Innovative airlines 2011: #4 Delta Air Lines

Delta has earned its 4th place because of its massive USD 2 billion investment program (through mid-2013) to upgrade its ground and inflight experiences, as well as introduce some innovative services. Having completed the integration of Northwest, which it acquired in 2008, Delta has shifted its focus towards drastically improving the customer experience, stating that “addressing gaps in customer product, technology, facilities and fleet is key to generating superior revenues and returns.” 

In-flight: Full-flat seats, Premium Economy, Wi-Fi
Since September 2009, Delta has been upgrading its long-haul business class to offer full-flat beds. By June 2011, half of its long-haul fleet will be upgraded and by mid-2012, Delta will offer full flat-bed seats on its fleet of over 100 trans-oceanic aircraft. The airline will also be the first customer to install Panasonic and Weber’s integrated lightweight touchscreen IFE and slim carbon fibre economy seat on 16 former Northwest B47-400s in mid-2011. 

Furthermore, Delta will reportedly introduce a Premium Economy cabin in 2011. Since the gap between the carrier’s premium and economy class has increased because of its upgrade to flat-beds, there is room for a value-for-money alternative in between. The new class is likely to resemble United’s Economy Plus or KLM’s Economy Comfort offerings, which are essentially normal economy seats with increased leg room. 

In November 2010, Delta completed the installation of inflight Wi-Fi on all 549 mainline domestic aircraft, the largest number of ‘connected aircraft’ by far. The carrier also recently announced plans to add Wi-Fi to 223 regional jet aircraft operated by Delta Connection carriers. Last but not least, Delta just revealed it is considering an order of 100 to 200 narrowbody aircraft — possibly with options for 200 more — to replace its aging domestic fleet, with deliveries to begin in early 2013.

Ground: Red Coats, self-tagging, recharging poles and pads
Responding to passenger feedback for a more personal touch on the ground, Delta in recent years has revived its service program known as ‘Red Coats’. Considered a kind of super service-agent, Delta’s Red Coats carry hand-held computers that let them handle an array of customer issues on-the-spot, such as helping customers make connections, handing out new boarding cards, or providing food vouchers if there is a need. Over 800 agents are currently deployed airside at airports across the U.S.

At the same time, Delta is increasing the number of self-service options for standard passenger-facing activities. For example, the airline reportedly is planning a self-tagging pilot which let travellers tag their own checked bags and drop it at designated spots without seeing an agent. 

Delta is also testing a new ‘silent auction’ system that lets travelers on overbooked flights submit a bid for the value of a travel voucher they would take to be bumped. According to Delta this will eliminate a lot of the uncertainty for passengers in an early stage, boost efficiency at the gate, and as the airline can accept the lowest bids, possibly save it some money in the process as well. 

Catering to the growing number of ‘connected travellers’ carrying smartphones and mobile devices, Delta is currently installing ‘Delta re-charging stations’ at 19 airports across the U.S. In every domestic Delta SkyClub lounge, passengers will be able to recharge their devices via ‘wireless powerpads’ as well. 

New York JFK, London Heathrow
Two years ago, Atlanta-based Delta launched a campaign to create a strategic new hub at New York JFK. The airline is spending USD1.2 billion to build a new Terminal 4 at JFK which will be completed in mid-2013. In the meantime, Delta is upgrading is current outdated facilities at the airport, for example by introducing a novel restaurant concept that lets passengers order food and drinks via iPads installed at dining areas at the gate, with delivery to their booth guaranteed in 10 minutes or less. In 2010, Delta also introduced new full-service cafés at four Delta Sky Clubs at JFK in an effort to upgrade its pre-flight dinner options. 

Enhancing its facilities at London Heathrow, an important trans-atlantic destination (Delta will begin flights from Boston and Miami in April 2011), Delta partnered with capsule hotel Yotel to provide arrivals facilities for premium passengers. Travellers can freshen up upon arrival in one of Yotel’s hip cabins. 

Marketing
To improve the online experience for customers, Delta has given delta.com a thorough redesign. Delta.com now also shows the amenities passengers can expect on their flight, as the airline’s product offering is inconsistent because of its current upgrade program. Delta also recently started providing real-time travel assistance (@deltaassist) via Twitter and is the first airline to allow fliers to book their tickets entirely through Facebook

In a nice experiental marketing move, Delta in recent years also opened several SKY360 lounges at sports venues and film and culinary festivals in the U.S. which basically serve as a living, breathing ad for the airline. 

Sustainability: recycling and upcycling
In 2007, Delta started the industry’s first comprehensive in-flight recycling program and by April 2010 had recycled 3.7 million pounds of paper, cardboard, plastic and aluminum. Delta also recycles carpet since 2007 and has diverted 221,000 pounds of worn aircraft carpet from landfills, the equivalent of 12 American football fields. 

As one of the few airlines to ‘upcycle,’ Delta has donated retired aircraft seat covers, blankets and curtains to sustainable design agency Tierra Ideas, which has turned them into messenger bags, laptop sleeves and duffle bags.

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