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.
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.