Kempner: Delta gives passengers a new reason to squirm

12:27 p.m Thursday, April 6, 2017 Business
Delta Air Lines is installing these new seats at its gates at Hartsfield-Jackson. The airline says the design allows it to squeeze in more seating and include more charging outlets. But some passengers say the seats are harder and uncomfortable. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

A lot of airports are getting better at pampering travelers – or at least treating them with less indifference — once they make it through TSA security.

But at the world’s busiest airport, two big airlines that control the most gate space are taking two very different approaches to our true bottom line.

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Southwest has a number of soft seats at its gates at the Atlanta airport.

Delta Air Lines, meanwhile, is busy installing harder ones.

Oh, and it turns out Delta’s new plastic-looking seats in those gate waiting areas will also be “slightly” less wide, according to the carrier. Which sounds like they won’t be able to accommodate quite as much tush per customer.

Passengers will have plenty of time to consider the effect of the changes. Big airports often recommend travelers show up at least two hours before scheduled flights, because, well, who knows how long it will take to get through TSA security lines with their happy sniffing dogs, body scanners and guys with latex gloves.

Consultants say the more time passengers spend in airports (but not in security lines), the more money they spend on the growing assortment of improved shops, bars and restaurants that help generate revenue for airports.

At some airports, you can use iPads stationed at gates to order delivery of food or miscellaneous items from airport businesses. Heck, casino operators have even suggested putting a gambling complex at the Atlanta airport. 

But Delta is in the midst of rolling out a bit of tough love at its gates at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Delta says the new seats will ensure everyone has their own armrests on each side (because apparently we don’t want to sit close to strangers when arm territory is in question). Also many seats will have a plug and USB port to charge mobile phones and devices – which really is a valuable upgrade. And Delta says the configuration of the seats and their reduced width will allow for more seating at the gates.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Southwest Airlines offers a mix of seating at its gates, including these comforting creations at Hartsfield-Jackson. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

They’re also designed to be more durable and easier to clean. A representative of the seat manufacturer told my colleague that the new seats get more flexible when exposed to body heat for about 10 minutes. The idea of strangers warming my airport seat to the point of malleability is vaguely discomforting.

Delta also suggested that the contoured seats will provide more support. Travelers I spoke with as they sat in the seats generally had a different take.

“They seem less ergonomic,” said Patti Worsham, who was returning from a California vacation and waiting for a connecting flight to her home in Savannah. “I don’t think they are very comfortable.”

I asked some folks what words they would use to describe the new seating.

“Hard.”

“Sleek design but they are rather unforgiving.”

“Uncomfortable, but I don’t expect much more.”

“Plasticy.”

Of course, many people shrug off the little things that often make travel annoying.

“It’s not the most comfortable [seat], but I managed to fall asleep anyway,” LaDawn Noble of Danville, Va. told me.

One reader commenting on the AJC’s earlier story about the seats had this reaction: “First world problems. Get over it.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Southwest Airlines offers a mix of seating at its gates in Atlanta, including these more basic designs. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Of course, it’s nice when businesses manage to wring out indignities and discomforts, rather than adding new ones.

Southwest sometimes takes heat for not offering assigned seating on its planes. But at its gates, the airline offers a variety of seating including soft, relaxing chairs reminiscent of living room furniture. (A Southwest spokesman emailed that the airline is “always reviewing our gate set ups to ensure we’re meeting the needs of our Customers and ensuring they have the best experience while traveling Southwest.”)

Is Delta’s veer toward harder seats part of an attempt to dissuade passengers from spending lots of time waiting near gates, rather than shopping, visiting restaurants or paying to spend time in the company’s Sky Clubs? Seems like a reasonable question, especially since an executive for a contractor handling Delta’s gate renovations told my colleague that “there’s a lot of focus on the passenger experience and getting passengers out to a lot of the concessions.”

Delta pushed back against that idea.

And Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Reese McCranie emailed me that “As an airport, we aren’t prescriptive on where passengers congregate and the choice is up to the individual passengers whether it’s waiting at the gate, eating at a restaurant or admiring one of our many art installations.”

Travelers at airports are a lot like fans at sports and entertainment venues, said Derrick Choi, who leads the aviation practice for the big architectural firm Populous. Fans and travelers “are equally demanding and equally being monetized every step of the way.”

“There’s definitely a lot of interest among a lot of our airport clients on how they can improve the customer experience. The longer dwell times are clearly creating more opportunities.”

But many airports are attempting to make gate areas more inviting and comfortable, he said. Choi helped design a new airport seat that won top honors in a competition by an industry trade publication. The design, slated to be used at the Dubai International Airport, would allow consumers to lock and store carry-on luggage under the seat, pivot the seat to be part of a group setting or lay it flat to sleep on.

But maybe there’s another future down the road, especially for a company like Delta that already has four or five levels of seating on its planes, depending on how much you’re willing to pay.

Could you imagine a day when U.S. airlines or airports would charge travelers who want access to comfortable seats at gates?

I know where a cheapo like me would end up: Standing.

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