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Delta Emerges as a Trendsetter Among U.S. Airlines

With United still suffering from residual post-merger indigestion and American-US Airways just entering the assimilation maze, Delta is emerging as the trendsetter among giant domestic airlines. Don’t be surprised if the new American and United adopt a “me, too” strategy on the Delta pattern.

Delta’s latest move is a $770 million “refreshment” of its 757-200, 737-800, and A319/320 fleets “to improve passenger comfort.” But that’s a bit of a misnomer: Sure, some of the changes will actually improve passenger comfort, but Delta is also focused on the “comfort” of its annual profit report. Among the changes:

Connections Everywhere: Delta already offers onboard Wi-Fi throughout its domestic fleet, and it previously announced plans for satellite-based Wi-Fi on its international planes for 2015. Also, most newly refurbished planes will get individual at-seat TV screens and power ports (110 vac and/or USB power) at every seat in all classes.

Clearly, onboard connectivity will be a big push for large airlines everywhere. And many will use satellite Wi-Fi, which works over oceans and provides more bandwidth than the land-based system. But the GoGo land-based system is also expanding, increasing bandwidth, and now covering the populated areas of Canada. Some airlines have expressed the view that offering lots of entertainment will distract economy passengers off the miseries of ever-tightening cattle car seats.

Big Bins: Delta’s refurbished 757s and A219/320s will get new overhead baggage bins that provide 40 to 60 percent more space than the original bins. Delta’s newer planes are coming in with these bins, as well.

In these days of stiff fees for checked baggage, big bins are becoming a must for any airline. This, too, is an area where Delta is ahead of much of its competition.

Extra-Legroom Economy Option: Delta will have “Economy Comfort” seats on all planes other than the smallest regional jets and turboprops. That’s Delta’s version of “semi-premium economy” offering optional, extra-cost, extra-legroom seats but with the same narrow width as regular economy.

The trend isn’t clear here:

  • Some lines, including United, Hawaiian, Frontier, JetBlue, pre-merger American, and KLM offer similar semi-premium economy. But most big foreign lines have opted for a much better true premium economy, with more legroom still, winder seats, better cabin service—and higher fares.
  • So far, among the long-haul domestic lines, Alaska and Virgin America haven’t gone either way.

Lie-Flat Business Class: All Delta international wide-body planes (747s, 767s, 777s, A330s) will have lie-flat beds with direct aisle access in business class by the middle of this year. Presumably, Delta will also use these planes for premium transcontinental nonstops.

Lie-flat seats is the new worldwide business class standard for intercontinental flights and U.S. premium transcontinental nonstops. American and United are moving in the same direction; Hawaiian hasn’t. On premium transcons, American, JetBlue, and United will be competitive; Virgin America will not.

“Slim” Coach Seats: Delta’s A319/320s, mostly inherited from Northwest, will get new economy seats. This will be an improvement, because Northwest originally installed narrow 737-width seats; it will bring Delta up to par with most other lines’ A320 seats. The new “slim” seats also supposedly provide better legroom, but a recent TripAdvisor survey reported that 83 percent of passengers who had tried them found them less comfortable.

Squeezing more and more seats in economy cabins is another worldwide trend. Supposedly, slimmer seats provide improved legroom, but many lines will instead add more seat rows at tighter spacing.

Restricted Club Access: Delta is limiting access to its Sky Club airport lounges. From May 1, the annual base membership of $450 will cover only the member, not up to two guests as before. Guests will have to pay $29 per entry. Annual two-guest privileges will require an “Executive” membership at $695. Similarly, access through credit card benefits on Delta’s Reserve card and the AmEx Platinum card will be limited to just the member. This move is apparently prompted by overcrowding at some Sky Clubrooms—something I’ve observed connecting through Salt Lake City on recent trips.

Other airlines will make similar moves. As airlines increase eligibility through credit card deals and other promotions, clubs are bound to become more crowded.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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