Anyone else out there think that Delta is bored? With a fantastic on-time operation that’s solidly profitable, it’s increasingly looked like the folks at Delta have been trying to find ways to spend their time. In some cases, the airline has veered into tangents that most people don’t care about, like the flight against the Middle East carriers or the reauthorization of the Ex-Im bank. But we’ve also seen some really solid efforts to try to creatively tackle some customer pain points. One of those tests that’s getting press lately is the so-called “early valet” program where someone from the airline will take your bag onboard for you. I give Delta credit for trying this out, though I’m skeptical that it’s sustainable.
For any airline, finding a way to speed up the boarding process is important. After all, an airplane sitting on the ground doesn’t make any money. If it can reduce its turn times enough, then it might be able to squeeze in more utilization of its airplanes every day. That’s good news for everyone. But it’s not easy to do.
Over the last few years, airlines have shot themselves in the foot in this area. They’ve introduced policies that have actually increased boarding time, not decreased it. Think about checked bag fees. As soon as the airlines implemented those fees, travelers instantly began trying to bring on the biggest bag possible. Since carry-ons didn’t cost extra, the incentive to avoid checking a bag was obvious. This resulted in gridlock on the airplane as people tried to lug these monstrosities down the aisle and hoist them into the overhead bins.
This was obviously a problem, so how could it be fixed? There’s the obvious economic disincentive. Start charging for carry-ons and people stop trying to bring everything on. And since carry-on space is more desirable than belly space, you can charge more for that carry-on. That’s exactly what Spirit has done, and that worked wonders. It sped up its boarding process and bins are never jammed anymore. Problem solved. But for the legacy airlines, that has so far been forbidden fruit. It’s one of the only things still separating the legacy carrier experience from the low cost carrier experience.
So what else could the airlines do? Well they could start enforcing carry-on size rules. But that actually slows down boarding even further since it turns the gate agents into bag cops. Next? Aha, make the bins bigger! The airlines figured if they couldn’t charge for carry-ons, they’d have to find a way to accommodate them. That worked, but there’s still a problem. People don’t know how to use them. They put their bags in sideways when they should go in the long way. Or they rest them on their back instead of on their sides. And of course, they still have to slowly lug those bags through the narrow aisles in the first place. Boarding is still slow, even with bigger bins.
Delta, apparently having the time and resource to deal with this problem (which is great news), put together an “early valet” program which it first tested last summer on some departures from Atlanta and LA. This year it’s being expanded to departures from all the Delta hubs, but not on all flights. The program started on Monday and runs through August 31. (Though technically that is a “tentative” end date so it may continue if things go well.) How do you know if you’ll have it? You won’t know until you get into the gate area. But the airline is looking for domestic flights on larger aircraft (your best chance is on 757s or 737-900ERs) that are full with shorter turn times.
I spoke with Delta spokesman (no, he did not change his gender as suggested by the AP article) Morgan Durrant to get a better understanding of how this is going to work.
It sounds like customer service agents will be in the gate area asking customers if they’d like their bags pre-boarded. This isn’t just for elites. It’s for anyone on that flight. For those who are interested, the bags will be tagged as pre-boarding bags and put on a cart. The customer service agents will take them down before boarding begins and place each bag above the seat of each traveler. I can only assume these agents will be hired based on their Tetris high scores, and they will know exactly how best to pack these bins to the fullest. Once the traveler gets onboard, the bag will be there waiting. Getting off the airplane, nothing changes.
Morgan says that Delta did see improved boarding times last summer, so that’s good news. But I’m still somewhat skeptical. How many extra people do you need to have working at the airport to do something like this? And is it worth the cost of paying them? Also, what about the liability when an agent breaks or steals something? I’m told that it’s treated like checked baggage in that case, but airlines always tell you to keep your valuable in your carry-on because they have no or limited liability in checked bags. This could get ugly and expensive quickly.
I can appreciate what Delta is doing here. It sees a pain point that impacts both the airline and the customer, so it wants to fix it. I just have a hard time seeing how this could be a sustainable permanent solution.