Delta Rolls out Premium Economy on Long Haul Flights

As the new United ponders whether or not to keep its Economy Plus premium economy product, Delta has decided to jump into the game for the first time. Starting in May, you’ll be able to fly in Economy Comfort on international flights for $80 to $160 each way.

Delta Launches New Premium Economy Class

This product is similar to Economy Plus in several ways. First of all, the seat itself is the exact same seat you’ll find in regular economy (which I assume we should now call Economy Discomfort?) And like Economy Plus on United, Delta fliers will get a few extra inches of legroom. But instead of explaining it this way, let’s do a handy comparison table:

United Economy Plus Delta Economy Comfort
Legroom Up to 5 more inches Up to 4 more inches
Recline No difference 50% more
Seat Type Same as coach Same as coach
Alcohol Same as coach No charge
Early Boarding? No Yes
Flight Application All airplanes with more than 70 seats Only international airplanes (including JFK-LA/SF)
Cost $9-$129 per flight $80-$160 one way
Cost for Top Elites No charge for 1K No charge for Platinum/ Diamond and companions
Cost for Lower Elites No charge for Premier Exec, Premier, Premier Associate 50% off for Gold, 25% off for Silver
Cost for Full Fare Economy Ticket Holders $9-$129 per flight No extra charge
How to Book Direct or via travel agents Direct only
When to Book Anytime During certain time period before departure (no details yet)

So there you have it. It’s kind of a mixed bag. If all you want is extra legroom, then United is probably going to be a better value. That’s particularly true if you have a long domestic connection because Delta won’t even offer it on the domestic leg. But Delta has really tried to build this up into more of a separate product with early boarding and free drinks. I like that because it makes it seem like there’s more value to be had in different ways.

I know the Delta Silver and Gold members will be up in arms over the fact that they don’t get free access to Economy Comfort, but it actually makes a lot of sense. On the 767, for example, this will only be the first four rows of coach. That means there will only be 28 seats available. United, however, has 71 seats in Economy Plus. So it makes sense that United would offer it for free to all elites while Delta only offers it to its top elites. Otherwise, Delta would run out of room relatively quickly and would end up angering a lot of elites. So, instead by offering discounted access, Delta still recognizes its elites but helps keep demand at a manageable level.

There are still questions that I couldn’t get answered, though I tried. It sounds like the announcement today is really just an announcement of the concept. The full details won’t be out for a little while. Here are some of the things I want to know.

  • We know that this will be on all 747s, A330s, and 777s. The international 767s and 757s (including JFK-LA/SF) will get it as well, but we don’t know exact details of how many seats each will have. The 767s will have four rows. The 757s will apparently only have Economy Comfort on one side of the aisle, but I don’t know how many rows on that side will have it.
  • It appears that there is no standard. Delta says “…suffice it to say the average is 31 seats per aircraft and you’ll find about that many on the majority of our international aircraft. The outliers are the 757s (12) and the 747s (42).”

  • Delta’s new international standard is to have power in the first 10 rows of coach. These seats will be part of those 10 rows, but the release makes it sound like not all are guaranteed to have power. We’ll see if that changes.
  • There will be power onboard in all Economy Comfort seats when the power retrofit is complete in 2013.

  • It’s unclear to me if this fee is per flight or per direction. For most people, that will be the same thing since you’ll have only one international flight each way. But what about those people going LA to Tokyo to Bangkok? Or Atlanta to Amsterdam to Mumbai?
  • What if you’re on one of the few domestic flights on an international airplane, like the flight from LA to Atlanta on a 777? Will Economy Comfort be sold on those flights or will they just be given away to elite members and not sold?
  • These seats will not be sold and will be held back for elites to use.

I’m waiting to get some clearer answer on this from Delta, but it sounds like all of the answers may not be known yet. I do find it interesting that Delta has chosen to go with the same seat as is used in coach while Air France opted for a new seat in its Premium Voyageur class. It makes you wonder if, having seen Air France’s sales numbers from the seat, Delta decided the investment wasn’t worth it but there was enough demand for more legroom to make this lesser product worthwhile.

Overall, I like the idea. Economy Plus was always a great differentiator for United that helped foster loyalty. Delta can now try to tap into that same benefit. Of course, the bigger question now is whether or not the new United will decide to stick with Economy Plus. I imagine it will in one form or another. I just want to hear the details.

[Updated 2/8 @ 1135a with info from Delta answering questions.]

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