Delta BusinessElite JFK-LAX Review
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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.
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).