8 reasons Delta One is my new go-to way to fly to Asia
I fly between the U.S. and China about six or seven times a year, and while most of those flights are spent trying out and reviewing new airlines, I've been looking for a go-to carrier to add a little comfort and reliability to this tediously long trip. For a while I thought I'd settled on EVA Air, whose top-notch food and service make it one of the most underrated business-class products out there, but after a flight back to Shanghai this week in the new Delta One Suite, I think I've changed my mind.
My flight from Detroit (DTW) to Shanghai (PVG) took just under 14 hours, giving me plenty of time to get comfortable in my fully enclosed suite on the carrier's flagship Airbus A350-900. Here are eight reasons why I'm going to go out of my way to fly Delta One the next time I'm crossing the Pacific.
1. only 60,000 miles to fly in business class
One of the best things Delta has going for it is how cheaply you can book business-class awards. Now that might not be what you were expecting to hear, since Delta is known for charging astronomical (and highly variable) rates when you book through the SkyMiles program. In fact, Delta routinely charges as much as 360,000 miles (worth $4,320 based on TPG's valuations) to fly this same Detroit-to-Shanghai route in Delta One.
So how was I able to book my ticket for only 60,000 miles? Instead of transferring my American Express Membership Rewards points to Delta, I transferred them to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Virgin Atlantic has access to a smaller subset of Delta award space, but when there is availability, a nonstop flight always costs exactly 60,000 miles (82,500 if you need to connect).
Virgin Atlantic miles are incredibly easy to earn. In addition to Amex, you can transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards (at a 1:1 ratio) Citi ThankYou Rewards (1:1 ratio) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred). My points transferred instantly, and I was able to score a $6,800 ticket for only $5.60 in taxes plus points. That's about a good a deal as you're going to get. Speaking purely in terms of redemption value, this puts Delta well ahead of most other airlines. Now the only question was: Could the onboard product hold its own?
Further Reading: TPG Points Lab: Save miles booking Delta awards with Virgin Atlantic
2. Multiple US gateways
Going home to visit my family in Washington, D.C., via Dulles Airport (IAD) almost always requires two stops. There aren't many airlines that fly direct from D.C. to Asia, and finding award space on a one-stop routing is nearly impossible. Delta flies nonstop to Shanghai from four U.S. cities in addition to its other Asian routes to Seoul (ICN), Tokyo (NRT and HND) and Beijing (PEK): Atlanta (ATL), Detroit (DTW), Los Angeles (LAX) and Seattle (SEA).
Whether you live on the East Coast, the West Coast or in the middle of the U.S., it should be easy to get to one of these international gateways with a short connecting flight. I took a 90-minute flight from D.C. to Detroit the night before my flight to China, spent the night in a cheap hotel near the airport and woke up refreshed and ready to go for the long day ahead of me. There's an incredible feeling of relief when you get off the plane after a 14-hour flight and know that you're home instead of needing to turn around and board yet another flight.
3. The door makes a difference
The first time I flew in a premium cabin seat with a door, I thought the entire thing was gimmicky. Who needs extra privacy when I already have an eye mask to black out any lights when I sleep? While I certainly slept better on that flight in Emirates first class than on any previous trip I'd taken, I also felt much more comfortable when I was awake and lounging in my suite. I kept the door closed most of the time that I wasn't eating and honestly felt like I was flying private, even though in reality I was on the upper deck of a 489-seat superjumbo jet.
The hard product of Delta One Suites isn't revolutionary. The carrier essentially took a Thompson Vantage XL seat, the same staggered configuration you find in business class on airlines like Qantas or SAS and slapped a door on to it. But, wow, does that door make a difference! The door on my flight didn't close all the way, and there was a small gap between it and the floor, but the added privacy was noticeable. This was a challenging trip home for me, as my family is dealing with serious illnesses, and getting a chance to decompress and process behind the privacy of a closed door was exactly what I needed.
4. YOU CAN Preorder a multicourse meal
While Delta One Suite is technically a unique and proprietary product, any airline willing to pay can install good seats in business or first class. What really sets the good airlines apart from the mediocre ones is how they handle the soft product, including food, drink and onboard amenities.
This is also an area where U.S. carriers historically have a bad reputation, despite introducing new seats like the Delta One Suites or United Polaris. More often than not when I'm flying business class, the airline runs out of at least one meal type. Now if you're a picky eater or have dietary restrictions, you should order a meal in advance, but that's still not a good impression to make on valuable business travelers. After reading TPG Reviews Editor Nick Ellis' review of Delta One Suites on a retrofitted 777 from LAX to Paris (CDG), I learned that Delta sends out an email to eligible passengers a few days before the flight asking them to preorder their meal. This is a simple but obvious answer to one of the biggest challenges of catering, as it lets the airline load the correct number of meals and minimizes the number of passengers who don't get their first choice.
About 48 hours before my flight I still hadn't received my preorder email, so I sent a DM to Delta's Twitter team with my flight and confirmation number. Within 10 minutes, they replied with the menu for my flight, which included the following options: crabcakes and autumn citrus salad with broccolini and lemon butter sauce; ginger prawns with minced pork and green beans, preserved olives and steamed rice; balsamic-cipollini-glazed beef tenderloin with sauteed spinach and Parmesan-chive mashed potatoes; four-cheese caramelle pasta with smoked fontina cream, wild mushrooms and roasted tomatoes; panfried chicken with lemon caper piccata sauce.
Service began as usual with a bowl of warm nuts and a drink. I tried Delta's cocktail of the moment, spiced cranberry bourbon made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, ginger ale, cranberry apple and lime. After that, I was served a little gem salad, salami and goat cheese and butternut squash soup (as well as a pretzel roll from the breadbasket). Most airlines don't serve a starter, salad and soup in business class, even though I find soups to hold up incredibly well at altitude and be simple to present.
For my main course, I'd preordered the crabcakes, which the flight attendant confirmed while we were still on the ground. The dish was small but flavorful, and the fresh veggies and fruit paired nicely with it.
For breakfast, I had a mushroom frittata, which was served with hash browns and sausage.
Now this meal wasn't life-changing, and some people won't like the fact that it was served entirely off a tray, but I thought Delta did a solid job with the soup and salad, the portion sizes and the preordering system that let me design my meal before I even arrived at the airport. The food on this flight was solid all around, and that's more than I can say for flights I've had in American Airlines business class or United Polaris.
5. Next-generation aircraft
One of the reasons I was so happy to route through Detroit (as opposed to Delta's other gateways) was to make sure my flight would be operated by an A350, which has quickly become one of my favorite aircraft to fly. The lack of overhead bins in the center section gives the business-class cabin an open and airy feeling. The quieter engines and lower cabin pressure altitude, leading to a higher interior pressure or the equivalent of a lower elevation, make for a gentler ride and leave you feeling well rested when you land.
Delta's Atlanta- and L.A.-to-Shanghai routes are both operated by older 777 aircraft retrofitted with the new suites, but the flights from Detroit and Seattle are operated, respectively, by modern A350 and A330neo aircraft. Delta has 13 A350s in its fleet and an order for 35 A330neos, meaning more and more passengers on these longer transpacific routes will be treated to next-generation aircraft with the latest in technology to combat jet lag, not to mention the newest Delta One Suite and Delta Premium Select cabins.
6. Individual air nozzles
This is a testament to how my travel preferences have changed over the last few years, but this flight cemented for me the importance of having individual air nozzles at every seat. Airlines around the world tend to keep their cabins nice and toasty during the flight, and when you're buried under a thick blanket and maybe even pajamas, that makes it hard to sleep. I can't count the number of times I've woken up midflight drenched in sweat, adding to the dehydration that only exacerbates jet lag. Delta's A350s have individual air nozzles at every seat, meaning I was able to drift off under a nice jet of cold air. When I combined this basic comfort with the privacy of a closed door, I got a solid six hours of sleep after our afternoon departure, which is about as good as I could have hoped for.
7. Westin Heavenly Bed
These days, airlines have branded partnerships for just about everything, from headphones to amenity kits to blankets and mattress pads. Some of these are pretty meaningless, but Delta's Westin Heavenly Bed was top-notch. I've spent plenty of nights at Westins over the years, and I've always loved their bedding. Delta's decision to bring it on board for Delta One passengers is an unmistakeable signal that the airline is invested in helping you get as good a rest as possible.
That being said, there is room for improvement. Delta no longer distributes pajamas even on ultralong flights like this, and I wouldn't mind if the carrier took a page out of United's playbook (and its Saks Fifth Avenue partnership) to offer extra amenities like a pillow with memory foam.
8. Solid inflight entertainment
At the risk of generalizing, the biggest weakness of most Asian airlines is inflight entertainment. This is equally true of world-class airlines like Korean Air and ANA as it is of China Eastern. Delta didn't blow me out of the water with its IFE selections, but there were plenty of classic TV shows and new release movies to keep anyone occupied on this flight. Delta also offers Wi-Fi on its A350s, but I didn't try it out on this flight. The only complaint I have is that Delta didn't install a tailcam on the A350 like most airlines do, robbing me of my favorite form of free entertainment.
Delta is far from perfect
This article is by no means a suggestion that Delta is suddenly a five-star airline capable of competing with the likes of Singapore or Emirates. I wouldn't say Delta leads in any single category, just that a lot of small but important things came together to make this a pleasant experience. Still, there are a few areas where Delta is noticeably lacking.
It's downgraded its amenity kits. For the longest time, Delta offered hard-sided Tumi amenity kits that you could get monogrammed for free at any Tumi store. Some people care more about the contents than the kit itself, but I find hard kits to be more durable and easier to repurpose for things like charging cables or toiletries down the road. Delta now offers a soft-sided Tumi kit with moisturizer and lip balm by Le Labo. Overall, it's a solid kit for business class, but I think most longtime Delta fliers would agree it's a step below the old offering.
It's too expensive to book through Delta. Half of the reason I was so excited with this flight was the deal I got booking through Virgin Atlantic. If I'd had to pay Delta's outrageous prices, I never would've booked this trip. There aren't many flights I'd ever spend that many miles on, and this one certainly didn't make the cut no matter how much I ended up enjoying it. Taking advantage of the Virgin Atlantic sweet spot requires patience and flexibility, and if your travel dates are fixed you might not be able to use it. Booking with SkyMiles really weakens the overall value .
Long flights mean either the best crews or the worst crews. This is a systemic problem with the way airlines assign their crew schedules. Since flight attendants are only paid for the length of the flight itself, the longest flights are the most desirable ones and go to the most senior crew members. If you work 14-hour flights to Asia instead of seven-hour flights to Europe, you only have to fly half as often to make the same amount of money.
This means that you'll often get one of two scenarios: senior crew members who are checked out and only going through the motions and clearly don't have the same passion for their job that they once did, or, if you're lucky, crew members who leverage their years or decades of professional experience to provide the best service possible. On this flight, I saw a mix of the two, but when I'm flying a U.S. airline on a long-haul flight, I'm keenly aware of how much the crew can impact the overall experience.
What do you get when you mix one of the best award-chart sweet spots with closing-door suites and next-generation aircraft? If you're traveling to Asia, you get Delta One Suites. There are certainly things Delta could do to make the experience even better, but this flight was so cheap, comfortable and simple that I think I've found my new go-to way to fly between the U.S. and Asia.