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.
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]