I Flew Delta and Kinda Liked It (Still Not Sure I’d Do It Again)

Yesterday morning I wrote that I would be flying Delta domestically for the first time since 2010. While I’ve found SkyMiles to be the least rewarding major frequent flyer program in the US, even now that United and American have largely mirrored the model of moving to revenue-based earning, devalued award charts, and reduced availability, they’ve had the best airline operation of the US majors.

So you choose to fly Delta for flights that aren’t cancelled, and largely operate on time, not for the miles.

I bought a Delta first class ticket Austin – New York JFK on an Airbus A319 which was $50 more than connecting between Austin and New York in the afternoon on American. (American has one non-stop a day, in the morning.)

Ironically, given the vaunted on-time reputation, a little over 2 hours prior to departure I received an email that my flight would be delayed.

I have to give them credit, though. Once the inbound aircraft took off in Los Angeles, they knew when it would arrive in Austin and when it would depart. So they kept to the revised schedule.

Prior to boarding the gate announced that passengers wouldn’t be able to use the lavatory on the ground. Apparently there was a vacuum issue identified on the plane in Kansas City this morning. They sent it to Los Angeles (on time) and then delayed an hour out of Los Angeles but didn’t have time to fix it. So passengers would have to wait until 10,000 feet.

Boarding was those needing extra time (which was no one on this flight) and then first class and Diamond mediallions. Here’s the strange thing. No one was crowding the gate area. People didn’t get up until their group was called, more or less, though 3 first class passengers were standing in line just before the boarding call.

One passenger cleared their upgrade at the start of boarding.

Predeparture beverages were offered, which I didn’t much worry about because there were small bottles of water at each seat although my seat opponent had a whiskey rocks.

Blanket and pillow were provided, too.

I was in row 2, here’s the bulkhead seats. I found legroom to be noticeably less than on American Airlines. Does an inch or two make a difference? It did to me, first because the seemingly-large video screen felt too close to my face and without those couple of inches made the seat seem a bit claustrophobic. And second because the passenger in front of me reclined his seat back into my reasonably small laptop.

I’m not used to having to buy gogo inflight internet on a one-off, I pay for a monthly subscription with American (which makes buying American tickets cheaper than buying from another airline, when ticket price is constant). So I was a bit shocked by the $30 internet price for the flight.

I hoped that for $30 I might get a reasonably fast Gogo install, not only does Delta have the latest air to ground service on many aircraft they’re beginning their install of fast satellite-based service. Unfortunately internet was pretty slow (but it was usable throughout the entire flight which is above average).

The choices for lunch were salmon with butternut squash and Indonesian barbecue chicken. Hot towels were distributed before lunch.

I had the salmon which was a nice big piece, and really flavorful.

The meal was followed by a pass of the snack basket.

Crew came around with a couple more passes of the snack basket and to refill drinks. When it was time to land the flight attendant up front returned jackets like it was on purpose, literally presenting each passenger with their jacket as he returned them. And he distributed bottled water to each passenger prior to landing as well.

We spent a good bit of time stuck in New York airspace, so while it seemed for most of the flight that we would make up much of our delay in the end an hour’s delay leaving Austin meant an hour’s delay getting into New York. Once we arrived though we had been assigned to a new gate, and that gate was occupied, so we waited another 20 minutes or so while connecting passengers grew more and more nervous.

Given the generous provisioning and little touches like a bottle of water at each first class seat when boarding and at the end of the flight overall I’d call this my second best domestic flight under 1500 miles this year.

It’s only one flight and I can’t truly judge off a single data point, but so far I’d rate Delta’s product meaningfully behind Virgin America inflight but with a soft product clearly better than United and American — however those couple of lost inches between each seat was a real loss for ease of work.

In order to be loyal to a brand though I need to feel like I’m something other than a punching bag, which is how the SkyMiles program treats members in my opinion. I believe they don’t even have to provide more value, necessarily, just more honesty and they’d have a product I’d consider.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. What about Skyteam relative to Star Alliance and Oneworld? Do you think Skyteam is a “negative” for DL compared to UA and AA?

    Also consider DL’s relationships with their partners within the alliance… I know UA has issues with SQ. AA doesn’t seem to have issues with their OW partners to the point they intentionally dismantle the relationship to the absolute bare minimum as required by the alliance agreement…

  2. Totally agree with @Golfingboy. Being NYC based (but geographically generally limited to LGA or JFK) every few months I feel compelled to switch to Delta for the better domestic inflight product and better flight options out of LGA and JFK compared to AA. The kicker for me, however, is always their Asia coverage. If they played nice with Korean Airlines or China Airlines, I could probably be covered, but not getting full MQMs on CI, and getting no MQMs on KE, is a dealbreaker. (And the DL codeshare options often don’t work out.) No way I’m taking China Eastern.

  3. >So you choose to fly Delta for flights that aren’t cancelled, and largely operate on time, not for the miles.
    Indeed. My other domestic airline is American, where one is always on tenterhooks about schedule.
    That said two comments are spot on: Delta has wayyy less First legroom than American and it’s even worse on their new 737-900s (which I don’t like). But, their inflight service is decent.

  4. Skymiles is the pits (though honestly is AAdvantage better these days with the saver evisceration?), but Delta is hands down the best, consistent domestic mainline experience. That’s coming from an SFO-based UA GS who goes with DL whenever he can.

  5. Not sure if I got it from Richard or someone else it entered my lexicon many years from somewhere

    All seats were ~ 36 inch pitch in F so no not just bulkhead

  6. I think Delta Airlines offers the best on-time flights across North America and has also mproved their first class product during the last year.

  7. Speedtest.net download speed doesn’t seem to be great indicator of usability for browsing ease/email/etc in the air given that you’re unlikely to be downloading large files and/or streaming movies (hopefully)… I find DL’s Gogo to be infinitely more usable than AA (haven’t flown UA in forever). AA is painful … I’d want a refund if it weren’t covered by Amex biz plat.

  8. I’m so disappointed with AAdvantage lately. I actually find better awards on Skymiles these days. It’s a little better than it used to be but AA has gotten so much worse. I’m avoiding AA because of AAdvantage

  9. AA is a joke, every time I fly them I have some sort of problem. One more set of vouchers to redeem and then it’s on to the next airline…

  10. From Gary: “I was in row 2, here’s the bulkhead seats. I found legroom to be noticeably less than on American Airlines. Does an inch or two make a difference? It did to me, first because the seemingly-large video screen felt too close to my face and without those couple of inches made the seat seem a bit claustrophobic. And second because the passenger in front of me reclined his seat back into my reasonably small laptop.”

    I can’t agree with you enough. I’ve been a Delta elite for over 10 years and I’ve really noticed how cramped FC on domestic medium haul has become, especially 319s, 320s, and 737s.

    I made the following comment when I did a review of an American domestic flight:

    Jimmy – “It has been some time since I have flown in an American Airlines domestic first class cabin and one of the first things I noticed was the significant leg room. In reviewing the numbers, it isn’t uncommon for Delta to have 36” of pitch in their domestic first class cabin. This plane had 40” of pitch. I single out Delta in this regard because I have flown so much with them in the last 10 years. American’s seat width on this plane was 21” which is common for first class in the US.”

    With the recent couple domestic first class American flights I’ve had, American really wins on the leg room. Enjoyed the review and Thanks.

  11. I’d argue that having more than 8 F seats on an A319 is a big plus – besides the obvious upgrade issue, i’m finding it increasingly difficult to get discounted F on some AA routes because they 0 out A quickly.

  12. >>> Did you credit your flights to Alaska? Best deal going these days is DL paid F with credit to AS. <<<

    I'll have to remember that for the future, given Virgin America's imminent demise. I'm not optimistic Alaska is going to adopt VX's first class product, let alone improve upon it. Who knows? I might be flying DL . . .

  13. @Gene I was torn, I was going to, but more for ‘science’ I wanted to see points post to Starwood for Crossover Rewards (how long would it take for instance) so I gave up some value intentionally

  14. Out of NY, I fly American and Delta more or less exclusively these days. I’ve been taking advantage of an AA promotion and flying them more, but Delta offers a fuller route network out of the NYC area and a generally better soft product. Better snack basket, drink in MCE, etc, better operations, etc. Just a better airline overall. American in F isn’t bad, but ideally out of NYC its good to keep status on both airlines if possible.

  15. I don’t fly DL much, either. That photo of the FC legroom — particularly the bulkhead — is shocking to me. I guess there’s a cut-out for your feet. Unless it’s a camera angle “trick,” that’s not a first class experience. Odd, because, as you say, the “soft product” sounds pretty good.

  16. Gary – if you have a Gogo monthly subscription it should work on any gogo powered domestic flight, regardless of operating carrier. My subscription is with DL but always works on AA flight with no extra charge. I’ve been doing this for years.

  17. Claustrophobic seats with terrible legroom and a frequent flyer program that’s 20% less rewarding (using published “what are miles worth” info) against overall reliability knowing when your flight boards and departs, orderly boarding, pillows and blankets on shorthauls, personal IFEs, pre-departure beverages, good food, good service, even more snacks brought to you etc.?

    That’s a tough trade-off. Surprised DL hasn’t increased their legroom as they would wipe out the competition.

  18. So as I write this, I’m taxiing to the gate following a midday AUS-ATL flight. I currently have top status with AA and United and much like you Gary I decided to try Delta since I hadn’t flown on them in several years, had already requalified status for the year, and I wanted to try out DL to serve as a point of comparison.

    I flew economy but through the Crossover Rewards program with SPG I was able to getting boarding zone 1 and could be added to the Comfort+ and First upgrade lists which. After checking in I was able to view the upgrade lists and immediately saw I wasn’t going to have any chance at first which was to be expected. However, I was 1 of 1 for Comfort+ with 6 seats showing available which I deemed as promising.

    As the departure time got closer, I noticed a few of the Comfort+ seats disappearing, which I assumed were other passengers buying up. However, throughout the day when I checked, I continued to be 1 of 1 for an upgrade to Comfort+.

    When I got to the airport, I went to the gate and saw that our incoming flight was a little late getting in but not much, although it looked like boarding would be delayed. I went to get a sandwich in the meantime.

    When I got back to the gate, it was a few minutes past our scheduled boarding time but the gate agent was at the departure door podium. The agent then made an announcement that the flight was nearly full and anyone in boadding group 3 and most of group 2 would need to check their bags. I saw some people get up but since I was in group 1 I didn’t really pay attention. I checked my Delta app – still 1 of 1 but now only 2 seats available, although it looks liked 2 people in first class had cleared. I began to wonder when my upgrade would be processed.

    After announcing an invitation for preboards, the agent then followed with an announcement for premium cabin customers. By now, the boarding area was pretty crowded and I noticed a few people having to weave their way through the passengers to get to the gate. I checked again on the upgrade to comfort+ – I was still 1 of 1 with two seats available.

    The agent proceeded with boarding, first by inviting those with “Sky” on their boarding pass to board (delta elites I assumed) and then my group 1. The voaedomg area by this point was fully jammed with the usual preboarding stage rush of passengers. I noticed several people tried to board through the general lane (everyone up to their point had been instructed to use the priority lane) which the agent them redirected to the priority one (who then promptly cut everyone else waiting in the priority line anyway but whatever).

    I checked the app again, still 1 of 1 for Comfort+ but with no upgrade cleared indication. Being unfamiliar with Deltasone upgrade process and/or announcements, I thought perhaps when I boarded it might clear automatically or the agent when have a pre-printed one waiting from me similar to how United does sometimes. I got up to the agent to scan my boarding pass – ding – I boarded with my same seat, still no upgrade.

    As I was waiting in the jet way to get to the plane with other waiting passengers, I checked the app again, thinking maybe someone had purchased an upgrade to Comfort+ at the last minute. Nope, there is was 1 of 1 with two seats still available. I proceeded to the plane and took my seat, thinking perhaps that they would then process upgrades after boarding was complete. I waited, through all the usual preflight announcements, still nothing. I saw what I thought was the gate agent (not 100% sure, I was pretty far back in row 31) get onboard and I started to think this was for the upgrade. Again, nope.

    We then taxied out to the runway and took off. I checked the app one last time and there is was – 1 of 1 with two seats open. I took a screen shot to save for later and decide if it was worth calling to complain about. During the flight I walked by and confirmed that two seats were indeed open leaving me in my original seat for some unexplained reason. The nearly full flight likely negated any potential weight/balance issues.

    Otherwise, the flight itself was uneventful other than an unusually rough landing. I didn’t notice any real discernable difference DL and your typical UA or AA flight in economy, beyond the better user interface of the in-seat entertainment system than what can be found on your normal AA flight (and as you know UA mostly doesn’t even offer in-seat interactive screens on most domestic flights so both the AA and DL outperform them here). I purchased in flight internet which was spotty but mostly functional for the light emailing I was doing.

    I’ll be returning on DL in a few days at another off-peak time so we’ll see how the upgrade process goes a second time. I intend to be more proactive on this flight to make sure I better understand the process. While this is a low bar, I am curious to try the full Comfort+ experience so hopefully the upgrade goes through next time. But to be clear, the outbound flight defintely left a bad taste in my mouth, if only for the reason that the lack of a good explanation was frustrating.

  19. @Sid, mate any reason you didn’t just ask the gate agent about the upgrade? Particular if you weren’t sure how Delta processes?

  20. Last week we flew Delta First Class RT to Seattle from Las Vegas on a Boeing 717. Service was OK but neither flight served a meal even though they were over lunch time (11:30 AM to 2:15 PM). All we got was the snack tray. I thought that was really odd.

  21. Just an FYI: if you want the lowest go go price, you typically need to purchase preflight. It’ll cost $16. The only time this doesn’t work is short jumps. Also, sign up with your smallest device (mobile phone) first and switch off and power up your laptop or iPad.

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