The first Delta Air Lines A321neo, delivered last week, brought a new first class seat to life for the airline. Over the next few years the A321neo will also help the carrier launch a new premium transcon offering. The news, first reported at AIrline Weekly, shows an updated layout that will allow Delta to take a major step forward in the highly competitive markets between New York city and Los Angeles or San Francisco. And potentially other routes as well.
More than three classes of service
Putting lie-flat seats on board is table stakes for the premium transcon market. That has been the case for more than a decade now. And Delta will continue to offer that option.
Unlike today’s 757 configuration with a 2-2 layout, however, Delta’s A321neo proposes 16 beds in a 1-1 reverse herringbone layout. The drawing also shows each seat offering a privacy door.
This is a similar product to the Thompson Aero Vantage One seat now flying on JetBlue‘s new Mint configuration, but the angle of the seat to the window is reversed. It will be a different product, though it appears similar in comfort.
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The seat also appears to be angled at slightly more than 45 degrees from the aisle. That raises potential certification challenges, but the FAA has processes in place to allow for such approvals. There’s even a version already in testing for installation on a 737 MAX 10. Installing a similar seat on the A321 family could make sense.
The recently announced Unum One seat appears to offer a similar layout to the Delta drawings. It also promises compatibility with the A321 family. It is, at a minimum, a contender to be fitted on board, if not in the lead.
Premium Select on a single-aisle
Perhaps most surprising in the cabin layout is Delta’s decision to add three rows of Premium Select on board. These will be a proper premium economy cabin, in a 2-2 layout, on a single-aisle aircraft. Delta joins SAS (on the A321LR) with the rare offering of this premium option on board the single-aisle fleet positioned between business class and economy. Other airlines offer a 2-2 recliner on board but position it as the best cabin available.
Delta will also offer a significant Comfort Plus cabin on board. The seat map shows 54 seats in nine rows on the new layout. Another 66 seats will be offered in regular economy class.
The total of 148 seats on board is more than the American Airlines A321T layout, but fewer seats than most other transcon offerings. That will impact many facets of the passenger experience, beyond just legroom on board. Less competition for the larger overhead bins, for example, should mean minimal problems getting bags stowed overhead, even for those in the final boarding groups.
The addition of Premium Select on board could also create a marketing challenge for Delta. Today the carrier sells the Comfort Plus cabin (i.e. economy seats with extra leg room) as premium economy for domestic trips. Where it operates planes that offer Premium Select that becomes Comfort+ and Comfort+ becomes premium seating in the main cabin.
That works, but leaves significant potential revenue on the table by not properly marketing the premium real economy option when it is available. And while today it happens mostly on transcon routes served by twin-aisle aircraft that can also serve longer-haul routes.
With Premium Select taking flight on aircraft dedicated to domestic service, however, Delta may need to reconsider how that marketing is structured. This becomes even more challenging when considering the nuances of selling four different on-board products via third party channels which do not display the carrier’s product names.
Or it could be an opportunity for Delta to send these new premium A321neo configurations further afield.
Beyond the transcon market?
Will Delta consider sending these aircraft across oceans? Maybe not with the initial deliveries, as the initial 21 frames slated for this configuration could be well used plying domestic routes. That would mean switching some of the JFK transcons to single-aisle planes from the twin-aisle collection currently serving those routes. Or Delta could use the new A321s to back-fill on the secondary transcon markets – including from Boston, or JFK to San Diego, Seattle, and Salt Lake City – where it at least occasionally flies 757s with flat beds today.
But it would allow for shifts elsewhere in the route network and retirement of the oldest aircraft.
If Delta wants to bring this premium product across the Atlantic, however, it may need to reconsider its fleet make-up. The A321neo can cover some shorter transatlantic crossings from JFK or Boston. This would be useful for smaller markets or off-season operations.
But to truly gain the range it would need to reach in to continental Europe, Delta would likely want to convert some of the A321neo orders to an A321LR or A321XLR model. Airbus will, no doubt, be happy to accommodate such a request, assuming it is timely. But that’s a change Delta must commit to.
Upgrade issues as well
If Delta manages to start selling all four cabins as distinct products on board that could become a problem for those who use points or certificates to upgrade from Premium Economy to Business Class. Especially if they’re used to paying Comfort+ prices rather than Premium Select to make that jump.
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