U.S. airlines are finally getting around to investing in upgraded seats and service standards for business travelers -- their most valuable customers.
In recognition of their new business class cabin designs, Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) and United Continental (NASDAQ:UAL) were both named finalists for this year's Crystal Cabin Award for "Cabin Concepts." This is the most prestigious international award for innovative aircraft interiors, and, earlier this month, Delta took home the grand prize.
U.S. airlines try to get better
Delta and United have long been two of the largest airlines in the world, with route networks spanning the globe. Traditionally, they have relied upon that broad reach to attract customers. Many business travelers are willing to put up with lower service standards for the sake of flying nonstop.
As a result, U.S. airlines have often skimped on their business class sections. Big losses in the U.S. airline industry in the decades following deregulation also contributed to a pattern of under-investment and inconsistent service. Meanwhile, numerous foreign carriers have become known for offering luxurious accommodations for road warriors and wealthy leisure travelers.
These days, the legacy carriers recognize that they need to do a better job of catering to high-fare business travelers, as competition from budget airlines is driving leisure fares lower and lower. Furthermore, stronger profits in recent years have given them the financial flexibility to make the necessary improvements.
United Airlines makes its move
Nearly a year ago, United unveiled its new "Polaris" business class concept, named for the North Star. Management has said that every aspect of the Polaris cabin is designed to promote a better sleep experience. For example, the seats are custom-designed suite-like "pods," each one has direct aisle access, and United partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue to create custom bedding for them.
Most of United's new widebody aircraft are being outfitted with the Polaris seating concept. Additionally, the company plans to retrofit most of its current widebody fleet with Polaris seats in the next few years.
While United has only installed its new Polaris seats on a few aircraft so far, it is already receiving higher customer satisfaction scores. It also became one of just three nominees for the coveted Crystal Cabin Award for Cabin Concepts.
Delta strikes back
Never one to be left behind, Delta Air Lines revealed its own upgraded "Delta One" business class seats just after United unveiled the Polaris concept. Delta moved to an all-aisle access business class configuration years ago, but it is now going further with an all-suite Delta One cabin on certain aircraft.
Each suite has a full-height sliding door. The seats themselves feature memory foam cushions. Customers can control the lighting for their suites. Other amenities include dedicated compartments for shoes, laptops, and headphones; an 18" TV; and a universal power outlet and USB power port at each seat.
These customer-oriented features sealed Delta's victory in the Crystal Cabin Awards. The new Delta One cabin will debut this fall after Delta receives its first A350 aircraft. It will also be retrofitted on the company's eighteen 777 widebodies in the future.
In addition to upgrading its business class seats, Delta is introducing a premium economy section on its A350s and 777s. The new "Premium Select" section will represent a mid-range option with wider seats and more legroom than regular economy seats, along with other enhanced amenities. Of course, these seats will come at a much more affordable price than the Delta One suites.
Two different philosophies
Executives at Delta and United both hope that by upgrading their premium seating on long-haul flights, they will be able to differentiate themselves from competitors and gain share among business travelers and other higher-paying customers. However, these cabin improvements will surely increase costs. Because of this trade-off, Delta and United have adopted different philosophies about how broadly to roll out these highly anticipated new cabins.
United plans to retrofit most of its widebodies with the new Polaris business class seats. By contrast, Delta has only committed to introducing the Delta One suites and Premium Select sections on its A350 and 777 aircraft, which together represent a small fraction of its international fleet.
As a result, United will offer a consistent premium experience across most of its international routes. Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines will have the best business class cabin in the industry, but it will only be available for certain flights. Most of Delta's international routes will continue to offer the current business class configuration -- and no premium economy option.