10 interesting things I learned from taking an airline ferry flight
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Editor’s note: Delta provided TPG with a complimentary ferry flight. The Points Guy paid for all travel to and from the flight departure and arrival cities. The opinions expressed below are entirely from the author and weren’t subject to review by Delta or any external entity.
Airlines typically only make money when paying passengers or pallets of cargo flying above or below the wing.
Yet, there are reasons why an airline might ferry planes around the country (and world) without any paying passengers or cargo.
For instance, when the Boeing 787-8 that was scheduled to fly United’s May 5 inaugural flight from Washington/Dulles (IAD) to Amman, Jordan (AMM) went mechanical, the airline quickly found a (larger) replacement Dreamliner — but that plane was sitting in Newark.
United flew the jet from Newark to Dulles as a ferry to avoid canceling the hotly anticipated new transatlantic service to Jordan.
Last week, Delta inaugurated service on its newest jet, the Airbus A321neo, with a transcontinental flight from Boston (BOS) to San Francisco (SFO) on Friday, May 20.
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In the days leading up to the inaugural, the jet was sitting in the airline’s Atlanta hub, undergoing some entry-to-service maintenance work.
Of course, the airline needed to shuttle its first A321neo from Atlanta to Boston in anticipation of the inaugural. To get it there, Delta flew a ferry flight without any passengers on Wednesday, May 18.
While the jet didn’t have any paying passengers, some members of the public on board, myself included.
Delta invited a handful of media to experience a special ferry flight. While I’ve already published a trip report from the experience, what follows are some interesting things I learned about ferry flights.
While we pay for our own travel whenever possible at TPG, there’s typically no option to pay to tag along on a ferry flight like this. However, I did book my travel to Atlanta and from Boston independently of the ferry.
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In the days leading up to the ferry flight, I was curious how Delta would handle the reservation process.
It turns out, everything before the flight felt completely “normal.” I received an email confirmation from Delta’s automated reservations inbox roughly a day before the ferry.
It had all of the elements of a standard e-ticket, including a flight number (9979), departure time (12:00 p.m.) and arrival time (2:30 p.m.).
After receiving the email, I went to manage the reservation on Delta’s website. I added my SkyMiles number, and the flight was then linked to my profile.
I could even see (and manage) the reservation on the mobile app.
While the preflight experience felt “normal,” things changed once the check-in window opened.
Obtaining a boarding pass couldn’t have been easier. I simply opened the app within 24 hours of the flight, and my boarding pass was issued just seconds later.
While the pass reflected my Medallion membership, it didn’t display my PreCheck status, despite adding my Trusted Traveler Number in the reservation after I received it.
It wasn’t immediately clear why I didn’t receive PreCheck, but it’s possible that I wasn’t eligible because of the unique nature of the ferry flight.
Seats are (technically) assigned
When managing my reservation, I was tempted to change my seat because, despite the light load, I was assigned a seat next to another flyer. There were only 15 total travelers booked on the flight, meaning that everyone could easily get their own row.
Yet, I didn’t change anything.
With so few passengers, the operations team specifically assigned flyers seats toward the center of the aircraft for weight and balance reasons.
In the end, Delta moved the five journalists to the first-class cabin, but even then, the 10 airline employees remained seated near each other in the center of the aircraft.
And while our seats were technically assigned for departure, it was a different story once we took off — everyone freely moved around the cabin once the seat-belt sign was turned off.
A (nearly) 1:3 flight attendant to passenger ratio
Though there were no paying passengers on the flight, Delta was still required to staff four flight attendants and two pilots on the flight, per Federal Aviation Administration rules.
The FAA requires one flight attendant for every 50 seats on an aircraft — regardless of occupancy. Delta’s A321neo has 194 seats, so that meant four flight attendants to take care of the 15 of us.
These weren’t just “ordinary” flight attendants, either. Delta seemingly hand-picked some of its finest, as the service delivered was polished, friendly and personalized.
(The safety demonstration video was also screened before pushing back, in line with FAA requirements.)
Even special ferry flights are subject to delays.
Our push-back was delayed by about 20 minutes, and our taxi took a bit longer than normal — some launch-day hiccups if you will.
As we taxied toward runway 26L, we ended up parking in the “penalty box” for about 30 minutes, while the pilots diagnosed some maintenance lights that were flashing in the cockpit.
Those of us behind the armored cockpit door (who didn’t have tight connections in Boston) were happy to spend a bit more time on the A321neo.
Blazing fast takeoff
The Airbus A321neo, or “new engine option,” doesn’t just feature an upgraded onboard experience for passengers. It also delivers nearly 20% improved fuel efficiency, which is great news for Delta’s bottom line.
With just 15 passengers onboard, we all felt the power of the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G engines. It took just about 20 seconds for the A321neo to blast out of Atlanta, making this one of the fastest takeoff rolls I’ve ever experienced.
Tracking the flight
Just like “normal” flights, our special ferry was assigned a flight number, 9979.
Airlines typically use four-digit flight numbers in the 9000s to designate ferries and other charter operations, and our flight was no exception.
I was able to track our status both before and during the flight, using Delta’s app, a simple Google search and even FlightRadar24, one of my all-around favorite flight tracking apps.
While the moving map displayed all the important AvGeek details, such as airspeed and wind direction, I was happy to see that the ferry flight could be tracked just like any other “normal” service.
Choose-your-own hot meal
One thing that was very unique to the ferry flight was the catering.
Delta usually serves drinks with a light food service for first-class passengers on the 946-mile hop from Atlanta (ATL) to Boston (BOS).
But this flight was specially provisioned with some of Delta’s most popular hot meals, including an Impossible Burger, chicken breast with rice or a vegetable plate.
Delta specifically organized upgraded catering for the journalists to get a taste of the airline’s meals that it serves on domestic transcontinental routes, which are the flights that the A321neo will initially serve from Boston.
Delta is in the process of rolling out satellite-based Viasat Wi-Fi across much of its domestic fleet, and the A321neo will feature this connectivity from the outset.
Once in the air, I immediately connected to the Wi-Fi network, which delivered download speeds of more than 100 Mbps and upload speeds of roughly 2 Mbps — some of the fastest connectivity I’ve ever seen on a jet.
With so few people on the plane, there was plenty of bandwidth for the handful of journalists working through their content.
Interestingly, when TPG’s David Slotnick flew on the inaugural flight just days later (with a fully loaded plane), he experienced intermittent issues with the Wi-Fi network.
His speeds were also noticeably slower when he (successfully) connected to the network, a function likely of the limited bandwidth available for all 194 passengers.
No miles earned
Here at TPG, we love collecting points and miles.
While I wasn’t expecting to earn any SkyMiles or Medallion-qualification credit from the ferry flight, I did wonder how the flight would credit to my SkyMiles account.
Within an hour of landing in Boston, I checked my recent account activity to see what (if anything) it would show.
Much to my surprise, the flight appeared in my account — but as expected, I didn’t earn any miles or Medallion credit. The reason: “we’re sorry, we cannot fulfill your mileage credit request because the activity is not eligible to earn miles per Delta rules.”
Flying on a ferry flight was a unique aviation experience.
While many aspects of the predeparture experience felt “normal,” things changed once we were airborne.
With just 15 passengers on board, everyone could easily move around the cabin. We even enjoyed a hot meal on a route that would typically get nothing more than a snack basket.
From blazing-fast Wi-Fi to an even faster takeoff roll, flying on a ferry was fun — too bad the flight wasn’t longer!
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.
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