US airline business class showdown: American vs Delta vs United

By Bloomberg News, September 19 2017
US airline business class showdown: American vs Delta vs United

For business travelers flying in and out of the U.S., this may be the most exciting travel news all year.

Gone are the outdated seats and subpar onboard amenities that have long tormented frequent fliers on all three major U.S. legacy airlines - American Airlines, Delta, and United.

In their place are glossy offerings that can actually compete with international standard setters, like Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Qatar Airways, and Singapore Airlines.

So what can you expect? Here’s a run-down of all the details you need to know – along with our own best-in-class awards for the features that matter most.

American Airlines

Not all of American’s business class seats are created equal – and that’s because the airline has had several false starts deploying upgrades across its fleet since 2013.

Just know that new seats of some sort should be on all American Airlines planes within the next year or so. The newest seats, called the B/E Aerospace Super Diamond, were partially deployed in October.

Luckily, they were worth the wait. The Super Diamonds are the largest business-class seats on American’s planes at 27.7 inches wide and 79 inches long when reclined to a lie-flat bed. There are 30 aboard each Boeing 787-9, laid out in a reverse-herringbone configuration.

The Perks: 18-inch entertainment screens loaded up with nearly 300 movies; AC and USB plugs; Cole Haan amenity kits with C&O Bigelow products; and menus designed by a rotating cast of James Beard Award-winning chefs. And really wide seats.

The Caveat: Inconsistency across the fleet means you could still get a business class seat on a 777-200 that doesn’t lie fully flat.

Delta Air Lines

In 2016, Delta announced it would be creating the first all-suites business class in the entire industry – meaning each seat will be fully closed off by a door.

The Delta One suites will appear aboard Delta’s 25 forthcoming A350-900 aircraft, which are due to begin service on the airline’s transpacific routes in late 2017.

Delta also plans to refit its 777-200 aircraft with the new suites starting in early 2018. By the end of the process, about 20 percent of Delta’s long-haul fleet have the new suites (if all goes according to plan) compared to the current Business Elite seats.

A350-900s will have 32 of them arranged in a staggered front-facing 1-2-1 configuration; each will be over 21 inches wide and recline to a length of up to 81 inches.

The Perks: High-resolution 18-inch screens with up to 300 movies, HBO, Showtime, 18 channels of live satellite TV (on select flights), podcasts, 2,500+ songs, and games. A USB port and universal power outlet for each seat. Heavenly bedding from Westin, Tumi amenity kits, and Kiehl’s products, as well as sleep suits on some transpacific flights. And the five-course dinners come with wine pairings from Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson.

The Caveat: Availability. Delta One will only be on 20 percent of the carrier’s fleet, on unspecified routes, and not until late next year.

United Airlines

In mid-2016 United announced a long-awaited overhaul of its international business-class service and amenities, including new seats. The cabins' name, Polaris, is chosen after the North Star.

The new seats have already debuted aboard United’s Boeing 777-300ERs and will follow on its future 787-10 and A350-1000 aircraft. After that, the airline will put the new seats aboard its existing 777-200s and 767-300s.

On board, Polaris cabins will be laid out in a slightly angled and staggered 1-2-1 pattern; there are electronically controlled privacy dividers for the middle section. Instead of doors, the seats will have “Do Not Disturb” lights for privacy.

Each seat will be up to 23 inches wide and recline to a fully flat bed of up to 78 inches; at bedtime on long-hauls, the flight attendants will dress it up in custom bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue and leave behind matching pajamas.

Also part of the rollout? A series of Polaris-branded lounges, the first of which has already opened at Chicago O’Hare with more to follow at hubs like San Francisco, Newark, and Washington Dulles.

They’ll have quiet areas with daybeds, pre-flight menus from Chicago-based chef Art Smith, cocktails by mixologist Adam Seger, and dedicated shower facilities.

The Perks: Amenity kits with Soho House’s signature line of Cowshed Spa products, food from Chicago chef Bill Kim, and wines selected by United’s Master Sommelier, Doug Frost.

The Caveats: Entertainment is less of a strong suit with Polaris. Their high-definition entertainment screens will be just 16 inches wide, with up to 150 movies and 185 television shows.

The Bottom Line?

There’s no clear winner, but your priorities will help you choose the cabin that’s right for you.

If you want privacy… Delta's A350 Delta One suites win hands down. With suite-style seats that have closing doors, the airline’s new business class will offer the most privacy, though the seats may not be as wide as some of the others out there.

If you want personal space… American pulls ahead with the widest seats of all three carriers and a reverse-herringbone configuration that ensures easy direct-aisle access for everyone.

If you want to book sooner rather than later…  American Airlines’ new cabin is already operational on its newly delivered 787-9s, along with some refitted 777-200s. United's Polaris is currently limited to selected Boeing 777s. By contrast, Delta’s seats won’t be available until late 2017.

If you want great amenities… Go with either Delta or United. Luxe bedding by Westin and Saks Fifth Avenue, respectively, earns points for both style and substance.

If you want to stay entertained… Choose American or Delta. Both will have 18-inch screens with over 1,000 hours of entertainment, as well as in-flight Wi-Fi (for a price).

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

13 Jan 2015

Total posts 588


British Airways - Executive Club

18 May 2017

Total posts 13

this article is a little outdated regarding American's 777-200s. The last of this aircraft type to be retrofitted was sent to the shop back in July - so all 777-200s now have either the Super Diamond reverse herringbone seat, or the Zodiac seat (which actually has some problems - google 'American Zodiac seat shaking). 


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Jan 2012

Total posts 171

Any plans for UA to upgrade the B787's currently flying to Australia with the new Polaris?

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2551

British Airways - Executive Club

18 May 2017

Total posts 13

UA's 787-8/9 aircraft will be retrofitted as they go through heavy maintenance checks, with the first going through during 2018. 


02 May 2016

Total posts 61

Flown both AA and DL business class many times, in my view AA is clearly ahead with their new 777-300's and 787's with the seat up there with CX etc, DL product is not really that comfortable (maybe it's the blue vinyl) and their other biggest issue is old aircraft, I mean why would one fly Seattle to Shanghai or Minneapolis to London on a 20 yr old 767 when I can fly at the same price or cheaper on a new 787 with AA, will be interesting to see comfort levels on the new DL A350

03 Oct 2011

Total posts 32

 Nice summary, although it omitted cubby/storage space, and inconsistently mentioned sleeper suits and bedding. It can be very frustrating to have a decent bed but no place to keep your phone, tablet, maybe a book, maybe your own electric toothbrush, maybe some pills you're supposed to take, etc.  I've found AA's Zodiac seat lacking in storage/cubby space. AA supplies sleeper suites and bedding, but I believe only on some routes (e.g., HKG, SYD).


03 May 2013

Total posts 668

Think I'd rather JL, CX via Asia than spend money on a US carrier across the pacific and God forbid internally. I don't think their hard products will ever make up for the poor soft product.

17 Sep 2015

Total posts 387

Yes, JL would be a good alternative choice.

Don't discount the very competitively priced PR now that it is rolling out 1-2-1 suites in J on the MEL and SYD to MNL routes  (A330-300s) and then on most flights to LAX/SFO/YVR/YYZ and JFK it's the B773ER which while seven across in J and angled lie flat is quite comfortable (but avoid the dreaded middle seat.) 

17 Sep 2015

Total posts 387

By the way, we are 'business travellers' to the USA not 'travelers.' 

09 May 2016

Total posts 17

US Airlines can spend millions and more to up grade to the latest business class seats etc. That is not the issue or problem. US Airlines DO NOT KNOW HOW TO provide in flight SERVICE. That is the area they should be concentrating. Throw in pre flight service, one can go on and on where they need to make substantial improvements. They will never ever be in the same class as the major international carriers.

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