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I needed to buy a last minute ticket for work recently and Delta was the only option left that had seats and a schedule that matched what I needed. After I bought the ticket, Delta gave me an option to buy-up to first class. The price was right and I had wanted to compare what I had read about Delta’s first class product being great to what I had experienced on United, so I purchased the buy-up.

Time to examine the hype.

The App

For work travel, I rely heavily on airline iPhone apps to keep me updated and to do basic maintenance on my reservations (change seats, make reservations, etc.). The first thing I noticed using the Delta app is just how clunky it is. Sure, picking a seat is relatively easy, but making a booking in the app is a frustrating process. The app does validation before you submit a flight search and will pop up an error if your origin and destination are the same. So, if you need to reverse your search, you have to put in a third airport code to be able to switch the origin and destination without error. There are quirks like this throughout the app. It is the same thing for flight information as well. Some items are clickable and lead to more info, but there is no visual way to know that an item has that feature without clicking on everything so you end up sitting there, hitting random parts of the screen, looking for what you want. Compared to United’s app, which is powerful, yet relatively easy to use, Delta’s app seems to need some serious work.

The Trip

Before traveling, I had added my known traveler number to the reservation and on check-in received PreCheck. Knowing I have PreCheck allows me to show up at Portland’s airport about an hour before boarding and have plenty of time to grab a cup of coffee and do some work before getting on the plane, so that’s what I did. I walked up to the security area, opened up my mobile boarding pass and saw an orange icon indicating that my flight had been delayed. Knowing that an agent would be able to help me at the gate, I proceeded through security.

Making it through security, I look at the delay one more time and realize I will miss my connection because of it. I proceed to the gate and get in line to speak with the gate agent. An agent comes over and asks if I need something, to which I reply, “I believe my flight to Minneapolis is delayed and I will miss my connection”. She says, “I am closing out this flight and I’m not working that flight, walk down the hall and there are phones where you can call Delta”. Ok, that makes sense, so I walk down the hall and sure enough, there are phones. They’re all taken by people trying to fix their plans as well but there is a sign with a 1800 number so I dial it. The prompts ask if I am in the airport and when I reply yes, the wait is no more than 2 minutes to speak to an agent. The agent tells me that she cannot find any options on the same day but that she will see if she can find something on another carrier. A few minutes later she tells me my only options are to spend the night in Minneapolis or take a redeye via Atlanta. I ask if the hotel in Minneapolis will be covered to which she replies, “you would need to ask the agents in Minneapolis”. I am not willing to take that risk so I ask her to explore the American Airlines flight to Chicago that is showing an F seat for sale. She can’t find it. I run to the AA gate to see if they will simply sell me the seat (I’d refund the Delta ticket). Nope, they just cleared a standby into it. Sorry.

Back on the phone I accept the redeye option, simply because I was not comfortable spending the night and trusting that Delta would take care of the hotel (there was weather that night in the area). Well, time to head home because I have another nine hours before my new flight leaves. Here is what I originally booked (red), versus what I was rebooked on (navy).

Nine hours later I was back at the airport for the red-eye to Atlanta. I had hoped to review the meal options on the original flight but the delay squashed that idea. Now my goal was to get as much sleep as possible but I knew that would be a challenge. Onboard there was a bottle of water, a small pillow, and a blanket at the seat. The seat pitch was pretty standard but what I noticed was the lack of an adjustable headrest on the seat. It seems that most of the Delta domestic fleet is the same, missing the adjustable headrests that you can manipulate to rest your head to one side. The flight attendants come by asking if passengers would like anything before we take off. I order a whiskey and water, a nightcap if you will, and it’s quickly delivered.

The safety video comes on. It’s cute but man is it lengthy.

The pilot makes a quick announcement that he won’t be making any other announcements until our descent into Atlanta and that our flight time will be four hours (OUCH!). A few minutes later and we’re in the air. I put on an eye mask and attempt to get some sleep, but, to be honest, it didn’t go well. The seats are comfortable but there is not a lot in the way of lumbar support and without an adjustable headrest I can’t really lean one direction. The entire flight was spent with me readjusting to try and get comfortable and I ended up getting maybe 1-2 hours of sleep.

We landed in Atlanta on time and that gave me about 35 minutes to use the restroom, brush my teeth and make my connection. I walked from concourse A to concourse B and made it to the gate right as they were starting to board. I looked for a coffee shop nearby but there was nothing, the upside being I could try the much touted Starbucks coffee that Delta serves in first.

Legroom in First on the Airbus A320.

Onboard the flight attendant greeted everyone with a friendly “Good morning!”. She then came around first class asking if we would like anything before takeoff. A few minutes later and I was tasting the coffee. It wasn’t bad. Not great, but drinkable, which says a lot about airplane coffee. The taste was much more of what you expect in coffee and less of that metallic and chalky taste you sometimes get from airplane coffee. I was in the bulkhead seat on the Airbus A320 and found the legroom to be fine. There is a little cut out for your feet and that makes it comfortable. If I was a little taller the legroom would have been tight.

There was no overhead entertainment so the safety demo was done by the flight attendants and it went by much faster than the video shown above. A short time later we were in the air.

It was a quick flight to Milwaukee so the only service was beverages and a snack basket (I had a banana and some Biscoff cookies, if you were wondering). I tried to use the Delta Studio streaming entertainment but could not get it to work. Every time I connected I received a screen like below and could never get to the list of shows.

Failed attempt to try the streaming entertainment

An hour and half later and we were on the ground in Milwaukee and I was on my way to work.

Conclusion

Overall, there was nothing about the experience that blew me away making me want to switch permanently to Delta. The boarding process was just as chaotic as United’s, with people blocking the boarding lanes 15 or 20 minutes before the flight is scheduled to board.

Boarding. Just as chaotic as on other carriers.

The way the delayed flight was handled left a lot to be desired. I didn’t want to go into details above but the agent was not proactive in finding other options and I had to suggest a number of things. She also insisted on putting me in coach until I pushed back about being in first class. I am not an elite on Delta so I wonder if that had something to do with it.

For flying a relatively old fleet, the Airbus I was on is 23.3 years old, Delta does a pretty good job keeping the interiors clean and well kept. I didn’t see any panels loosely hanging or build ups of dirt and grime anywhere. The lavatories on both flights were the cleanest I have ever seen on an airplane.

I was happy to finally get to try Delta on a mainline flight in first. I am planning a few more flights on them since some of their schedules to certain destinations are better than what United offers. I am also flying Alaska back to Seattle at the end of this week and hope write a review about their new E-175 service as soon as I can.

Last week, United announced that they would be moving their p.s. (Premium Service) operation from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Newark Liberty International Airport. At first, I scratched my head, then I watched the flood of posts about how this is a terrible move, then I read rebuttals that it is a genius move. As with most things, the reality is somewhere in the middle.

Snowy morning at Newark.
United will cease operations at JFK in October of 2015 and move the p.s. flights to Newark. This means there will be no more service at all for United at JFK. This was done via a slot swap with Delta, basically trading landing rights at each airline’s hub. United has said that this will help boost connecting traffic via Newark from the west coast, especially the European destinations served only out of Newark and United’s only flights to India. The move will also give business class customers a flat-bed seat from the west coast to those same destinations.

With the addition of p.s. service at Newark Liberty, United customers flying on transcontinental flights to and from Newark in the BusinessFirst cabin will, for the first time, enjoy flat-bed comfort for their entire journey when connecting to and from flights across United’s extensive trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific networks.

As Seth points out, there are some huge operational benefits as well, including having 757-200s with more BusinessFirst seats at their disposal. It also frees up some Airbus and Boeing planes to operate other routes rather than doubling up on New York service as United was doing previously.

These aircraft are also occasionally serving Hawaii and other domestic destinations as the older 752s are being retired out of the fleet. By putting all of them into the same pool of potential aircraft it is possible to shift capacity much more easily.

The rest of Seth’s analysis is worth a read too, as usual, he’s level headed and reasonable when it comes to reporting aviation news.

At first, I had very mixed feelings about the move. Terminal 7 at JFK where United operates is a prime example of how bad an airport experience can get. Terrible security lines, no real amenities in the terminal, and at times, a lot of overcrowding all made me despise the experience. But, JFK is convenient for a lot of Brooklyn, Queens, and the rest of Long Island. I took a few red-eyes from the west coast to be at our offices around the Brooklyn area and it was a really quick transfer. I find the transfer from Newark to Manhattan to be about as long as the one from JFK to Manhattan and sometimes Newark is faster, depending on traffic and which way your cab driver decides to go. Also, Newark has come a long way in terms of amenities. It’s clean and for the most part well lit and while I am not a huge fan of the OTG changes, the food options are still much better than what is available at Terminal 7 at JFK. The one big downside of moving things to Newark is the United Clubs. I do not use them a lot, but every time I do they are packed. As in, can’t find a seat packed. It is usually around the time of the west coast and European departures but I have also seen it that crowded early in the morning. If United does something to help alleviate the crowding issues, there is not much left to say about this not being a good move.

Just think about it. You live in San Francisco but have a meeting in Hartford, Connecticut. With this move by United you can now fly in BusinessFirst overnight and catch the early morning flight to Hartford at Newark, rather than having to drive from JFK up that way. Or, if you are catching a European connection, you can now get the BusinessFirst experience rather than a domestic first class seat, all the way from your origin to your destination. Still don’t want to trek to Newark? There are always the flights out LaGuardia.