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Delta’s goal: 24% fewer seats left for upgrades by 2018

by on Thu December 17, 2015 • 2 Comments


Delta Air Lines is hosting its Investor Day for institutional investors, and is talking up its incredible run of profitability and plans for the future.

One chart they’ve released is very, very relevant if you’re a frequent flier.

It shows how many First Class and Comfort + seats Delta plans to have in the future, and more important, how many it expects to sell outright, rather than leave empty or available for complimentary upgrades to SkyMiles Medallion members.


  • Today, Delta is selling just over half of its First Class seats, rather than giving them away as upgrades.
  • In 3 years, it hopes to sell 70% of those seats.
  • And even in the Comfort+ extra legroom section, Delta is currently selling just over a third of its seats to paying customers.
  • In 3 years, it hopes to sell about half of them.

The numbers in Delta’s charts above let you back into the number of seats left for upgrades (or simply to fly empty) in each cabin if Delta’s goals are met, and what percent of total seats in each cabin they represent.

When you factor in the seats Delta is planning to add to the cabins, you get a grim picture of what’s left for upgrades or other non paid access.

We backed into those numbers in the charts below:


  • In 3 years, Delta’s goals imply 24% fewer seats remaining for potential upgrades to First Class versus this year. Just 30% of First Class seats will be left for upgrades if Delta’s goals are met.
  • And in Comfort+, it looks like the number of seats remaining after paid passengers are seated will be about flat versus 2015.
  • But, the percentage of seats left in Comfort+ drops from 64% to 50%. That means a lot more frequent fliers will be left with the choice to ‘upgrade’ to a middle seat with extra legroom on a typical flight.

Comparing the goals to 2013, the trends are stark.

In just 5 years, the number of First Class seats left for upgrades will have plummeted 37%.

And while from 2013 to this year, there was a 17% reduction in the number of First Class seats remaining for potential upgrades, the number of Comfort+ seats available for complimentary assignment grew 12%.

That softened the blow for Delta’s Medallion frequent fliers, who get free upgrades to First Class and Comfort+.

And that softening factor won’t be there if Delta’s goal plays out, since the number of Comfort+ seats it hopes to have left over in 2018 will be about flat versus this year, while the number of seats left over in First Class drops 24%.

So if you thought it’s been harder to upgrade lately, buckle up because it’s about to get even harder if Delta’s plans play out.

The upshot to this is First Class is often more affordable than it was a decade ago. You can get a lie flat international style seat from New York to Los Angeles for under $1,500 roundtrip on many days, while some First Class fares run less than $500 roundtrip.

And if there’s a drop in demand, either via a slower economy or more seats on competitors, Delta will be left with a lot more premium seats on its planes than today, which could mean more upgrade opportunities or cheaper prices for them.

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2 thoughts on Delta’s goal: 24% fewer seats left for upgrades by 2018

  1. Christian

    I’m very interested in the $500 round trip NYC-LAX in first class that you mentioned. While I live nowhere near either city, that price is amazing. How far out can you find availability for 2 – 4 people? Which airlines offer this price? Is this on a 3 class plane? Thanks.


      @Christian – There’s a sub $1,500 roundtrip NYC-LAX in 3 cabin First Class on AA ($1,360 with about 30 days advance purchase or so). Sub $500 is on more garden variety routes like JFK-FLL.


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