First look: Delta’s snazzy new first-class recliners are raising the bar

Mar 15, 2022

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Delta Air Lines is once again upgrading the onboard experience — this time, with a brand-new domestic first-class seat.

For years, the forward cabin on single-aisle planes crisscrossing the country has largely looked the same. Domestic first class is usually outfitted with recliners in a 2-2 configuration, with more space, increased pitch and larger tray tables for those seated in the pointy end of the plane.

Over the last five years, the Atlanta-based carrier has rolled out new cabins for its international wide-body jets, including all-suite business-class pods and snazzy premium economy recliners, which are some of the best among the U.S. airlines.

And now, Delta’s onboard product team is taking on the domestic premium experience with an overhauled first-class recliner.

Though the rollout suffered from a roughly year-long delay, these new seats are almost ready for prime time — Delta is about to take delivery of its first Airbus A321neo, or “new engine option,” which will also be the first jet in the fleet to feature the airline’s new first-class seat.

Before the plane starts flying on transcontinental routes from Boston, Delta invited TPG to get an exclusive first look at the upgraded seats in the secret product lab at the airline’s Atlanta headquarters.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

And personally, I’ve been eager to try out the new recliners — after all, the renderings appear to be a big improvement. So, what would the seats be like in person? Read on to find out.

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Privacy, privacy, privacy

Perhaps the biggest innovation with the new first-class product is the amount of privacy.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Each seat has “wings” that jut out from behind the headrest, shielding the seats from one another and offering additional personal space.

The cut-outs don’t just separate you from your neighbour; they’re also great at limiting the obstructions in your peripheral vision. It may not be a full door like you’d find in Delta One Suites, but you’ll still get the sense that you’re “cocooned” in each recliner.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

“When you buy up to domestic first class, you want to feel like you’re in your own bubble,” Ashley Garris, Delta’s manager of onboard brand experience, explained during our tour.

This level of privacy for domestic first class is simply unrivalled — no other recliner on any other U.S. airline even gets close.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

“We really wanted to focus on implementing privacy elements… from seat-to-seat to row-to-row privacy. This really was a product that was driven by our customers and their need for wanting their own space,” Garris continued.

In addition to the wings that act as privacy shields, you’ll find a divider between each seat that further demarcates your space. While the divider is large enough to make you feel like you’re in a cocoon, it shouldn’t be too large to prevent you from chatting with a travelling companion — a “purposeful” part of the design process, according to Garris.

Comfort is key

Sometimes upgrades can come at the expense of comfort, but that didn’t seem to be the case with these new extra-private seats.

Measuring 21 inches wide, the recliners are comfortable and stylish. The seat covers — stitched in Delta’s signature checkered pattern — are made from synthetic leather that sits on top of plush memory foam padding.

When the seats were first announced in January 2020, I was originally concerned that they might not be super well-padded. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case (for the brief period I got to sit on one of them).

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

While the seats may appear to recline into a shell, I was pleased to learn that’s not the case. Instead, the product features an articulating seat bottom; as you recline, the seat slides forward.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Fixed-shell recliners, like Swiss’ new premium economy product, often make you feel like you’re slouching. Garris explained that “it’s not a fixed shell because we found that when you cradle people in most fixed shells, they don’t actually feel like it’s reclined.”

Each seat sports five inches of recline and 37 inches of pitch. Combined with the winged headrest that can be raised or lowered, catching some shut-eye shouldn’t be too challenging.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Unlike the airline’s long-haul premium economy product, these seats don’t feature a leg rest or footrest. They do, however, have leather padding at calf level, which provides additional comfort when seated upright.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Plus, the padding hides all the under-seat storage and electronic components, giving the cabin a sleeker feel.

If there’s one downside to the new seat, it’s the footwell area.

That’s because there’s an entertainment and power box that “pancakes” the seat-support column. This cuts into both your under-seat storage and space for your feet.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Finally, the bi-fold tray table, which measures 22 inches wide and 10 inches long, is a bit larger than average.

This way, it can rest on the armrest for additional support, while providing more space to eat or work.

Space for all your belongings

Delta’s product team didn’t just maximize the privacy and comfort of these new seats.

During the research phase (which began over five years ago), the product team learned that flyers wanted as much storage as possible in domestic first class.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

With that in mind, dedicated areas were added for your phone or small iPad — in a nook along the seat divider — and your laptop — in the bin at floor level between each seat.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

There’s also a second exposed storage compartment between each seat for a small purse or notebook. The literature pocket even has two dividers for additional storage space.

Finally, there’s a water bottle holder under the armrest between each seat. This area also has plenty of open space, which can provide some extra seat width for passengers of size.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

For smaller drinks, the new cocktail tables are purposefully ridged to prevent accidental spills, and they’re covered with an anti-slip material that’s designed in subtle Delta motifs.

In terms of storing full-size carry-ons, the A321neo will feature the massive Airspace XL bins, which can hold 60% more luggage than previous storage compartments.

Connectivity galore

You’d expect a brand-new product (on a new plane) to be outfitted with the latest advancements in technology. And while some elements of the inflight connectivity are indeed industry-leading, others aren’t.

Each recliner sports a 13-inch high-definition touchscreen monitor.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The entertainment screens weren’t powered up during my tour, but they’ll be configured with Delta’s latest wireless IFE system, which was developed by the airline’s in-house Flight Products start-up.

Another nifty feature is that the screens tilt upwards to provide more comfortable viewing angles when your neighbour is reclined.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Each seat also has a universal power outlet and two USB-A ports — one underneath the screen and another next to the outlet.

Furthermore, Garris confirmed that the A321neo will be equipped with ViaSat satellite-based Wi-Fi, which will provide gate-to-gate streaming internet access.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

In terms of downsides, the new seats don’t feature a USB-C charging port.

This next-generation USB port is quickly replacing USB-A as the new standard — most recent smartphones, including new iPhone models, are shipping with this cord — so you’ll need to make sure you have an older cable when flying on this plane.

“We started designing this product in 2017 and we looked at USB-C, but it wasn’t really a big thing yet,” Garris explained about the decision to stick with a USB-A charging port.

Furthermore, the inflight entertainment system won’t support Bluetooth wireless headphones when it launches (whereas United’s new signature cabin does feature Bluetooth connectivity.)

Perhaps it’s something that could be enabled in a future software update, but for now, you’ll need to use wired headphones to enjoy the movies and TV shows.

How the design evolved over time

In coming up with the final design of the improved seat, Delta’s product team said customer feedback played a key role in nailing down the final details. (The seat itself is manufactured by Germany-based Recaro and was conceived and mocked up in conjunction with London-based Factorydesign.)

For instance, when Delta first announced the new first-class seat, it touted that the power outlets would be facing the customer.

Asked about why the outlets are now located by the elbow, Garris explained that wasn’t the original intention. Her team first thought that flyers would like to see the outlets in their peripheral vision.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

But, after hearing complaints from window-seat flyers of needing to “jump rope over cords” to get up during flight, the team worked to put the outlets close to the elbow (but far enough that you shouldn’t inadvertently knock out your charger).

Speaking of the power ports, you’ll notice that they face upward in the aisle seat and face downward in the window. That’s due to a technical limitation with the power supply being located in the armrest divider.

Garris explained that the team didn’t intend to flip the orientation of the power port in the window seat, but when the team realized they were limited by technical specifications, they bought the heaviest charging bricks they could find to make sure that the bricks would stay in the outlet without falling.

The tray table isn’t level because the seats are on the ground. Once airborne, the plane tilts upwards, and the tray table becomes level. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Another seat component that went through multiple iterations was the armrest divider. Originally, the team mocked up a full-height divider that would slide along the armrest to fully separate you from your neighbour.

But after multiple rounds of anonymous product testing with larger and smaller dividers, customers ultimately preferred the one that Delta chose to install, Garris told TPG. It may not have been the original design, but the product team said it was focused on incorporating feedback through the design process.

Premium cabins are more important than ever

Premium cabins on domestic flights represent an increasingly important — and growing — revenue stream for airlines, especially Delta. In recent years, the airline has been focused on capturing premium revenue from flyers willing to buy up to fancier seats.

In fact, during its recent investor day in December 2021, Delta said that “premium product resilience has led us through the recovery.”

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Of course, that comes at the expense of complimentary elite upgrades on the busiest flights, but the flip side is that the revenue stream gives Delta a big reason to invest in the hard product.

Ultimately, the winners are those who end up sitting up front, especially if you’re flying on the Airbus A321neo.

Whether you’re in Delta first class thanks to a lucky upgrade or by paying the cash or miles for the bump, you’ll soon be enjoying a brand-new product on the A321neo.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Of course, we’ll have to wait to experience the seats once they’re flying, but if my first look in the product lab is any indication, these could become the best domestic first-class recliners in the sky — and worthy of the splurge in many cases.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.

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