There’s lots to learn from Delta’s postponed A220-300 inaugural

Nov 23, 2020

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There’s something special about inaugural flights.

Whether it’s a new route or the first time a plane enters commercial service, aviation enthusiasts everywhere mark their calendars. Inevitably, some try to score a seat on the maiden service.

With elaborate gate celebrations, water cannon salutes and special onboard amenities, it’s no surprise that these flights receive much fanfare (pre-pandemic, at least). I’ve personally experienced my fair share of inaugurals (with more coming soon), so I understand the hype.

But, as I learned firsthand on Monday, just because a flight schedule appears set, don’t necessarily expect it to stick.

Let’s backtrack to late September when Delta tentatively set Nov. 10 as the launch date for its larger Airbus A220-300. This fan-favorite plane was sure to be a hit with flyers (and TPG readers), so I booked a ticket.

At the time, TPG warned that “these schedules are subject to change, often due to a myriad of factors outside of the airline’s control.” Turns out, that was a harbinger of things to come.

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Over the course of the next month, the Atlanta-based carrier delayed the launch to Nov. 12 and then a second time to Nov. 16. These schedule changes happen all the time across airlines, especially nowadays with the variability in demand due to the pandemic.

No sweat, I thought. I simply rebooked for the new date — Delta Flight 223 on Nov. 16 from Salt Lake City (SLC) to Houston (IAH). (223 also happens to be the aircraft code for the Airbus A220-300.)

Well, fast forward to Monday and things were looking good. The plane was supposed to be ferried in from Atlanta the same morning, before its first commercial flight.

I arrived in SLC with plenty of time to spare before the 1:55 p.m. departure for Houston. As the departure time grew nearer, the aviation enthusiasts in the gate area (Gate A23 to celebrate the A220-300) looked frazzled. Turns out, the ferry flight from Atlanta was experiencing a rolling mechanical delay.

Gate A23 at SLC (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

But 1:55 p.m. came, and then passed. There was no A220-300 in sight (or the air). It was still stuck in Atlanta finishing up some final entry-to-service modifications.

Delta Flight 223 pushed back from the gate — without me or any of the other aviation enthusiasts on board. In its place, DL subbed in a -100 variant of the plane, something most flyers wouldn’t have even noticed. In fact, they arrived in Houston on time, probably without batting an eye at the change of equipment.

In the end, Delta ran the inaugural on Tuesday, 24 hours after it was scheduled to go. The ferry ended up landing late Monday afternoon, and thankfully I was able to get onboard for a first look at the jet. (Spoiler alert: you’ll love it.)

But those of us booked on the inaugural learned some timeless lessons that day.

While first flights are always exciting, recognize that the schedule can change, even at the last minute. In fact, for new aircraft, there’s even a higher probability of a plane swap. After all, pilots, crew and mechanics need to learn new systems and perform fleet induction-related installations on the plane before sending it to the skies.

This is a standard procedure for all aircraft types across all airlines — not at all limited to my Delta experience.

Ribbon cutting for the CRJ550 in October 2019 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

In fact, last October, United inaugurated the 50-seater CRJ550 regional jet on a round-trip flight from Chicago (ORD) to Harrisburg (MDT). Even though the plane was waiting at the gate in O’Hare, there were still some final modifications needed to get the plane into service.

Related: First look at United’s CRJ550

That led to a delay, including on return – which caused some passengers on that leg to miss their connections upon arrival.

Monday’s experience reinforced the following lesson. Until the wheels retract upon takeoff, there’s always a chance of something changing, whether it’s a delay, cancellation or equipment swap. While that’s always true in air travel, it’s especially important to consider when booking the inaugural.

With regards to fleet induction, no single airline is better or worse than another. There are checklists to complete and steps that need to be done before a plane enters service for the first time.

So, unless the inaugural is highly hyped, don’t necessarily expect it to stick. After all, Monday’s Flight 223 operated on time, just with a different plane than expected.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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