Delta Cabin Upgrades: Start Of Something Bigger?

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Delta's announcement today that it will pump $770 million into upgrading 225 mid-life narrowbody cabins by 2017 comes as no surprise to those who follow the carrier closely. 

While the airline hasn't stopped ordering new aircraft, it makes no bones about its strategy of getting the most out of its existing assets, from upgrading its cabins to buying entire aircraft to serve as spare parts providers for MD-80s. But the big-ticket spend could be more than just another step in one airline's strategic makeover, reckons RBC Capital Markets analyst Robert Stallard. 

"With capacity expansion plans in place and global airlines in the black we think those with more dated fleets, such as the U.S. mainlines, will be investing in their cabin product in order to better compete, particularly in the higher-margin business class product," Stallard said in a note sent out shortly after Delta's announcement.

Suppliers are expressing similar optimism. B/E Aerospace--reported by Stallard as one of the big winners in the Delta deal, which itself is the latest step in a fleet-wide effort that dates back several years--said in October that the previous quarter's retrofit market was stronger than anticipated. 

While more appealing interiors are part of the motivation behind refreshes, a stronger one is intra-airframe upgauging, otherwise known as fitting more seats in the same tube. For instance, some back-of-the-napkin scribbling shows that Delta's slimline seats--supplied by B/E Aerospace--will help boost A319 capacity by six seats per aircraft and A320 capacity by 10, for a total of 1,132 new seats in 126 Airbus-family narrowbodies. 

Put another way, Delta is adding the capacity equivalent of nine A320s in the new 126-seat layout (or 737-800s, which also have 126 seats) without taking on a single additional pilot, cabin crew, or ground crew salary to move them.

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