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By the summer of 2013, Delta will add more than 1,200 first-class seats to its fleet. That's over and above the recent addition of first-class seating on all Delta Connection regional jets with more than 60 seats.
For context, that amounts to a 13 percent increase the the airline's supply of first-class seats, which account for 11 percent of Delta's total seating.
Bottom line: According to Delta, the airline already has more first-class seats than its competitors, and it's adding even more. In addition, "Delta also is the only U.S. carrier to offer a First Class cabin on every domestic flight longer than 750 miles, or approximately 2.5 hours."
The seating upgrade represents a significant shift in focus for an industry that has been stuck in shrink mode for the past few years.
Not only have the airlines reduced capacity overall, they have also disproportionately reduced the number of first-class seats. That's because part of the recession-fueled seat-shedding has taken the form of equipment downgrades: switching from wide-body jets (B747 or B777, for instance) to narrow bodies (B737, A320), and from narrow bodies to regional jets. Generally, the smaller aircraft not only have fewer first-class seats, but a smaller percentage of first-class seats, with many regional jets offering no first class at all.
More Upgrade Opportunities
While Delta surely has its eye on the bottom line—first-class tickets are highly profitable—the move is as much about appeasing elite-level SkyMiles members as it is about selling more first-class tickets.
In fact, the subhead of Delta's news release addresses that goal directly: "Airline increases First Class seating by 13 percent, creating up to one million new upgrade opportunities annually for SkyMiles members."
An upgrade to first class is the featured benefit of elite status; and elite status is the key to recognizing an airlines' best customers—and, critically, locking in their highly profitable business.
So whether Delta sells its first-class seats or gives them away, there's a financial upside for the airline.
Of course with business travel on the rebound, the demand for paid first-class seats will increase, which means that not all of the additional seats will be made available for elite upgrades. But some will, and the net effect for would-be upgraders should be a positive one.
Reader Reality Check
Can any SkyMiles elite members comment on their success rate in obtaining complimentary domestic upgrades?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.