Why Delta One Suites are poised to become the best business class in America — for now
Before the coronavirus put the travel industry on hold, many airlines across the world were retrofitting cabins with the latest innovations to the passenger experience.
Stateside, the big three have already got a good chunk of their long-haul fleet configured with their latest business-class cabins: American Flagship Business, Delta One Suites and United Polaris. AA and UA also have purpose-built lounges for their international biz passengers.
Though there's long been a debate on which U.S. airlines offer the best all-around business-class experience, Delta's the clear winner in the short term, as we slowly recover from the pandemic.
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Ground experience won't be the same
When we at TPG review a flight in biz, we allot 20% of our score to the ground experience. We answer questions like: What does the check-in process look like? How's the lounge? Are there any other special amenities reserved for premium-cabin customers?
Among the U.S. airlines, American and United offer Flagship Lounges and Polaris Lounges, which are a step up from the traditional domestic membership lounge. These spaces were designed with premium-cabin, long-haul travel in mind; United's even features sit-down, a la carte dining. Delta's supposedly working on building an exclusive Delta One Lounge at LAX, but it's years away from completion.
When the coronavirus hit, American and United quickly realized that demand for international premium cabin flights had essentially evaporated. To control costs and promote social distancing, they closed all of these fancy lounges.
Even with the industry on the road to recovery, don't expect these lounges to immediately reopen. As American's President Robert Isom explained, "Flagship Lounges will be closed until we see demand that warrants opening them back up."
And while these lounges remain closed, AA's and UA's competitive advantage in offering a true business-class ground experience has (temporarily) vanished.
Inflight service modifications
Because of the coronavirus, airlines are modifying inflight service procedures, which will be noticeable at the pointy end of the plane.
According to Henry Harteveldt, president at Atmosphere Research Group, “airlines won’t provision complimentary pillows and blankets except, perhaps, for their longest flights.”
Related: Things don’t look too promising about the (immediate) future of business class
Furthermore, expect the meal service to be modified. For now, carriers have consolidated what used to be multi-course meals into one or two trays. I can’t imagine the return of the create-your-own ice cream sundae cart any time soon (as much as it pains me to write that). Similarly, the bread basket and table-side salad preparation could become a thing of the past.
Though single-use amenity kits are here to stay, there’s a good chance that we’ll see many of the name-brand headphones replaced with disposable ones.
Without being able to differentiate the product through the ground experience or inflight service, then it's just going to come down to which airline offers the best hard product. And that's Delta.
Hard product trumps all
The one thing that'll remain the same post-coronavirus is that premium cabins won't look any different, and that's to Delta's advantage.
You see, DL's the only carrier to offer enclosed suites with sliding doors and direct aisle access throughout the cabin. Though the footwell is a little tight depending on your shoe size, the rest of the modified Thompson Vantage XL seat is quite comfortable. The suites are well designed with large tables, though the finishes could use some improvement.
Related: What's the difference between hard product and soft product?
That hard product is a notch or two above what American and United offer.
American's best biz seat is found on the carrier's flagship Boeing 777-300ER. The Safran Cirrus seat is quite comfortable and has a decent amount of privacy. It's just not as cutting-edge as Delta's offering.
United meanwhile customized Safran Optima seats for its Polaris business class that are incredibly comfortable and plenty private if you're seated in a "true" window seat. However, not all seats are created equal, and some aren't nearly as comfortable as others.
As we recover from the coronavirus, expect to see some difference in the flight experience. Nowhere will this ring more true than in biz.
With lounges closed, American and United don't have a competitive advantage of offering a dedicated business-class ground experience. Once in the air, the service is going to be so heavily modified that you won't be able to notice a difference between the big three U.S. carriers.
That's why it's going to boil down to the seat itself. And since Delta One Suites are the best hard product of these airlines, it's going to be best business class in America... for now.