Lagging Behind: A Review of Delta’s 767-300ER in Business From JFK to LAX
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As an airline, Delta isn’t shy about keeping old aircraft in service. While the carrier will likely be retiring some of its oldest planes in upcoming years, it currently has one of the oldest US fleets and obtains a number of its planes secondhand. The airline keeps its planes flying through an aggressive refurbishment program, but as a result of its reliance on older frames, the aircraft Delta currently has in the air often don’t feature the most cutting edge in cabin technology.
Such is the case with the Boeing 767s that Delta operates on its premium transcontinental route between New York’s JFK and Los Angeles. While the business-class cabin features lie-flat seats and all-aisle seat access, it’s a dated product that has seen better days. To make matters worse, the food served on this route was mediocre at best, and served up with a level of service that was decidedly average. It all adds up to a less-than-impressive transcontinental experience that’s easily bested by other options currently on the market.
Delta SkyMiles recently took home the award for Best US Airline Loyalty Program at the TPG Awards, as the airline made significant improvements in its program in 2018. However, most of those improvements have been concentrated on the economy side of the equation, where it’s relatively easy to find great value for short domestic hops.
But when it comes to premium cabins, it’s a somewhat different story. There’s no set award chart for the SkyMiles program, so the only way to price an award is to search for it online at delta.com, and an extensive search of the calendar shows that the lowest price you’ll currently find is 54,000 SkyMiles for a one-way transcontinental flight in Delta One business class.
There’s quite a lot of space at that price, and it generally corresponds to the same flights being available for $659 one-way or less if you’re booking just a few weeks ahead.
Redeeming 54,000 SkyMiles for a flight that costs $659 means you’d be getting 1.21 cents apiece for your miles, which is exactly in line with what TPG values SkyMiles at in his latest monthly points valuations. So while you wouldn’t get outsized value for this redemption, you’d at least be getting expected value for it. You can earn Delta SkyMiles through a cobranded credit card such as the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, or you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points instantly to SkyMiles at a 1-to-1 ratio, but transferring isn’t advisable since you can get a lot more value for Membership Rewards points than just 1.2 cents apiece.
Since Delta is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, you could theoretically redeem miles for this transcon through one of the airline’s alliance partners, or even its separate partner Virgin Atlantic. But that’s only if you can find low-level award space, and without an award chart, there’s no real way to know what exactly is low-level award space anymore. On top of that, some partners such as Virgin Atlantic have access to a different subset of Delta award space.
Your best bet is to try searching on the website of other partner programs to see if you find an available award. I gave it a shot on Virgin Atlantic’s website, where in theory you could score a Delta business class transcon seat for just 22,500 miles one-way if there’s space. But not a single nonstop seat came up anywhere on the calendar…
As a result of a last-minute schedule change, I ended up booking this flight only a few days out from departure, which meant there were only three open seats left. I selected seat 5A, assuming based on my research that it was a standard window seat. That turned out to be not quite correct — more on that in a moment.
At JFK’s Terminal 4, transcon business-class passengers are able to access the joint Delta/Virgin Atlantic premium check-in area, which features a small sitting area and designated Sky Priority agents.
There were quite a few passengers in line for the priority check-in desk, but there were also ample agents to handle us all. As a result, it only took about 10 minutes to complete the check-in process.
Boarding pass in hand, I proceeded to the Delta Sky Club on the B concourse of Terminal 4. Domestic premium-class passengers normally don’t get access to Delta lounges, but the airline provides access to business class passengers on its premium Delta One transcontinental routes, such as nonstop flights between JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco.
The Delta Sky Club at Terminal 4, renovated in 2013, is one of the biggest lounges in the Delta network. But it was still quite crowded, with only a few seats available here and there across every room of the club.
I could only find a seat without a table and had to wait about 10 minutes to get served at the bar. Also, one of my favorite features of this lounge — the exterior Sky Deck — was closed for the winter weather.
Since this is a “flagship” Sky Club, the food options are somewhat better than the average Delta lounge. They include several hot offerings, such as a main course of roast chicken with white wine, mushroom and sage cream sauce.
Along with a daily soup option (beef chili during my visit), there’s also a wild rice pilaf and a fall harvest pasta, all of which are served buffet-style.
In addition to the hot foot options, you’ll find a salad bar-type collection of vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and cheeses, along with bite-sized cookies and brownies. This Sky Club also offers a rotating set of specials — on the night I was there, the lounge had brought out spaghetti and meatballs.
All of the hot food options were surprisingly decent. Obviously nothing like a Michelin-starred restaurant, but reasonably good for airport lounge food. The chicken was moist and tasty, while the spaghetti and meatballs stuck to the ribs (though the sauce could have had a bit more kick).
In the end, this is certainly a better-than-average airport lounge — there were more choices than you’d see at most standard Sky Clubs and the food isn’t bad. But the Delta lounge experience simply doesn’t come close to what American Airlines is providing its premium transcontinental passengers at its Flagship Lounge over in JFK’s Terminal 8. As a result, it’s a solid but not groundbreaking lounge experience.
Cabin and Seat
Boarding began even earlier than the posted 40-minute ahead of departure boarding time, so by the time I got to the gate a few minutes before 5:25pm, business class was already heading onto the plane. The biz cabin on the Delta 767-300ER utilizes a Thompson Vantage seat that’s popular with a number of airlines. It’s set in a 1x2x1 configuration, meaning every passenger has access to the aisle without having to interrupt your neighbor.
Waiting at each seat as passengers boarded were a pillow and blanket, a Delta Tumi amenity kit, headphones and a bottle of water.
This is when I discovered that seat 5A is not exactly a standard window seat. On this bird it had a pilot rest module installed so it could be used as a crew rest seat, with curtains that can be pulled shut and minimal overhead lighting. Obviously it wasn’t being used for crew rest on this five-and-a-half hour flight, but it was a bit of a surprise and the module does change the amount of ambient light available at this particular seat since the side overheads have been taken out.
On the left or right of each seat, depending on the row, are the controls for most of the functions of the seat. At the front are the seat configuration controls themselves, which are standard and simple, allowing you to put the seat into a lie-flat mode. Also available are a standard A/C outlet, a USB port, a two-prong headphone jack and a reading light.
The meal tray can be unfolded by pushing a button to open the armrest compartment, where a sign goes out of its way to note it cannot be used for storage.
In fact, the seat itself has practically no places for storage at all except for the footwell underneath the seat in front of you, and that area has a sloped floor, which means almost anything you put in it will slide down. This is similar to the tray table, which is big enough for both a laptop and a drink, but which lists downwards to the side, enough for light items to slide and enough to be annoying with heavier items.
One other note about this seat — it’s very easy for the seat belt to get caught under it. I’ve found that’s a common issue with many lie flats, but it seemed even more pronounced on this one.
As we pushed back from the gate, seemingly to demonstrate just how old this plane was, an extremely loud squeaking noise began to emanate from one of the overheads and continued the entire time as we made our way to the runway. Fortunately it went away while we were in the air and we were in the sky about 10 minutes after push back, so it didn’t detract from most of the flight. But it returned after landing, making it certainly an annoying feature of the plane on the ground.
Amenities and IFE
The inflight entertainment system has an impressive number of movies, and even though the majority are Hollywood films, there’s also a selection of 60-70 international films in that total count. The TV side is somewhat less impressive, but there’s still plenty to watch with 3-12 episodes of each series available. The system also has a live flight tracker, which is relatively common nowadays but still a feature I really enjoy and check in on regularly.
The IFE can be controlled either by touching the screen or via the one-sided remote. I found that the touchscreen wasn’t terribly responsive — it regularly had mistargeted touches and a lot of lag. It was better with the remote, but still not terrific.
The provided headphones were unimpressive, with no real noise cancelling features and less than optimum sound quality. Nowhere near as good as the Bose headphones offered by American on its A321T transcon in business, though at least Delta didn’t try to collect these a half hour before landing.
On the other hand, the Tumi amenity kit has a ton of stuff piled neatly into it — all the standard items along with hand cleaner, tissues and even extra socks. If you’re a fan of amenity kits, this is probably the most complete version of all the major US airlines flying transcon routes (and I must say that I do like the hard shell Tumi case).
The seat in lie flat mode has a length of 62 inches, which butts up against the 18-inch shelf on top of the footwell for a total length of 80 inches. That design is fine, but the narrowness of this seat really becomes apparent in lie-flat mode. It feels like a coffin with your arms pinned to your sides. In my experience, the only way to sit semi-comfortably is to tilt the top of the seat up a bit so your arms can sit on the armrests, meaning you pretty much have to make this lie-flat seat into an old-style angled-flat seat for it to be useable.
The two bathrooms were small and not terribly clean. When I used it halfway through the flight, there was a leftover cloth towel sitting on the sink and a bit of paper towel clogging the sink drain.
Also, back in the cabin, the temperature was slightly higher than a usual flight, measuring in at 76 degrees with 10-14% humidity. Still, I didn’t find it uncomfortable. An audio test showed the cabin’s ambient sound level to be between 80 and 83 decibels in mid-flight.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
While we were boarding, the flight attendants came through the aisles offering a choice of orange juice or sparkling wine for a pre-departure beverage. I chose the wine, which was served in glassware and certainly nice to have before we took off.
About 15 minutes after we were airborne, the flight attendant came by to take our dinner orders. The menu offered three options for a main course, but I had already taken advantage of the option to select my meal a few days ahead of time by email. This is a technology that’s expanded in recent months to more Delta flights and is much appreciated, though I somewhat prefer AA’s version that allows you to choose your meal on its website versus having to wait for an email from Delta.
The menu also provided a full list of liquors, wines and non-alcoholic beverages to choose from.
The flight attendant confirmed (correctly) that I had pre-ordered the chicken parmesan and asked for my beverage request. As I always do, I ordered a gin and tonic as a test drink, which was served with some mixed nuts (and a Coke that I also requested).
The gin and tonic was well presented but not mixed properly — there wasn’t enough tonic in it to balance the drink. In fact, I ended up ordering an Inception Chardonnay to replace it, which was fine if unremarkable.
When the dinner tray arrived, everything on it was flat-out mediocre. The shrimp was okay but the sauce with it was bland. The salad was crisp but the dressing was heavy. The cheese on the chicken parmesan was just concealed in chunks on top. Even the roll was soft but just a garden-variety roll — where’s my pretzel roll?!
After dinner was cleared, I was offered the choice of a cheese and fruit plate or ice cream which the flight attendant referred to as a “sundae” and most certainly shouldn’t have (the menu itself more accurately describes it as “vanilla maple ice cream topped with spiced chocolate sauce”). Compared to the full blast sundae offered on United’s transcon, the Delta version comes off as rather pathetic.
About two-thirds of the way through the flight, the flight attendant came by with a warm cookie and glasses of milk, which literally might have been the most palatable food and beverage item handed to me during the entire flight.
In comparison to the food offerings on JetBlue, American and United transcontinental flights, the Delta version was outright disappointing. I realize that US airlines aren’t known for having high-quality food, but this was absolutely a step below the others, and it’s not the first time I’ve been dissatisfied by the business-class food on Delta’s transcon.
While the flight attendants on this flight were friendly and the meal and beverage service went relatively quickly, no one went above and beyond, especially once the meal service was complete. In fact, no one even asked if I wanted coffee with dessert or after my meal.
In addition, I was rather surprised that no one even offered to hang up my coat before we departed. That’s a common courtesy in premium cabins even on short domestic hops, especially during the winter when many passengers are carrying around heavy coats. I don’t know if that’s typical on the Delta 767 transcon, but it left me stuffing my coat up in the overhead bin.
I’m generally a Delta fan, but I don’t think the airline isn’t putting its best foot forward with this 767 transcontinental flight, which is somewhat surprising given the heavy competition on these routes. While I wouldn’t expect to see a Delta One Suite between New York and Los Angeles, I’d forgo the all-aisle access and choose Delta’s 757 for a transcon over the 767 if I could — it has a 2×2 configuration but the seat is more comfortable. The carrier also currently flies one or two A330’s between JFK and LAX daily, which might be the best of all your choices if it works for your schedule.
While I appreciate Delta’s operational reliability, I’d probably look elsewhere in the future for a business class transcon experience. For the same cash price, you can sit in JetBlue’s fantastic Mint class or enjoy the three-class American A321T with a Flagship Lounge on either end. And if you’re redeeming miles, you can get a lot more value with United or American, especially by booking an award through partner programs. So regardless of how you’re booking your next transcontinental flight, you’ll likely want to put Delta’s 767 transcon near the bottom of your list.
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