NEW YORK, Oct. 3, 2007 -- Here's a conversation you'll probably never hear:
"Hey honey, what do you want for dinner?"
"Well, I've kind of got a craving for some of that nice airline food."
The most enjoyable part of the flight, if there is one these days, is seldom the food. But Delta Air Lines hopes to change that perception with a new lounge in midtown Manhattan that showcases the airline's new cuisine, drink and entertainment options.
It won't be taking reservations, but for the next six weeks Delta will be serving some of its new in-flight food offerings — designed by celebrity chef Todd English — at the lounge. Delta is highlighting its new first- and business-class menus and offers a separate for-sale menu in coach priced from $5 to $9.
The new space, called SKY360, is aimed at elite frequent fliers, big corporate clients and other invitation-only guests, but Delta expects 300 to 1,000 other people to walk in off the street for a meal.
The idea behind the lounge: Let people experience the new services and generate buzz about them, said Tim Mapes, Delta's vice president of marketing.
Visitors can sit in Delta's new business-class seats, drink cocktails created by nightclub owner Rande Gerber and check out the airline's new entertainment system.
"You can certainly talk about [these new features] in an ad, but unless you've seen them or sat in them or felt them or tasted them — obviously an experience lets you take full advantage of all five senses, not just sight or hearing it on a radio spot," Mapes said.
Delta recently emerged from bankruptcy, and this lounge is one of the ways it's trying to tell the world that it is back and has fixed past mistakes.
"Delta has gone through troubled times in the past," Mapes said. "This is very much reflective of a new Delta, a fresh Delta and a much more globally innovative Delta."
Delta had a steady stream of people flowing through the lounge at lunchtime today.
Anthony Marino and Lorenzo Tattoli work across the street and decided to check it out.
Both men said it was nice, but that price was still a major factor in determining which airline they fly.
But they both said the food was good.
"If they can compete with JetBlue, I definitely will make the switch," Marino said.
Larry and Bobbie Kunkler learned about the lounge through a TV news report.
Bobbie Kunkler said she remembered the Delta of long ago and wanted to see what they have to offer today.
"It used to be very grand," she said.
The verdict on the food and amenities was positive.
But what really impressed Larry Kunkler were the flight attendants who staff the lounge.
"If they're very enthusiastic, it might be worthwhile to go back to Delta," he said.
The lounge has a light and airy feeling.
The ceiling tiles light up to look like a partially cloudy sky. White couches and white pods overlook the street. Waiters serving food wore shirts at today's opening with the slogan: "Clean Planes Dirty Martinis."
But can an airline be saved by a roast beef Cobb sandwich, a chilled black-olive spaghetti salad or a Mediterranean salad with grilled shrimp?
"For international, it does make [a] difference for your premium customer," said Ray Neidl, an airline analyst with Calyon Securities. "This is just one way of emphasizing that you are providing a competitive and superior service."
Calyon has provided advisory services to Delta in the last year.
Neidl said the lounge makes sense for Delta, which is trying to aggressively expand its New York service, particularly international flights out of JFK.
"New York is a very key market for them," Neidl said. "Continental has been very successful in targeting this market and Delta is trying to duplicate what Continental has done over at Newark [airport]."
Mapes said his airline must move to "front and center in the minds of New Yorkers."
"It's the largest originating travel market in the world and for us it's the single most important market that we focus on," Mapes said. "New York is a highly contested market with a lot of different options available to people to travel virtually anywhere on the planet."
Delta has recently announced 14 new international routes from JFK, including nine destinations not served by any other U.S. major airline from JFK. The routes include cities in Israel, Senegal, Kenya, Jordan, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago.
While renting a corner of Manhattan real estate is not cheap, the benefits for Delta -- even if only a few people buy into this marketing gimmick -- could be huge. Business travelers often buy last-minute tickets costing several times what leisure passengers pay.
So while a family on vacation might have spent $400 on their ticket, a business traveler might spend $2,000 for that very same seat. They also fly more often, both helping an airline's bottom line.
Delta won't disclose how much it is spending but call it a "worthwhile marketing investment."
Airlines have always battled for the business traveler, but recently there has been a new fight for even more lavish amenities and services in the front of the plane. International routes -- the most profitable routes -- have become particularly fierce battle grounds.
As Delta tries to rebuild its airline -- and reputation -- winning over some of these travelers is key to its survival.
This is not the first time Delta has created such a lounge. When it launched its now abandoned discount carrier Song, the airline promoted it with a gallery space in New York's SoHo and in Boston's Prudential Center.
But this space at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 57th Street is significantly larger. While Delta will get some street traffic — passersby were definitely turning their heads today — the real target is business travelers.
Tim Sieber, vice president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm in Colorado, said that Delta is doing this retail marketing approach because it probably got a good response out of its Song campaigns.
He said that the airline is making a huge push in New York and that although Manhattan real estate can't be cheap, just getting a few extra business seats sold will probably pay for the promotion.
"It's great water cooler banter," he said. "It's great guerilla marketing."
Sieber noted that JetBlue has an Airstream trailer that it takes around to events so people can try out its seats and entertainment systems.
"This is a way to get people to experience your product," he said, "before they have to commit to put down their credit card."
The airline is planning to host sports-viewing events — you can watch games in the in-seat entertainment system — and a number of corporate parties.
Don't expect free food all the time. Most days the general public can just get free Cokes and coffees. Folks can also sit back, relax and even use the free wireless Internet. Most of the food will be saved for the business travelers, but each Wednesday, the airline will provide samples of its food-for-sale menu.
And, of course, anybody can come in and sit in an airplane seat any time they want. About the only part of the plane not being shown off in the new lounge is the bathroom.