Delta is a little bit better than American and United at running an airline operation. They’re less likely to cancel and flight and more likely to be on time. Their flight attendants are on average a bit friendlier. And they’ve committed to seat back entertainment. On long haul flights their Boeing 777s have just 9 seats across in coach, rather than 10, and they’re making modest improvements to the ‘little touches’ in back too.
The difference, though, shouldn’t be overstated. They’ve still crammed more seats into planes and reduced legroom even in first class. Although American and United have done huge favors reducing their leads, SkyMiles remains poor for redemption. And where Delta leads the differences tend to be modest (though consistent).
Delta has too many Boeing 767s flying internationally with an inferior business class product (and even the new seat won’t match the rest of their fleet). Their base Sky Club lounges are better than United and American clubs, but both United and American have higher-tier lounges for international premium cabin customers which are generally better than Sky Clubs.
Nonetheless, Delta thinks they have the flight experience part of travel down and won, and their CFO declares “the next area of competition in air travel is in the airport.”
However customers want to spend less time at the airport not more time, and the things that create challenges for customers are there because of governments making them difficult to solve. It’s remarkable how much control over their businesses U.S. airlines give up to government.
- Nearly all U.S. airports are owned and managed by government (in much of the world airports are privately owned or managed)
- Security is regulated and carried out by TSA at most U.S. airports (a poor practice for accountability, the agency doing security should be its own regulator)
- From push back at the gate to arrival the aircraft is being directed by the federal air traffic control organization (in much of the world air traffic control is a separate non-profit better able to manage long-term capital investment planning)
United’s C Concourse at Chicago O’Hare
As airports grow they get less convenient. Intermodal transportation centers get built to force passengers to be dropped off and picked up farther away from the terminal. Rental car centers get built off airport. Parking gets moved farther and farther away. Remember that passengers aren’t an airport’s customers. Airports want passengers spending more time on site making retail purchases, not less time, and they want those passengers arriving in their own cars and paying to park.
Airport lounges are nice when you have to spend more time than you want at the airport, but that’s a second best. They’re useful for long transits, especially when showers are offered after long flights.
Clear isn’t a long term solution to the security problem. TSA is a mess, but priority queuing only works until everyone has priority queuing which is why PreCheck can be insufficient at time. Delta bought into Clear for the creepy biometric tech, anyway, rather than because they believed it was going to make the travel experience better. (By the way Clear isn’t permitted in any terminal American Airlines controls.)
Infrastructure projects in the U.S. are too costly to be practical, we’re not actually going to get better airports.
Instead what U.S. airlines are able to do is:
- Squat on prime real estate. Airlines that use slots and gates are treated has having a property rights in them, they can block out competitors. That was the brilliance of Delta’s buying out much of the US Airways (American) operation at New York LaGuardia, and making plays at San Jose (since they can’t grow much in San Francisco), Boston, and grabbing much of the new space that’s been built in Austin. We should stop subsidizing airlines and protecting them from competition but as long as this regime is in place it’s a winning strategy.
- Expedite travel for key customers. That’s the most to integrate with helicopter services in New York, offer tarmac transfers, and even private terminal partnerships.
- Give premium customers better waiting rooms. That’s lounge investment where United and American have focused on international business class customers and Delta has worked to invest in their base lounges.
Some airlines have offered complimentary car service for international business class customers, airport concierges, and even porter service for top tier elites. You can pay for Five Star service at American and United has a partnership with Global Airport Concierge.
The last U.S. airline to really figure out the airport experience though was Legend. Their Executive Terminal at Dallas Love Field offered gate to curb inside of a minute, and there were fresh flowers throughout the facility. Southwest and American colluded to have the government seize their old terminal through eminent domain and turn it into, among other things, a car dealership.
Delta is likely to identify some some incremental improvements to reduce hassle and declare them revolutionary. And if it’s even a little better than the United and American airport experience they’ll be hailed for it.