Delta's New Seating Arrangement Somehow Makes Coach Even Worse

Delta is dividing its planes into five branded areas based on price and amenities, part of a further push to kill the commodified nature of air travel
Photographer: Getty Images

Delta Air Lines has a request for the traveling public: Please don't confuse the bespoke airfares available on our airplanes as anything like what our rivals have to offer. 

Starting next year, Delta plans to segment its airplane cabins into five sections based on price and service, with three flavors of economy and two premium cabins. The marketing scheme announced on Monday is aimed at identifying certain products and services with particular fare classes, an attempt at creating brand recognition inside the airplane cabin. Coach is so generic, a bland catch-all commodity. Delta wants travelers to instead weigh the distinctions between Main Cabin and Basic Economy, while perhaps considering a splurge on Delta Comfort+, where you'll get extra legroom and a free alcoholic beverage.


Delta isn't alone in focusing on in-flight amenities. American Airlines announced plans on Monday to spend $2 billion to bring its fleet up to the same standard as its domestic rivals. The money will bring new seats, Wi-Fi, and electrical power outlets at seats across American's fleet. The giant airline, which merged with US Airways in December, is eager to ditch the 1980s-era MD-80 airplanes that have served as the workhorse of its domestic fleet for three decades.

Part of the change at Delta, the third-largest airline in the U.S, means rewriting the vocabulary of status. Business Elite, the old name for Delta's top-of-the-line cabin for long-haul international and cross-country flights, will be replaced by Delta One, which is meant to evoke seats that go flat with linens from the Westin hotel chain. The second-highest service tier, First Class, will be available only on domestic flights.

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Delta's news release announcing the five-tier system, which goes into effect on March 1, could have easily been titled: "We Are Not All the Same, Folks." The remaining Big Three global carriers in the U.S. are all deeply committed to creating differences passengers will notice—the starker, the better—as the airline giants battle the commodification of travel. The majority of people see little to differentiate a Delta flight from one on United or American, with the vast majority of travelers making choices according to price and travel times.

Airlines hate that particular generic framework. They argue that their investments in Wi-Fi service, streaming entertainment, newer seats, and larger overhead bins, among other marginal amenities, should make it clear to savvy travelers that not all carriers are created equal. Delta and United, for example, both allow passengers to stream music, movies, and television shows on personal Wi-Fi-enabled devices without buying Internet access; so far, at least, there's no evidence that it has affected the way we book tickets.

On all three airlines, over time, economy will come in a variety of flavors that are based on how much you paid for your ticket. If you pay more or become an elite member of the airline's frequent-flier program, the airline will let you sit in an economy seat with extra leg room. "When a carrier says it is 'refreshing' coach cabin, that's weasel jargon for cutting legroom," travel columnist Joe Brancatelli observed on Twitter. This broad industry effort is likely to make cramped leg room even worse for those sitting in the cheapest seats, although Delta says its new cabin names won't involve any seat reconfigurations.

If price trumps all, Delta's cheapest tier, "Basic Economy," will draw most of the attention—even with a long list of restrictions that take effect on Feb. 1—including no advanced seat assignments or the chance to upgrade. That fare is currently offered to only 33 cities from four Delta hubs, mainly on routes where the company competes with Spirit Airlines. But the basic fare is understandably popular, and Delta spokesman Paul Skrbec says it could expand to more cities next year. Still, Delta would much prefer that you splurge on a fancier, pricier ticket.