MIAMI – Delta Air Lines is adding the Delta Shuttle product on key routes from its Seattle hub to San Francisco and Los Angeles, upping the ante in two markets that will become more competitive as a result of Alaska Airlines’ acquisition of Virgin America. The Delta Shuttle product, also featured on routes between the Northeast triangle of Boston, New York LaGuardia, and Washington Reagan as well as on the fiercely competitive Los Angeles – San Francisco sector, features a variety of improvements over the standard Delta economy experience, including:

  • Dedicated check-in counters exclusively for Delta Shuttle customers
  • Gates located near security
  • Complimentary newspapers for all customers including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Financial Times
  • Two classes of service with complimentary upgrades for SkyMiles Medallion members when available
  • Complimentary meals in First Class on all flights
  • Complimentary Luvo snack box offered in Comfort+ on all flights
  • Complimentary onboard snacks provided by Nourish Snacks in the main cabin
  • Complimentary in-flight beer, wine, spirits and other beverages in all classes of service, including Lagunitas Brewing Company and Fremont Brewing Company craft beer and Starbucks coffee
  • Access to in-flight Wi-Fi and free entertainment options through Delta Studio
  • Convenient access to the new Delta Sky Club set to open in Fall 2016 on Concourse A

The Shuttle addition will come with an increase in frequency on both routes, as Delta will expand from eight to ten daily flights on Seattle – Los Angeles with a mix of 160-seat Boeing 737-800 aircraft (16F / 18Y+ / 126Y) and 110 seat Boeing 717-200 aircraft (12F / 20Y+ / 78Y) on May 23. Delta will continue to fly a peak total of eight daily frequencies on Seattle – San Francisco with 76-seat Embraer E175 aircraft. (12F / 12Y+ / 52Y)

Unlike on the short hour-long sectors where the Delta Shuttle is normally offered, Seattle-San Francisco is two hours twenty minutes and Seattle-Los Angeles is just under three hours. That’s a length where the improved product makes a difference relative to a standard mainline product. First Class is more or less the same (perhaps with a slightly improved ground experience), but the real benefit is felt in economy class and economy comfort, who get free alcohol (always popular) and premium snacks.

Shuttle conversion affects marketing more than schedule

Even though the flights will now operate with the Shuttle branding, they are not necessarily the same schedule-wise as the other shuttle products on the East and West Coast. The eight to ten daily flights on the routes are less than an hourly schedule, and the increase to Los Angeles was actually already planned before the conversion to the Shuttle product. So the Shuttle product is really more about creating a marketing and branding advantage in a crowded marketplace.

And the Seattle – San Francisco/Los Angeles (SFO/LAX) marketplaces are very crowded. That remains true even if you set aside the secondary airports in each metropolitan area (San Jose and Oakland in the Bay Area and Burbank, Orange County, Long Beach, and Ontario in Southern California), all of which have multiple daily Alaska flights from Seattle, though LAX and SFO are the most important airports for business travel in their respective market.

Delta’s schedule to LAX and SFO in fact lags behind that of the new Alaska Airlines, as the merger with Virgin America gives the combined carrier 17 daily flights on Seattle-Los Angeles, and 13 daily flights on Seattle-San Francisco (both closer to an actual Shuttle than Delta’s product). Seattle – LAX also has five daily flights from American, two from Spirit, and two from United, and Seattle – SFO has nine daily flights from United.

A Delta Connection Embraer E175. (Credits: Roberto Leiro)

These schedules are more than competitive with Delta, and the overall competitive situation in Seattle, where Delta has progressed to 120 daily departures and is still in an aggressive battle with Alaska, remains protracted. The question for Delta is whether this creates any sort of advantage in the competition for passengers.

Delta Shuttle a Mixed Bag on the West Coast

Whether the Shuttle branding and product actually creates a competitive advantage is an open question. The track record in the Northeast is middling despite the strong history of the product, and Amtrak’s Acela has now dented the product to the point that Delta has actually pulled back to less than hourly flights during the winter. Over on the West Coast, the Delta Shuttle hasn’t really created any sort of revenue premium for Delta on the LAX-SFO route, though that might be due to the shorter length of the route.

Conversely on the longer routes to Seattle, the improved product is going to be a bigger draw, and it definitely puts Delta a cut above Alaska proper, United, American, and Spirit. However, Virgin America offers a product that is at least comparable (and arguably superior in in flight entertainment and connectivity), and the one caveat to Delta’s new product leadership at high frequency is the potential for Alaska to adopt some of Virgin America’s higher service standards. Delta Shuttle is a bold move for Delta in the Seattle market, but its efficacy is far from assured.