Acumen, the London based design studio, has been working with JetBlue for several years, reimagining the passenger experience. Back in 2016 they commenced work on the new A321neo cabin, but they have also worked on the new A321LR project which graced the news this week, thanks to its innovative business class cabin featuring the new Mint ‘Studios’. TheDesignAir caught up with Acumen’s team for an exclusive look at the design details.
“We started work with JetBlue back in October 2016,” states Michael Crump, Brand Experience Director at Acumen. “We went over to see them and were immediately immersed in their brand, new offices, partner hotels and restaurants and even went to their training university.” It was important for Acumen to fully understand the nuances of their brand, existing product and service philosophy. However, one of the most powerful ways of doing this has always been through experiencing the brand first hand as a passenger.
Since the start, JetBlue fundamentally had differences to many airlines, it’s been built from the ground up, focussing on passenger experience, and since inception, has offered what Acumen refer to as ‘seamless living’. The airline is known for its live TV and free Wi-Fi meaning passengers on JetBlue never really switch off from their lives on the ground. This DNA is diametrically opposed to legacy carriers who saw the passenger experience as an escape from emails and phone calls, albeit they are gradually turning around.
It was this ingrained DNA that became the building block to JetBlue’s re-imagined Mint product. “I was actually trying to do some work while I was travelling on the previous product and realised the environment around me couldn’t fully meet my needs. I needed more space to spread out and work,” Crump continued.
The airline had already made great headway in their soft product and service offering to allow for a more personalised experience, such as tapas-style dining. This meant multi-tasking was still possible, but the hard-product wasn’t practical enough.
Putting the passenger first
Acumen had to create something passenger-centric. As JetBlue had already opted for Thomspon Aero’s Vantage Solo seat for its new Mint – originally conceived by Factorydesign – as always, the product had to be adapted for the airline’s unique passenger profile using the insights from this valuable immersion phase.
“We took the product, rebuilding it from the ground up, basically rebuilding all the surfaces based on JetBlue’s passenger requirements,” says Daniel Clucas, Senior Designer at Acumen. “Our initial concepts reflected ‘seamless living’, never having to compromise on activity at your seat.” The major change seen in Acumen’s approach from the original Vantage Solo seat is the exchange of stowage space for working spaces. Stowage isn’t a large bulk in the seat, but is now comprised of stowages that reflect modern day use – a drawer under the TV for a computer, a nook next to the seat for personal items, and of course, the large overhead bins. But this trade off makes sense for JetBlue and shows how important it is to adapt products to airlines to reflect their unique brand propositions.
It was this basis of customisation that has led to a myriad of design details, but at the heart of this, is the seat itself. Akin to a 1970’s Shelby GT interior, the seat features an unusual rib stitch detail around the base and pan of the seat. On querying this design detail, which seemed at odds from the rest of the seat, came the most fascinating story.
“That’s actually from the design language of Tuft and Needle, the iconic mattress manufacturers that produced the seat mattress,” Catherine Barber, CMF specialist said.
Unlike many carriers who opt for Brand partnerships for their soft product, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and United, JetBlue took a long-term strategic approach, by having Tuft and Needle embed their mattress technology into the seat itself. “This led to all sorts of certification challenges that usually would have stopped a design like this in its tracks. But JetBlue and Tuft and Needle were determined to make it work,” and the result is in a truly branded seat. Even the detail of the tag on the seat showcases the partnership between JetBlue’s Mint and the mattress brand.
Devil is in the details
In fact, there are design details everywhere. There is a key differentiation between seating area and work area, delineated by the varied use of shell materials such as Ultrasuede around the seat, and more robust residential inspired materials around the work surfaces.
The attention to detail can also be summed up in the Morse code stamping on the aft-seat storage unit lid that spells out JetBlue (a detail that translates to the bulkheads of the other A321neos). This design detail also allows passengers to check if they’ve left any belongings at the end of the flight, a key requirement from JetBlue. Next to it, and within arms-reach is a wireless charging surface, to keep your phone charged.
There are other design elements, such as concrete effect lamps, ‘denim’ pattern carpets and circle and lozenge motifs everywhere. Even the Mint lozenge features on the dining table, and the circular dot design is stamped into the suite’s walls, creating texture, depth and a stylish entry corridor into the cabin.
In an interesting operational dilemma, a cabin like this with walls close to the aisle wouldn’t be an issue for a low-traffic business class cabin environment, however, all 160-something passengers will have to board through this cabin, meaning the walls are going to have to hold up against some serious wear and tear.
“A customised long-haul narrow body business class cabin is an unknown,” says Clucas, and he’s right. This is the first customised cabin for a narrow body aircraft. There are existing seats out there, but they were never designed for a narrow body specifically.
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The benefit of the herringbone design (apart from giving more useable space) is that passengers face the aisle, meaning that passengers’ heads are away from passing traffic on boarding and away from the walkway on overnight flights, giving them a more peaceful slumber. As for the window view? The rake of the seats is at 45 degrees, and as the renders show, there’s ample viewing out of the window, something Virgin Atlantic’s previous Business Class incarnation never really managed to achieve.
Perhaps one of the most understated, but most relevant of elements, is the suites’ humble light fixture. Made from a faux-concrete, it gives the impression of weight, solidity and a nod to the urban residential of New York’s loft living – JetBlue’s proud home. The almost ostentatious approach to adding something that looks so heavy is at odds with the industry’s obsession with stripping out weight.
The design of the lamp has been carefully done to add texture. “It’s actually Polystone, although we did originally look at a concrete manufacturer to produce it. They are handmade so we could get the right texture, look and feel. It gives an artisanal finish to each suite.” states Catherine Barber.
It actually reflects the emerging trend of tactility, touch, texture in modern cabin design, something we reflected on in a recent article.
However, Acumen is probably most proud of their Studio at the front of the cabin which they invented and developed specifically for JetBlue, making use of the additional area the LOPA creates to create a mini-first class suite, and giving space, that was originally simply crew stowage, back to the passenger.
With just two on each aircraft, these suites will be some of the hottest tickets across the Atlantic. It mirrors the other Thompson Aero’s ‘First Class for free’ Vantage designs found on the likes of China Eastern and Malaysia Airlines.
While the studios create enough space for two, this isn’t just a convenient design advantage, the entire product reflects the needs of a dual-use environment. Passengers can not only dine together, but also watch the same TV, thanks to dual headphone sockets which are perfectly situated for each user. For those just wanting to spread out, the additional table and increased surface area allows for people to dine, work, and starfish if they so wished…
Taking JetBlue back to the future
What was perhaps an unexpected result, is the clear maturing of the brand, gone are the nods to retro JetSet era which helped JetBlue create a unique visual identity when it first commenced flying. The new visual language is grown up, sophisticated, contemporary and reflective of emerging interior and product design trends in the US. “I think JetBlue realised their brand guidelines needed to evolve, so together with their design team we had to push the boundaries in order to deliver the product,” states Clucas. It’s hard to disagree that it certainly resonates with their future target demographic.
Perhaps the result feels so coherent because of a client that understands the role of passenger experience design in building a brand. “It was very collaborative working with JetBlue, they’d constantly bring ideas to the table,” Clucas said with a smile. “It was good fun, JetBlue are very design literate and know what they want, and it was a positive journey, building on ideas.” The evidence is clear. Simple investment in creating a bespoke, specialised product helps an airline stand out from its competition, therefore building brand preference. “There was a real deep understanding of what JetBlue’s design language should be.”
But with this grand reveal leaves a few unanswered questions. The focus of this launch has been entirely on the business class seats, but what of economy, and will there be JetBlue’s iconic pantry onboard? “These elements will be revealed at a later stage,” hints Crump.
But with the demise of Norwegian’s long-haul ambitions, and any other mid-range or low-cost competitors now out of the water on the lucrative UK-USA routes, JetBlue has an opportunity to set its stall. Like WestJet recently launched for its International Business Class travellers, will JetBlue follow suit and invest in a lounge offering in JFK’s Terminal 5? Will we see this exciting new brand image distil further into the ground product? Only time will tell…