Delta Introduces Comfort Basic Economy+

As travelers in the US finally get used to the idea of Basic Economy, Delta has decided to make things even more complex. The airline invented Basic Economy years ago, but it only accelerated the rollout through its short-haul network in recent months. With American, Alaska, and United adopting the barebones fare and Hawaiian and JetBlue preparing to join the party, Delta has now decided to take the next step. Say hello to Comfort Basic Economy+. I had the chance to talk with execs at the airline to learn more.

Why on Earth would Delta feel the need to add another fare brand after the dizzying array of brands it already has out there? According to the airline, it felt there was a niche that wasn’t being properly served. Delta CEO Ed Bastian explained it to me:

With Basic Economy, we found a way to serve the people who cared about price above all. With Comfort+, we attract people who care about space and extra amenities. So why not create something that combines the best of both worlds for those who are interested?

If you don’t understand what he’s talking about, you’re not alone. I suppose the best way to think about this is to look at the product attributes of the new brand.

  • The lowest price while seated in Comfort+ seats with extra legroom
  • Recline is locked (can be unlocked for an additional fee)
  • Carry-on allowed, but no dedicated bin space
  • Boards just before Basic Economy but after everyone else
  • No extra amenities like normal Comfort+
  • No seat assignment
  • No upgrades or elite qualifying miles
  • No refunds/changes

In other words, it’s a Basic Economy-type of product for those people who want extra legroom and nothing else. This will be priced below Comfort+ and above Basic Economy. Sometimes that will be cheaper than Main Cabin and sometimes it won’t. That will depend upon the spread between the fares for any given flights at any given time.

Clear as mud, right? Well get used to it, because this is just the beginning. Ed continued:

Basic Economy was just the start. Now with Comfort Basic Economy+ rolled out, we have more ideas. Look for Premium Delta Basic Select, Delta First Class Basic , and One Basic Delta. The last one we might call Delta Two, but we’re still working on the naming.

With our industry-leading service and product, we already attract those people who are looking for a premium experience. But for those people who just care about the seat and the space and couldn’t care less about service and amenities, we want to be their airline as well.

Ed noted that he knows some people won’t like this plan because of the additional complexity, but they shouldn’t blame his airline. “We have to do this because of the Middle East carriers and their massive, unfair government subsidies.” I tried to get more clarity on how those are connected, but he would not go into further detail.

I also spoke with Delta President Glen Hauenstein about this. Glen has recently been behind the move toward a more visual branding identity, so I was particularly curious how they came up with that… yellowish… color for the Comfort Basic Economy+ brand. Interestingly, he said it was a competitive move on two levels.

With United starting to adopt purple as part of its palette, I knew we needed something distinct. I thought to myself, why not ochre? That’s something that nobody is using.

And he would indeed be right. Spirit may have adopted yellow, but I can’t say I’ve seen ochre. It does hearken back to the old Southwest Desert Gold, and that’s by design. Glen went on:

Southwest may have abandoned that classic color in favor of a garish blue to paint their airplanes, but we knew that we could use it to our advantage. Southwest has been the king of branding and has convinced millions of Americans that they are the cheapest and best option even when they clearly aren’t. We wanted to snag some of that mojo.

Apparently Delta wants to take more from Southwest than just branding as it’s trying a new boarding process for Comfort Basic Economy+ passengers.

After Comfort+ passengers board, flight attendants will be instructed to go through the cabin and lock the reclines of all empty Comfort+ seats. Then, when Comfort Basic Economy+ passengers board, they will just take any open seat in the Comfort+ zone. There will be no seat assignments. Consider this a test. If it goes over well, Basic Economy will follow the same path in regular coach.

I asked Ranjan Goswami, VP of In-Flight Field Operation how Delta’s flight attendants would feel about these additional duties during boarding. Wouldn’t that anger them and possibly push them toward joining a union? He said no, the opposite was true.

Our flight attendants love this idea. There’s something cathartic about locking the recline on a seat. It’s physical work that lets them take out their frustrations with obnoxious passengers in a productive way. Plus, if a regular Comfort+ passenger causes trouble, they’ve been given the authority to lock seats for those people as punishment. It’s been very well-received.

The new product goes on sale today, April 1. Except it won’t, because it’s April 1. I realize this one sounds a little too real and could actually happen, but you can breathe easy for now. This isn’t real… yet.

Happy April Fools Day to all!

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