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Why Delta Thinks it Can Be Your Favorite Airline

Delta CEO Ed Bastian has a bold idea: Perhaps the future of his airline’s success lies less in low fares and more in steadily improving service, amenities, and reliability. Delta has made inroads with high-paying business travelers through improved business-class service, but the AP’s Scott Mayerowitz reports that Bastian has no plans to hang the main cabin out to dry.

“Bastian wants to convince leisure travelers to choose Delta not based on price, but on the experience,” Mayerowitz writes. But, he adds, “that could be a hard sell in a culture where most flyers look for the cheapest flight that fits their schedule.

But Bastian sees his airline’s success with business travelers translating to its economy-class passengers. “The company has invested over the last five years heavily in the business cabin and business customer,” Bastian said. “We’ve got to make certain that we turn a higher focus than we’ve had on the main cabin.”

Delta has already made several significant changes geared toward improving the main cabin experience. In addition to splashy, headline-grabbing features like making all onboard entertainment free, the airline has done a lot of work behind the scenes.

Bastian points out that Delta has been phasing out its cramped, unpopular 50-seat jets with mainline aircraft—the airline is down to 100 of the 50-seaters from a high of 500 several years ago—which creates a more seamless experience in terms of comfort, amenities, and service. Delta has worked with its regional partners to improve their maintenance and hiring procedures, while taking a tougher line with carriers that exhibit poor performance. Bastian also boasts that Delta’s mainline operations recently saw a 95-day stretch without a single cancellation.

All of this sounds great! But—and this is not a snarky, rhetorical question—does any of this matter?

Mayerowitz points out the “culture” of travelers shopping primarily on price, and it’s hard to argue with that. Air travel experienced a great deal of commodification during the 2000s as amenities were trimmed and fees were hiked, but some airlines, notably JetBlue and Southwest, were able to distinguish themselves among all the sameness. JetBlue in particular built its reputation on its in-flight experience, and that reputation has remained strong even as the airline has adopted some of the fees and policies of its mainstream competition.

Perhaps Delta can carve out a similar niche within the world of major carriers by delivering a higher quality experience and greater reliability than the competition. On paper it seems like a no-brainer, but only time will tell if customers are swayed by this appeal to quality rather than the bottom line.

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