A Delta executive speaks with L.A. Airspace about the carrier’s recent fleet improvements

Delta says it has invested $3 million in airport and fleet improvemets since 2010. Photo credit: Delta

Delta says it has invested $3 million in airport and fleet improvements since 2010. Photo credit: Delta

Delta announced plans Wednesday to spend more than $770 million to refurbish 225 of its narrow-body aircraft, including Boeing 757s, 737s, Airbus A319 and A320s. Delta will add power at every seat, as well as install updated bathrooms and galleys.

Delta will also add “Slimline” seats on the aircraft, which are considerably lighter and skinnier than the seats they replace. The Associated Press reports Delta will add seats to most planes under the new configurations.

Last week, I visited Delta headquarters and spoke with Mike Henny, Delta’s director for customer service experience. We talked about the refresh and the slimline seats. Keep reading to see our Q and A.

Delta has announced many improvements in the past couple of years relating to customer experience. You have added Porsche ground transfers at some of your hubs, and added flatbed business class seats to most of your long-haul fleet. What’s next?

What you’ll see from us next is a couple of things. One is that just because we have announced the investment doesn’t mean the investment is over. Our modification schedule and our ability to get to relative completion is going to take some time. Over the next couple of years, you’ll see us complete the modifications for our 757s ‘Transcon’ aircraft that are getting new interiors throughout, with flatbed seats in Business Elite and new entertainment systems in coach. You’ll see the completion of the 737-800 fleet with cabin modifications and AVOD. You’ll see additional 757s getting the same. You’ll see A319s and A320s getting modified. We’re also rounding out our international modifications with flatbed seats and upgraded IFE in coach. We just finished the 767s. The A330s are the only ones left. It’s an ongoing process. And as we complete fleet types, then we identify other opportunities. There’s always something for us to be working on.

What about these ‘Slimline’ seats? slimeline

We’ve got slimline seats on a number of different fleet types. Where there is an opportunity for us to put in more slimline seats, we’ll definitely do that.

In Europe, where these Slimline seats are more common, some customers say they’re uncomfortable. I understand, however, that Delta made certain changes to make the seat more palatable. How have your customers reacted?

By and large the customer response where we have put in slimline seats has been overwhelming positive. We put a lot of effort in looking at the design of the seat and the structure of the seat, so that if there are ways for us to make it more comfortable, we have done that. We have worked with the manufacturer to try to get the best equipment that we can possibly get so it is as comfortable as possible. Ultimately, the goal for us is for you as a customer to get on the aircraft and think, ‘This is a clean modern aircraft and I’m in a comfortable seat and I’m going to enjoy my time here.’ We’ve done a lot of research on things customers may not even think about or that customers would think are trivial in the seat structure. If you are sitting in that seat for several hours, we don’t want it to be uncomfortable. There needs to be enough cushioning.

Are you adding Slimline seats just to cram more seats in the planes?
We generally have not gone down that path. If we are doing a modification to add seats, we are doing a modification to add seats. We’re not putting in Slimline seats in for the purpose of adding seats. (Note: USA Today reports many of the seats will actually be almost an inch wider than those they replace.)

In instances where you are not trying to add more seats, why switch to Slimline?

On fleets where there is not an opportunity to add seats or a desire to add seats, Slimline seats get you other benefits in customer comfort and weight savings.

You also said Delta is changing the lighting on its planes. Tell me about that.

On certain fleets we have full spectrum LED lighting. You’ll see that on the new 737-900s. On other fleets we’ll have LED lighting that is a more limited spectrum. The idea really is two fold – to set a better mood on board the aircraft and to really create a differentiated sense of space and airiness on board the aircraft. We want to leverage that throughout the cabins and even in the lavatories to try to set the tone and make it as soothing and as spacious feeling as possible. Yes, it does seem like something that would be easy. But particularly full spectrum systems are extremely expensive. And really anything you’re going to do to an aircraft is not going to be cheap, especially if it runs the length of the aircraft.

As you’ve prepared to make these changes, what have customers told you that they want?

What we hear from them is that they want to be comfortable and they want to have means of passing the time. That can vary from customer to customer. It takes the form of Wifi — you saw us lead on the availability of domestic Wifi. There’s also in-seat power for their own devices while they are using the Wifi or while they’re listening to their own entertainment content or listening to music. Then particularly on long-haul flights, it’s having in-seat IFE and a screen in front of them with an ample library of content. What we have tried to do is focus on where we should offer what, matching our capabilities and our investment to what is most important given the length of a particular flight or where the aircraft are going. That’s why our goal is getting to the point where we have great availability of those entertainment options and a greater level of consistency. So that a customer flying out of L.A., for instance, knows that on a flight of a certain duration, he can generally count on certain attributes, like in-seat IFE. Wifi is something we have gotten prevalent enough domestically that now you know if you are flying Delta you’ve got Wifi available. We are hoping to get to that point on international flights as well.

While your team has the ideas, your colleagues in Network Planning are the folks who actually schedule what airplanes go where. How do you interact with them?

As we have looked at making these product investments, we have done a lot of work with our colleagues in network to look at which fleets are flying where and what’s the average stage length for a particular fleet type. We say, ‘Do we the right product offering with these aircraft or should we make modifications of some sort?’ Those fleeting decisions aren’t up to us. But to the extent we can provide a product that is consistent enough that the interoperability of the aircraft is not an issue for network or for airport customer service folks or for our customers, that is going to be our goal. We have done a lot of work with network to say, OK, ‘Where are the aircraft going to be flying, where do we need what and what do we want to make sure we offer?’ That helps guide the investment.

All these improvements cost a lot of money. Does there need be a return on the investment?

We will always look at what the potential financial benefit or what the benefit to the company could be by doing the things we want to do. But that ultimately will take the form of customer choice. If we create a product that addresses the needs that our customers have and the wants they have expressed, then in theory you should be driving preference. And if those customers and more interested in choosing Delta on an ongoing basis then that is a definition of success. Not everything will have its own P&L. But if we are making the right decisions, then all of those decisions should have some sort of return.

 

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