Delta Air Lines is, once again, a 3-cabin airline. The carrier launched service on its new flagship A350 aircraft this week with an updated Delta One business class cabin and a pleasant enough economy class. The aircraft also includes the company’s new Premium Select-branded premium economy service, bringing a true third class back in to service. As expected, the pomp surrounding the new aircraft was impressive.
Festivities kicked off in Detroit with a “First Flyers Club” lounge area near the boarding gate. Delta offered pre-flight champagne and a travel wallet to passengers on the flight. A brief set of remarks were made at the gate – smaller than I expected given the significance of what the A350 represents for the company – and then boarding began.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) October 30, 2017
The scrum to be first on board was less about overhead bin space on this flight (there is plenty thanks to the A350’s larger overhead bins) and more about joining a piece of history. Despite a late start to boarding the plane pushed back a few minutes early, beginning our voyage into the next generation of Delta in-flight service.
The A350 replaces Delta’s 747 fleet, flying 70 fewer passengers on board but doing so with massively improved economics and efficiency. As the carrier draws down its hub at Tokyo’s Narita airport, choosing to route connecting passengers via Seoul-Incheon with new JV partner Korean Airlines or to overfly the connections with nonstop flights from its US hubs to Mainland China and Hong Kong, the extra lift of the 747 is unnecessary.
The improved passenger comfort of the newer aircraft – LED lighting, improved cabin pressure and increased humidity – and the new seats combine to deliver significant potential upside to the airline and travelers with the move. Of course it is possible to retrofit the new cabins on to existing planes; Delta will do just that with some of its fleet. But right-sizing capacity per aircraft is an important part of the company’s future success.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) October 30, 2017
Adding the third cabin is also significant. It allows Delta to match its transatlantic partners Virgin Atlantic and Air France in the on-board cabins available. The A350s are mostly focused on Asia initially and in those markets the competition for premium economy passengers is well established. This is a “catch up” move in that global context. Fortunately, Delta’s version competes well in that space (full review to come).
Once underway the flight tried to maintain a mostly normal passenger experience, though that is a tough challenge with passengers more celebratory than usual and a crew working the galley for the first time. The crew was augmented by an A350 launch support team, doubling up the number working to help smooth many of those bumps. In conversations throughout the flight it was clear that the flight attendants were learning the product just like passengers were. I expect that tweaks will come as feedback trickles up to management and some of the pain points are smoothed over.
Adding the third cabin will be a mixed bag for passengers, particularly at the “budget elite” end of the spectrum. Those who are accustomed to buying economy fares and upgrading to the Delta One product will, for the most part, need to adjust their expectations. That will be a double upgrade in the future, something rarely granted.
On the plus side, depending on the fares involved, the upcharge to get in to Premium Select can be reasonable relative to the increased space and improved service offered. With multiple premium products, both in business and premium economy classes, on sale for the foreseeable future there is a risk of customer confusion along the way. And the fare premium for the new plane is not a small upcharge.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) October 31, 2017
— Ken Hoke (@AeroSavvy) October 31, 2017
Arrival in Narita was celebrated with the traditional water canon welcome from the fire department and a gorgeous sunset behind the aircraft. New friendships formed in the prior 12 hours were secured as passengers headed onward to transit security or immigration, their “First Flyers Club” membership secured.
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