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Delta’s enhanced service for coach passengers is sure to set the carrier apart once fully rolled out. Pros: fantastic multi-course meal, Bellinis and turndown service. Cons: currently only available on one route, no seat assignment until boarding and limited legroom in the bulkhead row.

With the introduction of private suites in Delta One and an all-new premium-economy product, there’s no question that Delta is making an effort to improve its long-haul international premium-cabin offerings. Between maintaining nine-abreast seating in coach on retrofitted 777s —as opposed to the industry norm of 10 across — and offering thoughtful amenities like sleep kits for all passengers, Delta’s made it clear that it’s committed to offering a comfortable experience for those sitting in the back as well. 

Thanks to a tip from inside the airline, we learned that as part of its latest enhancement to the international main-cabin offering, Delta’s trying out a completely revamped dining experience. Naturally, we wanted to test it to see if it was a tangible improvement.

There was one catch, though: The new menu is offered only on flights between Portland, Oregon (PDX), and Tokyo Narita (NRT) for a limited time. Since I was flying to Beijing (PEK) to catch the launch of Delta’s first retrofitted 777 and needed to stop in a third country to connect in China without a visa, my return was the perfect opportunity to catch one of these flights.

In This Post

Booking

Since the trial is only being offered on the one daily flight between Portland and Tokyo, I didn’t really have a choice of which plane to take. I ended up booking a one-way main cabin ticket to from Tokyo to Los Angeles (LAX), with a connection in Portland, for about $750. While it’s not uncommon to find round-trip tickets for around that price, one-way fares typically cost significantly more.

We used the Platinum Card from American Express to earn 5x points on airfareyielding a total of 3,755 Membership Rewards points, equivalent to about $71, according to TPG’s latest valuationsI could have also redeemed miles to book the flight, but considering the coach ticket would have cost upwards of 100,000 SkyMiles each way, paying outright with cash was the way to go.

As a SkyMiles member with no elite status, I earned a total of 2,915 redeemable miles, 4,822 Medallion Qualifying Miles and $583 Medallion Qualifying Dollars. I didn’t earn any SkyMiles for my onward flight to LA, as it was operated by Alaska Airlines, which is no longer a mileage partner with Delta.

Check-in

As I mentioned, I booked a standard main-cabin ticket, and Delta didn’t offer basic economy on this particular flight (though it soon will on all flights). But it didn’t feel like much of an upgrade above basic economy, because I wasn’t able to get a seat assignment until moments before boarding my flight. Although my ticket was confirmed when I checked in online, I was placed on a standby list. This was because Delta, like many other airlines, overbooks flights assuming that seats will open up because of last-minute cancellations and upgrades. And although I was supposedly third on the standby list, others kept getting cleared before me and I never moved up the list.

I tried getting in touch with Delta’s customer-service team via Twitter to get more information, but they weren’t much help. I didn’t have the patience to wait hours to get a hold of a phone agent, so I went to the airport a bit earlier than I usually would — in this case, two and a half hours.

I didn’t have to wait long to use a check-in kiosk, and although I was flying with only a carry-on, I could have checked two bags at no charge.

I was asked if I’d be willing to volunteer to take a different flight. Although I declined, I still didn’t get a seat on my boarding pass. I tracked down the one airline representative strolling around the check-in area but wasn’t able to get any more information.

Lounge

After clearing security, I headed straight to my gate. But there was one problem— there weren’t any agents there yet. So I decided to continue monitoring the standby list from my phone and headed to Korean Air’s KAL Lounge, which was right by my gate. I had access thanks to the Priority Pass membership I had through my Chase Sapphire Reserve card.

ANA and JAL’s first-class lounges aside, Narita isn’t known for its exciting lounges, unlike major Asian airports such as Hong Kong (HKG) and Singapore Changi (SIN). And this lounge was no exception. Though it had a contemporary aesthetic, it was extremely crowded, and I was only able to locate a whopping three power outlets.

I found the food and beverage selection to be especially disappointing. The spread consisted of individually packaged pastries, packaged onigiri (triangle-shaped Japanese stuffed rice balls) and instant noodles. There were no fresh items on hand — not even cheese cubes! If you’re flying business class on this route, keep in mind that Delta has a Sky Club at Narita airport that you can visit.

Since I was stressed out about getting a seat on my flight, and also struggled to find an open seat in the lounge, I didn’t end up spending much time there and returned to my gate.

Boarding

The gate agents arrived soon after I did, and I was finally able to ask about my seat. Although I was initially told that I’d need to wait until boarding was complete to get my seat assignment, the agent must have noticed how worried I looked because I was immediately called back and handed a new boarding pass.

For a middle seat in the last row of the plane.

I kindly asked if I could have a different seat, but was immediately shot down as if I were a basic economy passenger requesting a seat change. Undefeated, I kept checking the flight’s seat map until boarding began. At that moment, I noticed that 22C, an aisle seat in the center section of a bulkhead row, opened up, so I immediately asked if I could switch to it.

At first, the agent said that the seat was taken, but it magically became available after I showed the agent the seat map on my phone. I was handed a new boarding pass — score!

Though everyone was lined up ready to board at the scheduled boarding time, boarding didn’t actually begin until 45 minutes later. The process itself was pretty standard, with premium and elite passengers first, followed by main cabin passengers by zone. Something special you don’t see everyday was that the captain was on the jetway greeting each passenger as they entered the plane.

Our 767-300ER, registered N193DN, first flew in 1997 and has been operated since new only by Delta.

Cabin and Seat

The main cabin was divided into 35 Comfort+ (extra legroom) seats and 165 standard seats, all in a 2-3-2 layout.

Standard seats on this plane offered 31 to 32 inches of pitch and were 18.1 inches wide.

Although bulkhead seats often offer extra legroom, that wasn’t the case here — explaining why Delta didn’t charge extra for it. I found the legroom to be seriously impeded by the wall, and extending my legs into the aisle wasn’t an option either, as there was a lot of traffic to and from the lavatories right in front of me. At least there wasn’t anyone in front of me reclining their seat. And while it wasn’t as much of an issue for me,  the bulkhead seats were a bit narrower than standard seats, as the tray tables (which were a lot smaller than usual) were stored in the armrests.

The seats didn’t offer much recline, but that was to be expected. Comfort+ seats, on the other hand, promised 50% additional recline.

Amenities

Although my plane was over 20 years old, its refurbished interior sported modern amenities like seatback entertainment, universal power outlets, USB ports and in-flight Wi-Fi.

 

At boarding, seats were stocked with a plastic-wrapped blanket, a small pillow and slippers — the latter standard for Delta flights to and from Japan.

As soon as we were in the air, flight attendants came through the cabin with several more items: headphones, water bottles, sleep kits, menus and hot towels.

The IFE monitors were crisp, and the entertainment library was just as comprehensive as in Premium Select on the 777 a few days prior.

The flight featured Gogo Ku Wi-Fi. Although it wasn’t as fast as the new 2Ku technology found on Delta’s A350, it worked well and was priced fairly at $21.95 for the entire flight. As is standard with Delta Gogo-equipped planes, free messaging was available to all passengers, as was an hour of free Wi-Fi just for T-Mobile customers.

Food and Beverage

Between not eating anything in the lounge and knowing that there would be an enhanced meal service, I was actually looking forward to eating on my flight. And boy, was I impressed!

While menu cards are standard now for Delta flights, there were a few distinctive features that made the ones on this flight different. First off, they were ambitiously titled “Bistro Dining.” Lunch began with “Welcome Bubbles” followed by a choice of starter, neither of which you typically  get in coach.

For my welcome bubbles, I had a Bellini and can of LaCroix sparkling water, though I also could have opted for San Pellegrino or Seagram’s club soda (yes, three types of sparkling water in coach) or any other drink from the beverage cart. Besides the usual selection of drinks, there was also a large selection of Japanese beverages, including Eisen sake and Asahi, Suntory premium pilsner and Kirin Ichiban beers.

I went with the salad of roasted grapes, pine nuts and quinoa for my starter and found it to be fresh and flavorful. All of the tableware was significantly sleeker than usual — no Coke-branded tiny napkins on this flight!

After the starter was cleared, there was another full beverage service before the main course. For my main, I had the pasta with cauliflower and walnuts in a cream sauce, and it was just as delicious as the starter. It was accompanied by vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream for dessert.

Besides being a lot tastier than the meal I had in Premium Select, it was presented in a way that felt a lot more premium as well. While my entire meal was served on one tray in Premium Select, on this flight each course was served separately and without any trays. The portions were also larger than usual.

About two and a half hours into the flight, dinner service was complete. The crew turned off the cabin lights and walked through offering passengers extra blankets and water. They also set up a snack basket in the galley.

Just before landing, we had a breakfast of fruit and a croissant, again with fancy dishes and napkins. Although the portion was modest, the fruit was fresh, and the flaky croissant was a lot better than what is usually served for airline breakfasts. I could have had a couple more of those croissants, easily.

Overall Impression

It’s great to see that Delta is trying to step up its game to better compete with foreign carriers. This was genuinely the best experience I’ve had in coach on any of the big three US global carriers — and I’m not just saying that because there were three different types of sparkling water on hand. The food and drinks were excellent, and I can truly say that it enhanced the in-flight experience. While the cabin felt dated, its modern amenities and top-notch service made up for it.

I chatted with some of the flight attendants about the new service before the flight ended, and they seemed just as excited about it as I was. Besides the better catering, the postprandial turndown service (as the flight attendants referred to offering extra blankets and water) was also new and definitely a nice touch.

Assuming the rest of the trial goes smoothly, this enhanced coach service could roll out to all international flights. On my flight, flight attendants mentioned a November 1, 2018 roll-out date, though Delta hasn’t confirmed that date and told us that it’s still in the testing phase. The FAs also pointed out that the first meal service on this flight was an hour longer than usual, however, so Delta may end up making adjustments to it before then.

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