As Delta Premium Select goes on sale, the potential confusion is real

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Delta Air Lines officially put the Airbus A350 on sale this weekend. Starting on 30 October 2017, passengers can fly on the carrier’s newest type between Detroit and Tokyo-Narita. This was expected based on some internal systems details reported earlier in the week, and is now confirmed.

The announcement also heralds the introduction of Delta’s ‘Premium Select’ cabin, the branding being used to describe the authentic premium economy product Delta announced last year and which will first fly on its A350s. Premium Select will be available in three fare buckets – G, A, and P – on the long-haul flights. At the same time Delta’s Comfort+ extra legroom product will continue to be published in the W bucket. For city pairs offering connections on different aircraft types this means a passenger could purchase a “Premium Economy” ticket at a similar price point and receive a VERY different product.

On the Delta website the distinction is somewhat clearer, as Comfort+ and Premium Select are displayed in separate columns, providing an indication that Premium Select is a better offering than Comfort+. Even the icon shows it to be more generous in space and recline. For passengers booking directly the distinction should be reasonably understandable.

For everyone else, however, the potential confusion is real. When it decided to sell Comfort+ as a separate booking class Delta began flagging it in the various global ticketing platforms as a premium economy product while also acknowledging that it books into the economy cabin. That’s a subtle distinction, but it allowed Delta to have offerings in domestic markets under the “premium” flag. And in most of those markets Delta is the only carrier offering such; Virgin America is the other operator likely to show up. That decision also puts Comfort+ in the “premium” category for the international markets where it is offered. As the new Premium Select cabins are introduced they appear alongside the Comfort+ offerings in third-party booking sites, though at a different price point.

Given the different pricing there is a decent chance many passengers will book the cheaper option, particularly as these booking sites do not differentiate the product particularly well. Google Flights, for example, shows itineraries including the Atlanta-Narita and Detroit-Narita flights, and calls both Premium Economy.

Even with the additional product quality details (provided by Routehappy) available after selecting a flight, both simply show as a “Premium Economy” product with the same pitch. This despite the fact that the Premium Select product – a wider seat that meets the criteria for ‘real’ premium economy – represents a significant upgrade from the Comfort+ offering. The RouteHappy data will update to properly reflect the increased pitch shortly, but the seat width and other amenity improvements do not show in those results.

The difference in product is not just in the seats on board. Premium Select passengers receive a larger baggage allowance, an amenity kit, upgraded meals and larger IFE screens, among other benefits. None of these details are called out in the various third-party booking sites.

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The formal publishing of the fares also confirms how Delta will treat passengers booked on connecting itineraries that include a Premium Select segment: in short, very well. Because the flights book in to the G/A/P fare classes, just like discounted domestic first class fares, Premium Select passengers will fly in first class on those connecting flights to the international gateway. This also differs from the way Comfort+ fares are treated as the W fare class only flies in the economy cabin. Though both are shown as “Premium Economy” in the booking systems – because Delta believes both are premium products – they are listed the same despite delivering significantly different experiences.

The significant differences between the “same” product calls attention to the challenges airlines have with marketing and merchandising their products in the legacy global distribution systems (GDSs). It also raises questions about how airlines choose to identify their own products. Delta now has six distinct offerings – Basic Economy, Main Cabin, Comfort+, Premium Select, First Class, Delta One – where several overlap, depending on route and aircraft. The potential confusion is real.

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