Delta Cabin Upgrades Show the Outline of a Domestic Product Plan

Delta may not have announced it this way, but with yesterday’s decision to rework the cabins on some of the fleet, the airline seems to have decided to put forth the beginnings of a product plan for its domestic operation. The way I see it, there will be four different standards for domestic air travel on its aircraft.

If this shakes out as planned, it will be mostly good for travelers. People can expect better entertainment options, more power, wider seats, and less of a product difference if aircraft have to be swapped during irregular operations. Here’s how I think things look after reading the tea leaves.

Small Regionals Big Regionals Short/Medium Haul Mainline Medium/Long Haul Mainline
Aircraft EMB-120
Seat Range 28-50 65-76 110-160 124-199
Economy Comfort
First Class
In-Seat Power
In-Seat Video

Now, this isn’t here today, but it’s where it seems like Delta wants to go. This isn’t being marketed and a few more things need to happen for it to be an across-the-board reality, but it’s a start. Let’s get into the details based on the announcement yesterday.

Small Regionals
This grouping is actually consistent across all types. The turboprop Embraer 120 and the two 50-seat regional jets are barebones. I believe they’ll be limited to trips under 750 miles and will primarily go from hubs to small cities. You get a coach seat and that’s about it. I suppose that’s why it’s easy to standardize.

Big Regionals
Delta has really grown this fleet lately, and the product is fairly consistent (if you consider a cramped CRJ-700/900 cabin consistent with an Embraer cabin, which is questionable). The big change on these airplanes versus the 50-seaters is that they have First Class and Economy Comfort in addition to coach. They also have wifi. These airplanes are meant for longer haul regional operations but also shorter haul business markets that need a lot of flight frequencies. (They power the Shuttle flights in the northeast and between LA and SF, for example.)

Short/Medium Haul Mainline
Now we get into the fleets that need work. The newest aircraft in this fleet is the 717, and that seems to set the standard. The big difference between these and the big regionals? It’s just the addition of power. Now, power exists on the 717, but only in First Class on the MD-88 and also in Economy Comfort on the MD-90. The MD-88s will be slowly phased out I assume (though they can fly forever), but I find myself wondering if the MD-90s may get a power makeover at some point.

The most interesting aircraft in this group has to be the A320. Why do I include that here? Well, the A319s are getting in-seat video but the A320s are not. The only reason that makes sense is if the A320s are meant for the shorter, high-density routes where entertainment is less important. They are getting power throughout. They’re also getting slimline seats which could be good or bad, but there are other big improvements.

The seats will increase in width from 17.2″ to 18″ because that’s what it’s meant to be on the Airbus. The aisle is wider today than it should be. They are also adding overhead bins that allow you to put your rollaboard in on its side, wheels in. That’s going to increase capacity a lot. That’s good because we’ll have a lot more people onboard. There will be another row of First Class and another row of coach. That seems like a lot of addition, and I’m really curious to see how they make that happen. They are putting new galleys in that take up less space and they’re adding new lavatories, which must also save space. Moving bulkheads around could do more. I guess we’ll see.

Medium/Long Haul Mainline
This area is where the most work needs to happen. The brand new 737-900ERs which just entered the fleet have in-seat video with live television and power throughout. The A321s will, I assume, have the same when they show up. The 737-700s all have in-seat video with live television but they only have power in First Class. But that leaves three other aircraft types that are all over the map. Those are the ones getting makeovers.

Delta has 73 of the 737-800s, but only 30 have live television today. (Today, those have power only in First and Economy Comfort.) Now the remaining 737-800s will get full power and live television throughout. apparently the other 30 will also get power throughout as well.

The A319s will get the same treatment as the A320s I discussed above, but as mentioned, these will have in-seat video with live television. These aircraft will also get one more row of coach.

That leaves the mess of a 757 fleet. Forgetting about the 757-300 which is a tiny fleet that serves heavy leisure markets like Hawai’i, the 757-200 has an incredible 8 different configurations today. Eventually, that will go down to a mere 3, I think. One of those will be the international-style 757s which will serve the LA/SF-New York market and some shorter European routes. The second (7 aircraft) will be those that fly what Northwest called “Interport” markets – those within Asia and the Pacific. That leaves the domestic ones that need to be rationalized.

There are already a fair number of 757s that have in-seat video. Now, 49 more will get it. They (along with the Interport aircraft) will also get full power, the big overhead bins, and new galleys/lavs.

Of course, Delta has 138 757-200s today, and that means there will still be a lot of different airplanes in the fleet for some time. But the 737-900ERs and the A321s will all replace 757s as they come in. The ones that will stick around the longest are the ones they’re redoing now.

The renovations begin this quarter and will be done within 2 years, but that doesn’t mean that the fleet plan will be complete by then. I’m sure it will take longer to retire the remaining 757s and the MD-88s. But I would assume that future moves and announcements will work toward this basic outline.

It’s interesting to compare this to United which seems to have nothing this comprehensive. And we know that United has decided that in-seat video for domestic simply isn’t important. I’m not convinced it is something that will sway purchase, to be honest, but I do know that I like it as a passenger. More than anything, I like consistency so I know what I’m getting when I fly. Delta seems to at least be working toward that goal.

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