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This could go one of two ways. Passengers could revolt, taking to social media to complain about Delta's decision to reduce recline on 62 airplanes. Or customers could be pleasantly surprised at how much space they'll have under Delta's new test configuration.

Delta Air Lines is doing something unusual to try to boost customer satisfaction: It is reducing seat recline by roughly half on 62 airplanes that often fly business routes shorter than two hours.

It is tempting to see this as an anti-passenger move. But Delta operates slightly differently than most U.S. airlines, offering more free food, legroom, and even some wider seats than many of its competitors. Not every plane is more comfortable in the competition, but Delta may offer a better overall experience than most other airlines, save for perhaps JetBlue Airways. Delta executives argue this allows it to charge slightly more than other airlines when they compete directly.

With this recent move, Delta claims it’s reducing recline because passengers want more space to watch TV, surf the internet, and eat and drink.

“This is not a push to add seats to the cabin or find a way to reduce the pitch of the seats,” Ekrem Dimbiloglu, director of onboard product and customer experience, said in an interview. “It’s about ensuring an optimal experience.”

Delta is making the change only on its Airbus A320s, now with 157 seats. The first airplane will start flying this weekend, with the rest coming within the next two months. The airline calls the program a test, but it’s open-ended.

Seats in economy class, including extra-legroom seats, will recline two inches, down from four. In first class, seats will go from more than five inches of recline to roughly three and a half.

The Recline Conundrum

Recline long has been a big issue for airlines, since some customers like it, while others object to another passenger invading their space.

In recent years, airlines have crammed more seats into each plane and legroom has gotten tighter. They have added the seats to reduce unit costs, in part so they could compete better with lower fares offered by discount airlines. It also helps boost profits.

Delta has been a little less aggressive with densification than other carriers — it still has nine seats across on its Boeing 777, rather than 10, like United Airlines and American Airlines — but it has added seats, shrinking legroom.

Economy class passengers on the A320 now have 30 or 31 inches of pitch, according to the airline, a little less than they had a few years ago, when Delta added seven seats to each aircraft.

But even after the retrofit, Delta’s recline remained generous — perhaps too generous for all passengers to enjoy the new TV screens and high-speed Wi-Fi.

“We have made a large investment inflight entertainment,” Dimbiloglu said. “We wanted to make sure customers can capitalize on that. There are a lot of folks who are multitasking. You will see a lot of folks out with their tablets and laptops along with watching TV.”

Keeping Track

Delta will monitor passenger surveys to see what customers think.

If they approve, Delta might reduce recline on other jets. If they don’t, the airline could reverse its decision, or perhaps tweak the recline.

“Maybe we will stay at these 2 inches or maybe we will find a happy medium between 2 and 4,” Dimbiloglu said.

Delta is unlikely to stay with any approach its customers do not like. On its first quarter earnings call this week, Delta executives bragged about airline’s domestic net promoter score, which measures how likely its customers are to recommend it, saying it increased 7 points, year-over-year, to 50. That ranks it as “excellent,” according to the company that develops the score. The average airline score is considerably lower.

“This is the reason we sustained the best revenue premium in the industry,” CEO Ed Bastian told analysts.

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Tags: airline passenger experience, customer experience, delta air lines

Photo credit: About three years ago, Delta Air Lines retrofitted its Airbus A320 family aircraft. The airline now will reduce recline on A320 jets. Delta Air Lines

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