Delta's A321neo inaugural — how the new first-class seat actually holds up on a long flight
Delta's newest aircraft took flight on Friday as the airline flew its first revenue service with the Airbus A321neo, departing Boston bound for San Francisco.
The new aircraft type also introduced Delta's new first class seats, a modern update to the traditional recliner seat featuring a number of new touches — most notably the two wings on the sides of the headrest offering a slightly improved bit of privacy.
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The neo has been hotly anticipated since mockups of the seat first leaked, and were subsequently confirmed by the airline, in early-2020.
My colleague Zach Griff got a first look at the plane before it entered service, and even had the chance to fly aboard as Delta ferried the plane from its hanger in Atlanta to Boston for its first revenue flight.
Even so, it's hard to get an impression of a new airline product on the ground or on an empty flight.
But how about seven hours in the cabin from boarding to deplaning a transcontinental flight? That definitely would provide a better sense.
The neo itself is an interesting platform for Delta, offering lower operating costs (in the form of lower fuel consumption) while also providing a relatively blank slate for the airline to design the onboard experience.
“We feel like this is a really great experience for people," Charlie Schewe, Delta’s Boston-based sales director, told me during an interview before the flight. “We feel like this could be extremely competitive and offer a great experience.”
Although the airline chose to put the jet on the Boston-San Francisco route, rather than a plane with lie-flat seats, Schewe said the airline was continuously assessing demand and could add that at a later point. Notably, Delta has plans to add lie-flat seats to a subfleet of the 155 A321neos it has on order.
For this layout, the economy and extra-legroom sections will look familiar to most passengers. But there's newer in-flight entertainment, a new Viasat wi-fi system, enlarged overhead bins, mood lighting and other touches that should provide an overall improved experience for passengers.
First class, though, is something new altogether, a new product built from the ground up.
And yet, new doesn't always mean better. That's why we booked a ticket in the forward cabin aboard the first flight, so that we could see if the hype is actually worth it.
The spoiler: The seats are very good, and a marked improvement over the standard first class recliner. But they're not perfect and suffer from a few annoying flaws — mostly the result of design sacrifices, trading something off in exchange for another feature.
A gate-side party and breakfast in the air
The flight was scheduled to depart just before 8:30 a.m., but I had arranged with Delta to get a few minutes on the plane earlier — and onto the ramp — to take photos. That meant getting to Boston Logan Airport at around 6 a.m.
Even that far ahead of the flight, the scene was set for a party, and by the time I finished the photo tour, it was in full swing.
As travelers enjoyed breakfast and snacks, and AvGeeks there for the inaugural took photos and swapped memorabilia, a Delta representative came into the middle of the crowd and asked for quiet, before calling out for two passengers on the flight.
It turned out that they were on their way to their honeymoon — they just happened to be on this particular flight to San Francisco, and the Delta crew gave them a bunch of treats and gifts (joking, of course, that the whole spectacle was actually for them).
After a few very brief remarks from another Delta representative, the flight crew and ground managers gathered to cut the official ribbon for the new jet. Doing the actual cutting was Diamond Medallion and Million-Miler passenger Sascha Schlinghoff.
Schlinghoff had no idea he'd be asked to take part in the ceremony until a few minutes before, he told me after we landed in San Francisco, and said that he was just chatting with a Delta employee at the gate during the festivities. A little while later, the managing director on site and the gate agent came up and asked if he'd like to cut the ribbon.
"I was like 'why did I get it?' And she said they picked a Million Miler," he said.
Boarding started a few minutes later and was fairly quick. As we walked on board, each passenger was handed a bag filled with inaugural goodies — a special pin, a bag tag, an A321neo keychain and a pen.
First-class passengers got a second gift bag after boarding, which had an engraved paperweight celebrating the flight.
As we pushed back, the flight attendants announced that there would be a water cannon salute as we taxied to the runway. There seemed to be a miscommunication with the MassPort fire crews, though, since they never ended up doing the salute — they just drove a truck in front of us for a little while, leading the way, but it was difficult for passengers to see.
What we could see, though, was Delta ramp employees pausing what they were doing for a moment to snap photos or take videos as the new plane rolled by.
A few minutes later and we were up in the air!
After a few bumps during the initial climb, flight attendants came around to take drink orders and confirm our breakfast choices. I, and seemingly every other first-class passenger, picked my meal in advance through the app.
Breakfast was served a little while later. I had gone with the egg, potato and tomato tortilla, which was actually more like a frittata. I wouldn't have minded some ketchup or hot sauce with it, but it was delicious and flavorful even without. It came with a fruit salad, a chia pudding dish, and a warm croissant.
My seatmate, Chris, opted for the blueberry pancakes, which he said tasted as good as they looked and smelled: very.
It was a full first-class cabin with AvGeeks celebrating the inaugural. That meant no one really settled down much during the flight, which also meant passengers were pretty much constantly asking for drinks through the flight. The flight leader and other flight attendants took it in stride and were incredibly attentive throughout.
Snacks and a final drink service were brought out before landing at which point it was time to go off and find lunch!
But, as good as it was, the service was typical of what you'd expect to find on any non-Delta One transcontinental flight in the morning. Let's move on to the unique feature here, the seats.
To cut to the chase, I would say that these are the best first-class recliners flown by a U.S. airline. While they're no lie-flat pods, they beat any other recliner available.
The wing-like shields on each side of the headrest don't completely block your seatmate or people across the aisle, but they do block your face a little bit, and they add a sense of distance from your neighbor.
The same is true for the center divider. It's not quite like the middle divider you'd find in the middle seats of a Polaris or Qsuite business class cabin, but it creates and reinforces a sense of personal space — no fighting over armrests or shared center table space here.
As for those headrest wings, they have a rubberized foam padding inside. I caught myself accidentally resting my head on them instead of the headrest a few times. It was comfortable, although I hope Delta has that space noted as a high-touch point to clean frequently.
The rows are slightly staggered across the aisle, and the offset helps add just a tiny bit more privacy. In a way, "privacy" is almost the wrong word. You can see your fellow passengers and they can see you, but you just have a greater sense of personal space, almost like you're in a transparent bubble. I found it incredibly comfortable and effective.
The seats are all set up with a ton of storage space.
There's a cubby under the center armrest with room for a small water bottle, plus a phone, book, and other small things. There's also a bit of surface space next to that privacy divider, right where you'll find a power outlet and USB port.
You'll also find a shared cocktail tray — really, the only shared thing — at the front of the middle armrest.
This was really well designed, with a small lip to stop things from sliding off, and was perfect for holding drinks throughout the flight.
Down by your feet, there's another cubby in between the two seats in front of you, divided so that each passenger has some space. It's big enough to hold a laptop and a few other things. The seatback pocket was also pretty big, and had space for a laptop as well. Finally, there's space under the seat in front of you, although it turns out that's fairly limited.
Regardless, I was able to sit comfortably — even during meal service — with my laptop and phone both plugged in, a pouch containing all my various chargers, a notepad, my DSLR camera, and a large water bottle around me, with some room to spare.
The seat itself is quite comfortable and any concerns I had about the thin padding were unfounded. At 21 inches wide with 37 inches of pitch and 5 inches of recline, it was a nice way to fly. Yes, the padding is a bit thinner and firmer than you'd find in older cabins, like on Delta's 737-800, but the modern memory foam that's used manages to work just as well with less material, and was comfortable for the nearly seven hours I was aboard. I also found the headrest, with adjustable positions and a neck support, particularly ergonomic.
Finally, I was able to try connecting my AirPods to the in-flight entertainment system by Bluetooth, a new feature that Delta is trialing in first class on these planes. It worked flawlessly, and the sound quality was far superior to what I usually get when I connect my AirPods using an AirFly Bluetooth dongle.
Speaking of, the in-flight entertainment screen is large, sharp, and can be tilted up and down to provide different angles depending on whether you or the person in front of you is reclining.
The less good
As good as the new seats and cabin are, there are a few minor pinch points.
First and foremost, it's extremely difficult to get out of the window seats. The storage cubby between the two seats in front of your row juts into the foot area a little bit, and there's barely a foot of clearance to walk through.
Combined with the generous recline on these seats, that can be a problem. If the person in the aisle seat in the row in front of you is reclined, and you're trying to get out of a window seat to use the lavatory, you have to finesse your way through. This might be enough to make me choose an aisle seat over a window on these jets. And if you're the reclined person who happens to be sleeping, be prepared to be woken by the passenger behind you grasping onto your seat to avoid falling over.
Even if you're in the aisle seat, if you have the tray table open, the person in front of you reclining will eat into your space significantly and feel pretty claustrophobic. There's still room to type on a laptop if the person in front of you reclines, but it can seem a bit tight.
Also tight: the underseat storage. Because of a box containing the entertainment system and power, combined with the supports for each seat, there's less room than you would expect to store bags or other carry-on items. In practice, however, this wasn't really an issue, since there was more than enough overhead bin space.
Finally, it's a shame that Delta didn't choose to add legrests or footrests, like on the recliner seats in their Premium Select premium economy cabins. This is not a standard in first-class seats on U.S. airlines, but the airline is already raising the bar — why not raise it just a little bit higher, and make it easier for passengers to sleep on red-eyes and early flights?
The new first class seat design on Delta's A321neo is very, very good. While promises of "privacy" may be a bit overhyped, the sense of personal space these seats offer is unparalleled.
There are a few minor issues, and I suspect passengers are going to become frustrated by the struggle to leave the window seats in the reclining situation I described above. But that said, I'd absolutely go out of my way to fly first class on this plane instead of a similar narrow-body.