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It wasn’t that long ago that customers had just three general seating choices when flying:  coach, business class or first class. It was an age of commoditization, ruled by schedule and price with limited distinction between airlines.  Things began to change when airlines introduced premium economy seat products, including Delta which introduced Economy Comfort – now known as Delta Comfort+.

Then everything changed in 2012, when Delta introduced its branded fares program. Customers who valued price over all else still had a lowest-fare option with restrictions similar to those found with low-cost carriers, but with access to main cabin amenities, world-class Delta service and a global network.

Fast-forward to today when Delta has successfully rolled out a series of signature seat products that divide the aircraft into several cabins, including Delta One and Delta Premium Select that fit customers’ preferences and price points. The airline is bringing to market industry-leading tools like post-purchase upgrades and highly intuitive product displays on

Now it’s up to Delta’s Global Distribution & Digital Strategy team to deliver a shopping experience that feels more like shopping at your favorite online retailer than a ticket transaction.

Kristen Shovlin, Vice President - Sales Operations & Development, spoke with Rhonda Crawford, Vice President of Global Distribution & Digital Strategy about how her team is evolving Delta’s shopping experience for the benefit of casual and corporate travelers alike.

Kristen: First off, let’s talk about the difference between a branded fare and a seat product, and why both are important to Delta’s overall strategy.

Rhonda: Right. It’s good to recognize that branded fares are, in fact, different than seat products. While seat products refer to the actual seating experience on the aircraft – Delta One, for example, versus domestic First Class, Delta Premium Select, Delta Comfort+ and Main Cabin – branded fares are what you see in the shopping experience.

Delta has been an industry leader in bringing more choice to customers by way of additional cabin products and has helped put branded fares on the global map.  For example, we recognized there are customers who desire Main Cabin service at a lower price point, and who place less value on flexibility options such as advance seat assignment and the ability to change the ticket after purchase. This led to the development of Basic Economy.

From a shopping experience, Basic Economy gives customers who place the greatest value on price additional options for travel. That said, we do find that when customers can clearly see and compare the options available by purchasing a Main Cabin seat instead of Basic Economy, a majority choose to move up to that cabin. And therein lies the reason it’s important for Delta to display all the options we have available on any given flight to each customer when they search – regardless of whether they are on, the Fly Delta mobile app, an online travel agency or the platform that manages their  business travel.

Kristen: How is Delta changing the experience of shopping for airline tickets?  

Rhonda: First, my team really has two key goals, and it’s all about channel of choice: we want to make Delta’s direct channels an optimal, world class experience for  our customers while working with key partners – agencies, global distribution systems (GDS) and online booking tools (OBT) – to ensure we are displaying relevant  content in those channels as well. . This is the crux of our commitment to a multi-channel strategy. We started with the shopping experience that has evolved significantly to support Delta’s branded fares and product segmentation strategies. Just like any good retailer, we want customers to see all of their options, like they do when shopping online for a sweater. Think about it: when you’re searching for a sweater, you don’t want to only see the cheapest version. You want to see options – size, color, cut, style, etc. Price is certainly a factor many people weigh, but it’s not the only factor by a long shot. So we’ve gone to a model on that achieves all of this by creating columns with rich information dedicated to each of our seat products and fares in every search. We know that customers shopping for airline tickets consider a number of variables when deciding on their purchase, but most external channels that display Delta and other airline content skew toward sorting by the cheapest fare – even if that fare doesn’t deliver the best experience by way of schedule or amenities that are available and important to the customer.

Our vision and what we are working hard to achieve revolves around three simple concepts: The first is consistency in the shopping results between channels. Today travelers might see routings pieced together differently on third-party sites and external-channel partners versus how Delta would display options between cities. No matter where you shop, you should see the same results. If you go to an Apple store or Best Buy to purchase an iPad, there’s a certain expectation by Apple that the shopping experience is consistent. The same should be true for air travel experiences.

Our second focus is transparency. Better transparency in shopping results helps shoppers sift through the options and ultimately takes friction out of travel, rather than defaulting to slightly cheaper but less desirable routings or amenities. Sure, a flight with a connection may be cheaper, but we don’t want to prioritize that option for all customers if it means the connection requires that you have to switch terminals. Or maybe a family that is travelling together really wants to sit together.  We want to set our customers up for a successful flight experience – and that’s something some sites just don’t take into sufficient consideration.

Finally, we’re focused on choice, and that means showing customers all of their options and all necessary information and disclosures so they can make the best travel decision. Going back to the sweater example and the variables considered with that purchase, Delta wants customers to see all of the different fares and products available for their flight, including variables like legroom, seat features, food and beverage options, and more be displayed or accessible with each seat option on the initial shopping results page – not just a logo and the fare. This is where rich content comes in – not all economy seats are created equal and we want customers to know what they’re actually purchasing.

Kristen: Our teams are partnering closely to display our content across third-party channels and off-line agencies in a way that reflects the experience, but that change doesn’t happen overnight. What’s holding us back from accomplishing the vision you just outlined?

Rhonda: There is a lot of entrenched history, infrastructure and processes that will need to evolve for the third party channels to reach their merchandising potential.  Don’t forget, airlines and distributors spent decades oriented around lowest fare.  Airlines have now moved beyond that, and the third parties have a lot of catching up to do.  The key will be for third parties to invest in their own display capabilities to show the information being shared through new technology in a way that reflects all the choices being offered. One significant issue that needs to be addressed is the number and capability of “shelves” partners use to display our content. The industry put forth great effort to add another viewing “shelf” on shopping platforms when premium economy was added several years ago to the first class, business class and main cabin lineup. With continued segmentation and branded fares bringing even more options to customers, the industry hasn’t kept pace and the first class, business class, premium economy and main cabin shelves are all that’s available. We need our partners to again make the investments needed to add new “shelves” as carriers like Delta innovate and improve the customer experience.

Case in point, there’s only one “shelf” available for two of Delta’s premium products: Delta Premium Select and Comfort+. Delta Premium Select is a desirable product for corporate travelers. However, it shares a shelf with our lower priced Delta Comfort+ product and therefore will be harder for travelers to “find on the shelf.”  Can you imagine a clothing retailer intentionally hiding some of its products on a display shelf behind other products, making them hard for a customer to locate and purchase?  Of course not, and yet that is what we are experiencing today. 

The good news is that because of efforts organized through the industry’s largest trade organization, new distribution capabilities (NDC) that improve communications between airlines and travel agents are in the pipeline to become available to any organization involved in the distribution and/or display of airline fares and schedules. At the same time, Delta has agreements with the three main GDSs –Travelport, Sabre and Amadeus. Their key function is taking our fare and schedule information and distributing it to various platforms, including online travel agencies – Expedia, for example – corporate travel platforms and offline agencies who sell our products.  The NDC initiative is a positive development and has the industry re-thinking the way it does business, but it will not solve the merchandising challenge by itself.    

Kristen:  Speaking of NDC, the Sales teams have been hearing that term now more than ever and it seems to mean different things to different carriers.  What does NDC mean to Delta?

Rhonda: You’re right.  There’s a lot of confusion surrounding this term. “NDC” stands for New Distribution Capability, but to many of our customers it has raised concern about surcharges, disadvantaged pricing and direct connect.  But that’s not what our NDC strategy is all about. While Delta is investing in becoming NDC certified, we view NDC as a vehicle to ensure consistent content across all channels.  We believe that airline content should come from a single source: the airline, itself. For decades, airlines have relied on GDSs to construct offers in a way that is often inconsistent with how we would construct them ourselves. It is time for that practice to end, and for airlines to finally be in control our own content by constructing them ourselves and sending them along to the GDSs.  NDC was created to provide a common language that all carriers can use to streamline the transfer of content to GDSs. This facilitates airlines controlling our own content, which sounds like a great idea. I think of NDC as a means to improve the existing business model, not break it.   While this is an important objective, it is a starting point of our distribution strategy and not the end game, since it won’t solve for the transparency, consistency and choice we’re driving toward with third-party channels.

Kristen: AFKL has announced a GDS surcharge airlines are driving customers to their own websites to shop for the optimal experience, even implementing surcharges for using other channels. Is this part of Delta’s strategy?

Rhonda: For many customers, shopping at a carrier’s .com or mobile site should be the optimal, preferred experience, but that’s ultimately the customer’s choice – not mine. Are we implementing a surcharge to encourage that? In a word: no. Across Delta we are keen to work with our customers in their channel of choice. Whether it’s Customer Care or Reservations chatting on social platforms to meet customers’ needs, or my team finding the best way to display our products on OTAs, or your team working with corporate travel agents, we don’t want to ask customers to change their behavior – we’re changing ours. How are we doing that? By being collaborative with travel agencies and the companies that distribute our content about how to make our products available for purchase across all channels – just as they are on What it all boils down to is that customers have an expectation that their digital retail experience with Delta and other great brands extends across the airline industry. While Delta is leading the charge in this effort, we’ve talked with several agencies that are excited about the opportunity they see to be leaders in retail transformation. Collectively, we believe “the juice is worth the squeeze,” so to speak, because of the gains we can achieve in customer satisfaction by delivering on choice, transparency and consistency.

Kristen: We’ve talked a lot about displaying branded fares and our cabin products in a consistent way – what are some other benefits of Delta’s approach?  

Rhonda: Just as important as seeing all the options in front of you in the shopping experience is understanding any restrictions that may be associated with any one of those choices. Basic Economy is the prime example. Going through the experience, there are three different times when customers are told about the fare limitations, including the fact that passengers traveling together, including families, may not be seated together. When customers aren’t fully aware of the restrictions it can cause significant stress at the airport for both the customers and our gate agents and flight attendants, who make every effort to seat families with young children together, regardless of ticket type. Having the ability to ensure restrictions are fully transparent no matter where you shop for Delta products or fares will be a big win for everyone.

This article was updated on Aug. 3, 2018.

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