Delta embraces coach amid flatbed transcon frenzy


In the emerging US transcontinental bloodbath where flatbed seats are the weapon of choice for American, United and JetBlue, Delta Air Lines is charting a different course, concluding a higher number coach seats deployed in those markets should help lift its JFK hub to profitability during 2014.

Delta of course also has jumped into the flatbed fray, offering its BusinessElite flatbed seats with direct aisle access on Boeing 757s and 767s operated from JFK to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.  The carrier began the BusinessElite roll-out in those markets in March 2013 and expects completion of the flatbed seat introduction in July. Its 767s feature 26 BusinessElite seats, 29 Economy Comfort and 171 standard economy seats. The 757ʼs configuration includes 16 BusinessElite seats, 44 Economy Comfort and 108 standard economy.

Even as Delta matches its rivals with a flatbed seat offering, the percentage of coach seats the carrier operates on those routes is higher than its competitors. Delta believes that is a tactical advantage, and recently concluded the larger numbers of coach seats would ultimately help drive profits at JFK.

Delta chief revenue officer Glen Hauenstein remarked that in those transcontinental markets the carrier has “taken a different tack than the two other major carriers, who have reduced their exposure to coach and premium economy. So we are by far now the largest carrier in terms of coach seating between New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles, which we think is going to be very profitable for us as we enter 2014.”

Hauenstein was speaking in the context of elements that were coalescing to help JFK turn the corner to profitability for Delta. Other profit drivers are replacing 50-seat jets in feeder markets from the airport with larger-gauge aircraft and Deltaʼs partnerships with Aeromexico, Virgin Atlantic and Gol.

Adding more detail to Hauensteinʼs comments, a Delta spokeswoman outlines the carrierʼs belief “that we have an advantage in having more coach seats versus the reduced coach seats from American and JetBlue on these routes. Delta has the opportunity to offer coach seats to those passengers that may have difficulty booking coach on American or JetBlue due to reduced coach capacity.”

Based on Deltaʼs calculations, Americanʼs coach seat offerings year-on-year are down 23%, or 428 seats for Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle combined while JetBlueʼs coach offerings have fallen 10%, or 164 seats. By contrast Delta has increased its coach seat counts by 174. Delta estimates the largest decreases are between JFK and Los Angeles, where both American and JetBlue combined have decreased their coach offerings by 380 seats – American is down 19% and Jetblue is down 18% year-on-year, “with Delta adding 191 seats,” the carrier says.

In the San Francisco market, Delta estimates that American and JetBlue combined are offering 37% fewer coach seats, or 212, while Delta has increased its coach seating levels by 155 year-on-year.

Routehappy director of data of John Walton believes Deltaʼs higher percentages of coach seats could indeed prove fruitful. “The real advantage Delta has is aircraft size,” he says. “Once American retires its 767-200s, Delta will be on the only airline flying widebodies regularly between New York and California.” He notes, however, that Delta will only operate the 767s to Los Angeles, not San Francisco.

Meanwhile, due to updated bird strike guidance from the FAA, Delta and its connectivity provider Gogo were forced to alter their schedules for Ku connectivity installations on widebody aircraft operating long-haul. As reported by RGN Premium, the companies encountered problems with the placement of the Ku- band radome directly over the wing join/wingbox on the long-haul 767s (domestic 767s carry Gogo air-to-ground connectivity). At that time the carrier explained it was working to find an optimal solution quickly.

Since then, however, Delta has declined to comment further on where its Ku installs now stand, and whether the increase in maintenance costs it experienced in the fourth quarter of 2013 were related in any way to this issue. Delta expects maintenance costs to be up slightly or flat for 2014.

Wi-Fi for Delta’s international fleet will tick a number of boxes – it allows the carrier to avoid investments in new aircraft by extending the life of its existing fleet, and it ensures the carrier can stay competitive in long-haul markets, where some rivals – including United – are working to equip their aircraft with Ku connectivity as quickly as possible.