Delta's Branded Approach to Selling Seats by Tiers Is Here to Stay
In Delta's world, a seat isn't just a seat, it's a marketing opportunity. It's a chance to brand something so that it sticks with you long after arrival, and it becomes easy to recommend to others. Delta has been quite intentional about its use of phrasing when selling seats. and according to the airline's chief financial officer Paul Jacobson, you can expect even more segmentation in the years to come.
Jacobson, who presented this week at the Raymond James Institutional Investors Conference, said Delta's branded fares initiative continues to exceed the company's early expectations, and per a Raymond James report sent to investors, Delta "sees further upside as leisure travelers are still in the education/understanding phase." In lay terms, that means Delta is raking in extra cash by creating new ways to do an old thing: sell seats on an airplane.
Delta also referenced this branding push at the J.P. Morgan Aviation, Transportation & Industrials Conference this week, noting it was making investments to "improve customer experience through new interiors."
By going so far as to label exclusive overhead bins for first class and Comfort+ customers, passengers stuck with an economy ticket are injected with an additional dose of envy as they march to the rear. That kind of branding encourages them to pay up for a premium seat on their next flight without a Delta employee having to utter a word.
This correlates with another shift within Delta: Today the economy cabin generates less than half of Delta’s revenue (48%), compared to 63% six years ago, indicating more people are reacting to increased segmentation by coughing up cash or SkyMiles to get themselves out of the Main Cabin and Basic Economy segments. That also leaves fewer seats available for Complimentary Medallion Upgrades — a punch in the gut for Delta's most loyal flyers.
A few years ago, Delta eschewed the vanilla "business class" term in favor of Delta One, a moniker it could own. It even went so far as to stitch or impress the phrasing in business class seats across its fleet.
Compare that with a Delta cabin from just over a decade ago. Overhead projector (!) aside, this Boeing 767-200 shows no branding whatsoever. It's almost shockingly pure in its design, devoid of labels and other attempts at persuasion.
Delta's branded approach has since trickled downstream, eventually hitting coach-with-extra-legroom (Comfort+) and even economy, which Delta dubs Main Cabin.
When Delta began to install premium economy sections on select international birds, it opted to sell those as Premium Select. I'm genuinely shocked that Delta has yet to brand Basic Economy, but I bet those discussions are ongoing.
Earlier this year, Delta extended its segmented approach to boarding. While its top-tier Diamond Medallion members were once invited to board alongside first or business class passengers regardless of where they were seated, I've been told on several occasions to wait until Delta One and/or first class boards to join the parade. Platinum and Gold Medallions now board behind Comfort+ passengers, assuming they aren’t seated there — a subtle move meant to encourage passengers to pay more for Comfort+.
Have you paused to notice that, despite airlines like Delta offering Basic Economy, ticket prices haven't dropped substantially? Or that you now have to pay more for the same experience that used to come standard — tolerable legroom, a free checked bag, meals for everyone on domestic flights — a decade ago? That's all part of the plan, and Wall Street loves it.
All this segmentation is still in the early innings, so don't expect Delta to stop carving out new ways to hawk slightly different onboard experiences.
For passengers, this almost always means that they'll be asked to spend more — or perhaps, just subtly encouraged to do so.
All images by the author unless otherwise noted.