Delta Adds Wifi to Regional Jets, Gets Closer to Matching the Mainline Experience

For years, we’ve all put up with airlines having two types of onboard products. They had the mainline product on larger airplanes actually flown by that airline and then they had the regional product for those flights on smaller airplanes operated by third party carriers. It was, to see the least, a wildly different experience. Now, however, Delta has been working to harmonize the two, and the announcement that it will put wifi on its 70- and 90-seat regional jets is welcome news. Hopefully others take the hint and start harmonizing their product offerings further as well.

Delta Connection Grows Up

It’s no surprise that the different product standards emerged. Regional airlines were originally meant to fly short hops into small towns. Would you have expected First Class on that 19-seat prop flying 30 minutes from Dubuque? Probably not. But regionals changed.

The invention of the 50-seat jet started to push airlines to use them on longer routes. I remember seeing 50-seaters on routes like Cincinnati to Colorado Springs, routes that are over 1,000 miles and certainly in need mainline comfort levels. But the 50-seat jets were tiny and spartan and not much was going to change since they still predominantly flew shorter haul flights anyway.

When the regionals started flying 70- and 90-seat jets under the big airline brands, that was the breaking point. The line became too blurry between mainline and regionals on the route map but the product still lagged. Sometimes, airlines thought that was good. America West even went as far as putting First Class on its 70-seat jets and then later opting to fly 90-seat jets instead with an all-coach configuration (something that lives on today with US Airways). Two airlines, however, have worked to bring the standard of flying on larger regional jets up, United and Delta. It’s no surprise that these two would be the leaders since they have the biggest fleets of 70- and 90-seat jets.

For United, the integration was an awkward effort. Instead of trying to bring it up to a mainline standard, the airline invented a new brand called explus. Then again, this was around the time when United thought it was fun to brand everything different (Ted, p.s., etc). I don’t know if the brand is even still used, but the product differentiation is still there. The 70-seaters do offer First Class, but it’s not what you’ll get on mainline flights. You will, for example, get a meal on flights over 2 hours as on mainline, but your “meal” will be a snack box. Not quite the same.

The differences also exist in the back of the bus. While you can buy a snack box on mainline flights, you won’t have that option on United Express. You’ll also get no inflight entertainment at all no matter where you’re sitting. It’s just not the same experience.

Delta, however, is trying to bring the products together closer. As with United, all of the 70- and 90-seat jets will have First Class, but on Delta, those travelers now get meals on china with linens and silverware. It may not be the same food (I don’t actually know) as on mainline but it will be a similar experience. And now, Delta will be putting wireless internet on all of the 70- and 90-seat jets flying the Delta brand.

Over the years, the introduction of 70- and 90-seat jets has pushed most of the 50-seat jets back on to smaller, shorter routes. Cincinnati-Colorado Springs is no longer operated as part of the incredible shrinking hub, but Cincinnati to Denver is on a 70-seat jet. Since the 50-seaters are moving back to where they belong (though arguably, you can say they belong parked in the desert), that lets Delta set a service standard.

Delta has previously said that it wanted to have individual screens at each seat on flights over 4 hours in length. No regional jet is currently flying that far, so it’s not an issue. But now, Delta is saying that any flight longer than 2.5 hours will have First Class and wireless internet available. Anything less than 2.5 hours and the bet is off, but really, it doesn’t matter on the short flights. Delta realizes it’s not worth outfitting a bunch of 50-seaters with wifi because the flights are too short.

So now, the regional experience is creeping ever closer to the mainline experience. Mainline pilots will likely tell you that you aren’t getting the same level of safety when you fly on a regional, but that’s a topic for another time. In terms of onboard product, the two are finally heading towards one.

[Original photos via Wikimedia Commons user Craig/CC-BY-SA-3.0 and Flickr user cliff1066™/CC 2.0]

42 Responses to Delta Adds Wifi to Regional Jets, Gets Closer to Matching the Mainline Experience

  1. Brian says:

    Sounds like where Air Canada is now. Everything other than CRJ100/200s and the Dash-8s offer in-seat video and business class (US domestic F).

    • CF says:

      I think Air Canada is much better, don’t you? I mean, AC has actual screens in each seat on those airplanes. The mainline experience really is on the smaller airplane. Delta is getting closer but it’s certainly not there yet. Then again, Air Canada operates the Embraer jets itself, so that could have been part of the motivation.

  2. A says:

    So far as I know from recent flying Delta still hasn’t put IFE seatback screens in any of the A320 fleet and several of the old NW 757’s. One would think this would be a priority over Wi-Fi on a CRJ. Besides, who pays for the wi-fi? Far as I know Delta doesn’t own or lease those aircraft. I’ve never been a fan of regional jets for what I consider mainline routes, nevermind the mileage. Would much rather see bigger planes and less frequency. I put my money where my mouth is by switching airlines and routes just to avoid CRJ’s. Now if I’m paying a premium or being inconvenienced in some way just to be on mainline please be sure that you have consistent product there too.

    • Jason H says:

      Wi-fi is something that can be added in a very short timeframe to an aircraft. If I remember correctly DL was installing Wi-fi on their MD-80/90 aircraft at the rate of 1 every 24 hours. Given that, it is a relatively simple task to add Wi-Fi to a regional jet. Now, IFE is a completely different issue as that involves stripping the aircraft interior, running new wiring, reinstalling new seats, and installing the play-out hardware (hard drives, etc). This isn’t something that can be handled in an overnight stop and so those planes have to wait for their heavy checks. After all if they pulled all their NW planes to install IFE imagine the chaos that would cause.

    • CF says:

      Jason’s definitely right on this. It’s a lot easier, quicker, and cheaper to put wifi on an airplane than a full entertainment system. But yeah, that 4 hour promise was before the Northwest merger and none of those have been given anything other than wifi. The 757-300s, at least, have had their overhead screens turned back on for domestic flights, but that’s about it.

  3. I’m waiting for the day when the Feds say no more (at least) domestic codeshares, no more painting the regional planes to look like the mainline carriers, and everyone must fly their plane under their own name. People are getting tired of thinking they are on the mainline carrier for their 3 hour flight only to find it’s some regional they have never heard of using a smaller plane.

    The mainline carriers want you to believe you are flying them until something goes wrong with the regional flight and then they are quick to say “oh that not us”. Double standards mean passengers get fed up and start sounding off to their elected officials.

    • David says:

      I think most people don’t care what or who they’re flying. They just want to get from point A to point B without delays or hassles. It’s really only the people who are in the know (which are precious few when it comes to the flying public) that may care about it. For most people, being crunched in a CRJ or in coach in a 757 is pretty much the same with a little less headroom when you’re standing.

    • I’m waiting for the day that the feds require consumers to read the information presented to them.

      The sad thing is people have been told about this clearly for years, and they don’t read or care.

      If anything it’s arguably a more confusing experience when the codeshare is on another mainline airline. In this case you’ve gotta check in with the other airline, go to their gate, etc.

      • Jason H says:

        Thank you Nicholas.

        Personal accountability for the win! Seriously. When you book on many airlines (United, Air Canada, Delta) they tell you when you are looking at the flight.. “operated by…”

    • james says:

      I don’t think consumers are that ignorant about mainline versus codeshare, especially given the media attention over the past two years.

      Every airline website and aggregator clearly lists “operated by” directly under the flight info. And even occasional fliers that live in smaller markets must know what “connection” and “express” signifies in their hometown airport.

      I prefer a larger plane for the “get up and stretch” factor, but domestically I choose schedule and price over type. I saw a Continental 757 taxi in next to us departing Madrid last week and while I agree a seat is a seat, I would find it uncomfortable to be cooped up eight hours in such close quarters.

      • CF says:

        I think regionals and codeshares are a different story. Codeshares do confuse people a lot more because they end up having to check in with the operating airline and they see gates and planes painted in colors that aren’t the ones they have their ticket. It really is a confusing experience.

        But other than that, I agree with David that people don’t usually care what kind of plane they’re on. They do care what they get onboard, however. So as long as the products match, then that’s what matters.

        • MeanMeosh says:

          I have to disagree with one statement, that people don’t care what kind of plane they’re on. I, for one, will go way, WAY out of my way to avoid an RJ or turboprop. I have to fly a lot based on where work takes me, but I’ve always been a semi-nervous flyer. If you’re nervous about flying, you really don’t feel very good about flying on one of those small planes. Yes, I know it isn’t rational, but unless you’re afraid of flying, it’s hard to explain that feeling of dread. So for me, even if it means flying on a real plane 200 miles out of the way and driving the remainder, I’ll do it just to avoid an RJ. I couldn’t venture a guess on how many others share my thoughts on the subject, but you figure that even if it’s 10-15%, it’s enough to make a difference to the bottom line.

          Also, my big pet peeve is the ever-expanding definition of “regional” (much like the government’s expanding definition of “rich” when it comes to who gets socked with a tax increase). Sorry, but DFW-LAX or IAH-YYZ are NOT routes that should be done on a regional jet, no matter how spruced up they are, yet UA and AC, respectively, do just that. I’m just waiting for the day that someone does something insane like LAX-MIA on a CRJ.

    • Frank says:

      David, the whole booking process has been turned over to you. How convenient to go online, check schedules, times, fees and prices. With that responsibility comes the facts that several people have already brought up. READ what you’re booking, have a question about something, call the airline. Booking process too confusing for you, call a travel agent.

  4. Daniel says:

    I have flown F on Delta Connection and got my meal and it was the same choices as a Delta mainline. I got a chicken wrap with some bread and a piece of chocolate cake. I don’t use wifi (too expensive) but nice to see them try. I am waiting though for the ex-NWA aircraft and maybe the MD-88s (probably never happen) to get overhead videos or PTVs.

    • JamesK says:

      The Delta Connection Carrier With Which I Am Most Familiar does not have ovens in the CRJ700/900 galley (huge weight penalty), so cold meals like dinner salads or wraps are served in FC. Plastic on the ground, glass in the air, linen–just like mainline but with the intimate service of an RJ.

      Air Canada Jazz did fit their CRJ705 (a CRJ900 by any other name) with in-seat IFE screens. Bombardier will do it, but very few US carriers will pay the cost in cash or in weight penalties. The closest I’ve seen is the boarding music on Delta Connection CRJ900s and E175s.

      Delta does have overhead video on the MD-90, though I’ve never seen it done on an MD-8x.

      • CF says:

        I can’t imagine we’ll see screens on an MD-80 at Delta because those are meant for shorter haul flights. The 737s, A319/320s are meant for longer haul domestic and the MD-90 is meant for mid-haul, so those should have something. It’s the A319/320s that are the ones that need something most, but at least they have wifi now.

  5. Hunter says:

    I know it’s a silly pet peeve, but I hate referring to them as “70 seaters” and “90 seaters” rather than the actual types. Mainly because few of them actually have as many seats as that. DL’s scope prevents anything more than 76 seats flying under a regional, so while a CRJ900 might be able to carry 90 passengers, it’s flying with 76 in the DLC fleet. From what read in the release all CRJ900 and E175 birds will get the wi-fi and most of the CRJ700 fleet will get it (some still fly single class with 70 seats and will not be equipped).

    • CF says:

      That’s true, they don’t have that number of seats, but it’s easier to refer to them that way than constantly saying Embraer 170/175 and Bombardier CRJ-700/900. Besides, not everybody even knows what those are.

      According to Delta, all of these aircraft will be two cabin and will have wifi, even the CRJ-700s.

      • Hunter says:

        I think it’s pretty safe to say most of your readers are geeky enough to know the types. After all, you don’t refer to them as Boeing 150 seaters…you say 737. In any case, it’s a nit pick, but one I’m not likely to give up : )

        Regarding the CR7s in the DLC fleet, some still fly in a single class 70 seat configuration. I know they’ve been modifying some to the two class cabin, but do you know if DL is planning for all CR7s to fly two class? My understanding is that some number would remain single class.

        • CF says:

          You’d be surprised how many readers come in from Google and are casual travelers. The frequent readers may know airline/aircraft codes, but there are plenty of infrequent ones who don’t. I want to make this accessible to anyone who is interested. Now, I think a 737 is different in that it generally has pretty widespread recognition, no?

          Anyway, I asked Delta that question and they said all of the CRJ-700s will be two-cabin.

  6. Paul says:

    I flew this past week on Delta Connection and the biggest difference to me was the gate agents in ATL. The connection carriers agents were terrible!

    • JamesK says:

      Funny enough, all the agents working Delta Connection flights in ATL are Delta mainline employees. Delta took over from ASA in 2006 or 07, and it wasn’t a couple of months before Delta announced that they would finally pony up the cash to install jetways on Concourse C.

  7. cstclair says:

    Hi .. Nice to see the largest “flag carriers” are catching up to JetBlue (who have entertainment at all their seats) – though they don’t offer a first or business – until this new wrinkle from Delta and United – there wasn’t much difference in product except in first.

  8. dan powers says:

    I’m waiting for the day when the Feds say no more (at least) domestic codeshares, no more painting the regional planes to look like the mainline carriers, and everyone must fly their plane under their own name. People are getting tired of thinking they are on the mainline carrier for their 3 hour flight only to find it’s some regional they have never heard of using a smaller plane.

    The mainline carriers want you to believe you are flying them until something goes wrong with the regional flight and then they are quick to say “oh that not us”. Double standards mean passengers get fed up and start sounding off to their elected officials.
    ….EXCELLENT POST !!!…DELTA would save much $$ if they simply operated these 76 seat jets under the delta banner…imagine all the salaries they would save…no pres/ vice-pres…director of ops….director of maintenance….about 100 to 200 high paying jobs could be cut out…and offer the customer a better service too…as there would be no seamless service to worry about

    • CF says:

      If Delta could save money operating these airplanes themselves, they would do it. But those few salaries at the top pale in comparison to the difference in pilot/flight attendant pay and benefits. It is cheaper to have regionals fly this, but many would argue it’s not worth it.

      • dan powers says:

        that is what the legacy carriers need to realize …that if mainline pilots fly these 76 seaters…the flying public will be safer…the last 7yrs ALL airline deaths have been by these subcontracted carriers…requiring copilots to have at least an ATP is a must. mainline pilots will agree to fly the 76 seaters for a very similar pay they are flown today. where is the cost savings????

        • CF says:

          It seems a little over-dramatic to point out that all airline deaths in the last 7 years were on regional airlines. First of all, I assume we’re talking about US-based airlines here and we’re excluding cargo carriers and bush flying. Second, I assume we’re talking about passenger deaths. Back in 2005, that Southwest jet that skidded off the runway at Midway killed someone on the ground, and there have been employee deaths as well.

          But yes, all passenger deaths on US-based airlines (not bush flying) in the last 7 years have been on regionals. That’s a total of three accidents (Colgan/Continental in Buffalo, Comair/Delta in Lexington, and Corporate/American in Kirskville). That is out of thousands and thousands of flights completed, so it hardly points to a major safety issue. If we look at other incidents, crew experience, crew rest, etc, we can talk about what influences there might be on safety, but looking at passenger deaths alone really doesn’t definitely answer that question.

          Also, while pilots may be willing to fly for the same rates, there are the issues of work rules and benefit costs to factor in. Also, having the flexibility to scatter contracts in order to reduce or increase capacity when times demand is something that airlines value.

  9. JayB says:

    The “regional” vs. “mainline” experience comparison is fascinating, to say the least. I would challenge the fact that “most” people don’t care “what or who they’re flying.” Certainly, there are times when caring is useless because threre’s no choice. And, sometimes the purpose of the trip trumps everything else. But, for me, retired, I care a lot.

    On UA, my usual service provider, I submit that the mainline and regional experiences are vastly different. When you’re connecting at ORD, for example, and you have to go from your mainline plane at Terminal B or C, to the regional connection at F…that you are still on UA, for me, is completely lost. It’s not just the aircraft, it’s the gate people, down the stairs, up the stairs, on the bus, the crew on the plane, the onboard services. You really are making an interline connection, and nothing I’ve seen with UA makes it a pleasant or a brand-loyalty-worthy experience.

    Admittedly, the mainline quality is going down hill pretty fast too, so maybe soon the quality of service of everything will be equally terrible! Maybe the CO people will change all this, but I don’t know!

    • CF says:

      You’re definitely right about Third World Terminal 2 (the F gates) at O’Hare. But they actually try to gate most of the “explus” planes in B and C when they can to keep it a more consistent experience. Still, nothing worse than gate F1 in the winter when they walk you for what seems like miles in the cold, sleet, snow, you name it.

  10. Graham says:

    From the ExPlus site:
    “For added convenience, every explus flight features planeside baggage check-in and retrieval for carry-on luggage, and flights depart from or arrive on a jet bridge wherever possible. For an even greater level of comfort, every seat is located next to a window or an aisle.”

    Talk about lipstick on a pig. This also applies to the super painful US CRJ I flew on this weekend. So that page really says nothing at all.

  11. tharanga says:

    I approve strongly. When mainline and connection are flying the same routes, on 2.5+ hour flights, then there should be a consistent experience across those choices.

  12. SubwayNut says:

    I do remember flying on the, I think, 70 seat RJs (there were two flight attendants) round-trip Cincinnati to COS back in 2007 (connecting to LGA – loved the fact I was only given and successfully made a 25 minute connection in each direction). I still remember I enjoyed the in-flight service on these flights more than my mainline Delta Flights because the Comair flight attendants had no qualms giving out multiple free snacks (from the same selection Delta still uses today), including mints shortly before we landed, when I asked for more than one snack (there wasn’t anything for purchase) on the mainline CVG-LGA flight after all the restaurants had closed in CVG on a Saturday evening during my short layover, I still remember was given a dirty look.

    In response to United:
    Just recently, over Thanksgiving I flew COS-ORD-SYR round trip entirely on CRJ-700 all Explus-this feature your informed of on their website when you book your ticket but I never heard any announcements about being on an Explus Jet. I have in the passed. The COS-ORD legs were operated by SkyWest both from the open (walking along the tarmac is an experience that I always enjoy, although terminal 2 is awful and crampt) F11A-D gates at O’Hare and the ORD-SYR by Mesa Airlines from Concourse C with jet bridges. One interesting difference between the two airlines is in how the four seats are designated, on SkyWest its A-B-Aisle-C-D. On Mesa its A-C-Aisle-D-F. In the Thanksgiving rush I had no seat assignments and wouldn’t pay for E+. Three of the four flights were fine, got E+ for free on two of them. On my final leg though, I was in the very back and it was awful, the window was misaligned so I had to uncomfortably bend forward to look out of it, and the noise from being next to the jets was excruciatingly loud. The flight attendants did run the beverage cart through multiple times on all legs, though-not something I think of mainline flights doing.
    I’m currently booked on the non-stop SkyWest CRJ-700 flight from Dulles to COS in January and noticed I’m in the very back again, might pay for E+ just to avoid the noise for almost four hours, I’m dreading it already.
    A CRJ is not a mainline jet, sometimes the experience is better (Comair in 2007, getting a single aisle-window seat on CO Express/ExpressJets RJ-145s, more beverage services) but generally worse and much louder.

    • CF says:

      I agree on the CRJ-700, but those Embraer 170/190 jets are really, really nice inside. The bins are still smaller overhead, but other than that, it’s a great ride. The CRJ-700, eh, not so much.

      • JamesK says:

        On the Bombardier v. Embraer front, the joke at Delta Connection was to nickname the E170 the E180° because of all the gate returns for maintenance. Hopefully Embraer has worked out some of the reliability issues. In turn, Bombardier learned a lot from the competition with the E170/190 in the “NextGen” CRJ700/900. The ASA/SkyWest/Comair CRJ900s I’ve flown on have beautiful cabins and windows at the right height.

        One major difference I’ve noticed in my travels is that each airplane reflects its country of origin. The CRJ is very Canadian in its attitude toward air conditioning–we have issues with the packs on the CRJ200 not being powerful enough to keep a lot of cool air circulating on idle thrust descents into ATL in August. The ERJ and E175, on the other hand, take air conditioning with a tropical seriousness and are the only aircraft types on which I’ve been snowed on in the cabin.

  13. Arcanum says:

    I want to know when we’re going to get wifi on the Saab 340!

  14. CP says:

    I fly a lot in both the UA “explus” product (it appears to be an active brand, as the CRJ700s, etc. have “explus” painted in black on the side, on top of the blue stripes) and the DL regional jet first product, and DL does the much better job. It’s a bit sad, since United was the first to introduce the product, but I’ve noticed how DL serves real meals (not a snack box), uses real glassware, etc., while UA is still using plastic cups and calling a box of processed foods a meal. With DL upping the game, it’ll be interesting to see if the “new” United decides to up the game, too.

  15. PeteyNice says:

    I think more people care about mainline vs regional than you realize. I live in ATL but am from NYC and make random trips home often enough. I prefer EWR so my choices are CO vs DL. As CO has scaled back it’s mainline service on this route I have taken to asking people near me on my CO flights about it. Nearly all of them say they chose our flight because it was mainline. “I won’t fly on those little planes” is a common refrain.

    Even in Y there is a big difference between CO 737 and RJ. Mainline seats are more comfortable, have TV, etc.

    DL is almost universally mainline for this but a lot of MD88’s/A319’s even a random DC-9.

  16. CP says:

    To show you how far ahead of it competitors Delta may be on this one, consider my experience tonight flying USAirways from BNA-CLT. We were on a CRJ700, operated by Mesa, with seats that had the AMERICA WEST colors and logo! (They were also hugely uncomfortable; later in the evening, I was on a CRJ200 for USAirways with, believe it or not, much more comfortable seats.)

  17. Nelly says:

    Some airline passengers care only to ask when they will arrive at their destinations and what time they will check-in. When the plane is on the air and start to get bumpy, they suddenly realize that they’re hanging on air and find themselves reciting the Our Father… Reading your blog is a great learning experience for me. Of course i care about the wifi.

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