Delta’s Transcon Strategy Gives It More Flexibility to Fly Flat Beds From LA to DC

American, DCA - Washington/National, Delta

While I was gone, you may have seen that Delta announced it was going to start flying from Los Angeles to Washington/National Airport. This announcement is mildly interesting in its own right, simply because long-haul flights out of National are highly-restricted by a perimeter rule. But there’s a more interesting subtext here, and it’s that Delta’s transcon aircraft strategy has given the airline some real flexibility to be the first to put flat beds in the premium cabin in this market. That’s something that would be a lot harder for American to do, the biggest competitor on this route.

Delta 757 Flat Bed

First, how did this come about? Well, Delta has rights to two flights a day from Washington/National to Salt Lake City. One of those was able to be transferred to another city, and that’s exactly what Delta did. It’s now going to LA. All is not lost in Salt Lake. Delta still has one flight to National and has added a new flight to Washington/Dulles Airport. But LA is the more interesting story here.

That market today has only three flights, because of all the perimeter restrictions. One is operated by Alaska, while the other two are operated by American. Now Delta will have the 4th flight in the market, but it’s going to be a very unique one.

See, Delta has decided to put one of its transcon 757s on this route, the same airplane that also flies to Europe. And those airplanes have international-style flat beds up front. That’s a huge advantage over what American has in the market today. In the past, most airlines have come to believe that there isn’t much room for a true international-style premium product for most domestic markets. The big exception, of course, has been New York to both Los Angeles and San Francisco. But recently we’ve seen that expand to other markets, in particular JetBlue has put its Mint product on a whole slew of new routes.

For Delta, there seems to be enough interest to try one of these international-style aircraft on the LA-DC route to take advantage of potential premium traffic demand. Delta can really get away with this because those 757s are scheduled on New York to LA today. (Stay with me…)

American has put together a unique aircraft to fly between New York and LA/SF, the A321T, that has ten first class seats, 20 flat beds in business class, 36 Main Cabin Extra seats, and a mere 36 coach seats. That seems to work in the New York market, but it’s not going to work in many other places.

Delta, on the other hand, has 16 flat beds but it also has 44 Comfort+ seats and 108 in coach. So it’s a more traditional type of configuration. It’s easy for Delta to take that airplane from New York to LA, send it to DC, send it right back, and then send it over to New York again. That aircraft can rotate in and out easily.

For American, since the A321T has so few coach seats, it’s unlikely to work in many other markets than where it is today. American does have 757s in an international configuration similar to what Delta has, but those are mostly reserved for East Coast to Europe and Miami to South America. Those aircraft don’t really touch Los Angeles or DC, so it would be harder to swap that into that market.

American also doesn’t really seem interested in bringing a premium product to the market, though of course that may have changed now the Delta’s made a move. At a media roundtable at the Boyd Conference last month, Ned Russell from Flightglobal asked Andrew Nocella from American his thoughts on bringing a premium product to the LA to DC market. Andrew said:

We just don’t have the resources to spread around. The fact that DC is a great market, it does lead us to think if there’s another type of alternative for DC-LA in the future… At this point, we’ve concluded nothing, but it’s not something we would never discuss or think about in the future.

Maybe that will change now that Delta has made a move, since we know that competition is the most powerful method to get an airline to do something. But it won’t be easy for American if it decides to do it because of the way it has customized its transcon fleet. Meanwhile, Delta has the ability to do more experimentation along these lines, since the 757s are regular visitors to both coasts. It can also get creative with the soft product. While, Delta has a more international-style soft product in the NYC transcon market, this route will see regular domestic First Class service. The only difference will be the seat.

I figured Delta was probably working on something to try and compete with JetBlue’s Mint expansion. This could be the beginning of that strategy.

[Image via Delta]

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32 comments on “Delta’s Transcon Strategy Gives It More Flexibility to Fly Flat Beds From LA to DC

  1. Very interesting post.

    However, you should know better and know that these are longhaul-style premium products, NOT “international-style” ones. SEA-YVR is 100% international and there’s nothing premium about it.

    And it’s great to see long-haul business class cabins in what arguably are longhaul flights (DCA-LAX exceeds 6 hours to memory)

  2. @Peter

    Oh come on. It’s long been established in the airline biz that US carriers typically fly “domestic” products within North America.

    As you point out, “long haul” doesn’t have a clear meaning, as you typically have to cross an ocean to get a better product.

  3. As I understand it, there are six cities that have perimeter rule exceptions out of National & Los Angeles is one of them. LaGuardia doesn’t have any, but the rule is relaxed on Saturdays.

    1. AS to SEA, PDX
      UA to SFO, DEN
      VX to SFO
      AA to LAX, PHX, LAS
      WN to AUS
      F9 to DEN
      DL to SLC, LAX

      Am I missing any?

      1. Alaska also flies DCA-LAX as stated above… “One is operated by Alaska, while the other two are operated by American.”

          1. It’s not a codeshare. Alaska operates a daily DCA-LAX flight.

            There are 20 total beyond perimeter slot pairs at DCA; beyond perimeter destinations:

            LAX: 2x AA, AS, and now DL
            DEN: 3x F9, UA
            SFO: UA, VX
            PHX: 3x AA
            SEA: 2x AS
            LAS: AA
            PDX: AS
            SLC: DL
            AUS: WN
            SJU: B6

  4. Unless its a red eye I really see no point in having a flat bed seat for that route. Of course Delta is so desperate to eliminate competition they will try almost anything on the routes they fly.

    1. Yes, they’re so desperate to eliminate competition, they’ve decided to compete in a new market with an improved product.

  5. I wonder if DL the primary focus of this flight is to offer seemless premium product to their late night LAX south Pacific bank. The O&D is just gravy.

    AA has so many high mile legacy US FFs in the DC area they do not see this as a threat….yet.

  6. Correct me if I am wrong, isn’t United reducing flights out of IAD? As I recall there were plans to close the hub there & concentrate on EWR. If that be the case, Delta may see an opening & chose to add transcon service – all be it to DCA a much more desirable airport to the DC area.

  7. glad you’re back Cranky and chose the traditional blog format.

    Thanks for the effort you made to write the article – I’m sure it was more than you had to do a few weeks ago.

    Delta is simply adding a wrinkle to a market that other carriers as you note can’t match. Delta’s will be the only lie flat product in the DCA market. One can certainly argue that a lie flat product doesn’t make sense esp. during the day but it exists in plenty of other east-west coast market combinations. DL was actually fairly slow in adding a lie flat product from JFK to the west coast compared to AA and UA and VX’ premium but not lie flat product.

    It also isn’t certain that the 321T aircraft could get off the short runway at DCA which limits the types of aircraft that can be used. Delta’s 757s in international configuration hold about 10 more passengers than the 738 that AA and AS use so the extra few passengers alone might be enough to pay for the increased fuel costs.

    If anyone wants to see a bigger issue here, this whole thing could play out again if the perimeter restrictions are lifted at LGA and I believe in time they will be. Delta is holding onto enough 757s to be sure it has a fleet of aircraft that can operate from LGA to the west coast while other premium configured aircraft will not be able to…it is entirely possible that DL is dangling the carrot of a premium int’l type product at a close-in airport just to show what can be done in NYC.

    and of course back to DC, UA is a big target as it will no longer be necessary to drive out to IAD to get a premium transcon product.

    1. Tim – I didn’t choose the regular format. I’m going to play with a podcast next week. But we’ll see.

      Re: the A321T, it shouldn’t have a problem at National. US Airways was able to run a standard A321 from there to San Diego. If that works, then I’d think a less dense A321T would be easy.

        1. Josh – Shoot, you’re right. I knew it started as a 319 but I thought it upgauged to a 321. It looks like it upgauged to a 320, however. I thought the 320 had worse short field performance than the 321 though. Anyone know? I’d still bet the 321T could make it.

  8. Any chance AA could start its international planes on the West Coast before running them to (East Coast > Europe) or (Miami > South America)? Also, any chance AA or UA does/can run a premium service from West Coast to Dulles?

    Finally, any speculation on the next routes for more premium enhancements?

    1. Kilroy – Sure, but National doesn’t do international so the 757 would have to route from there down to Miami or Charlotte. It’s a lot of wasted aircraft time.

      1. In theory, AA could do in DCA what they do in BOS – offer a couple of A321T flights to JFK to make the LAX-DCA routing possible. If anything that would offer a more seamless INTL connection vi JFK for DC travelers who don’t want to deal with IAD.

  9. As the others have mentioned, it’s great to have you back, Cranky. Hoping for a quick and uneventful recovery,

    It’s interesting to see the different philosophies at play between DL and AA in the Transcon market. I guess having all those additional 757s provides this kind of flexibility for DL, though it is a relative gas guzzler compared to AA brand new 321s. How many A321Ts does AA have?

    1. ‘gas guzzler’ is also relative since fuel prices are low… the same is true with the 767 vs newer 787 over the Atlantic. The 757/767s are paid for which I wouldn’t be surprised if offsets higher ownership costs even with lower maintenance costs in the first few years. Given that both the 757 and 767 have fairly long stage lengths relative to other domestic aircraft, there a number of 757s as well as 767s that have a lot of life left in them.

      CF –
      thanks for confirming that a standard equipped 321 has operated from DCA to the west coast…the issue is just one of configuration, not performance.

      If there really is a market for a lie flat domestic transcon, the 321 then should be a good candidate and can be done to replace domestic 757s which are better suited for the Atlantic.

    2. Itami – They have 17, I believe. And they’re using them pretty heavily. In fact in that same interview Andrew gave at the roundtable, he mentioned that they wish they could have a couple more during certain periods to fly more from New York to LA.

      1. @Tim Dunn – Definitely a good point. And even in a higher-fuel environment, DL can quickly manage 757 capacity as you mentioned.

        @Cranky – It’s good that the 321T is working out for AA. JFK-LAX/SFO are probably the only markets that can support such a specialized configuration, but I could see them working well for sports/VIP charters on an as-needed basis.

  10. I think another factor DL was probably considering when they decided to put this aircraft on the route is TPAC connections. The flight timings connect perfectly to AUS flights, and DL is the only game in town which can take you DCA to Australia on lie-flats.

  11. It is my understanding that this flight will not be a redeye eastbound. I really don’t understand all the interest in a lie flat seat on daylight flights. All this writing and buzz and excitement for what exactly?

    1. Even if you’re not going to sleep, it’s still awesome to have all of the space associated with an INTL configuration, larger IFE (if you’re watching), fewer people in the forward cabin, etc.

  12. Delta has also changed the BOS-SFO flights to use the 75S with lay flat seats starting next year. This will be strong competition with B6 Mint.

    1. what is “less” about Delta’s strategy The 757 is a larger aircraft with an international cabin. Also on BOS-SFO for next summer, DL will be the only legacy carrier that will be using an international configured aircraft (competitive with Mint) although UA is adding domestic 777s which should help bring down the CASM.

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