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Flight Review: Delta BusinessElite Newark – Paris

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Last month a few friends and I decided to take a trip to France in May. My prime motivation was to get to the Cannes Film Festival with them, but I also had some Delta SkyMiles burning a hole in my account that I wanted to put to use on a great award before the June 1 devaluation. Remember, this devaluation is on all award travel on or after June 1, not just on awards booked after that date, so I needed to get to Europe and back before June 1 using Delta miles.

I previously discussed the planning process for this trip (along with tips on booking Delta awards), but the gist is that the best award availability I could find on Delta’s non-stop JFK-Nice would have cost me 150,000 miles round-trip. Instead, I booked an itinerary from Newark (EWR) to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) on Delta in BusinessElite, and a return trip from Nice (NCE) via Rome Fiumicino (FCO) on Alitalia.

My business class itinerary - 100,000 miles + $137.
My business class itinerary: 100,000 miles + $137.

My entire itinerary cost 100,000 miles and $137 (instead of the roughly $6,000 I would have paid in cash), and would get me back to the US before the June 1 devaluation, so I was able to redeem at the current saver level from North America to Europe of 100,000 miles instead of the post-devaluation level of 125,000 miles. Sure, I’d be flying into Paris instead of Nice, but I have friends to visit there, and I felt sure I’d enjoy the train ride down to Cannes – so I decided to do it.

One of my tips for booking Delta awards is to always check routes to Paris and Amsterdam, since these are the old Northwest routes and there is usually decent saver level availability. Delta uses its 767-300ERs on a lot of these routes, but they’ve been refurbished with the airline’s front-facing BusinessElite seats. While I find them slightly narrow and coffin-like, they’re still much more comfortable than the old 2 x 2 x 2 configuration with aged recliner seats, though not as nice as the herringbone configuration Delta uses on its 747s and 777-200s. They’re still basically the same product I flew to Milan last spring on a Delta 767-400, and the exact same I flew from Amsterdam to New York in September, so I knew it the experience would be pleasant enough.

EWR Airtrain Reminder
Remember, the AirTrain is currently out of service.

At the Airport

As I mentioned, I was flying out of Newark. Though Delta has a large presence at New York JFK and LaGuardia, the airline has only a small footprint at Newark, and operates out of the middle terminal (Terminal B). Check-in is on the lower level, and there are different desks for international and domestic departures, so pay attention or you could end up in the wrong line. Also, remember that the AirTrain to Newark’s Airport Station to catch the Northeast Corridor line to New York Penn Station is currently out of service and there are shuttle buses instead, so plan accordingly.

At least I had a ticket noting I was PreCheck-eligible.
At least I had a ticket noting I was PreCheck-eligible.

At the international counter I found no line to speak of, and was checked in and ticketed within about a minute flat. However, the security line was pretty popular. TSA PreCheck was closed and everyone was funneled into a single lane, so it took about 25 minutes.

The Skyclub entrance.
The Skyclub entrance.

I had been given a PreCheck card to denote that I was eligible, but since PreCheck was closed, I surfed the regular security line with everyone else. However, I was shuffled through the plain old metal detector instead of the scanner, so it could have been worse.

There's a very small, very basic Skyclub.
The SkyClub at EWR is very small and very basic.

My BusinessElite ticket got me into the Delta Skyclub, which was pretty rudimentary. Unfortunately, the EWR location doesn’t appear to have been part of Delta’s pilot program for new amenities at its Skyclubs, so there were no manicures here, and I don’t think any of the $50 million in renovation money Delta claims to have spent on its lounges found its way here.

Just a modest selection of drinks and snacks.
A modest selection of drinks and snacks.

Instead the snack offerings were limited to trail mix, cheese and some veggies and crackers. The bar was tiny, as was the weak $10 “First Class” margarita I ordered. I fired off a few last emails, took a quick look around, and then left for the plane as soon as they announced an on-time Paris departure and the start of boarding.

I was ready for Europe with my SmartChip credit cards.
I was ready for Europe with my SmartChip credit cards.

Boarding

The boarding area was jam-packed – apparently Paris in the spring really is the place to be, though the BusinessElite cabin had at least 15 seats, which were mostly filled by standby/non-rev employees by the end of boarding. I boarded through the SkyPriority line, but had to navigate my way through the other passengers milling about the gate area first. Delta’s refurbished 767-300ERs have BusinessElite cabins configured in a staggered 1 x 2 x 1 configuration. Some have just 6 rows, but most (including my flight) have 9.

The BusinessElite seat aboard Delta's 767-300's.
The BusinessElite seat aboard Delta’s 767-300s.

I chosen seat 7D because it’s one of the single seats along the sides of the plane. As the seating pattern is staggered, some of these are flush against the aisle, while others are flush against the window with a thick armrest separating them from the aisle. I chose 7D because it’s one of the latter, so you’re better protected from getting bumped in the middle of the night by aisle traffic.

An overhead shot of the seat.
An overhead shot of the seat.

Another word of caution: if you’re choosing seats yourself, avoid Row 6 on these aircraft because there’s no window there (well there is, but it is behind the seat). Seats have between 76.5-81 inches of pitch (the bulkhead seats have 81 inches), and are 21 inches wide, which is big enough for me to stretch out, but not enormous. Each seat has its own IFE screen as well.

I prefer the seats flush against the sides, but beware no windows in Row 6.
I prefer the seats flush against the sides, but beware no windows in Row 6.

The amenities on board include a noise-canceling headset (I bring my own Bose QC15s), and a Tumi amenity kit with Malin + Goetz’s Neroli Hand & Body Lotion and Lip Moisturizer, a Tumi eye mask, socks, shoe horn, shoe polish, comb, dental kit, tissues, antibacterial wipes, earplugs and a pen.

A welcome champagne and almonds.
A welcome champagne and almonds.

While boarding progressed, I was offered a pre-departure mimosa and a sweet almond-cranberry nut mix, so I had a little nosh. We took off on time, and I settled in for the flight.

My 767 at the gate.
My 767 at the gate.

The Flight

Nearly an hour into flight, I noticed that service was really slow; there wasn’t any turbulence or weather, but the flight attendants in the BusinessElite cabin were nonchalant about getting drinks and dinner, even though folks in coach were already being served. When they finally did come around they seemed slightly disheveled, but affable enough. After taking my order, they came back a while later with the first round of drinks.

A gorgeous day to fly out of Newark.
A gorgeous day to fly out of Newark.

I asked for Chardonnay, but was told they were out and could only offer a Riesling (not my favorite) or a a light, dry Italian white that wasn’t on the menu. I chose the Italian, which was pretty decent and potentially better than the Chardonnay would have been.

The shrimp starter.
The shrimp starter.

I started with an appetizer of shrimp and grilled pineapple.

Next was a course of an iceberg wedge salad with tomatoes and blue cheese, and tomato basil soup. Both were fine, but uninspired.

A wedge salad and tomato-basil soup.
A wedge salad and tomato-basil soup.

Then we all sat there and waited 45 minutes for the next course. I thought perhaps something was wrong in the galley and that they’d run out of food, but as I prepared to cannibalize the poor soul in 6D, a flight attendant finally came around, wielding a handheld device and speaking apologetically to each passenger. She told me that the ovens had broken, but that they seemed to be working again and service would resume. To atone for the lack of service, she said that I would receive a voucher of some sort, and when I entered my email address into her handheld device she said I would hear from Delta directly in the weeks to come.

The short rib looked terrible but tasted okay.
The short rib looked terrible, but tasted okay.

The entree choices were a fontina-stuffed chicken breast with tarragon lemon sauce and farro risotto; pappardelle with mushroom bolognaise and fresh mozzarella; a simple antipasto plate with prosciutto, soppressata, bresaola, stuffed grape leaves, mozzarella balls and sun-dried tomato bean spread; or my selection: braised beef short ribs with red wine sauce, garlic smashed potatoes and broccolini.

To be honest, the short rib looked kind of disgusting, but it actually tasted decent. The broccolini was downright delicious and flavorful. The steak was just okay, but one piece was really leathery, so I wouldn’t recommend it. Throughout the main course, no one came by to offer drinks of any kind – no spirits, no water, nothing – and when I finally flagged down a flight attendant for a refill of the Italian white wine, she said that all she had left was Chardonnay.

Here comes the dessert cart.
Here comes the dessert cart.

Huh? They had told me previously they didn’t have any on board, but she said they’d tracked some down and had run out of the Italian white in the meantime. Okay, this is clearly a “business class” problem, but it still seemed sloppy. I had liked the Italian white, but figured I’d try the Chardonnay, which was a Wente Vineyards Rivera Ranch 2012 from Monterey, California. It was way too fruity for my taste, and even slightly sweet (maybe it was the altitude), but I wished they’d had more of the other wine. The reds they were serving included a Maison Sichel Bordeaux, R&G Rioja from Spain, and for dessert, there was Muscadelle from Australia and Quinta do Noval 10-year Tawny Port. The Champagne on board was Jacquart Brut Mosaique, which was delicious and medium-bodied.

I had a sundae with the works.
I had a sundae with the works.

Speaking of dessert, there was a choice of a cheese plate and petits fours, but I went with a good old-fashioned ice-cream sundae with the works!

40 Winks

After dinner, I started to watch the Dallas Buyers Club, but I was getting sleepy, so I decided to make up my bed with the Westin Heavenly bedding Delta now offers in BusinessElite (thanks to its partnership with Starwood).

There was a solid movie selection.
The movie selection was solid.

As usual, though the seat is a true horizontal lie-flat, I don’t quite fit because it extends into a bed with a little foot well that’s carved out from the seat in front of you, and my feet have nowhere to go. It’s still more comfortable than Air Berlin’s business class, but I have to contort myself in order to get into a manageable sleeping position.

The bed in lie-flat position.
The bed in lie-flat position (pardon the darkness).

I got hot enough during the flight that I asked the flight attendants to cool the cabin down, though it didn’t do much, so I suggest bringing a change of clothes with you and something breathable to sleep for comfort. Also, the cabin had only two dedicated lavatories, so I ended up using the coach ones every time.

Breakfast

I slept for a few hours and woke up feeling pretty good – not entirely rested, but enough to face a day in Europe. Breakfast started with a selection of hot beverages, rolls and croissants, and fresh fruit. There was a choice of granola with yogurt or crepes filled with scrambled eggs and pepperjack cheese served with mushrooms and chicken sausage, which I chose.

The breakfast crepes were underwhelming.
The breakfast crepes were underwhelming.

I generally don’t like airplane breakfasts, but I was hungry so I had a few bites and then got ready for landing. Looking out the window I could tell it was going to be a beautiful day in Paris, and I started getting excited.

On the Ground

Landing was smooth and I speed-walked to immigration. There is actually a SkyPriority lane for passengers in BusinessElite, but you need to keep your boarding pass with you to prove you’re allowed to use it. They don’t give you a pass onboard the plane like British Airways does for Fast Track, so be sure you have it on hand. I got through the line in 15 minutes instead of the 45 it took in the regular line.

Landing was a breeze.
Landing was a breeze.

The luggage came out just a couple minutes after I arrived at the carousel, and SkyPriority bags were handled first, so I was on my way within a few minutes. All in all, it was an okay but unremarkable experience – neither good nor bad enough to be particularly memorable.

Post-Devaluation

Remember that all travel on or after June 1 will be at Delta’s new devalued levels, so next month this same ticket would cost me an extra 25,000 miles (125,000 total), and that’s just at the lowest saver level, which will likely be harder and harder to find going forward. Also, although Delta has announced a new earning structure for SkyMiles starting in 2015, the redemption side is also likely to change, which could mean we’ll all be using a lot more miles to fly BusinessElite in the future.

Furthermore, Delta makes upgrading difficult by requiring M class or higher tickets (which are full-fare), though their new Global Upgrades for Diamond Medallions are good on any paid published fare class. Not only that, but I don’t think their ground services (like lounges or the in-flight service I’ve received) are worth such high premiums, so I’ll likely stick with American Airlines for now. My eight Executive Platinum EVIP systemwide upgrades are easy to use, and hopefully will be usable on US Airways before long so I can try out the airline’s flagship Envoy business class.

Business class seats aboard American's 777-300ER
I still prefer the business class seats aboard American’s 777-300ER.

I much prefer American’s new business class on the 777-300ER, but Delta’s lie-flat seat is still way better than American’s old business class, which it still flies on its New York JFK-Paris CDG route. I’d also rather fly non-stop in a good seat than have to fly American through London to get in its new business class, since I hate transiting at Heathrow (it’s taken me over two hours the last two trips!), especially between terminals.

Have any of you flown Delta BusinessElite lately? Please share your experiences, comments and questions below!

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