Delta Air Lines is in a bind.
The Atlanta-based carrier, along with the larger U.S. airline industry, is facing a pilot shortage that’s hitting the regional affiliates the hardest. These smaller carriers have been forced to park planes and cut flights due to inadequate staffing in the cockpit ranks.
While some larger airlines like United have resorted to exiting smaller markets, Delta wants to maintain as much service as it can, especially as travel demand roars back from COVID-era lows. To avoid route cuts, the airline needs to quickly add mainline planes that are operated by Delta employees as opposed to regional jets flown by Delta Connection contractors that are experiencing staffing shortages.
And, Delta’s doing just that.
The airline inaugured its first of 33 used Boeing 737-900 jets, registered N951DX, last month, as first reported by Airline Weekly and confirmed to TPG by an airline spokesperson. These jets were picked up as part of a deal last year with Lion Air. The Indonesia low-cost carrier no longer needed the planes, so it sold them to Delta — likely at a significant savings compared to buying factory-fresh jets. (Plus, Delta would get the jets much faster than if it would’ve if it bought new ones from Boeing.)
ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY
Though Delta already operates the -900 variant of the 737, these used jets are going to offer a significantly downgraded passenger experience. That’s because the airline isn’t planning to retrofit these planes to Delta standards just yet.
Instead, they’ll feature a much less premium configuration, internally referred to as the “73J.” The planes sport just 12 first-class seats, one row (six seats) of extra-legroom Comfort+ and 162 standard economy seats.
Compared to Delta’s signature 737-900s, these jets feature eight and 15 fewer first-class and Comfort+ seats, respectively. They also feature 23 more coach seats. Additionally, these jets don’t feature Wi-Fi, seat-back entertainment or power outlets.
While the planes have been repainted and the seats have been reupholstered in Delta’s signature red and blue finishes, the rest of the experience will feel very much unlike Delta’s standard.
Cirium schedules show that these planes are currently scheduled to fly from Atlanta to:
Panama City, Florida.
Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
As the subfleet grows, Delta plans to exclusively deploy these jets on routes from its Atlanta hub that are shorter than 450 miles, or roughly one hour in the air.
These planes won’t be this way forever, as Delta will add the missing amenities in the coming months. A larger cabin overhaul is expected in 2024, according to the Airline Weekly report.
In a statement shared with TPG, a carrier spokesperson said:
As these pre-owned aircraft await modification to match our existing 737-900 fleet, customers on limited short-haul domestic routes will experience a temporary seating configuration and may not have access to seatback entertainment or in-flight Wi-Fi. The integration of these aircraft will provide an increase to our flying capacity, helping get our customers where they want to go this winter and beyond. We apologize for any inconveniences this presents in the interim.
To see if an “inferior” Boeing 737 is operating your flight, take a look at the seat map listed for your flight. If you see 12 first-class and six Comfort+ seats on a 737-900, then you’ll be flying on one of the old Lion Air planes.
While it may seem uncharacteristic for Delta — the airline focused on consistency — to add a subfleet of planes, this is actually the second time this year that the airline has introduced an inferior cabin configuration to its fleet.
In March, TPG was the first to report that the used Airbus A350s that Delta acquired from LATAM would maintain the exact same LOPA, or layout of passenger accommodations, as they did with the South American mega-carrier.
Delta kept the inferior 2-2-2 business-class configuration, and it didn’t even bother adding a Premium Select cabin like you’d find on the airline’s standard A350s. Those shelling out the big bucks (or SkyMiles) for Delta One don’t even enjoy direct aisle access on these planes. (At least Delta added Wi-Fi before these jets were inducted into the fleet.)
Just like Delta is doing with the Lion Air 737s, the airline is deploying the inferior A350s on a subset of routes, primarily leisure-heavy ones that may not have enough demand for Delta’s flagship A350 interiors. Similarly, the airline was in a rush to get these planes inducted in order to backfill for many of the widebodies that it retired during the pandemic.
ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY
Delta still plans to retrofit the used A350s with its signature cabins, but there’s no timeline available for when those reconfigurations will take place.
One other big consideration worth mentioning is the supply chain issues that airlines worldwide are facing. These shortages are the reason that United is falling behind schedule on its fleet-wide retrofit project dubbed United Next, according to Patrick Quayle, the airline’s senior vice president of global network planning and alliances.
Supply chain delays, especially for computer chips, are also plaguing Southwest’s big Wi-Fi upgrade rollout, though the airline is still on track to hit its original target of the third quarter of 2023, said Tony Roach, vice president of customer experience and engagement, at the airline’s recent media days in Dallas.
Perhaps Delta reckons that by waiting a few months, the supply chain shortages will ease up, allowing the carrier to complete its retrofits on a more expeditious timeline.