Premium economy done right: Delta Premium Select on the A330-900neo
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During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips and we are not publishing new flight or hotel reviews. While bringing our readers unbiased, detailed reviews of travel experiences is one of our core missions, now is not the time. We all love to travel and know you do too. So, to help keep you entertained — and maybe inspire you — we are republishing a selection of our most popular reviews from 2019 and 2020, including the one below. Hopefully, this will help you once we’re all ready to start booking trips again.
This review in particular refers to the debut service of the Airbus A330-900neo with Delta. This new airplane model has since been introduced on many Delta intercontinental routes, but is currently flying only from Seattle to Seoul and Tokyo and back, as most of Delta’s long-haul fleet is grounded.
In a bid to offer an experience between the luxury found in business class and the merely tolerable ride in coach, Delta is adding Premium Select — its spin on premium economy class — to an increasing number of planes in its wide-body fleet. The airline’s new Airbus A330-900neo is the latest to offer the cabin, which I flew days after reviewing the same plane in Delta One Suites.
The 900neo, also referred to as the A339 or just 339, is the same size as the A330-300 Delta already flies, but with new, quieter engines that burn less fuel, plus some aerodynamic refinements. With 35 on order to replace the smaller Boeing 767-300ER on many long-haul routes, the A339 is beginning its journey in Seattle (SEA). It’ll initially operate between Seattle and Shanghai Pudong (PVG), adding Seoul’s Incheon Airport (ICN) and Tokyo’s Narita Airport (NRT) to the mix in August 2019.
For this particular round-trip review, I wanted a multicabin experience, so I headed to Delta.com to complete the purchase. I settled on Delta One Suites on the outbound (set as the inaugural A339 flight) and Premium Select on the return a couple of days later. Had I been based in Seattle and wanted a round-trip in Premium Select, early flights were pricing out as low as 60,000 SkyMiles.
To make sure I got more than one cabin type, I paid cash for the ticket. The total came to $3,356.53, including my positioning flights to and from North Carolina — with Delta One Suites for the outbound inaugural and Premium Select on the return.
From my hotel in the financial district of Shanghai, I took the Metro to Longyang Road and transferred to the maglev train, which covered the final 19 miles to Shanghai Pudong Airport in around eight minutes, cruising at over 200 miles per hour. My door-to-door time was an hour, placing me at Delta’s counters within Terminal 1 at around 9:30am. Total cost? 54 yuan (around $8).
Pudong Airport is massive and clean, and Delta’s counters were well-staffed when I arrived three hours prior to departure. That said, I was grateful to be traveling light, as the line to check a bag looked to be about 50 people deep. I waltzed up to a self-service kiosk, scanned my passport and printed my boarding passes in about two minutes.
An employee staffing the kiosks noticed my Delta Diamond status on my boarding card and handed me a signed voucher for China Eastern’s lounge after security. China Eastern is a SkyTeam partner, so it lets Delta’s top-tier elite members use the space. However, Premium Select tickets do not include lounge access, so it hasn’t factored into the score of this section.
Immigration and security took about 10 minutes, with everything orderly and quick.
The China Eastern lounge was a two-floor affair with a decent spread of salads, fruits, breads, juices, coffee and canned drinks.
The lounge was around 70% full when I entered, though I found a respite by taking the escalator upstairs, where it was far less crowded.
The curtains were all pulled shut, making it feel more like a basement than an oasis. Seating was plentiful and comfortable, though Wi-Fi access seemed to require registration. Given my short time there, I stayed offline and enjoyed a preflight salad.
For those holding one of the many credit cards that provide Priority Pass, take a peek at one of those lounges instead if you’re passing through PVG.
A push notification from the Delta app said boarding had commenced a full hour before departure. I gathered my belongings and headed to Gate 216, where throngs of passengers made their way to the podium in disorganized fashion. As I inched closer, it became clear why boarding was started so early: We were being bused out to a remote station a few dozen passengers at a time.
The upside of not having a connected gate was it enabled excited passengers to get photos of themselves beside a massive new jet, and I enjoyed watching wide-eyed children and AvGeeks alike marvel at the A339 from the ground.
However, the boarding would’ve been a nightmare with kids in tow or if you had accessibility issues. You would’ve needed to be assisted onto the bus, off of the bus and then up a long set of stairs.
Cabin and Seat
While Delta’s A330-300 and -200 jets are going from one business-class product to another, this is the first in the airline’s A330 family to feature a true premium economy product. Delta Premium Select debuted on the Airbus A350 and has since debuted on refreshed 777 and 767-400 aircraft.
Still, Premium Select remains a relatively rare find.
Delta’s Premium Select cabin on the A339 is just behind the galley that separates it from business class, with Airbus’ Airspace ceiling design spicing things up.
This return flight took place on the very first A339 delivered to Delta, ship N401DZ. Given that I flew on N402DX for the inaugural, I can now say I’ve flown every 900neo in Delta’s current fleet.
I found 28 seats in a 2-3-2 configuration. Each seat is 18.5 inches wide and offers 38 inches of pitch and 7 inches of recline. That compares to 18.5-to-19 inches of width and the same pitch and recline for Premium Select on the Airbus A350.
In many ways, the seat reminded me of the first-class seat on Delta’s (also new) Airbus A220. Each seat has its own water-bottle holder, just like the A220’s first-class seats. Delta confirmed to TPG that this is a first for Premium Select.
I chose Seat 23H, an aisle seat in the last row of Premium Select. There’s a hard divider after Row 23, a real boon. This enabled me to fully recline my seat without the guilt of encroaching on a passenger behind me. I’d highly recommend selecting Row 23 if you’re booking a Delta Premium Select seat.
One thing that’s worth lauding is the memory-foam seat. I’d read about this in advance of the plane’s debut, but sitting in it for over 11 hours was even better than I’d imagined. This is, in two words, a game changer. Conventional airplane seats tend to cause fatigue, even if you don’t realize it straight away. I’m used to plopping down on a long-haul flight then standing up a few hours in to stretch and visit the lavatory, only to feel numbness and pain in my lower back.
That fatigue was nowhere to be found in this seat. Even better, every single seat on the A339 is memory foam, so those in Comfort+ and Main Cabin enjoyed these benefits as well.
What struck me over the course of crossing the Pacific Ocean was just how thoughtfully designed the seat was. Aisle seats had a latch that lowered the entire armrest for accessibility reasons, but it was generally useful for getting in and out — especially if the person in front of you was fully reclined.
The tray table was triggered by a latch, and there was an elegant fluidity to how it rose and lowered.
Seat recline, the legrest and the footrest each had their own dedicated buttons (though I wished the icons had been backlit). There was a storage nook on the right side, just behind the aforesaid latches, which was great for storing snacks, a Kindle, charging cables, etc.
The shared armrest area had grippy sections for holding a drink or two, and I never felt cramped when sharing this space during meals.
The pop-out legrest and footrest were enjoyable. While I wouldn’t say that these, combined with the recline, delivered a product that enabled easy and restful sleep, it was unequivocally comfortable for daytime flights. I tried to get a couple of hours of rest and felt myself zoning in and out — that miserable state of yearning to sleep but not being horizontal enough to make it happen.
I rode in Air France’s premium economy on board a Boeing 777 last November and found it to be uncomfortable and a poor overall value. Delta’s spin on things is a complete 180 from that: a remarkably comfortable and roomy seat, ideal for getting work done and arriving refreshed, so long as you don’t intend on sleeping.
The biggest gripe with the Premium Select cabin was its striking lack of a lavatory. The closest lavatory was but feet away, just behind the last row of Delta One, but it was curtained off and reserved for those in the forward cabin. Because of this, I was left walking through many rows of Comfort+ and queuing up closer to the middle of the aircraft. It was the one notable negative in an otherwise distinct and impressive layout.
Amenities and IFE
The 13.3-inch inflight-entertainment display is the same size as the one on the Airbus A350, offering a few extra inches over the 10.1-inch displays in Comfort+ and Main Cabin.
I noticed a bit of polish on the user interface, signaling that there was something new and different here. It was the first IFE to ship from Delta Flight Products, and it was completely wireless. This removed those weighty and annoying ground-mounted boxes, and will make future upgrades far less cumbersome.
As was the case on my flight in Delta One Suites, I had access to 298 movies, 550 TV shows and 1,550 audio selections.
Strangely, the IFE in Premium Select contained two major perks that even business-class passengers missed out on. First, there was a conventional 3.5-mm headphone jack in the panel (Delta One Suites passengers need to bring a two-prong adapter to use their own headphones). Second, the screen tilted, while the panels in Delta One were fixed.
Also, content on the 13.3-inch panel appeared sharper than I’d seen on the 18.5-inch panel in business class. My best guess here is that content was sent out in the same resolution to all screens and needed to be beamed in a higher resolution to not look pixelated on the larger panel.
There was a small remote tucked beside the recline button, but as in business class, it was disabled. There was a sticker saying to use the touchscreen for now. Frankly, the new IFE was so good and responsive that I doubt anyone would use anything other than the display.
A swanky Tumi soft pouch was on my seat when I boarded. It had earplugs, an eye mask (of slightly lower quality than those packed for Delta One passengers), a toothbrush and a pair of socks.
I was surprised that Premium Select passengers received a pair of Delta-branded slippers, just as I’d been gifted in Delta One. To boot, Premium Select passengers got LSTN noise-canceling headsets, but I found them to be lackluster — bring your own set.
While the light-blue blanket was the same one Delta’s been handing out across the board for quite some time, the pillow was different. It was far more substantial than what I’ve seen on domestic first-class routes, and comfortable to rest on.
Gogo’s 2Ku satellite-based Wi-Fi enabled a constant connection from Shanghai to Seattle. Though speeds weren’t quite as fast as on my outbound flight, I averaged 14 Mbps down and 0.35 Mbps up, with only a couple of momentary dropouts.
Food and Beverage
About 45 minutes after departure from Shanghai, flight attendants came through with hot towels (the same kind used in Delta One), offered drinks (including the same wines found in Delta One) and asked us to choose between two meals. We even had our own menu.
I opted for chicken over pasta, with my expectations set sufficiently low. After all, I was served the same meal in premium economy as those in economy on Air France. But, this meal was delicious! The shrimp appetizer was seasoned to perfection, the salad was crisp and fresh, and the chicken was hot and juicy. The quality rivaled that of the meal I was served in Delta One days prior. The portion was a bit smaller, but it was served on real glassware with actual silverware.
I strolled back through Comfort+ and Main Cabin to confirm that Premium Select customers did indeed receive a substantially superior meal to what was offered behind them.
The midflight snack was essentially dessert for the main meal: a Magnum vanilla ice cream bar coated in chocolate. I’ll take a Magnum bar over the dishes of ice cream served in business class any day. Who doesn’t love a Magnum bar?
About 90 minutes prior to landing in Seattle, the crew came through with two choices for our arrival meal. I chose the egg frittata over the Chinese noodle dish. This dish wasn’t knock-your-socks-off scrumptious, but it hit the spot. The side of fruit was my favorite part.
As a final thank you for flying, flight attendants came around with a basket of chocolates and allowed Premium Select passengers to grab a few for the road.
Quite possibly the best non-business class service I’ve ever received on a flight. Jovial and attentive from boarding to deplaning, and an open invitation for refills and snacks throughout the flight.
As fate would have it, the same Seattle-based flight crew I met on my Delta One flight to Shanghai was on my return in Premium Select. I recognized all the faces, and they were pleased as punch to see a few of us returning to the US with them. Granted, I interacted with a different set of them given the different cabin, but it was a lot of fun to continue conversations with the same crew from a few days before.
Genevieve and Deborah handled the bulk of the service for my aisle in Premium Select. Genevieve went above and beyond for the duration of the flight, offering drinks and refills for what felt like a dozen times throughout the section, beaming the entire time. I don’t recall ever being so looked after outside of business class.
While sightseeing on my one full day in Shanghai, an American came up to me and asked if I spoke English. Turns out we were both looking for Jing’an Temple, so we followed my phone together for a couple of blocks. I explained that I was there to review a new Delta aircraft. She remarked that she was from Atlanta, Delta’s hometown, and hoped to fly them again on her next trip back. On a recent flight on a rival North American airline, she recounted, the crew had been unsatisfactory. “They just aren’t as kind as Delta’s people,” she said. “It’s like they just aren’t happy to even see you on the plane.”
In a nutshell, that mirrors my feelings about the Delta service I’ve experienced lately.
I’ve found a new favorite when it comes to premium economy. If you’re looking to visit Shanghai (and soon, Tokyo and Seoul), do whatever you can to route via Seattle and fly the A339. You’ll get a similar experience on the A350, but the smaller Premium Select cabin (28 seats on the A339 compared to 48 on the A350) guarantees a more exclusive feel.
Plus, the memory-foam seating truly makes a difference. Delta has done a commendable job creating a distinct premium-economy experience.
(Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)
Dedicated menus and meals, real glassware and silverware, never-ending drink service, a high-end amenity kit and a plush legrest and footrest were notable positives. The seat is not great for sleeping, but on a daytime flight this may not be the top concern. The lack of a dedicated lavatory and the disorganized boarding process at Pudong Airport were the only detractors to an otherwise outstanding experience, and I’d recommend Premium Select to anyone traveling long distances but unwilling or unable to splurge on Delta One.
All photos by the author.
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