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The year is 1983 and you’re a frequent flyer on Delta Air Lines. On this particular itinerary, you’re booked in coach but a gate agent asks if you’d like to try sitting in a new section of the cabin that’s reserved for frequent flyers and business travelers. The seats are the same but the service is better, the cabin more private and seat pitch slightly higher.

Sound familiar? You’re not sitting in Delta’s Economy Comfort+. In the early 1980s, Delta introduced something called Medallion Service, which started as a segregated section of the main cabin — eventually the carrier installed slightly wider seats and cabin dividers. It wasn’t called premium economy, but business class.

Today, business class is increasingly the highest level of service offered on international flights. Business-class passengers now expect fully flat beds — once in the realm of science fiction — and private access to the aisle. International carriers like Delta, Virgin Atlantic and China Airlines have done away with first class altogether, leaving business class at the top. Virgin even offers a bar in its “Upper Class” cabin, which is marketed as international business class. Last year, United announced plans to purge its international fleet of first class seats, instead offering an upgraded Polaris business-class seat that features private enclosures and direct-aisle access.

So how did business class grow from coach-plus to top of the line? It was a very carefully calculated evolution that began with a business problem. Let’s dig in.

The 1980s: Armchair Kings

After deregulation came segregation. Forced to compete on a fare basis, mainline carriers in the US sought to cram more economy passengers in the back of planes. That left frequent business flyers in a jam. Companies were often reluctant to pay for first-class tickets, creating a new market for upgraded service somewhere between the tourist squeeze and the finery of first class.

Thus, business class was born. Many airlines, including Delta, set aside a section of their coach cabin to appease the highest-margin business passengers, which eventually evolved into a separate cabin with wider seats.

Delta Medallion Service, as advertised on the airline
Delta Medallion Service, as advertised on the airline’s Lockheed L-1011 in 1984. The airline’s business class cabin was initially a private section of coach. Image courtesy of Delta Air Lines.

First-class passengers were the first to enjoy sleeper seats with sufficient recline to facilitate a full night’s rest, while business-class passengers by the end of the decade were accustomed to deep recliners and an environment akin to a domestic first-class cabin. Premium economy, anyone?

The business class cabin in a Delta MD-11, pictured as advertised in 1991. Image courtesy of Delta Air Lines.
The business-class cabin on a Delta MD-11, as advertised in 1991. Image courtesy of Delta Air Lines.

1990s: Cradle Me to Sleep

By the mid-1990s, a business class arms race was underway, spurred on by upgraded cabin offerings on European and Asian carriers. Those wider seats evolved into what became known as the cradle seat, complete with adjustable head and foot rests and, in some cases, even massage functionality.

Before becoming the first airline to offer fully flat beds in business class, British Airways transported business passengers in Club World cradle seats, replete with adjustable footrests and headrests. Image courtesy of British Airways.
Before becoming the first airline to offer fully flat beds in business class, British Airways transported business passengers in Club World cradle seats, replete with adjustable footrests and headrests. Image courtesy of British Airways.

Some airlines began offering first-class passengers fully flat sleeping options, while others simply merged their first- and business-class cabins. At Delta, the first-class cabin was replaced with BusinessElite service. Continental merged first and business into BusinessFirst, offering upgraded menus and amenity kits akin to those found in first class.

By 1998, Delta was offering BusinessElite service featuring cradle chairs with legrests and adjustable settings. The first class cabin was no longer offered on international flights. Image courtesy of Delta Air Lines.
By 1998, Delta was offering BusinessElite service featuring cradle chairs with leg rests and adjustable settings. The first-class cabin was no longer offered on international flights. Image courtesy of Delta Air Lines.

“That eventually got us the denser, more profitable product that you see today,” said Chris Buckner, Director of Onboard Product and Customer Experience at Delta. “At the same time, you’ve got the first class features that you’re seeing in the business-class cabin.

Sprawling reclnier chairs could still be found on U.S. fleets into the early 2010s, but have since been replaced. Image courtesy of Delta Air Lines.
The most evolved recliner chair Delta ever offered, featuring in-seat power, adjustable video monitors and lumbar support. Sprawling recliner chairs could still be found on US fleets into the early 2010s, but have since been replaced. Image courtesy of Delta Air Lines.

2000s: Pull out the Bed

In the early 2000s, British Airways became the first airline to offer completely flat beds in its business-class cabin. Passengers were spoiled, and other carriers eventually followed suit.

“Particularly with overnight flights, we wanted to be able to offer a really great sleep in the sky,” said Hamish McVey, Customer Experience Manager at British Airways. “We launched the bed, the next day we wanted to optimize the amount of sleep people are getting onboard.”

A more evolved version of British Airways, yin-yang style reverse business class seating. Image courtesy of British Airways.
A more evolved version of British Airways, yin-yang style reverse business-class seating. Image courtesy of British Airways.

Many carriers offered flat surfaces at the time, but often did so at an angle. American Airlines and Northwest Airlines continued to operate angle-flat business class seating throughout the next decade, while Continental, Delta and United held out for a fully flat solution.

By 2004, Northwest Airlines was offering angle flat beds on A330 and 747 aircraft. Image courtesy of Delta Air Lines.
By 2004, Northwest Airlines was offering angle-flat beds on A330 and 747 aircraft. Image courtesy of Delta Air Lines.

Fully flat seats require more floorspace per passenger to install than cradle seat and angle-flat options, but business passengers’ demand for fully flat seating made the investments pay off.

United isn
The B/E Aerospace Diamond diagonal seating design, first introduced by Continental Airlines in the mid-2000s, has become a common flat-bed seating solution on various airlines and aircraft around the world.

“A really big aspect for us is, how does the whole service work with the seat. We work with our catering team, our cabin crew,” McVey said. “We have to think about what materials to use. We want to make sure we’re being as efficient as possible when it comes to fuel burn.”

2010s: Lights Out

By the early 2010s, Delta and US Airways were offering reliable direct-aisle access across their international fleets, one-upping competitors still offering angle-flat seating and paired sleeper seats.

American
American Airlines still has angle flat seats installed on some of its older 767 and 777 aircraft. Image courtesy of American Airlines.

Airlines and seat manufacturers pressed on with creative solutions to squeeze the most comfort out of dense seating configurations. British Airways standardized its Club World cabin with an updated yin-yang seating configuration that maximized hip width.

American
American’s 777-300ER business class seats are among the best in class and feature direct-aisle access for every passenger, spacious storage areas and a comfortable sleeping surface.

United, working with French seat maker Zodiac, managed to maintain its 8-across density in a direct-aisle access configuration by compressing footwells beneath angular side tables. The emerging product, Polaris, should be standardized across the United international fleet by the end of the decade.

United 777-300ER 77W Polaris Business Class Preview
TPG checks out United’s new Polaris seat during a demonstration.

Market research eventually led Delta to rethink it’s business-class product. Contrary to earlier industry-wide assumptions, Delta found that passengers were willing to trade some hip room for wider footwells. This research made its way into the newest iteration of Delta One.

Wider at the hips, narrower at the feet. This paradigm has shaped most business class designs in recent years. Delta is adjusting the balance slightly back toward feet space, however, in its forthcoming Delta One suite.
Wider at the hips, narrower at the feet. This paradigm has shaped most business-class designs in recent years. Delta is adjusting the balance slightly back toward foot space, however, in its forthcoming Delta One suite.

“There are seats that are wider toward the seat and narrower at the footwell space,” Buckner said. “Then you have the straight seats that we’re launching on the A350 where it’s a little bit narrower at the seat, but wider at the footwell space.”

Delta
Delta’s latest business-class seats will feature sliding doors, a feature previously relegated to first-class passengers. Image courtesy of Delta Air Lines.

When Delta begins service using its newest Delta One suites this fall, the airline will be first to offer business-class passengers fully enclosed private suites, a feature once found only in the most luxurious first-class cabins.

The Future: A New Third Cabin

With business-class cabins starting to resemble — and in some cases, replace — first class, airlines are yet again struggling to meet the middle market of business and frequent flyers looking for modest improvements in comfort.

virgin atlantic premium economy
Premium economy seats on transcontinental airliners, like this Virgin Atlantic 787, are beginning to resemble some of the earlier forms of business class.

Premium economy products featuring not just improved service but wider seats are now offered on a number of international carriers.

Singapore A350 Tour Premium Economy
Full-featured premium economy seats, like those found on Singapore Airlines, include leg rests, drink tables and deep recline features.

US travelers can find these aboard American’s new 787-9 Dreamliner and Delta’s forthcoming A350 aircraft.

Get ready to spend some time on a plane if you want to take a mileage run.
Delta’s A350, debuting the Delta One suites business class, will also feature that airline’s first premium economy seat, marketed as Delta Premium Select.

These premium economy class seats resemble their early business-class ancestors and may well become the second class of choice on many airlines in the future, as upgraded business-class products shed the name “business” and begin to resemble the first-class interiors of yesteryear.

What’s your favorite business-class product? Share your memories with us in the comments, below.

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