Friday, January 5, 2018

Delta puts A350 at center of long-haul customer service transformation

For all the strides the US major carriers have made over the last several years—dramatically turning around their financial performance and improving operationally—US carriers still conspicuously lag globally in premium service on long-haul international flights. There is often a gap between the long-haul business-class products aboard the top airlines in Asia and the Middle East versus those offered by US carriers.

Delta Air Lines believes that started to change in the final months of 2017 when it became the first US airline to operate the Airbus A350-900—an aircraft the Atlanta-based carrier’s executives say will enable the SkyTeam member to transform its long-haul customer service, differentiating it from US rivals and putting it on par with the world’s elite airlines.

“The A350 is a significant step forward for us in terms of the international competiveness of our product and service,” CEO Ed Bastian told ATW during an October event in which journalists from 18 countries descended on Atlanta to tour Delta’s first A350 and take a 2-hour demonstration flight. “We compete with some of the world’s great airlines, whether it’s a Singapore Airlines or a British Airways or a Qantas, and we need to make sure our product, when we go internationally, is toe-to-toe and I think the A350 will be.”

The A350-900 flew on Delta’s Detroit-Tokyo Narita route in November and was put on the Detroit-Seoul Incheon route in December. Detroit-Beijing and Detroit-Shanghai will follow in January and April, respectively. Delta was slated to take delivery of five A350s by the end of 2017; it has 25 total on order.

“It will be our new flagship aircraft,” Delta COO Gil West said. “It will set a whole new standard for the flying experience.”

Cabin debuts

Delta has debuted two new products on the A350: The Delta One Suite, which allows business-class passengers to travel in a private, enclosed space, and the Premium Select cabin, a new international premium economy offering.

There will be 32 Delta One Suites on each A350; the seats are designed to enable Delta to compete directly with Asian and Middle East rivals on business-class service. A sliding door gives the passenger privacy—with the option of pressing a button to let flight attendants know not to bother the passenger. Another button allows each Delta One Suite passenger to control the level of ambient lighting. The seats feature an 18-inch high-definition IFE screen.

An overhauled food menu, with passengers sent menu options digitally six days before their flight and meals tailored for markets to which the aircraft is flying, is aimed at elevating Delta’s business-class culinary experience. “I can tell you I’ve been doing a lot of taste testing,” Delta VP-onboard services Lisa Bauer said at the Delta A350 debut event, adding that the airline will also upgrade the main cabin menu on the aircraft.

Using customer survey data, Delta is “completely redoing all of the flight attendant service procedures on the A350,” Bauer said.

Delta believes the revamped inflight service will be particularly apparent in Premium Select, which is more akin to old business-class seats from the pre-lie-flat era than economy seats.

“There are two key points for Premium Select: completely different seats and unparalleled service,” Delta VP-brand management Dan Csont said, noting that flight attendants will provide business-class style service to passengers sitting in Premium Select.

“It’s not Comfort Plus [Delta’s pre-A350 premium economy product] with a little bit extra legroom,” Csont emphasized, pointing out the 38-inch pitch seats—seven inches more than Delta A350 economy seats—recline and allow passengers to “sit back and relax.”

Bastian said that while Comfort Plus—which is essentially extra legroom—works domestically, it will not cut it anymore internationally.

“Premium Select is a totally new category for us,” the CEO explained. “It’s something we have learned about from our European partners, as well as some of our Asian partners, [who have emphasized] the power of that kind of cabin . . . Comfort Plus doesn’t translate well internationally. I don’t think there’s enough of a product or price point differentiation for us to make it work. So we have learned a lot about what customers want in that product category and the Premium Select product you see on the A350 we think will be a significant success.”

Delta’s A350’s will be configured with 306 seats—32 Delta One Suites, 48 in Premium Select and 226 in economy.

Moving on

The Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-powered aircraft’s speed—Mach 0.85 at cruise—and fuel efficiency (West pointed out it could fly from New York to London and back without refueling) give the carrier more route flexibility. In the 2018 summer, Delta will put the aircraft on a transatlantic stretch route: Detroit-Amsterdam.

Delta A350 customer service will be completely different from the airline’s aging Boeing 747-400s, which are being retired in favor of the new A350s, West said. “All 80,000 of us at Delta are aircraft geeks,” he said. “We’ll all be sad to see the 747 retired. We’ve gotten a full life out of that aircraft [the 747-400 started flying in 1989 for Northwest Airlines, which merged with Delta in 2008]. But we move on. We’re innovative.”

“Delta is a 90-year old company, but we don’t want to walk around like we’re 90 years old,” Bastian said. “We want to have vitality and energy.”

Delta is expected to have 15 A350-900s in its fleet by the end of 2018. It will then take a pause in deliveries. In 2017, it deferred 10 A350s scheduled to be delivered in 2019 and 2020 by two to three years.

Delta placed its order for the A350 in 2014. According to Bastian, it was not a close call.

The A350 and 787 are “both great products,” he said. “The challenges we had were, one, Boeing couldn’t deliver the 787 on the timeline that we were looking for and, two, the price point on the A350 was significantly better than the 787. Honestly, it was kind of a simple decision to make.”

Bastian said the A350-900, and all of the product upgrades that come with it, is a manifestation of Delta’s massive capital investment of recent years fueled by unprecedented profitability.

“We’ve never invested at this level—$4 billion in 2017—and I anticipate that run rate is going to be maintained for the next number of years,” Bastian told reporters at the A350 debut event. “All of that we’re paying in cash. No debt. We’re using our cash that we generate in the business and we’re putting it back to work. We’re not running up a credit card bill . . . We never in our history were able to invest $4 billion into our product in a single year. That number would have been five years in total capital investment [in the past]. We’re doing that in just one year. And why are we doing that? To enhance the experience for our customer, to provide a much better, much more efficient airline than ever before.”

(Aaron Karp - ATWOnline News) 

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