Comparing Domestic Business and First Class: Delta Air Lines
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Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr continues his look at domestic premium cabins by examining the value of Delta’s first- and business-class products.
I’ll be the first to admit my expectations for premium flights on regional routes are high. For the last 2.5 years, regional flights out of my current home in Tokyo usually consist of wide-body jets with lie-flat seats and above-par service, dining and amenities. Flying first and business domestically in the US is quite a different story — one I’m mentally preparing myself for in light of my pending move back to the States. That said, some options are better than others.
To help you get the most out of your time at the front of the plane, in this post I’ll continue my series comparing domestic first- and business-class products by looking at the offerings from Delta Air Lines (see previous posts on American and United). I’ll present an overview of what you can expect to find aboard Delta’s planes, and analyze the value of both revenue fares and award tickets in terms of the quality of the product you receive.
The Delta Air Lines Fleet
Delta’s fleet is complex; for example, did you know Delta currently flies 11 different configurations of the 757? The sheer confusion of trying to pick the best seat is enough to make anyone’s head spin. Fortunately, there are some online tools like SeatGuru that can help you figure out what you’re likely to encounter aboard your flight.
The 757-200 (with its 10 variations) and the 757-300 fly quite a few domestic routes for Delta. The 75S variation is the most desirable, as it has 16 lie-flat seats, and flies on routes like JFK-SFO. Other variations of the 757 can have outdated recliner seats with overhead TVs, but the 757-300s have all been updated with IFE, USB ports, 110V outlets and newly upholstered seats. Most of these 757-300 birds were Northwest planes prior to the merger.
Other Boeing aircraft flying domestically include the 717, 737-700, 737-800, 737-900ER and 767-300 (both in ER and non-ER versions, with ER standing for Extended Range). The 717 aircraft (courtesy of AirTran Airways) are almost all complete with Delta retrofitting, and are acquiring quite a few fans in the Delta customer base — the only real complaint being that each plane only has 12 first-class seats. Personally, I would love to fly the 717 instead of a regional plane.
When it comes to 737s, the 800 and 900 series are undergoing modifications. Updates include IFE, LED lighting and new lavs in all of the 800s, while the 900s are getting winglets and satellite TV. The mods do not involve any configuration changes, and I think these aircraft offer a comfortable ride up front for flights under 4 hours.
The 767-300 (non-ER and ER) flies several domestic transcon and high-capacity routes for Delta. The business-class cabin of the non-ER aircraft (most of which were delivered to Delta in the late 80s) is nothing to write home about, with recliner seats in a 2 x 2 x 2 layout. However, these seats seem to have a lot more volume to them than modern first-class seats, and I find them fairly comfortable. I flew the 767-300 on my honeymoon from ATL-LAX in first class, so it’ll always have a special place in my heart. If you’re lucky enough to catch a 767-300ER on a domestic route like JFK-LAX in the Delta One cabin, you’ll enjoy a flat-bed seat.
For Airbus planes on domestic flights, the A319, A320 and A330 (mainly on Hawaii routes) do the brunt of the work. Fortunately, the A319 and A320 are being completely modified (including configuration changes). New seats, space saving galleys, lavatories, IFE, LED lighting and larger capacity overhead bins are already being installed, but it will take until 2017 or 2018 for all the airframes to be completed. Initial reports for those who have flown on the few completed planes are highly positive. Look for registration tail numbers N335NW and N348NW on the A320 to see if you’ll be on one of the two retrofitted planes.
The MD-88 and MD-90 are still workhorses of the Delta fleet, with 181 planes in active service. The first-class cabins essentially match American’s cabins, with recliner seats, but they do have 110V outlets and Wi-Fi. Nostalgia usually plays a part in the journey for fans of these aircraft.
When it comes to regional jets, the fleet is made up of the usual smatterings of CRJs and Embraers. I’m a big fan of the Embraer compared to the Canada Regional Jets. However, unless I’m flying a route serviced by one of these at the beginning or end of an international itinerary, I won’t go out of my way to sit in first class, which basically consists of a couple extra inches of space and the ability to deplane first.
Delta Air Lines Classes of Service
First — For domestic flights, first class entails the SkyPriority service, a larger seat, priority boarding, pre-departure beverages and meal service based on the length of your flight. While you may see business class mentioned on Delta’s website, this is mainly to do with the different fare types Delta sells.
Delta One — In December of last year, Delta announced a rebranding of all its cabins, changing the former BusinessElite to Delta One. Delta offers this premium product for international flights and on transcons between JFK-LAX and JFK-SFO, competing directly with United p.s., American A321T and JetBlue Mint. In addition to all the first-class amenities, Delta One offers Delta One check-in at LAX, SkyClub access, enhanced dining, a Tumi amenity kit, noise-canceling headphones — and most importantly — fully lie-flat beds.
As mentioned when comparing American and United domestic business and first class, dining in this market isn’t going to earn any Michelin stars. Among the US airlines, I find Delta’s breakfast to be the least desirable. There’s something about the Delta onboard reheaters that really sucks the moisture out of food. That being said, I have had some really good dinners on Delta domestic flights.
Meal service is dependent on your flight length, with flights between 251-899 miles offering snacks, medium-haul flights up to 1,499 miles offering a meal dependent upon the time of day, and flights over 1,500 miles offering meals between 5am and 8pm, with hot snacks offered between 8-9pm.
Recently, I’ve read a few stories and tweets about flight attendants acting with grace under fire from less-than-kind first-class passengers. It really takes patience and training to deal with difficult customers, especially some of my past seatmates in first class. In my opinion, Delta has some incredibly talented cabin attendants capable of offering gracious service one moment and acting as a no-nonsense referee the next.
Perhaps I’m biased as a native Georgian from the Atlanta area, but I really enjoy the Atlanta-based crews, their accents, southern hospitality and composure. Interestingly, I usually see a large difference between Delta main-cabin attendants and first-class attendants, and can sometimes tell which cabin they’ll be serving even when I spot them in the terminal.
From a revenue stance, Delta is on par with the other legacy carriers, charging 3-4 times as much for first class as for an economy ticket, though you can find more modest gaps on shorter flights and select routes. From an award perspective, we don’t know how many miles a ticket costs, since the Delta SkyMiles program no longer publishes award charts.
Therein lies my greatest beef with Delta and the value it offers for domestic premium cabins. Domestic awards in first class seem to start at 50,000 miles round-trip, as they do on other carriers, but those aren’t easy to find. The five-week flexible calendar below shows results from a search on Delta.com, indicating only a few days and routes at the lowest price.
Awards from non-Delta hubs seem to be the least expensive as Delta tries to attract United and American loyalists in cities like Dallas, Houston and Denver. Not knowing how many miles you need to save in order to reach your goal makes collecting SkyMiles (and therefore taking revenue flights on Delta) a losing proposition to me. TPG’s latest monthly valuations have SkyMiles pegged at just 1.2 cents apiece. While there are still some much more rewarding redemptions out there, I’m content if I can get that much value out of my miles.
The one bright spot I hoped to find was for Delta One service from JFK to LAX/SFO. However, flexible searches showed awards typically costing 62,500 miles one-way. It’s hard to see the motivation to collect that many SkyMiles for this route when you can fly American’s A321T first-class suites for 32,500 AAdvantage miles.
As with other domestic legacy carriers, I would be hard-pressed to pay three times as much for domestic awards when flights are usually too short to really make a difference. I don’t collect SkyMiles or use my transferable points like American Express Membership Rewards in order to fly Delta First or Delta One domestically.
If you aren’t careful with your flight selection, instead of a lie-flat business seat for a cross-country route, you may end up in a recliner seat with 38 inches of pitch on a 737-800 that hasn’t yet been retrofitted. I have enjoyed my flights up front with Delta domestically, though they have been few and far between. I may even actually prefer first class on Delta over American and United. In the end, the value of the SkyMiles program is what most discourages me from flying Delta.
As discussed previously, the airline has made significant strides in updating all aircraft cabins, improving on-time performance and dealing with customer-service shortcomings. With all those positives in its favor, I can’t understand why Delta chooses to have an opaque and untrustworthy loyalty program. Looking at the bottom line, though, if Delta can report a $1 billion quarterly profit and return that to shareholders, there’s not much incentive to improve the SkyMiles program.
What has your experience been in Delta’s premium cabins?