Delta Swaps International and Domestic Aircraft To Fight the Low Cost Carriers


It was more than a year and a half ago when I wrote this about JetBlue’s first big expansion of its Mint premium cabin beyond the usual transcon markets between New York and both LA and San Francisco:

So far JetBlue has had tremendous success with Mint, and with every success, it continues to try to bite off a little bit more. If you don’t think there’s someone at Delta watching this very closely, you’re nuts. If JetBlue continues to grow this and make it profitable, then the big guys are going to end up taking action as well. There’s too much at stake for JetBlue to have this opportunity to itself.

It sure took a long time, but Delta has finally admitted that hey, maybe JetBlue really is on to something. And to combat JetBlue’s advance, Delta is swapping international and domestic aircraft. [Update: I’m now told that these changes were independent of each other and it’s not a direct swap.] This not only frees up fancy flat beds for domestic routes to compete with JetBlue, but it lets Delta better compete internationally with the likes of Norwegian and WOW. This is an interesting test.

Starting next spring, Delta will bring the Delta One international premium cabin experience (read: flat beds in business) to routes from New York/JFK to San Diego, Seattle, and Las Vegas. It will also roll it out on the Boston-LA route. (It’s going on Honolulu flights to Atlanta and Minneapolis as well, but that’s just a branding thing. The beds are already on those flights.) These new transcon routes are indeed all routes operated with a Mint cabin by JetBlue today, though JetBlue will continue to have a premium cabin schedule advantage on all but the hub-to-hub route from JFK to Seattle. (I really don’t like the split operation here. Business travelers who are willing to pay for Delta One are also going to need flexibility, and that will require a huge downgrade here.)

Route Delta JetBlue
JFK – San Diego 1 with Delta One
3 domestic
2 with Mint
JFK – Seattle 2 with Delta One
2 domestic
2 with Mint
JFK – Las Vegas 1 with Delta One
4 domestic
2 with Mint
2 domestic
Boston – Los Angeles 2 with Delta One
1 domestic
4 with Mint

These routes join the two daily Boston-San Francisco flights, 8 daily New York/JFK-San Francisco, 10 daily New York/JFK-LA, and 1 daily Washington/National-LA flights that have Delta One today. But even they’ll be getting an enhancement. Upgrades will now be treated like regular domestic routes, free for elites if they’re available.

As I noted, Delta is not converting more 757s to be in an international configuration to fund this new flying, though that would have been nice. Instead, Delta is swapping out domestic 757s to fly three heavily-leisure overwater routes. Look for those domestic configurations flying from New York/JFK to Keflavik (Iceland), Shannon (Ireland), and Ponta Delgada (Azores).

It’s notable that JFK to Iceland is something of a bloodbath waiting to happen. Next summer, pioneering low cost carrier Icelandair will have two daily from JFK and 1 from Newark. Ultra low cost carrier WOW is already in Newark but announced it will also fly to JFK next year. Then there’s New York to Shannon, which is currently under assault by Norwegian’s 737 MAXs. It’s not a big market as it is, and it generally only works in the summer. But with Norwegian flying to Stewart (along with Aer Lingus from JFK and United from Newark), it’s ugly. As for Ponta Delgada, well, that’s probably just a really thin premium cabin market to start.

So with that kind of background, it’s no surprise that Delta is upping the density of the aircraft flying these routes.

Business Premium Select Comfort+ Main Cabin Total
International Aircraft 16 44 108 168
Domestic Aircraft 20 29 150 199

As you can see, that is not only a huge increase in the number of seats onboard (more seats = lower costs, and that means lower fares are more sustainable), but it’s also less premium-heavy for markets that don’t have the demand. This is a good move.

You may be a bit confused by that chart. Delta has no Premium Select (Delta’s name for premium economy) on its domestic 757s. And what about domestic First Class? Well, on those routes, Delta will actually sell the domestic First Class cabin as Premium Select instead of First or Delta One. That’s a notable change for Delta which has flown similarly long routes on 757s selling the cabin as First Class. (Atlanta-Quito comes to mind, just a couple hundred miles shorter than Keflavik.)

Could this be the beginning of a bigger change? I’m told that’s not likely. But I still dream that someday all domestic First Class gets sold as Premium Select. That way the product offering would be so much more consistent. Domestic First Class is rather similar to Premium Select internationally. In fact, Delta sells international Premium Select today with domestic connections sitting in First Class. Wouldn’t it be nice if this was Delta’s clear offering?

  • Main Cabin – regular coach
  • Comfort+ – regular coach with extra legroom and a few amenities
  • Premium Select – premium economy/domestic First with better seat and amenities
  • Delta One – flat beds

It would be so much easier to explain to people what they’re getting no matter where they fly on Delta, but I digress. What this is really about is trying to find a way to compete with JetBlue domestically and the European low cost carriers internationally. Look for more of this to come if next summer’s experiment works out as hoped.

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13 comments on “Delta Swaps International and Domestic Aircraft To Fight the Low Cost Carriers

  1. As simple as it may sounds like, have to say this is a brilliant move from delta. Here is the hope that United and American will copy this move.

  2. Looks like a well thought out defensive plan. Will be interesting to see if there is a response from the United and American which are heavily invested in lie flat transcon service as well as markets like SNN, etc.

    Plus how or will Alaskan/Virgin respond? I suspect they will not.

  3. Less than meets the eye. In apples to apples comparison with DO Mint wins anyway. Many are divorcing form FF programs. Why wouldn’t I keep flying Mint?

    1. It depends on what your needs are. B6 has a very limited footprint. If their limited footprint works for you, great. But, for a lot of us, AA, UA, and DL just have more choices to get to where you want to go.

  4. “Wouldn’t it be nice if this was Delta’s clear offering?” We are talking about an airline here, aren’t we?

    I’m sure many of you got UA’s MileagePlus email today announcing “20% off Saver Award flights to Hawaii.” Only took 3 pages to explain, with 19 fine-print, Terms and conditions, followed by: “See additional MileagePlus terms and conditions.” Wonderful!

  5. Wasn’t there word out this summer via AS deciding against lie-flats that the revenue from them was consistently decreasing, and they were only really useful to keep the most important customers from leaking to other airlines? Does that still remain true, and would it get worse with this new competition? I’d be really interested to know how the economics of individual seat sales work vs the economics of retaining high-value customers.

    1. I could be wrong, but it doesn’t seem like Alaska does many red eye flights. Are many people napping during the day on Mint, etc?

    2. EricC – This was a decision Alaska made for its customer base, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have come to a different conclusion if it were Delta. This will be interesting to see how Alaska feels about having even more in the Seattle-JFK market. Delta has had flat beds on some flights in that market on and off for some time, but this clearly turns up the heat.
      For its part, Alaska thinks plentiful free upgrades will be more valuable to its base. We’ll see.

      1. Delta is clearly the stronger player in the JFK-SEA market versus B6, AS and AA, with the DL segment being a HUB-HUB pipeline, not to mention the high yield, upfront point of sale customer base is much larger in the NY market than the SEA market, which plays to DL’s strength..

        The NY POS perspective, coupled with Delta’s breath of service in NY from JFK and LGA, should also help Delta vis a vis Jetblue and AA in all of these market upgrades, especially with corporate customers.. It will be interesting to see if these changes drives any high yield movement from AA’s SFO and LAX transcons to participate in corporate agreements that include all the markets.

    3. I actually think it makes sense for AS to go sans lie flats. There are only a few routes that command a premium and they all seem to originate from JFK/EWR where AS is only going to fly to their hubs. I don’t think it makes much sense for them to carve out a sub-fleet for so few routes.

      The legacies will always have internationally configured planes that they can use on transcons or other routes and if this fails, they can redeploy them to fly over the ocean again. AS doesn’t have that luxury.

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