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Delta BusinessElite JFK-LAX Review

by on April 7, 2011 · 16 comments

in Delta, Trip Reports

Unlike many New Yorkers, I actually love Los Angeles. Yes, it has it’s quirks and downsides (like traffic), but there’s just so much to love, like the weather and laid back lifestyle (well at least compared to NYC). I guess it also helps that I have an amazing group of friends and family on the west coast to go along with the great hotels, food and nightlife. In fact, just writing this post makes me want to book a trip right now (update: I just checked and prices for Easter weekend are $477, so I’m going to hold off a bit – the max I like to pay for that route is $320 – which is becoming exceedingly hard to accomplish these days).

One of the great things about being a Delta Medallion is that you are eligible for upgrades within North America (excluding Hawaii), the Caribbean and some cities in South America. The South America flights that are excluded are those that have BusinessElite (international business class) equipped cabins. The complimentary upgrade program even includes the JFK-LAX/SFO routes which are operated by BusinessElite equipped 757 aircraft, that have 16 business class seats (down from the cramped 20+ seat cabin on most 757s). In addition to comfier recliner-style seats, the in-cabin service also mirrors the international product: appetizer course, warm bread, choice of 3 entrees, cheese or ice cream sundae dessert and pre-arrival snack (often warm cookies). This sure beats the wrap/salad and snack basket service on most domestic first class flights.

Los Angeles and San Francisco are premium routes, with competition from United, American, Continental, Virgin America and JetBlue, so those with BusinessElite tickets (whether they are paid, with miles or upgraded) also get SkyClub lounge access – something you generally don’t get even when you purchase a domestic first class ticket. FYI: a little known fact is that you also get SkyClub access when you have a first class, BusinessElite or full Y fare ticket and traveling between JFK and Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Phoenix, Orange County and San Diego (for proof go here and then scroll to the bottom Glossary of Terms, first definition). The lounge access is standard for me anyway because Delta gives me full SkyClub membership as a Delta Diamond and I also have it as an American Express Platinum cardholder.

While this route is eligible for Medallion upgrades, they don’t clear in advance like most other Delta flights. Delta normally uses an automatic system to process Medallion upgrades – if seats are available for upgrades (some algorithm which only gives out as many seats as Delta thinks they won’t sell) then Diamonds get them 5 days out (before Platinums), Platinums at 5 days, Golds at 3 and poor Silvers at 1 day. In my experience my Diamond upgrades generally process at 6 days before the flight around 5pm EST. The, “You’ve been upgraded” email notifications are among my favorite emails to receive.

Well, for the JFK-LAX/SFO route, Delta does not release any advance upgrade space. This means it’s a battlefield upgrade all the way – at the mercy of the gate agent, which is always bound to be a stress inducing down-t0-the-wire type situation. The reason why I hate gate upgrades is because they usually process minutes before boarding begins, so it’s very difficult to plan ahead, especially with regards to eating a meal before you board. I personally like the BusinessElite dining experience, so I try not to eat crappy airport food if I know the upgrade is going to happen. Luckily there are tools, like Expertflyer.com and Delta.com to help determine the upgrade likelihood, though many things can happen to upgrade space leading up to the list getting processed. Even after you are cleared into a first class seat at the gate, it’s still possible to get downgraded because the gate agent may have misjudged whether a connecting passenger would make the flight and if they actually show up and they paid for the seat, you are SOL and have to do the walk of shame back to coach. This has never happened to me, but I know enough people who have had this experience and it’s pretty cruel.

There are a bunch of other reasons why your upgrade can slip out of your hands in the time leading up to the list being cleared:
1) Bumps. Delta oversells this route a lot, so when they ask for volunteers to take later flights, they often confirm them into business class (I always recommend negotiating for business/first class when taking a bump, see my tips for successful bumping).
2) Higher ranking Medallions Same Day Confirming onto your flight within the 3 hour mark. Same day confirming is free for Gold medallions and higher and it allows you to switch to other flights on the same day as departure. I often do this when my upgrade chances don’t look good – bumping lower ranking Medallions down the upgrade list (see my post on using same day changes to your advantage).
3) Last minute sales. There are lots of people who buy last minute JFK-LAX/SFO tickets. Bankers. Actors. Fashion Designers. Models. Athletes. Rich People. Many people are willing to shell out $2,500+ to get where they need to be. I’ve seen a lot of “famous” people on this route, most recently Glenn Close (who looked great).

However, once the upgrade clears, the ensuing rush of endorphins and 6 hours of in-flight bliss is pretty well worth the stress leading up to the flight. In fact, I think the reason why I love this route is because I feel a sense of accomplishment when I wrangle an upgrade. And realistically, coach is fine too when in the exit row because there are TVs and wifi. However, do NOT select seats 19A, 19F, 36A or 36F – there is a huge emergency exit door that protrudes into the leg room severely. I once had to sit with my legs twisted in discomfort for 6 hours because I made the mistake of selecting one of these seats. You’ve been warned!

I realize this post is getting long, so I’ll get to pictures of the seat and food. The seat is their 150 degree recliner style seat with a whopping 55″ of legroom. I prefer any row besides row 1, which has limited leg stretch room due to the bulkhead wall. (Apologize for the poor picture quality- a new HD digital camera is en route). The seats are dated, but are perfectly comfortable for the 6 hour flight. I will, however, be interested to see how Delta reacts when United rolls out completely lie-flat seats on this route.

Big, chunky and comfortable

Legroom at last!

This person wasn't going to let the bulkhead get in the way of stretching out!

Their first course is not one of my favorites – it’s always a skimpy, bland salad with either some sort of scallop or smoked salmon dish – neither of which is ever very good. However, their main courses, especially the steak, are always pretty good. The steak is always prepared a nice red medium rare, which I find impressive, since most steak up in the air is cooked into rubbery oblivion. The meal always comes with some sort of peppery barnaise sauce, cheesy/truffley potatoes au gratin and spinach. Is this the most refined food? No. But, it is tasty - especially after a couple cocktails (which Delta flight attendants almost always seem to be very generous with).

Menu: Beef, Chicken or Whole Wheat Fusilli

Warm nuts to start

 

Salad and scallop

Steak, tastes better than it looks

Tender for an airline steak

 

Chicken

A little No Reservations while dining

Post dinner cheese plate

Pre-arrival warm cookie ... the end


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  • Tom

    Great review. I think we Medallions live for the thrill of getting this and the JFK-SFO upgrade. Makes the trip go a lot faster.

  • http://www.delta.com Susan Chana Elliott @ Delta

    This is a great, thorough review with lots of helpful takeaways for us. Appreciate the time and thought you put into it.

  • http://www.havebeerwilltravel.com FredW

    Timely, post — I am in the LAX SkyClub about to get on my flight to JFK (and then on to CPH)

    I’ve been very lucky on this route — 5 of 5 over the last 18 months. Today looks good, but I won’t relax until I’m in my seat up front.

    Have a good time in Sweden!

  • Trench

    Does the same apply to LAX-JFK vis a vis Delta not releasing advanced upgrade spaces?

  • Trench

    Does the same apply to LAX-JFK vis a vis Delta not releasing upgrade space in advance?

  • The Points Guy

    @Tom- the thrill of the upgrade is nice. Though I would love a special 1 day advance clearing for Diamonds as a special perk :-)

    @Susan- thanks for the comment! I’m a Delta Diamond, so stick around- I often write about Delta. Most of my experiences are great, so I should make your job easy :-)

    @Trench- yes- same way. You won’t clear until close to boarding at LAX. Good luck- I find it harder to score upgrades LAX-JFK than JFK-LAX for some reason.

    @Fred- enjoy CPH and good luck with the upgrade!

  • Mark

    Superb review. Don’t worry about it going too long. It’s all great information…particularly the lounge access “tidbits”. As a LONG time AA (million miler/almost 2 MM miler) and CO flyer, I have switched to DL. I simply love their in-flight product vs. the competition (especially aircraft that have wifi, live TV, and HBO On Demand, etc. all on the SAME plane!!). Since I have been flying DL, I have also found their flight attendants to be about 500 times nicer than many other airlines’s FAs (particularly AA).

  • Athan

    @TPG – if you are on the upgrade list for any given Delta flight (aside from NYC-LAX/SFO), does it automatically give you the upgrade x days in advance? Seems like I always have to find out in the airport…

  • The Points Guy

    @Mark- thanks! Agree- I generally find DL FA’s to be above par

    @Athan- yes- I get upgraded 6 days in advance for most flights. As you rise to platinum and diamond, you’ll notice the upgrades clearing in advance more

  • Sean

    PointGuy:

    One small correction, in my experience there is NOT wifi on this flight. I think it has something to do with these former NWA 757s being used for international routes (like JFK-ARN, JFK-CPH) so they don’t have the AirCell receiver used by GoGo Inflight.

    Going into Valentine’s weekend this year my wife (Delta GM) and I (Delta PM) were upgraded together on the Saturday morning LAX-JFK, it was row1 but I’m 5’10″ and she’s 5’3″ so it was perfectly fine. Coming home that Tuesday we were in the coach.

    I think the lesson there (for us lower Medallions) is that the chances are generally better on the weekends. I’ve flown the JFK-LAX route several times and that Saturday morning is the only time I’ve been upgraded, 1 for 8 over the last two years.

    Like your other article says, if you’re a GM/PM/DM and you login and you’re #13 out 26 with 2 seats available, and you have the free time, why not SDC through SLC/MEM/CVG/MSP/DTW/ATL wherever you can upgrade both flights.

    Happy travels!

  • The Points Guy

    @Sean- these flights are equipped with wifi. Once in a while an old NWA plane without BusinessElite gets subbed in, but thats an oddity. The NWA BusinessElite international planes usually stay on international due to the wifi issue.

    Agree that Saturday travel is good- even the 9pm JFK-LAX is good most days. Sunday afternoons out of LAX are BRUTAL- in fact, I’ve missed the last 3 and I just can’t bring myself to red-eye for the upgrade.

  • Ari Ofsevit

    I got bumped on to this route last year as a lowly silver (yes, seriously) black Friday 2010. It was fantastic. The dinner was well-cooked (not well-done, properly cooked) filet mignon. With two FAs for 16 travelers, my wine glass never got less than 2/3 full. It was a tremendous experience, and one I doubt I’ll experience soon again unless I start flying a lot more. Although I am hoping for a misconnect this week to/from SFO so I can try to talk my way in. Getting upgraded was quite the thrill, and I’d love to have it again. (I think they don’t upgrade people before the flight because they don’t want plats, golds and silvers running amok in the lounge. If I’d been upgraded the day before you better believe I would have spent a couple hours there before takeoff.)

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