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Delta's 'innovation class' promises an interesting seatmate

Eric Migicovsky, founder of Pebble, and James Patten, a TED senior fellow, at their Delta boarding gate.
Source: Delta Air Lines
Eric Migicovsky, founder of Pebble, and James Patten, a TED senior fellow, at their Delta boarding gate.

Most airlines offer first class, business class, economy class and, often, a premium economy class section on their flights.

Now Delta Air Lines has introduced another, extremely exclusive, seating section: "innovation class."

The first class-style seats are free, but will be available only occasionally to select up-and-coming professionals whose applications meet a special set of criteria. Their seatmates (who also get free seats) will be selected by Delta from leaders in various fields on their way to major industry events who have agreed to participate in what the airline is calling "a mentoring program—that just so happens to take place at 35,000 feet."

"We have customers flying with us who are big thinkers and innovators and are changing the world," Mauricio Parise, Delta's director of worldwide marketing communications, told CNBC. "We want to bring the ones succeeding in their field together with people who aspire to follow them."

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The program's first such mentoring session took place earlier this month on a flight from Salt Lake City to Vancouver, Canada, site of the TED 2014 conference. It paired mentor Eric Migicovsky, founder of smartwatch developer Pebble with James Patten, a 2014 TED senior fellow who is an inventor and visual artist working on projects at the intersection of the physical and digital worlds.

"It's very rare to get a chance to sit down with someone in that sort of position and get to talk about whatever you want," Patten said in a video about the in-flight chat posted on Delta's website. "Had we met in another context, we probably would have had at most a five-minute conversation."

Applications are now open for the next Delta Innovation Class, which will take place May 5. The mentor will be Sean Brock, whose Husk and McCrady's restaurants in Charleston, S.C. serve locally sourced Southern meals. Brock, a finalist for Outstanding Chef in this year's James Beard Awards, will be flying to New York for the award ceremony.

Future mentors are still being chosen and "will be drawn from any field that is fueling innovation," including entertainment, fashion, financial service, sports and advertising, Parise said. "We have not set up every event because the world is changing and we need to keep up with the conversation."

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Applications are being accepted through Delta's page on LinkedIn. Delta's team will evaluate the applications and forward a set of finalists to each session's mentor, who will make the final choice. "He or she will pick the person they think is the most interesting and will have the most passion for having that opportunity," Parise said.

This is not the first airline-sponsored in-flight mentoring program. British Airways, for example, hosted a flight between San Francisco and London filled with what it said were "forward-thinking founders, CEOs, venture capitalists and Silicon Valley game-changers."

Delta's mentoring program is set to be ongoing with sessions filmed and shared.

"It's a total win-win," said executive coach Mark Sachs, principal at Mark Sachs & Associates in Silver Spring, Md. "Mentoring is sometimes seen as Mr. Smarty Pants giving advice to a less Mr. Smarty Pants. But it's a reciprocal relationship and, if they listen carefully, these participants will be learning a great deal from the other person."

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—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC.com. Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.

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