When JetBlue revealed its new Mint product, set to debut on the A321LR later this year, the excitement in the avgeek world was palpable. But the renderings of the cabin and details of the design barely scratched the surface of what went into the creation of this product. Simple Flying caught up with both JetBlue and Acumen’s teams to find out just what was involved in reimagining Mint.
Reimagining something as revolutionary as Mint is not an easy task. The final product has been many years in the making, and has involved partnerships on both sides of the Atlantic. What they’ve created is something truly special, with a story worthy of sharing.
Simple Flying caught up with JetBlue’s Director of Product Development, Mariya Stoyanova, whose team has been working on the new Mint cabin for years. She explained that, when Mint was first released,
“… we knew we created something very unique and disruptive, but the success that we didn’t anticipate just gave us a heads up that we were really good at what we do, and we should do more of it.”
So, a little more than a year after the first Mint was introduced, JetBlue was already thinking about what should come next. While the product was undisputedly incredible, and very well received by their guests, JetBlue’s unwavering commitment to going the extra mile meant an evolution of the product was always on the cards.
Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.
Getting under the skin of JetBlue’s passengers
JetBlue had the impetus to continue the evolution of Mint, and now they had a new canvas on which to paint their vision. The restriction with the original Mint largely stemmed from the position of the exit door. With the A321LR, this had moved, giving them more space to play with. All they needed to do now was to firm up a way to make things better.
But simply asking for feedback was not getting JetBlue very far. Mariya explained how, when asked, passengers would simply declare that they ‘loved it,’ which was great for the airline, but not super useful for product development. In order to get under the skin of what they could do better, JetBlue needed to observe passengers and see how they behaved in the environment.
Their co-creation workshop was instrumental in this. Volunteer passengers got to sit in a mock-up of the space and do some normal tasks, so JetBlue could see where things like phone chargers and storage would naturally fall.
“We didn’t want it to feel too prescriptive, because our vision and design principle is all about we design the space so that you can do whatever you want with it. Just because you’re in the air and you’re travelling, your life shouldn’t stop. So it’s a very smart design without being too prescriptive. It’s very intuitive.”
In tandem with JetBlue’s efforts to understand the needs of their guests, perhaps even better than the guests themselves did, their design team was hard at work doing the same. JetBlue partnered with Acumen Design Associates, a London-based design house with a plethora of household name projects in their portfolio.
The first-ever lie-flat ‘Bed In The Sky’ was designed for British Airways by Acumen. Etihad’s ‘The Residence’ was an Acumen project, as was the new United Polaris, and many more. With the hottest cabin designers in aviation on the team, this was always going to be something very special.
Bringing design excellence to the table
The team from Acumen had never flown JetBlue, being a UK-based operation. So it was a real treat for them to head off to New York and sample JetBlue’s finest service on its domestic flights. The team fully immersed themselves in Mint, flying across the states in various seat positions, observing passengers, and getting to know the product inside out.
Simple Flying spoke to Michael Crump, Brand Experience Director for Acumen, who explained,
“Crucial to this project was getting underneath what JetBlue stood for. What their vision, their ambition was, in terms of what they’re trying to achieve.”
As expected, the team was wowed by the airline’s attention to detail, not least by the addition of free WiFi on all flights, something still lacking on European carriers.
For passengers on JetBlue, free WiFi is a nice little perk, but few would understand the strong brand ethos behind it. JetBlue didn’t add WiFi simply to make flying more pleasurable; rather, it was an effort to drive a seamless experience, one that flowed from the ground to the plane and back again, constantly connected.
“It meant that your experience on board was very different. And we noticed that the environment potentially wasn’t designed to meet that need.”
While JetBlue’s existing product has won the hearts and minds of frequent fliers in the US, Acumen realized it could be so much more. The current Mint cabin did not wholly facilitate people’s penchant for multitasking their way through life, and that was something the designers set out to change.
Both the design team and JetBlue had focused on the Thompson Aero Vantage Solo as the seat platform of choice from the start. It had good bones, but the partners had much work to do to turn this into a truly JetBlue product. Acumen Senior Designer Daniel Clucas explained to Simple Flying,
“As you can see, it’s quite boxy, there’s a large stowage area and not a lot of flat space. So we took that footprint, and started working it into our vision for seamless living.”
The first thing Acumen did was to remove the large stowage module and really open up the space. With a view to the multitasking passenger, the team strove to add as much flat space as possible, giving natural resting areas for devices, meals, and other personal items.
Of course, while it’s nice to have all your affairs to hand during the cruise portion of flight, it’s crucial to be able to put it all away for taxi, takeoff and landing. Acumen designed in numerous smart little touches to get this box ticked, from a laptop drawer under the monitor to a cubby for your passport and wallet and elasticated shoe storage on the sidewall of the suite.
Working from the feedback JetBlue was getting from its passengers during its own customer research, the team tweaked parts of the design to make it even more clever. Customers said they didn’t like dark, shadowy storage pockets where there was potential to leave their belongings behind. Acumen added a perforated lid to the cubby storage to make it easy to see, at a glance, whether anything was inside.
Tangled messes of cables are the bane of many a flier, so a small cable tidy was placed near the charging port. And about those charging ports; the entire charging area is replicated in a sort of ‘nightstand’ affair for convenient access when the passenger is in bed mode, so that everything is to hand at all times during the flight.
This idea of seamless living, making it as easy and as convenient as possible to live your best life in the sky, has played through to every aspect of the development. Both JetBlue and Acumen speak highly of what they call ‘residential touches,’ which brings the comfort and coziness of home to an airplane cabin.
This begins with the seat itself, which is upholstered in premium vegan leather and with a unique stitching pattern to the mattress itself. Acumen’s CMF Specialist Catherine Barber explained that much of the padding here was the work of Tuft & Needle, the Phoenix-based sleep specialists, who are known for pouring and cutting their own foam for their mattresses. Barber commented,
“We were absolutely amazed because, when JetBlue came to us with the idea of Tuft & Needle creating their own foams, I personally didn’t think it was going to happen. Because, we have all kinds of certifications and everyone will tell you ‘no.’ But JetBlue takes no as a kind of incentivizer!”
The mattress-makers pushed hard for a product that was as comfortable and breathable as anything you’d find at home. But the residential touches don’t finish there. While Acumen went for a very ‘crisp and clean’ look at the back of the plane, up front, everything is a little softer and more domestic.
Soft fabrics replace plastics, warm felt covers the suite’s walls, and the footwell area is soft and fuzzy. There is no place where your warm, sleepy body will come into unpleasant contact with a bit of cold, hard plastic. Mariya Stoyanova explained that, for many of the materials, it was an industry first, for example, on the table surfaces. She said,
“We have woodgrain Kydex on the flat surfaces where the table is. And the woodgrain is actually infused in the material. It’s not just a print. So it will continue to look like that for many years. So that’s a new thing that we haven’t had before, and it was new to the industry.”
The aesthetic of the lightshade is a concrete finish, which Stoyanova explained is “a little bit of a nod to our New York background.” But, of course, the shade is not made from actual concrete. Rather, it is made from a product called polystone, and hand-finished for a nice artisanal touch without adding weight to the cabin.
Barber explained some of the material choices and residential touches and how they came to be. She told Simple Flying,
“It extended that idea of seamless living that, when you’re sitting on the plane, you don’t think you’ve been strapped into a transport environment. You’re still in an environment where you’re comfortable, you’re looked after, you feel at home, and you’ve got a place for everything that you want.
“So as a symbol of that, and also, because we think they’re gorgeous, we’ve added some really nice textures. And we really thought about the texture contrasts, and the material selections, so that they added that visual interest, but at the same time, you know, made the place not feel cluttered, visually or physically.”
Adding the wow factor
Of course, the real show-stopper of the new JetBlue premium cabin is that groundbreaking row one Studio. Each A321LR will offer two Studios per cabin, providing the biggest bed in a premium cabin of any US airline. We asked Acumen where the ideas for this space came from. Daniel Clucas explained,
“With Solo’s original LOPA (layout of passenger accommodations) every seat was the same. There was a storage module at the front, so we asked, does that need to be storage? We presented the idea to JetBlue of giving that space back to the passenger and creating that differentiation within their cabin … and they jumped at it. They love the idea of having that differentiation and being able to offer their customers something different.
“It was really driven by that desire to do something a bit different and to open up the space.”
Keeping in mind JetBlue’s ethos of not being too prescriptive, Acumen set about designing something that would give the customer the choice of how the space was used. The additional bench seat can be used to seat a guest while in cruise, or it can simply be more space for the passenger themselves. In bed mode, it drops down to create a vast bed space, perfect for sprawling out on those long transatlantic trips.
This sort of innovative thinking is what has won JetBlue a fierce amount of loyalty in the US market. Stoyanova noted that,
“We’re all about making something very exceptional out of a constraint or a challenge.”
She remembered back to the original Mint cabin, where the extra space in the middle of the cabin was crying out for attention. Ultimately, this led to the birth of the Pantry, something that JetBlue’s guests really love. Without a doubt, the same level of fandom will be secured with the Studio. Stoyanova commented,
“We tried to channel a little bit of our New York-ness into it and create almost like a Manhattan studio sized apartment out of it.”
It’s a space that’s set up to become a showstopper on the transatlantic route, as is the entire JetBlue Mint cabin. Combining all that with the refreshed menu, bespoke cocktails, free WiFi for all and, of course, JetBlue’s inimitable customer service, why would you cross the Atlantic any other way?