Winners and Losers of Delta’s Decision to Begin Selling Comfort+ As Its Own Fare

Delta, Fares

Nearly a year ago, Delta decided to go through a branding exercise and rename its products. Economy Comfort became Comfort+ and the product itself, which is centered around offering a few inches more legroom, was improved slightly with free booze and entertainment. Until now, Comfort+ was still just an add-on, you could buy into it by paying for a premium seat assignment. Over the weekend, that changed and Comfort+ is now being sold separately for travel beginning May 16, at least within the US and Canada (more to come later). This is a shift that will be good for some people, but others are going to be pissed off.

It may sound a bit strange to put it this way, but Comfort+ is now a lot like Basic Economy, Delta’s no-frills option, from a back-end mechanics perspective. Delta files a bunch of coach fares and then bases pricing for both Basic Economy and Comfort+ off what’s selling in coach at the time of the search. With Basic Economy, E class has to be available and fares are discounted off the selling coach fare. Comfort+ now books into W class, but it’s a premium over the coach fare (for a somewhat premium product).

All of that is “inside baseball” stuff. All that really matters is that people going to Delta.com will now be faced with 4 different cabin options instead of 3 (one less if its on a route where Basic Economy isn’t sold). It looks like this:

Delta New Comfort+ Fares

For a traveler, the big difference is that the decision to buy up into a better seat will now be done during the flight search and not as an afterthought. Delta must assume this is going to result in more money coming in the door, and that naturally means some will be better off while some will be worse off in this new process. Here’s how that breaks down.

Winner: Premium economy travelers on Air France/Virgin Atlantic
For those who are flying Air France and Virgin Atlantic in premium economy over the water and then connecting to/from a Delta flight within the US, you’ll now be able to book directly into Comfort+ on the domestic leg. Today you just have to sit in regular coach, so this is a very nice improvement.

Loser: People who buy expensive coach fares
Travelers who bought Y, B, or M full coach fares used to get access to Comfort+ without charge. Now, that’s done. You have to buy Comfort+ fares explicitly to get them.

Winner: People who like using miles
Travelers can use now their miles to redeem for travel in Comfort+, something that couldn’t be done before. But…

Loser: People who place any kind of value of their miles
…the cost to redeem in Comfort+ seems steep. For example, a one way in coach from LA to Vegas is 7,500 miles but it’s 17,500 in Comfort+. Long haul is less painful with coach at 12,500 miles and Comfort+ remaining at 17,500. But it’s still not a great value. It also looks like you can no longer pay for Comfort+ on top of an award ticket. So it’s all or nothing, which is annoying.

Winner: US government
Since Comfort+ is now part of the fare, it is subject to the US 7.5 percent tax on domestic tickets. That wasn’t the case before. So… more money in the coffers for the feds.

Loser: People who like to pick and choose which segments they upgrade
Before, it was simple. You could pay to sit in Comfort+ on the legs you wanted. That meant you could easily do it on a longer flight but not on the shorter flight. Now it’s all or nothing. What’s worse, on Delta.com it appears that if you want to sit in Comfort+ on the flight out, then you have to choose it on the return as well. (That’s not the case with travel agents, so, good news for agencies?)

Loser: Silver and Gold elites who like specific seat types
Before, Silvers became eligible to sit in Comfort+ 24 hours out while Golds became eligible 72 hours out. That doesn’t change, but what does change is the process. Silvers and Golds now have to opt in to be put on the upgrade list. When it clears, they’ll be moved up automatically. But what if only a middle seat is available and the elite now has to give up his preferred aisle to get it? That sounds like a bad upgrade.

Loser: Families of elite members
Though elite upgrade privileges don’t really change much, there is one big change. Today travelers can upgrade themselves along with up to 8 traveling companions. In this new system, elites can only upgrade one companion. For families, that sucks.

Winner: Travel agents
Most travel agents today cannot pay for Comfort+ seating in their own systems. Now that it’s a fare, travel agents can sell it and can see seat availability. That’s a nice improvement.

Loser: Travel agents
Though it’s not entirely clear from Delta’s FAQ, it appears that travel agent bookings will not be upgradeable after purchase, at least not until check-in. That’s a meaningful difference versus Delta’s direct bookings.

I’m sure your biggest question is… will this cost more? So far, it’s mixed. Here’s an example I looked up.

Travel Date Routing Fare Comfort+ Upgrade Total Cost
Before Change LAX-IND $158.10 $79 $237.10
After Change LAX-IND $227.10 N/A $227.10
Before Change LAX-MSP-IND $166.60 $59+$29 $254.60
After Change LAX-MSP-IND $257.10 N/A $257.10

As you can see, even on this single route, the price can vary with routing. It looks like those with connections will pay more, and that’s particularly annoying on a route like this where you might not have bothered upgrading on the Minneapolis-Indy flight before. And I assume that’s the point. By putting this in the fare, Delta can then revenue manage it much better.

For now this is only within the US and Canada, but there will be big issues when it expands into other markets, Transatlantic in particular. Virgin Atlantic and Air France have true premium economy cabins that are sold by Delta in W class. So how will Delta differentiate between Comfort+ (which is most definitely not premium economy) and a real premium economy product when they’re both sold in the same class?

Overall, it’s hard to say if this is a good or bad change. For some, it’s good. For others, it’s not. But it gives Delta the ability to better revenue manage Comfort+ and to get it in front of travelers earlier in the booking process. (And now even Expedia will be able to show it.) I can see why Delta wants to do this.

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45 comments on “Winners and Losers of Delta’s Decision to Begin Selling Comfort+ As Its Own Fare

  1. I don’t mind the bundling necessarily, but I am mixed about it on it being expanded to international flights and all the connecting flights. I’ve always disliked having to pay for the domestic flights as upgrades, whereas I really only want to upgrade the actual international flight. Virgin Australia allows you to unbundle in this way, saving the upgrade money for the actual long haul portion.

    1. abc – Yes. Because Comfort+ only sells into W class and nothing else. The fares are based on coach availability and though I didn’t post it in the chart, the regular coach fares after the change are the same as the ones before.

      1. There is still a dual inventory validation which much occur, so while W is available and is the only booking class for comfort+ the regular economy inventory could have changed (though not likely given that this new program is for travel after mid-May). Plus drawing conclusions about airline pricing from a sample size of 1 is dangerous.

        However I agree with your conclusion about connections costing more since I hadn’t had a chance to dig in to the fare rules or look at the mechanics of this until now. DL is actually tacking on a $20 fee for a transfer on the Comfort+ upgrade fare. So for LAX-IND the nonstop Comfort+ fee is $79 and having a connection adds on $21.50 (20 + 7.5% tax).

        So now the question becomes whether the C+ upgrade fee on nonstops is less than before, and to me it doesn’t appear that it is. It’s a straight $79 upcharge in to C+ in the new system, same as before. The base fare must have changed.

        1. abc – Yes, correct. And as mentioned, the same buckets were open in coach on both days. (I’m looking in Sabre so I can see inventory.) I’m not saying this using sample of 1. I just gave one example. I looked at several and saw that, but frankly, I assume pricing will become much more dynamic now that it’s part of the fare anyway. What we see today may be different in a month.

  2. very disappointed in the change. As an elite, this seems like I’ll now be on 2 different upgrade lists (assuming they let me upgrade to first or move to more of an AA style). I thought C+ was supposed to be good for elites in the world of fewer airlines, but yet again, delta will find a way to disappoint its customers to make more money… #KeepDescending

    1. @ Noah unclear on your point about “AA style”. AA doesn’t allow double upgrades, but based on DLs statements now Medallions will continue to be able to buy Y (ex-Basic Economy) and still get upgraded to F subject to availability. DL is marketing this as a distinct cabin come May so you could call it a double upgrade.

      Are you referring to how AA upgrade lists appear to external eyes on the AA mobile apps? In that case yes, someone could be listed for F and be below people listed for J on a 3-cabin flight but still get the seat (and have a check mark beside their name once cleared in the airport list)

  3. It’ll be interesting if this is used as a way to nudge up the relatively low paid first class fares by providing two different buy-up options at the time of booking.

  4. As an elite I need to educate myself on the C+ upgrade. It sounds like it’s going to be similar to the upgrade to domestic F. You have a very valid point about middle seats. Honestly my biggest reason for getting C+ seats is that you’re relatively close to the door and when turning a tight connection or rushing to a meeting getting off the plane ASAP puts me there that much earlier. The tiny bit of extra legroom is nice but if crammed into a middle seat the booze and entertainment do not offset that pain.

    Overall I can’t be too upset at Delta. I’ve long abdicated for airlines to sell the premium product, not give it away to frequent fliers. Looking at your example fares I’m a little surprised what DL is getting for those seats. What you get for your money isn’t much, but more power to them.

  5. As a PM, it is a horrible change. The ONLY real tangible benefit my wife sees from all of my travel is the C+ seat on our once or twice a year vacation. Now, if I want her upgraded, we have to wait until the “General Member” upgrade window (under 24 hours). Yeah, I’ll get a ton of upgrades that way.

    C+ isn’t yet worthy of a new class of service, IMHO. However, isn’t DL going to roll out a true Premium Economy with the A350?

    1. Agreed, Carl. My wife puts up with my DM travel so when we go to San Fran or Hawaii on a couple of trips each year she gets the “pleasure” of sitting in C+, and I used to get the pleasure of not paying for the R/T C+ fee. The companion upgrade has been a joke, and she understands that, but at least being close to the front without paying was a relatively minor perk for DM status.

  6. It’s even worse than you say for families of elites. The one traveling companion is subject to the same rules Delta uses for companion first class upgrades, so the lower priority of the two governs — so a Diamond Medallion traveling with a Silver Medallion or non-status spouse can get Comfort+ no sooner than 24 hours before departure, at which point if they get it at all it would be almost certain to be two separated middle seats.

  7. Would love more detail as to the upgrades–i.e., will those booked in standard economy as an elite just be able to upgrade to comfort+, or will there be two upgrade lists?

    I wonder what DL has in store for any additional services for comfort+. For instance, I’d be more likely to buy up to it if there was a meal served (even if a “coachy” meal) on flights of a certain length, etc. I know they are doing the wraps on the transcons; maybe that will expand?

    It does seem like another consequence of this will be that many more people will head into the day of flight without a seat assignment–i.e., I suspect lots of business policies will require fliers to book in regular economy, and that cabin may be already full at the time of ticketing. Lots more paging up to the counter for new boarding passes, etc.

    An interesting experiment for sure.

  8. Discomfort+ is just another way for DL to make more money. What it does is for the non-elites is give the chance to have better seats right from booking. That’s a good thing for the once a year fliers who are taking their trip of a lifetime without paying for first. This pushes the higher fare, frequent loyal customer to the back of the bus if you’re not a Diamond or Platinum. I doubt that I’ll qualify for Platinum in 2017 from the way it looks for travel in 2016, so I better get used to getting that center seat in Discomfort +.

    Oh and the free drinks and premium snacks? Usually picked over and what remains are the Sun Chips and pretzels. I did manage to get two drinks from LAX to CVG last month by asking the FA for another.

    1. And another thing:
      What happens now when DL hawks the First Class and Comfort Plus at the gate while the Silvers and Golds stand around for the upgrade? Will there be a free for all with the gate agent to upgrade the premiums because they didn’t purchase Comfort Plus at the time of booking?

      As of this morning I haven’t received an email from DL explaining this policy. Has anyone?

  9. Delta better be careful about their marketing. With this now a separate column in the booking screen that books into W (the same fare class used for true premium economy on VA, VS, and AF metal with DL codeshares), a customer who doesn’t know the details might think that Comfort+ is a true premium economy product.

  10. The only WINNER Delta cares about is Delta, so they must know it will get people trained to buy a higher fare up front instead of them waiting until later to up grade.

  11. “It may sound a bit strange to put it this way, but Comfort+ is now a lot like Basic Economy, Delta’s no-frills option, from a back-end mechanics perspective. Delta files a bunch of coach fares and then bases pricing for both Basic Economy and Comfort+ off what’s selling in coach at the time of the search. With Basic Economy, E class has to be available and fares are discounted off the selling coach fare. Comfort+ now books into W class, but it’s a premium over the coach fare (for a somewhat premium product).”
    ———
    Talk about confusing; sounds like a complicated math problem. Game playing just to get a seat on an airplane.

  12. These are the kinds of complications that turn flyers to other airlines if they have a choice. Wish we could go back to having to choose between coach, business, and first class.

    1. We are getting back to coach, business and first a-la 1990’s International cabins. Business today = First in 1990s (launch of lie-flat suites), Premium Economy = Business back then (40 ish inch pitch), and coach is…coach.

    2. this is “simpler” for the average flier. Your price is more inclusive and differences are up front. It’s annoying for every elite

      1. Eh, you elites are only what… 20%, 30% of the total individual customers an airline will have in a year?

        1. Scott Kirby said that 87% of AA’s unique customers fly AA once per year or less. So elites are drawn from the remaining 13%, and are likely a small fraction even of that 13%. Obviously, they account for a *much* larger share of seats sold.

  13. Wow, DL is copying something from UA.
    Last year, UA changed the number of people who could get access to E+ when traveling with an elite member. It was 8 now it is Elite +1.
    I HATE this new policy, it really sucks for families and has really driven me from being loyal to UA for most bookings. Now I will simply book based on what is good overall and not give any priority to UA.
    I bet some DL fliers are gonna feel the same way as me in the future.

  14. I wonder if Delta will put in some granularity into the upgrade process. e.g. when you sign up, you can say “Upgrade me, but only to an aisle seat.”

    They could even offer a bit more granularity, upgrade me, but only if I’m in an A seat in Comfort Plus.

    This’d get around a lot of problems, and given today’s self service technologies wouldn’t be that hard to do.

  15. Here’s something else I learned today that is not good. If you buy an international ticket, you can either buy coach or nothing since Comfort+ is stlll an add-on internationally. But that means there is no way to upgrade the domestic leg of an international coach trip unless you split the fare and buy it as a Comfort+ fare domestically and coach fare internationally. That can get VERY expensive.

    1. Now I know that AA is starting to look better. UA just sent me an email offering me equal status as I have on DL. Might have to give them another try.

    2. Thanks for the info. What if you are elite on Delta? Can you just upgrade yourself on the domestic segments?

  16. I flew delta last year from Greenville, South Carolina to Chicago, Illinois through Atlanta, Georgia for connections . I purchased a economy ticket and upgraded to first with miles. I learned the hard way that first class is now what economy was years ago. I was shocked that we were the only passengers getting free cheaply made snacks, a drink, the flight attendant attention. It seems that everyone else was able to get the delta airlines finger for not buying a first class ticket. I also, learned that as a first class ticket holder, the passenger, is treated much differently than others! They treat first class passengers much better! I also, used a free $50.00 pass to the Delta Airlines Club Lounge, I learned another thing about travel, you get what you pay for! There again, it was a nice experience in the club! The first class experience was not so nice as hoped for! Delta Gate agents sometimes have attitudes. The lounge staff was more pleasant and most helpful. My second leg of my flight was from Atlanta to Chicago. It was on a Boeing 757. I thought those people in economy were packed inside their seats like sardines (no room). The 757 was a narrow aircraft that delta tightly packed in everyone it could! Nothing special offered but, cheap made snacks! At least the delta club lounge served food like, soup, crackers, cookies, salads, and other light food. This made a better flight than flying first class for my first time! That’s sad when first class is not what it used to be! It seems like Delta Airlines and other American Airline companies are now no more than Greyhound Bus Lines with Wings and a love for money! Even as an AMTRAK Bedroom/Sate Class Passenger, the experience is much better than flying. I’m shocked that airline travel has fallen short of what it used to be!

  17. One last remark! Have all of you noticed how much airfare has increased as the number of airlines merge and decrease? Take for example, Southwest Airlines was in the news on a local Greenville, South Carolina station a few weeks ago. They are cutting their flights in May 2016 down to three a day. The ticket price will be more expensive, plus, you will only fly to Atlanta, Georgia to connect to your next flight! No more direct flights to say, Chicago, Baltimore, Dallas, or other old flight setups. Now, its Delta Style, fly to Atlanta and connect! When Southwest entered the KGSP Greenville/Spartanburg market five years ago, it was to lower flight fare pricing in a competitive way for travelers in the upstate of South Carolina. It did for a while but, no longer! The airline tickets can get expensive just using Southwest Airlines! It seems that Airlines stick together as a whole with pricing and product marketing today. I really wonder, why anyone should be an elite airline flying passenger with much mileage points accumulated through travel, in todays world, if, delta and others kick all their loyal travelers in the teeth and wallet? I thought that being an elite flyer with travel mileage points was a good thing for both the airline and loyal customer? It seems that Airline CEO’s and managers are finding new ways to destroy their customer loyalty programs just for more cash in the airlines wallet? What happened to being loyal to a customer who has been a true business supporter over time for the benefit of an airline company? Without a loyal customer base, no company can exist very long before going belly up and closing its doors! The unions and all airline employees need to understand that without the flying public, they have no jobs, nor, money in their own wallets! CEO’s need not forget the customer flying their company as a travel product. Without us, they have no reason to be a money making company!

    1. Thomas,

      I believe I stated on this forum before the worst thing developed in the travel industry was the loyalty program. Robert Crandell is credited with the first airline FF program while at AA. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it was started before deregulation where the fares were Y and F. Much easier to figure out. DL used to have an incredibly simple, but full of holes program back in the day where I could upgrade to first from coach for 1000 miles from CVG to BOS, but then I’d get 2000 miles in return. So I still netted 1000 miles but got credited for getting 2000. It got me to MM status pretty quickly.

      Now it’s so full or rules, exceptions, fare basis, lunar cycles, and compass headings it’s impossible to figure out. Tallying the miles for rewards is useless these days because the award mile levels get wiped out easily, if you even get a flight. I’m using my banked miles on United to get gifts this holiday season since I never seem to get flights I want on that airline.

      I’m looking forward to retiring in the next few years and renting a motor home to travel around in and paying for gas with my loyalty credit card 5 cent per gallon rebate.

      1. No, AAdvantage was started in 1981 (and United followed suit within months), a few years after deregulation, largely (if I understand correctly) because airlines newly had to compete with each other on price and wanted a differentiating factor and a way to keep customers coming back.

            1. Damn they used to be really fast at follow the leader. Seems like they’ve gotten poorer at this game.

              Sent from my computer that moonlights as a phone.

          1. Before consolidation then. Everyone was fighting for passengers. Off the top of my head there was TWA, AA, United, Delta, Republic, Northwest, Allegany, Continental, Pan Am, Southwest, PSA and scores of others.

            The only thing good about consolidation is it requires less memory to retain the FF#s in my brain. :)

            1. With only three players now they can get together and do whatever they want. I found out that I am only getting a fraction of my revenue because my client is forcing me to book through AMEX travel. I’m only $1300 away with Delta. Another stipulation put in place for medallions. Makes me long for high-speed rail…or retirement in a cross country motor home. I am so tired of having to play the game airlines have created and keep changing.

            2. Who said you have to play the game?

              The spending requirements are to provide a bonus ontop.

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