Is Delta the Airline Passenger Technology Leader?

When you think of airlines that are technologically forward-thinking, you probably think of someone like Virgin America. But when it comes to legacy airlines, well, you probably don’t think of anyone. Delta has been doing a lot lately to change that opinion. The airline is really pushing forward on a number of tech projects that really show some initiative over there. It’s great to see a New nightstand power striplegacy carrier really taking an interest in these things (and spending money on them too).

Of all the legacy carriers, Delta is the only one that has embraced wifi in the sky. Yes, American has it some MD-80s (not all) and on the fleet that flies between New York and the west coast, but that’s about it. And since the first announcement was made years ago, American hasn’t done a thing. As for United, well, it’s only on the airplanes flying between New York and California. That’s it. But Delta, as we all know, has been installing wifi on just about every airplane it can find with more than 50 seats. That’s not a sure thing these days, because my guess is usage still doesn’t justify the expense. But Delta’s looking forward and betting that eventually, it will.

But just because you put wifi on an airplane doesn’t mean that you’re a tech leader. You need more than that. One big thing you need is a way to power all those computers that people want to use up high. Putting power on an airplane can be expensive and with ever-increasing battery life, it may eventually become unnecessary, but for now, it’s an absolute necessity that most airlines (except Virgin America) have been unwilling to address.

Now, don’t get excited. Delta is not putting power on its airplanes, at least not any more than it already has, but it’s working on transforming the gate area to provide power all over the place.

You know you’ve done it. You’ve parked yourself on the floor in some far corner of the gate area because you found the only, dusty, hidden power outlet for miles. If you saw the scene from afar, you’d probably wonder why a gaggle of geeks have gathered. But that’s how most airports are set up. Sure, Samsung has sponsored power towers in certain places and Southwest has invested in seats with power in the gates, but others have failed to acknowledge that it’s important. So now, Delta is taking things into its own hands.

Starting with 19 airports, Delta will be putting power outlets in every gate area. It will put two power stations in each gate area. Each station will have six power outlets and 2 USB ports. Where will they be? These will go in all the hubs as well as Boston, Columbus, Hartford, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Nashville, Norfolk, Omaha, Pittsburgh, Portland, Seattle, and St. Louis. Looking at the motley group of airports here, it makes you wonder if they wanted to do this in all airports but couldn’t get the airport leaders to go along with it for one Delta Power Padreason or another. (Yes, airports can be difficult.) But I imagine we’ll see this roll out further as we go.

But Delta is taking this one step further for SkyClub members. In every domestic SkyClub, Delta has installed a recharging pad. There are adapters for a variety of different devices at the desk, and you can just plug in and recharge. There’s room for a ton of devices so there really shouldn’t ever be a shortage. The point is, if you have something that needs to be charged, you can.

If you look at the other ways Delta has tried to integrate technology, whether it’s creating a Facebook application for people to book flights, putting together a Twitter assist team, or putting iPads in gate areas to order food, it’s really starting to create this picture of a legacy airline that’s willing to take chances on newer technology in order to improve the customer experience. I still don’t think the Facebook application is going to do much, but Delta wants to invest in these types of technologies with the realization that they’re going to help people. They may not all be successes in the end, but that’s not a reason to stop trying.

I’m glad to see Delta investing in the customer experience here. Hopefully the new United will do the same. And American? Well, yeah, maybe some day.

Original power strip photo via Flickr user mroach/CC 2.0


32 Responses to Is Delta the Airline Passenger Technology Leader?

  1. I was hoping SFO was going to be in that list given that Delta has very few gates. All the more reason to still fly out of the new terminal in San Jose (SJC). Most of the seats have power ports.

  2. Sanjeev M says:

    What about self-service passenger technologies? These are the ones that both speed up the process and save the airline costs. I think Continental was first in mobile boarding passes in the US, and I really wish we had self-bag tagging.

    What are some other things that airlines could do?

    • CF says:

      Airlines love self service tech because it allows them to hire fewer people. They’ve all been pretty aggressive on that front, and I imagine they will continue to be. The mobile boarding pass is the best enhancement in that area that I’ve seen in a long time. I know some are testing subway-style boarding where you scan your boarding pass and go through a turnstile to get on the airplane.

  3. 1. You mean that power cord jumble wasn’t under your desk……LOL

    2. How does the Skyclub recharging pad work? Makes it sound like 20 people could be using the pad at the same time. Sounds like a good way to get your device stolen. Or is it behind a counter and a DL agent gives you a claim check and only they have access to the devices?

    • CF says:

      My guess is that the assumption is that if you’re in the SkyClub, you aren’t going to try to steal stuff in front of everyone. But I don’t know for sure. There’s probably some sort of security on this thing. Maybe an attendant handles the plugging and unplugging.

      • Just because you can buy a membership to a private club doesn’t make you honest. A drug lord could buy one and is not an honest person. Billionaire Bernard Madoff was a billionaire and still stealing from people until he got caught.

        But I know what you mean, but it can still happen or someone running off to a flight could grab someones blackberry because it looks exactly like theirs.

      • nealio says:

        You exchange your ID with the desk agent and are handed a keychain like thing that has the adaptors for most devices. You plug your device into one end and place the other on the “pads” that are in areas throughout the club such as near the bar or visible tables. I’m pretty comfortable leaving my phone there and trying to keep it in eyesight. I know if I saw someone unplugging a phone and walking away laving the charger adaptor i’d stop them asking why they don’t want their ID back.

        Because Delta ‘forgot’ to put power outlets in the LAX SkyClub during the recent remodel, I think they need to double these cordless stations as well as add the freestanding vertical stations they are putting in the gate areas, but that’s another story.

  4. Frank says:

    There’s a reason, Wifi is limited with the legacies. They’re checking to see if the expense of installing and maintaining hundreds of aircraft is worth it. My airline says that there’s only a “5 percent usage” of it on the aircraft where installed. In my opinion, passengers are still opting for their own inflight entertainment, Movies and games installed on their own computers that are FREE.

    • Jason H says:

      Every new amenity had teething problems and it is not shocking the rate of initial adoption is slow. The airlines are working to create critical mass in enabled airframes and finding appropriate pricing points and models. The same issues surrounded the rollout of high speed internet to homes. The fact that Delta has pushed their rollout means either they are betting on the future critical mass and pricing generating revenue and usage or they are planning to use the inflight wi-fi as part of a larger IFE system.

      In the end it will be the business traveler that will, like with business and first class, be the driver for this. Most of the usage is likely business travelers right now and as more companies allow their employees to expense the inflight wi-fi costs the usage by business travelers and expectations of usage by employers will rise. As the business traveler goes so goes the airlines.

      • Craig says:

        I think the takeup rate will also improve as fliers (and flier’s employers) gradually replace or supplement their devices…right now, I don’t buy the inflight WiFi mainly because there just isn’t enough room to use my laptop in coach, especially if the person in front of me reclines. There isn’t that much I can do on my iPhone to make the cost worthwhile, and I’m not going to go out and buy an iPad or a netbook just for travel.

  5. Doug says:

    As for the motley crew of airports, it looks like they’re of focus to Delta. Almost total overlap with another list of Delta Airports

    A Very Interesting Delta Promotion
    http://boardingarea.com/blogs/thingsinthesky/2010/12/08/a-very-interesting-delta-promotion/

    • CF says:

      Yeah, Dan sent that over last night and I was surprised at the overlap. Some of the airports, like Norfolk, stand out to me like a sore thumb on that list of most important ones. But it could be a test. There’s no question in my mind that you’re right that Delta has created a focus on these markets to use them as testers.

  6. Frank says:

    Jason, testing and installation started in 2008 and last year. http://www.portfolio.com/business-travel/2009/03/13/Airlines-With-WiFi-Service/
    and, yes, you’re right, initial adoption is slow. I think the flying public views this amenity as another “FEE” the airlines are throwing at them. Since Wifi can be free in many places, why not the skies. Business travelers who are seating in Business or First Class, I would expect them to view this amenity as part of the service in those classes. Not something you would pay for. Currently, I’m not sure that it’s the Business Traveler who is dominating this service. I see alot of screens where the passenger is simply, surfing.

    • Jason H says:

      I am very aware of when install started. Delta was my choice airline during that time. The general flying public might view this as a fee, but then again the general flying public loves to hate the airlines for anything they do. Wi-fi can be free in most places because the cost of even a quality router and support infrastructure is small compared to the cost of installing, certifying, and supporting it on a moving airframe. Remember also that AirCell controls much more of the pricing structure than the airlines right now.

      Eventually I’m sure that the Business or First will get a complimentary wi-fi code of some sort, but I think those classes would be more interested in other improvements (AVOD on the ex-NWA airframes for example). You might be right that this is a novelty and early adopter focused usage, but I know that my company will reimburse us for inflight wi-fi costs because it allows us to continue working. As more companies seek to squeeze more productive time from their employees this will probably become the norm.

  7. David S says:

    Great article – as an FYI not all airports make you hunt for power outlets. CMH added over 160 untis (320 outlets) to the holdroom seating this year and will be adding around 300 more in 2011

    Here is a link to the facebook post on the initial install.

    http://www.facebook.com/p.php?i=1459956801&k=Z21UP2QSU6TF6BD1PG6YSVQ2TVIB4T5MV3HYJ&oid=1513342508775

  8. David S says:

    Sorry, link above takes you to my page – tried to, but can’t delete.

  9. Pixi R. says:

    Lately you post frequent affirmative, but not objective, blogs on Delta. I used to love your blog, but now it seems like half the articles are written by Delta’s PR department. I’ll give you one more chance and then I’m gone.

    • CF says:

      Of course it’s not objective. This is an opinion blog. You’re welcome to disagree, but just because you might hate everything Delta does, doesn’t mean I will as well.

      I’m actually curious about this. Are there some recent negative stories out there that I’ve neglected to cover? What is it about this particular article that you disagree with?

      I’d love to hear the answers to those questions, but alas, I’m afraid I’ll be losing you if your threat holds true. I’ve got another post for next week that you’re clearly not going to like either.

      • pixi says:

        There is a big disproportion on your covering Delta and other airlines. Since your visit to Delta in September you covered them at least eight times, all affirmative. Too much praise for an airline with subpar service. At the same time, you don’t miss a chance to criticize AA or UA. Forgive me, but I can’t help but to see these blogs as biased. I doubt your next blog will be on Flight 2 losing an engine, or on ATL hours of power loss.
        As for this article, you should for example check out Jet Blues’s high tech terminal at JFK. Maybe you wouldn’t be so impressed by Delta’s long overdue upgrades.

        • CF says:

          Glad to see you responded and weren’t just a troll. In this article, I clearly stated that Delta was doing the best of the legacy airlines, so JetBlue is a whole different story. FWIW, I’m planning on visiting JetBlue’s terminal at JFK in January so I will have plenty to say, assuming that trip comes together.

          You’re right, my next article won’t be about an engine failure or a power outage in Atlanta because it’s boring and I have nothing to add. By the way, neither of those reflect poorly upon Delta, so I’m not sure why you would even suggest those two. Engine failures happen to airlines all the time. And the Atlanta power outage? That’s between the airport and the power company. Delta has nothing to do with it.

          I do get a fair number of stories from articles that people send to me, and I haven’t heard anything really interesting about Delta in a negative light recently. You may think Delta has “subpar” service, but that hasn’t been my experience as of late. Then again, when you’re an airline that big, you’re undoubtedly going to piss people off no matter how good you are. Maybe you’ve been on the wrong end of that.

          Now, there’s no question that I write more negative stories about (the old) United and American, but that’s because I don’t think they’re doing things as well these days. My last article on United was really praise for Continental, which is effectively running the new United. So you can think of that as a positive article for that airline.

          I will gladly change the mix of negative versus positive articles when I see a reason to do so. But again, yes, this is biased. It’s my blog and I write things the way I see them. If I just regurgitated the news, nobody would bother to come here because there are a million other places that do that.

  10. RB says:

    The one thing AA has had fleet-wide for many years is in-seat power. All F/J and most Y seats have 12V outlets. The newest 737s 110V.

    • CF says:

      That is very true. American was an early adopter when it came to those empower cigarette lighter plugs. While they worked (usually), having to have an adapter really killed their usefulness for all but the frequent flier. I always thought it was weird the way they spread out the outlets around the airplane. It’s not like you could reach into the row in front of you if you were in the unlucky row without it. But it is good that they finally are putting AC adapters onboard.

      BTW, I found out today that Delta’s new domestic standard (all mainline, except the DC-9s) is to have 110V power in all First Class seats, the first 5 rows of coach, and all bulkhead and exit rows. Apparently the MD88s will be done with that next year. Internationally, it’s all First Class and the first 10 rows of coach. In other words, where the elites will usually sit, that’s where Delta is putting power.

  11. Delta is just preparing to try and calm its passengers for the long delays at ATLANTA! Wish they would work on making delayed or stranded people on the ground better attended!

    • Evan says:

      I’ve been flying out of Atlanta for over 10 years and I can count major delay days on one hand. Rare winter ice storms or occasional summer thunderstorm days are about it. As for major delays, airports such as JFK/LGA/EWR, ORD, DTW etc. have much more frequent issues due to weather and traffic in the winter months. As for booking a connection, go with northern airports in the summer and southern airports in the winter to minimize your chances of a misconnect.

      • Evan, I use LAX and vicinity as my base. Believe me, if I could avoid Atlanta 100% of the time I would! I have been caught there during both summer bad weather and winter storms. Yes, I try to book not connecting in Atlanta when possible.

        BUT, you are missing my point. In the event YOU or anyone else gets trapped there for ANY reason, DELTA is notorious for treating passengers like 2nd class citizens, that is to say, with minimal consideration or concern for well being. Personally, I have been stuck there more then once and couldn’t even get a drink of water out of ground personnel. They normally leave you twisting in the wind. They do not take ownership of any passenger connection or delay problems. You would expect something different from an airline that tries to have a better profile in blogs and press. Bottom line: if you talk-the-talk, walk-the-walk!

  12. Joe B says:

    As a UA Flight Attendant I have had only 1 person ask if we offered WiFi onboard. It would be nice as an extra but I don’t see it as a huge selling point right now. The lack of WiFi hasn’t stopped the masses from enjoying every sort of electronic gadget out there. It is interesting to watch trends from Gameboys to laptops to iPods and then smart phones and and now it is overwhelmingly Kindles and iPads.

  13. wyodog says:

    Cranky — Along with the items in your post, DL has a one tech passenger service improvement I really like: the automated gate seat assignment system when you’re standing by for a flight or an upgrade. When your name clears and you’re assigned a seat, you don’t have to see a gate agent for for a boarding pass. You just use your seat request card or old boarding pass. When you go to board the boarding pass scanner spits a stub with your seat assignment. Saves on paper and having to wait in yet another line for another piece of paper. Also, DL was the first legacy carrier I recall having the gate flat panel displays showing standby and upgrade lists, inflight services offered, destination weather, etc.

    While others may disagree, I think the prerecorded gate announcements are a good thing. They’re standardized; so as a frequent flier, I can tune them out. Then, when the gate agent makes an announcement, it’s probably something worth listening to.

    I’ve often wondered why airlines, and companies in general, don’t get over their “not invented here” mentality, to go around examining their competitors’ innovations and best practices and adopt them to their needs. In the case of airlines, look at things that could further streamline and automate as many passenger service processes as possible. Look at AA’s lobby handheld devices for check-in and rebooking. DL’s gate automation I mentioned above. Or how about if DL really put their self-service rebooking kiosks to show all the rebooking options available based on the cause of the delay, cancellation, or misconnect? Where these passengers can choose from the options offered, or get in line to browbeat, cajole, or beg for something better. Rebooking options could be tailored to the passenger’s frequent flier status, fare code, class of service, etc. Basically all the things a CSR looks at when rebooking. I know, I know, pie in the sky, but one can always hope…

    • CF says:

      You’re right about the flat panels at the gates. They were doing that way back when those things were like $10k a pop. I remember thinking they were absolutely insane for spending that kind of money at the time. Now, of course, it’s a lot cheaper!

  14. nealio says:

    I agree Delta is the Airline Passenger Technology Leader. Not only for the items you outlined, but for a lot of other things such as:

    iPhone app, revamp of the web booking engine (award part still broken), the fact that you can even use your SkyPesos card to scan at the gate vs your boarding pass, the online booking tool for when your flight is canceled or has a big delay and more. (Flight notifications part of their service stinks, thank god for TripitPro.)

    And all of this is on top of the automation that they are quickly bringing back to life from NW. They still have a ways to go in terms of what NW customers were able to do online, but so far I’ve been impressed at the scale and depth of the technology improvements.

  15. Pingback: Kudos of the Day: Delta Technology | The Points Guy

  16. Craig says:

    I agree DL has been quite the innovator in many tech areas, but I can’t entirely call them the “Technology Leader” until they sort out the website. Their website is poor compared to the other legacies (well, except United, which is even worse) or what NW had before the merger. They’re working on it, but still have a long way to go.

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