Airplane seat revolution creates one of biggest beds in the sky

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(CNN) — One of the largest beds in the sky is set to debut in just a few months time when JetBlue starts flying its A321neos from Boston and New York to London.

JetBlue’s new Mint Studio offering consists of two mini-rooms at the front of its newest planes, each with a comfortable seat that turns into its own fully flat bed behind a privacy door with an adjoining sofa that, with the seat, converts to one of the largest beds in the air. Behind those come 22 Mint Suites, minus the adjoining sofa.

It’s a game changer for business class travel.

And if JetBlue stays true to form, the pricing for these new offerings will make it within reach of more travelers than ever.

Mint Studio features a seat that flattens alongside an adjacent sofa into one of the largest beds in business class.

Mint Studio features a seat that flattens alongside an adjacent sofa into one of the largest beds in business class.

Courtesy JetBlue Airways

But it’s not just the seat itself that’s revolutionary. It’s the design details behind it, with wireless charging, multiple power points, space created to let you continue to work or use your tablet while eating, a Tuft & Needle mattress, and all kinds of hidden touches that wouldn’t be out of place in Architectural Digest.

How does this all come together? Buying a new airplane isn’t like popping along to a car showroom and deciding on this year’s stylish yet fuel-efficient new coupe. It takes, quite literally, years and years.

Through conversations dating back half a decade and more with executives and designers at JetBlue, aircraft manufacturer Airbus, the seatmaker Thompson, the design partner Acumen and industry players worldwide, the story of these new seats can now be told.

Building a new plane takes so long that they’re already well into working on the next one. But for now, here’s a look behind what awaits consumers in the near future:

There will be 22 Mint Suites behind the two Mint Studios in JetBlue's new transatlantic business class.

There will be 22 Mint Suites behind the two Mint Studios in JetBlue’s new transatlantic business class.

Courtesy JetBlue Airways

The backstory

Let’s wind the clock back a decade to 2010. Airplane manufacturer Airbus is making updated versions of what used to be a short-range family of planes, its A320. New, more efficient engines mean that the A320neo can fly farther than before, and Airbus is talking to airlines about where they might want to fly, and how.

One of those airlines is JetBlue, the New York-based “hybrid airline” that isn’t quite a full-service carrier but isn’t quite a no-frills operator either. And JetBlue already has a couple hundred of Airbus’ A320 planes in its fleet.

In 2010, JetBlue is already working on creating Mint, its equivalent to business class, which will start flying in 2013 on a small subfleet of A321s between cities where folks want (and will pay for) a bit of luxury: New York to Los Angeles, for example. And it’s thinking about what’s next — and talking to Airbus about it.

These conversations between airlines and airplane manufacturers are always secret, conducted either in flying visits by executives or at airshows such as the annual Paris or Farnborough shows. They feature swanky exposition chalets overlooking a runway where aerial displays are taking off, as businesspeople are shuttled in and out in large black limousines and around by golf carts.

The conversations are something of a give-and-take of questions along these lines: Airbus is thinking of making an A321neo with a longer range, and would an airline be interested?

Perhaps, but what seats would be on board, and how many would fit? Well, how about this new one that, in a different set of trade shows, seatmaker Thompson has been showing as an option for planes of the A321neo’s size?

Sure, but will it be certified by safety regulators in time? Yes, and we’re thinking of updating the cabin with bigger bins, too …

Seat selection

In this case, JetBlue picked Thompson’s Solo seat (a seat that this reporter first encountered in the early 2010s as a very early non-working mockup in the back room of Thompson’s stand at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg). JetBlue also agreed to launch the updated Airspace cabin design from Airbus, with bigger bins and a new look to everything from ceilings to windows.

And that’s where Acumen comes in. They’re one of the handful of design consultancies that is familiar with the requirements of working on airplane cabins. Every material must be tested for crashworthiness, flame-retardancy, toxicity, longevity and much more — and airlines want it to look good, too.

This mood board from Acumen Design Associates provided inspiration for JetBlue's Mint cabin.

This mood board from Acumen Design Associates provided inspiration for JetBlue’s Mint cabin.

Courtesy Acumen Design Associates

After winning the pitch for the work in 2016, JetBlue presented Acumen with an early version of what’s known as a LOPA: the Layout of Passenger Accommodations diagram, an inch-by-inch detailed equivalent of the seat map you might use to select where you’d like to sit on board.

From there, Acumen’s designers start their work, getting inside the heads of JetBlue’s brand specialists, flying across its network, understanding its passengers and predicting what the longer-term needs would be when, five years later, the new seat that JetBlue had already chosen would start flying.

Exactly when that will happen is still under wraps. but the debut is expected within months.

Concepts for the ‘constantly connected’ traveler

Designers start bringing together what are essentially elaborate, in-depth mood boards of color, materials and textures, but also thinking about what people want to do on board, and coming up with concepts like what Acumen calls the “constantly connected consumer” to help inform how the design evolves: more plugs, wireless charging and so on.

That evolution takes place over many months, starting off with mockups of the seat and cabin made out of wood or sometimes even cardboard, figuring out the shapes that maximize the amount of space available.

The Mint seats are a collaboration with Tuft & Needle, a bed-in-a-box company that provided the seat foam.

The Mint seats are a collaboration with Tuft & Needle, a bed-in-a-box company that provided the seat foam.

Courtesy JetBlue Airways

That’s why, at the elbow of every passenger, there’s a small triangular cutout into the sidewall — with a wireless charging point built in.

The designers try a variety of options, with almost everything up for discussion in almost infinite detail. The stitching and tag on the seat is designed to match the signature look from Tuft & Needle, the bed-in-a-box company brought in as a brand partnership for the seat foam.

The wall ahead of each seat ends up being made of the biggest ever piece of curved thermoplastic used for a seat, from a company called Sekisui Kydex. The company developed a technology to allow the patterned design to gradate from a whiter blue next to the window to a darker blue next to the door, brightening the experience. The lamp is designed from Polystone, which replicates the look and texture of concrete.

After a variety of design choices are made in conjunction with JetBlue and seatmaker Thompson, it’s off to the certification races, and the seat iterates quickly to pass the stringent tests so that it can be safely installed on an aircraft.

Somewhere around five to 10 years after that first conversation, you get on board, sit down, and someone brings you a drink as you settle in for a transatlantic flight. And as you take your first sip, they’re already designing the seat that comes next.

John Walton is an international transportation and aviation journalist based in France, specializing in airlines, commercial aircraft and the passenger experience.