Delta Airlines is still, yes still, blocking middle seats and will continue to through April 30th, 2021.
That’s far longer than most airlines which briefly dabbled in capping flights to allow for more social distancing on board, and comes amid a borderline booming recovery in domestic air travel, which sees many planes flying full.
So why isn’t Delta capitalizing and filling every plane to the brim? Because Delta made a gamble, and now data appears to show that it paid off, and may continue to.
Delta’s Winning Passenger Premium
Delta Airlines is making more revenue per seat mile, a common metric used by airlines to calculate the average price paid per passenger, than other US airlines right now. Going further their ‘revenue per mile’ figure suffered less in year over year trends than competitors.
This is precisely the bet Delta CEO ED Bastian made at the start of the pandemic: make customers feel comfortable, make flying feel less ‘nickel and dime’ transactional in a time of public health need, and passengers may pay more for the peace of mind, or show stronger future loyalty as a result of the gesture.
According to data from Travel Weekly, Delta’s revenue per seat mile dipped just 1%, during the pandemic while competitors including United and American, saw dips of over 3% and 9% respectively. Delta’s figure stands at 17.79 cents per seat mile flown, also ahead of both competitors, which shows Delta makes more with each mile flown.
Long story short: Delta’s gamble appears to have paid off, though there are other factors worth considering for a more complete picture.
American Airlines made fewer flight reductions than others, hoping to snap up customers booking based on schedule or price, which puts more pressure to sell seats at lower prices. The airline’s drop may not be nearly as grim as it appears on the face. Delta avoided that scenario almost entirely, which could also factor in the figures.
Delta’s apparent strategic win is the latest example of cat and mouse played between US airlines, each looking for an edge, sometimes by doing more for passengers, and other times by removing everything but the wings.
US Airline Competition: Up and Down
For the last decade, it was fair to class most US airlines as being engaged in a race to the bottom. Like an alligator taking prey under, they challenged each other to see how much could be stripped away from the traditional airline experience, without losing customers.
The ‘competition’ saw the removal of checked bags from most fares, and for some airlines, the removal of seat back entertainment as well as anything resembling good or nutritious food.
Delta though, was the first to turn the trend around, removing the most restrictive features of basic economy and adding seat back screens to more planes than others, as well as snacks on longer flights. It also refined its business class to become the only major US airline with privacy doors on flagship ‘Delta One’ seats.
With domestic travel recovery expected to continue through 2021, and glimmers of hope for initial recoveries in international travel from the second half of the year, US airlines are now keenly focused on luring customers back. Whether Delta’s revenue premium holds, as more and more people return to travel remains to be seen. It’s expected that it will.
Whether it does or not, it was a welcome change in tactic from an airline choosing to put health and goodwill above short term profits, in an industry rarely known for long thinking foresight.
If, in the long term, figures appear to hold, and Delta maintains a revenue premium over other US airlines, we may see a race to the top again.