Key business class themes arise from Crystal Cabin shortlist

It might seem that new business class seats are a dime a dozen these days. Indeed, even the shortlisted entrants for the Crystal Cabin Awards this year are a little on the evolutionary-not-revolutionary side. Only one — the Hawaiian Airlines Optimares seat — is based on a product that hasn’t already been debuted, but perhaps evolutionary is the way to go in premium passenger experience these days.

There are a number of key themes in the four international business class shortlistees, which come from United (Polaris), Delta (the Delta One suite), Qantas (the Business Suite) and Hawaiian (the Premium Cabin).

A consistent message from all four: design partnerships matter. Whether it’s Qantas’ longstanding and well-known partnership with Marc Newson (perhaps best known for his work with Apple including the Apple Watch), Hawaiian with Paul Wylde, Delta and Factorydesign, or Polaris with Priestmangoode, all four airlines have worked with design houses to create their seating products.

These partnerships certainly seem to be bringing home the #PaxEx bacon — and not just for themselves and their customers. Boltaron is also a Crystal Cabin Award shortlistee for the trim and finish materials that make up a fair amount of the surface area of the Polaris cabin, particularly the seat trims and galley wall panel components. Part of the benefit of working with a design house is the ability to pull in what is often thought of as the less glamorous end of the passenger experience industry to create especially interesting effects.

Boltaron provides key brand-driven mouldings for Polaris. Image: United

More widely, three of the four products shortlisted offer direct aisle access, and Hawaiian’s Optimares product attempts to do the same with what the seatmaker has called “courtesy aisle access” in the past. It’s a reinforcement of the default passenger desire for direct aisle access worldwide, with Hawaiian perhaps getting extra credit because, as it says, its product is largely aimed at its premium market of “couples, families and honeymooners”.

Hawaiian’s stunning cabin is revolutionary, but not without its flaws. Image: Hawaiian

Crucially, two of the products — Delta’s suites and United Polaris — have designed their way towards solving, or at least ameliorating, the zero-sum problem with staggered business class seating, namely that at least half the seats in the cabin are markedly inferior to others owing to reduced privacy and being bumped into. The Delta One Suites allows passengers seated immediately next to the aisle both to regain privacy and to wall off their aisle-side shoulder from passing people and trolleys, while the Polaris product tucks them away from the aisle at a slight angle and creates a small wall at shoulder level.

Fixing the zero-sum problem has been a key part of the Polaris development. Image: United

The focus on sleep by both Qantas and United is a common theme too, and it’s not just about the seat. Qantas calls it a “Sleep Sooner strategy”, while United claims “the best sleep experience in the sky”. It’s a resurgence of an old theme — your author is old enough to remember purple advertising prose about British Airways’ 1990s Club World sleeper seats, with their duvets and hot chocolate service and all — but in many ways it’s a key to becoming an airline of choice in business class, especially when the competition can argue they have a better hard product.

Sleep is a key priority for business class passengers. Image: Delta

But let’s allow all four entrants to talk about themselves for a moment.

Hawaiian Airlines

“Bringing the serenity of Hawai‘i’s shores to the air, Hawaiian Airlines’ elegant new Premium Cabin blends innovation, luxury and island-inspired designs. Eighteen full flat seats spaciously aligned in a custom 2-2-2 configuration, offering optimal comfort to couples, families and honeymooners. Guests enjoy intuitive seat controls and an advanced in-flight entertainment system powered by a large-screen tablet resting on an integrated seat arm.

“Hawaiian Airlines partnered with Italian seat manufacturer Optimares and brand consultancy PaulWylde on a Premium Cabin experience that reflects the carrier’s island home by incorporating flowing curves evocative of the winds and ocean, earth, sand and sea tones, and an adjustable partition containing natural reeds embedded in resin.  A ‘constellation panel,’ rendered in subtly twinkling fiber-optic lights, pays homage to Hawaiian’s 87-year history. The constellation Makali’i was high in the sky on the date of Hawaiian’s first flight on Nov. 11, 1929.”

These couples are enjoying Hawaiian’s product, which lacks direct aisle access. Image: Hawaiian


“Qantas customers are now enjoying a new standard of luxury on select international flights with the launch of a new Business Suite on Qantas’ A330-300 fleet. Designed in collaboration with Marc Newson, the lie-flat Business Suites are available on 26 Qantas A330 aircraft and offer the world’s first seats to allow customers to recline from take-off through to landing. The Suites also offer fully-flat beds and direct aisle access for every Business Class passenger in a 1-2-1 layout and can be fitted with signature Qantas bedding before boarding allowing customers to sleep sooner.

The Vantage XL seat, manufactured by Thompson Aero Seating, was developed and customised extensively by Qantas after ergonomic trials and inflight monitoring with a panel of experts and ongoing feedback from customers. The design of this seat was taken from the Thompson Vantage platform, optimising it to direct aisle access for all passengers, increased foot well space and a lighter weight seat than other comparable seats in market (more than 10 percent lighter). As part of Qantas’ Sleep Sooner strategy, the Suite has been cleverly designed to incorporate a useful Do Not Disturb function. The suite number glows red indicating to cabin crew that the customer does not wish to be disturbed. Together with gate-to-gate recline, the privacy of the Suite enclosure and offer of a turn-down service prior to boarding, the opportunity for rest is fully maximised.

“If customers choose not to sleep, the suite offers enough space to eat while working and there are plenty of generously sized stowages for electronic devices, toiletries, shoes, handbags and luggage. High-powered USB and mains charging outlets are also easily accessible. Every opportunity for space, storage and customer function has been unlocked, including the addition of a large vanity mirror, integrated coat hook and dedicated water bottle holder that has been certified for use during taxi, take-off and landing.”

Qantas had a good go at improving the stock Vantage XL table. Image: Qantas

Delta Air Lines

“In partnership with Thompson Aero and Factorydesign, Delta Air Lines proudly introduces the new Delta One suite, the world’s first all-suite Business Class cabin. Designed with an emphasis on exceptional customer comfort and privacy, the Delta One suite offers each customer a private space, accessed by a sliding door, with thoughtfully designed personal stowage areas, an advanced in-flight entertainment system and premium materials, trim and finishes. The result is an unparalleled Business Class experience with a comfortable, residential feel. The suite will debut on Delta’s flagship A350-900 in 2017 and be retrofitted on Delta’s existing 777-200 fleet starting in 2018.”


United Airlines

“United Polaris is a brand new Business Class experience for United Airlines’ wide-body international fleet. The cabin is the result of a long-term collaboration between United Airlines and numerous partners to create the best sleep experience in the sky, and is anchored by a globally patented cabin configuration which provides industry leading passenger space and comfort, while maximizing revenue for United with a density neutral layout.

“United Polaris was designed in partnership with brand and design consultants PriestmanGoode (new cabin design including seats, galleys, entrance areas, as well as lounge design), Acumen Design Associates (seat and cabin configuration), Zodiac Aerospace (seat and monument manufacturing) and EnCore Interiors (in-cabin branded elements). The United Polaris experience, which also includes a luxurious dedicated business-class lounge, the first for any US airline, offers passengers a stress-free, restful journey from lounge to landing.”

Marketing bumf aside, it’s always interesting to hear what the airlines who the industry thinks are pushing boundaries think about innovations in passenger experience. But the true test will be in the implementation of the new products. Will they last as true changes, or will they be discarded?

Passengers are tucked away from the aisle in Polaris seats. Image: United

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