Tucked away in the official statement by Delta Air Lines outlining its plans to order 10 Airbus A330-300s and 30 A321 narrowbodies was the declaration that the smaller aircraft would feature three classes including a first class section with 20 seats.
The carrier’s recent announcement of its Airbus order follows the onset of a US transcontinental horserace in which Delta and its rivals United, American have opted to offer full-flat seats on hotly contested routes from JFK to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Hybrid carrier JetBlue has followed suit with plans to offer a sub-fleet of A321s on those routes featuring a premium section that houses both lie-flat seats and suites created to attract higher-yielding business passengers. American has dubbed its A321s set to debut on service from JFK to Los Angeles and San Francisco in early 2014 as the A321T.
Delta, which began the new product roll-out in March 2013, is also featuring the premium product on its service from JFK to Seattle.
Interestingly, the first class product on the A321s slated for delivery beginning during the first quarter of 2016, “will be just first class, nothing flat”, the carrier states.
The two product offerings beg an interesting question as airlines evolve their premium cabin “hard product” notes Hudson Crossing advisory firm partner Henry Harteveldt. “What should the customer come to expect?”
Harteveldt says at this point, it does not appear that Delta is planning to operate the new A321s on the longer transcontinental routes from JFK. “I was not surprised to see that they plan to install what we might now view as ‘standard’ first class seats,” he adds.
Even as the JFK transcon race to premium lie-flat has garnered a fair amount of flare and attention as of late, the reality is “lie-flat premium cabin seats will be the exception, not the rule, on domestic flights” Harteveldt concludes. “We’ll see these primarily on flights and aircraft that operate on routes where there is both sufficient premium cabin profit potential and a competitive necessity.”
Another player in those higher-yielding, premium transcontinental markets Virgin America does not feel any competitive pressure to introduce a premium product similar to its rivals. The carrier recently told the APEX Editor’s Blog that it believes lie-flat seats drive a greater advantage on red-eye or longer-haul flights. Instead of jumping on the seat bandwagon, Virgin America has opted to upgrade it connectivity offering with Gogo’s new hybrid Ground to Orbit connectivity offering that combines satellite technology and Gogo’s air-to-ground cellular network to offer passengers more bandwidth.
Ground to Orbit is set to debut in 2014 as the transon premium seat competition intensifies.