Delta Cabin Upgrades Show the Outline of a Domestic Product Plan

Delta, Seats

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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45 comments on “Delta Cabin Upgrades Show the Outline of a Domestic Product Plan

  1. This is all well and good, but I hope Delta will address cushion comfort. If the cushion is hard and your back and rump hurt, nothing else matters…pure misery. And, as I’ve mentioned before, what’s the deal with the seatbelt length? I’m not huge, but would enjoy a few more inches.

    1. Have to agree completely! The bottom cushions on the slimline seats they have been installing in Y are sheer torture and akin to sitting on a wooden bench. I try to avoid the MD-90s for this reason–and living in ATL, that’s not an easy task!


      1. JM – I haven’t been on the MD-90 with the slimline seats yet, but Delta says those get great passenger reviews. Anyone else been on them?

        1. I had a chance to try them on a flight out of DC around Christmas. They weren’t uncomfortable to me. In fact, they seemed more comfortable than my last MD-90 flight. However, I was in Economy Comfort, so that probably had a big impact on my comfort level. I did take advantage of the in-seat power though. In fact, having the power option also convinced me to spring for the Gogo day pass.

        2. Shocked by that, Brett. Everyone I know who has “enjoyed” this experience agrees with me.

          Otherwise the MD-90s are sharp planes, though. They did have some troubles with the ex-China ones at first (here in ATL they were known as “Maintenance Delay 90s” for a while. Think that’s a thing of the past, though.


  2. The cushions aren’t going to change. They went to the lighter cushions to save space…they can squeeze in a couple of extra rows with these. Ouch…sorry.

    1. Salvador Blue – Well, they do have great legroom in general, so if the rest of the seat is put together well, it could be good. But without having seen or sat in them, I can’t really judge. So far, however, I haven’t found a slimline seat I like.

  3. Brett, I suggest you move the CR7 and CR9 to a separate category. They are very different from the E75/E90 planes. They have a first class cabin, which sets them above the 50-seaters, but that is it. Unless you upgrade these are the most miserable planes to fly in. And they use them on looong flights. Just a quick check of my Skyguide, using SLC as just as an example…

    Austin 1087 miles
    Chicago 1249 miles
    DFW 989
    Houston 1149
    Madison 1174
    Memphis 1261
    Nashville 1404
    Puerto Vallarta 1442
    St. Louis 1156
    San Antonio 1087

    That Nashville-SLC flight is blocked for 3 hours and 50 minutes. On a CRJ.

    1. Those are some punishing flights; the question is will there ever be a demand for bigger gauge planes in some of these markets? I know Delta has spoken about decreasing frequency in some markets while increasing gauge, but I see that as a difficult achievement considering the hub model demands a bank of flights. Will that result in a loss of connectivity, especially in regards to international flights?

    2. John G – This isn’t for me to move. This is about how Delta is viewing the fleet. And Delta very clearly considers those to all be in the same category.

  4. I’d love to learn more about how Delta’s planned slimline seats by Pinnacle compare to the Recaro slimline seats being installed by United in terms of comfort and features (eg, smart recline that doesn’t interfere with the tray table of the person behind the reclining person).

  5. Of note: DL is cutting the number of F seats on the domestic 757-200 fleet from 24/26 to 20, but the A320s see their F cabin increase to 16 seats.

  6. In the era of iPads and smartphones, I’m really not sure in-seat video is a worthwhile investment, at least domestically. I would think wireless streaming would be both cheaper and lighter while still offering the chance to charge for premium content.

    1. One of the things I recently read is there are some reasonable revenue streams that come from in-seat video: Advertising sales, premium video sales, and more.

      Plus from what I’ve heard from FA’s is that if there is in seat video people are more likely to stay in their seats.

  7. I get the impression in-seat power will be irrelevant in a few years with longer battery life.

    And ironic that they’re putting power throughout Economy, yet the devices that most need charging power – laptops – are essentially unusable with the standard Economy pitch.

    If anyone wonders why Gogo take rates are so low…it’s not so much about lack of demand. It’s also about impractical to pull out a device and do work.

    1. Greg – I don’t think battery life will ever solve the problem. Batteries have become better and better every year but then the devices themselves suck up all that juice. Imagine powering a Motorola brickphone on today’s batteries. It would last for a year! But the bigger issue is that even with a lot of battery power, you can never know if someone will have time to charge up before getting onboard. I’m a huge proponent of power on the airplane.

      1. @ Greg and @CF: I’m voting with CF on this one; other than a butt-friendly cushion, the only in-flight feature that I go out of my way to find is POWER. IFE sucks, but then I don’t watch TV (or even own one) at home. Wifi remains over-priced and horribly unreliable, so I pre-load both work projects and personal IFE before departure and pray for power. I have not bought a second battery yet, but I’m getting close.

  8. I am actually amazed Airlines are still investing in in video systems for the domestic market…

  9. Delta will not be getting rid of the MD88’s anytime soon.. They just finished reconfiguring these planes and are now starting to put new seat covers in coach.. The MD88 is the “work horse” and I’d say its not going anywhere for a good 10+ years.. Jmo

    1. Yeah, they just retired the DC-9’s from the mid to late 70’s. Those MD88’s were are all built in the late 80’s. I think they’ll be around for awhile

  10. Seat size is but one of many things we concern ourselves when we book. Not sure what percentage of customers care about aircraft type or seat size, until it’s too late!

    “Consistency,” as you note, is important to many of us “Standardization” might be a good word to describe things, too, although “bad” standardization wouldn’t be good either. I would like to see “simplification.” I’m not buying a house with a 30-year mortgage. Simply a ticket to fly from point A to point B, maybe like something for $39.

    Of course, airlines have their reasons for what they do, at least I think they do, but wouldn’t it be nice if we customers could go to an airport check-in center and be welcomed by each airline’s kiosk:

    “Hello travellers. Welcome! Planes Available. Where would you like to go? Our flights. Times. Our aircraft types. Our seat choices. Our amenities and, oh yes, our price. Please check us out. Make your selection. We trust you will find what you want. Good to see you. Have a pleasant trip!” (Maybe one could do a little homework before you get to the airport, but…!)

    If you can’t keep it to the simplest of processes, maybe you ought to run a different business.

  11. Cranky,

    You hit the nail on the head in regards to the fleet. Delta wants to make sure flights of 3hours in length or longer have avod. That’s why they are adding it to the A319 and not the A320. As for the 757 we will only have 4 the D which is for domestic the H for Hawaii the I for interport and E for transcon. As for the 753 we are redoing the whole fleet as well new interiors and avod and power nose to tail. I am really excited about the changes they let us know about it about a month ago and can’t wait for the 757 fleet to be finished. Btw we should be down to about 70 757 when it is all said an done.

  12. Brett,

    You are correct in your observation. We are going to a common product on our medium to long haul fleet that is why the A319 is getting AVOD nose to tail and the A320 is not; we are using the latter in high density markets. As for the 757 we are going to a total of 4 configurations. The D which will be used primarlly for domestic the H which will be for Hawaii the I for interport and the 75S which will be our transcon flights. When all is said and done we will be down to 78 757 in the fleet. As for the 16 753 those are getting new interiors as well and AVOD nose to tail. I for one am excited for the changes; I have already heard many compliments about the chages Delta has made and I am excited where my company is going. As for the MD90…

  13. Okay, domestic product ‘upgrades’ (which is debatable, especially in the case of F-class seat subtractions and going to slimline seats). I saw your report on these seats, and the slimlines are absolutely awful. What about the extreme reductions DL is making in J-class seats across its international fleet? Ironically at the same time they are introducing ‘generous’ conditions to their systemwide upgrades.

    1. Chase – But not all slimline seats are the same. I haven’t sat in these yet, so, as I did with United, I’ll reserve judgment until I get to try them. As for reducing business class, that doesn’t bother me at all. If Delta thinks there’s more opportunity to make money with more coach seats, then that’s a good thing for most travelers out there.

  14. What’s happening with DL’s longhaul/international product? Any changes there? Staying with 777s?

    1. Adrian – I haven’t heard any recent announcements. The 767s, A330s, 777s, and 747s will continue to make up the backbone of the international fleet. I believe the goal is in-seat video for every traveler but I’m not sure of the current thoughts on power. And wifi is in progress on those, but it’s been slow to get up and running.

    2. 777 is staying although its,going,to lose some business elite seats. According to last update we got,on those planes. All the 767 and 747 have finished their mods and the a330 will all have lie flats by the summer,so,the international fleet be done this summer.

  15. There will still be at least 4 configurations of the 757–you left out the 75N, which has 8 door exits, instead of 6 door exits and 4 window exits.

  16. Brett – great analysis!
    I really commend DL for these changes. Easy to neglect some of these “nice to have” elements in a cost pressure environment. The cabin is the most intimate (and longest from a time perspective) interaction customers have with an airline brand. Having flown Air New Zealand’s 773 recently I can tell you a tricked out cabin gets noticed!

    Things like wider seats and bigger bins and powers are all customer-centric. Plus the standardization not only will make scheduling, training, and MX easier (and cheaper) but also is a better customer experience. Wish my UA had same view about tricking out cabins.

  17. Well, the 757-200 (75J and 75M from NWA) should also be getting re-done, since they were built from 1996-2002. Plus, N548US is even ETOPS equipped like the 75A (interport). I just wanted to make sure that these -200 aircraft would be staying, since they are the newest -200s in the fleet currently. does anyone know the status of these aircraft?

  18. Can anyone tell me if the planes used for the SEA-HNL runs are being upgraded? Trying to get an answer from Delta is an exercise in futility. We will be flying on DL 2210 next January and we are hoping!

    1. Pam – It’s too early to know for sure since Delta will probably make 50 schedule changes. But Hawai’i routes don’t tend to get the nice stuff until the end. (The satellite TV won’t work either.) So I wouldn’t get my hopes up.

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