Delta One Suite
Credit: Courtesy of Delta Airlines

The top prize for cabin innovations taking flight in this year’s Crystal Cabin Awards was awarded to Delta Air Lines, for its new Delta One Business class suite.

The awards, given out during the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg each year, are considered the Oscars of the aircraft cabin industry. The decision on the winners is made by a jury of industry experts among airlines, manufacturers, and designers.

So what makes these Delta One suites so special that a jury of industry peers would be heads over tails for it? This new cabin class is both a passenger experience revolution and an admirable technical feat.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of suites: The private spaces harken more to the golden age of rail travel than the modern age of air. They offer passengers a unique level of privacy and calm — a small oasis where you can feel comfortable reading, eating, watching television, or sleeping without being observed by your neighbors.

Suites will ruin you for lesser cabin conditions, but up until now only the most affluent could afford them.

Delta One Suite
Credit: Courtesy of Delta Airlines

While suites are a great way to fly, they are hard for most business travelers to explain to accounting when filing those expense reports.

Then, along comes Delta, setting a new bar by delivering affordable, comfortable suites to Business class.

We spoke with Adam White, owner of Factorydesign, the firm responsible for the development of Delta’s newest flying standard, to discuss the Delta One Suite development, and whether business-class suites mean first class is finally dead.

White says that to deliver the Delta One suite, the airline, its seat supplier, and design partners re-wrote FAA rules.

“The technical world will say, ‘This can't be done.’ It's always the case with innovation. It’s the technical world's job to protect what they do, but it's our job to keep working closely with manufacturers and certification bodies to push against what's always been done,” White said.

To ensure passenger safety and security, getting regulators to approve a privacy door for a limited number of first class passengers was a long and difficult process.

In the end, airlines like Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Etihad persuaded regulators that cabin crew could look after a few passengers behind closed doors, with a few design restrictions on the height of the doors or screens, letting crew peek inside. There were also procedural requirements to keep suite doors open during critical phases of flight for speedy evacuation.

But stretching those approvals to cover the 32 passengers seated in the Delta One cabin was far more complicated.

“The effort we went through with [the suite’s manufacturer] Thompson to get certification approval was considerable, but that’s true of any innovation. It’s the job of certification bodies to challenge innovation, and the job of designers and manufacturers to match those challenges... but it's not easy,” he said.

Delta One isn’t just an improved cabin: It marks a radical escalation in the cabin comfort arms race.

And once the certification rules are rewritten, others can step through that door.

“The door, like the lie-flat is the fundamental benchmark of comfort. It offers you a level of privacy that up to now you simply had to go to first class for,” White said. “Everyone will start wanting doors on their business class seat products, and that makes you question the first class offering. If Delta have it in Business why should I pay extra for First? It also increases the vacuum between Business and Economy.”

Delta addressed that business and economy gap by introducing a true premium economy product onboard the same A350 aircraft on which these new Delta One suites will take to the skies.

By choosing the Business class label — and approving the product to operate in a larger cabin space — the Delta One suite creates a new and radical competitive landscape.

“The most exciting innovations have been ways of making space work even better. That's what has happened with this new Delta One suite,” White said.

The next big leap ahead in this new Delta-shaped reality is an unimaginably tall order, but White doesn’t think first class is dead.

“It is clear that first class survived beyond the introduction of lie-flat for business. First class will continue to evolve in better ways. There's always a market,” White said.