Exception to the rule: A review of Delta economy on the A330 from Los Angeles to New York
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It’s almost time for this year’s TPG Awards! In order to determine the best domestic economy product, we’re reviewing the best product from each airline. As we wanted to make this an experience as close as possible to the average passenger’s, we divvied up the airlines so that reviewers would fly airlines that they didn’t have status on.
I had the pleasure of being assigned Delta. Or at least I thought it would be a pleasure. I was quite disappointed in some aspects of my Delta transcontinental experience. Let’s dive into why.
We paid a total of $277 for this one-way transcontinental flight in economy, and put the fare on The Platinum Card® from American Express, thank to the card’s 5x bonus category on flights purchased directly through the airline or with Amex Travel. We earned a total of 1,385 Membership Rewards points, which are worth about $28, according to TPG’s current valuations.
Delta doesn’t publish an award chart, so your results will vary when searching for award flights, but Delta is now famous for its SkyMiles flash sales, where you can score award tickets at great rates.
On the evening before my flight, I was able to easily and quickly check in on my phone and receive my boarding pass via text message. To speed along the process at the airport, I paid for my checked bag ($30) and splurged on priority boarding ($15) to increase my odds of getting clean photos of the cabin.
I put both fees on my Ritz-Carlton Rewards® credit card (no longer available to new applicants) so that I could use my $300 annual airline-fee credit to cover these fees. I could have avoided both of these fees by having the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express, which offers cardholders a free first checked bag and priority boarding.
At check-in, I checked the seat map and found it pretty full, so I stuck with the aisle seat I’d previously selected.
Delta operates out of both terminals 2 and 3 at Los Angeles (LAX). My digital boarding pass noted my flight would depart out of Terminal 3. However, Delta indicated that I needed to check in at Terminal 2, so that’s where I had the LAX hotel shuttle drop me off.
Quick aside: The pilots for my flight just so happened to also have stayed at the same hotel, and we shared the shuttle to the airport. For the early-morning ride, the two pilots were quite friendly and happy to chat about Delta aircraft and routes.
While the two-terminal situation was a bit confusing, Delta had clear signage pointing passengers in the right direction for their destination.
As I had checked in online, I was able to join the shorter bag-drop line. Thanks to there being four agents processing bag drops, I was in line for only about four minutes before a helpful agent waved me over. The bag drop and boarding-pass printing took less than 80 seconds for a total bag-drop time of about six minutes.
There were 16 self-serve check-in kiosks lined up along the windows of Terminal 2. When I passed by, a couple had a line, but there were others that were free.
I was able to speed through TSA PreCheck security in just a few minutes. Within 20 minutes of entering the terminal, I was airside and heading to the Delta Sky Club thanks to my Platinum Card® from American Express.
As lounge access isn’t part of Delta economy, I’m not factoring it into the ground experience score. But I couldn’t help but take a look around. As an American Airlines frequent flyer, I was particularly impressed by the food-and-drink selection — from a hot breakfast buffet and an extensive fruit-and-yogurt bar to self-service liquors, beer and wine. While AA is adding better food to its lounges, it still has a ways to catch up with some Delta Sky Clubs.
I grabbed a quick bite and a latte from an espresso machine in the lounge. For those without lounge access, there was a Starbucks with dozens of people in line and a few other restaurants and grab-and-go shops in the terminal.
While there was a line for the limited bathrooms in the Sky Club, there was no wait for the bathrooms on the upper floor of the terminal.
Our wide-body flight departed out of a gate in a corner of the terminal — meaning that seating was hard to come by. Numerous passengers sat on the ground near the boarding lanes.
However, I was able to find a pair of empty seats the next gate over. There were two power outlets for every few seats, and these outlets weren’t in high demand. The LAX free Wi-Fi clocked at a blazing 181 Mbps download and 152 Mbps upload with a 7 ms ping.
When preboarding was announced, passengers scrambled toward the boarding lanes.
The flight was clearly packed with Delta elites. By the time Delta boarded Delta One, Diamond Medallion, families, Comfort+, Platinum Medallion, Gold Medallion and partner elite passengers, it seemed like more than half of the gate area had cleared out. Finally, Main Cabin 1 was called, and I entered the line to board. Turns out that “priority boarding” didn’t get me much priority.
While waiting on the jet bridge, I noticed the boarding pass of the passenger ahead of me clearly stated Main 2 — confirming my suspicion at the gate that agents weren’t enforcing boarding groups.
The flight pushed back a couple of minutes late, but a short taxi time meant we were wheels up at 8:07 a.m., just 12 minutes after the scheduled departure time.
We arrived in New York about 15 minutes early. Between my back-cabin seat and the distance from our gate to baggage claim, Delta had no trouble delivering my checked bag to baggage claim before I got there.
Cabin and Seat
Delta’s Airbus A330-300 economy cabin contains 219 seats across 29 rows of mostly 2-4-2 configuration.
However, as the fuselage narrows in the rear of the aircraft, the last four rows are configured with 2-3-2 seating.
I’m a fan of the A330’s 2-4-2 seating arrangement, as the two-seat rows are great for couples traveling together and the middle sections work well for families with kids.
This configuration results in a seat width of 18 inches between armrests.
Delta elected to arrange rows with 31 inches of pitch.
Although Delta is testing limiting recline on some aircraft, the seats on this aircraft still reclined about 4 inches. Each seat had a headrest that could extend upward and had winged sides to help cradle sleeping heads.
In a feature I haven’t noticed in other economy products, the headrest also could tilt forward.
The tray table folded down from the seatback in front. The table measured 16 inches by 8 inches and could extend backward a few inches.
The seatback had a single, large pocket. The under-seat storage space was slightly reduced by a small equipment box.
During boarding, flight attendants proactively told passengers with larger roller bags to put them in the overhead bins in the middle of the cabin and put smaller bags on the window side. Not everyone followed instructions.
In explaining the small bins, one flight attendant specifically announced that this wasn’t a retrofitted plane. Interestingly, this aircraft (N824NW) was only a little more than 4 years old. So it’s interesting that Delta hadn’t installed larger bins.
The economy cabin has a total of six lavatories for up to 219 standard economy passengers and 40 Comfort+ passengers. Four of these bathrooms are in the galley between the two large economy cabins, and two additional bathrooms are found at the back of the aircraft.
Amenities and IFE
There were no amenities at the seat at boarding.
The touchscreen seatback screen measured just shy of 9 inches diagonally, and the screen didn’t tilt. So you’re going to have to watch the screen at an angle if the passenger in front of you reclines.
There were a whopping 306 movies — including plenty of new releases — and 261 TV shows with partial or full seasons. Having such an incredible number of options made scrolling through to count them quite overwhelming.
For those who didn’t bring their headphones, flight attendants passed through the cabin shortly after takeoff to sell earbuds for $5 — which I purchased using my Ritz-Carlton Rewards® credit card. The upside: All proceeds during the month of October went to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The downside: The sound quality certainly didn’t justify the price.
The only amenity available on request was blankets. Although the blanket was a bit scratchy, it was good for economy.
Each pair of seats had just one universal power outlet to share. This could be an issue if your seatmate and you each need to power a large device. Thankfully, my seatmate only wanted to top off his phone, so I was able to use the outlet for most of the flight. Each passenger had a USB outlet under the inflight-entertainment screen.
Delta’s A330 is equipped with Gogo-powered Wi-Fi. However, as we passed 26,000 feet of altitude, the Wi-Fi was still unavailable.
I noticed a number of laptop-wielding passengers asking flight attendants about the Wi-Fi, which finally prompted a flight attendant to make an announcement that Wi-Fi was down and would be intermittent throughout the flight.
At 33 minutes after takeoff, a flight attendant made an announcement to the restless business travelers that the Wi-Fi system was being reset and would take 20 minutes to come back online. About 15 minutes later, I was able to launch the Wi-Fi landing page.
Four payment options were available, from $11 for a 30-minute pass to $49.95 for an all-day pass or a monthly subscription.
I selected the flight pass and was preparing to cough up a whopping $40 for under four hours of Wi-Fi when I was happy to be prompted to use one of my eight remaining American Express internet passes from my Business Platinum Card® from American Express.
And I got what I paid for. Seemingly due to high demand from the business-traveler-heavy flight, the Wi-Fi was atrociously slow. Most times I tried to load a website, I got an error. I was barely able to complete text-based communication during the flight and wasn’t effectively able to work on anything online during the flight.
Although I attempted to run a speed test about a dozen times on the flight, both through Speedtest.net and the Speedtest app, not a single test even initialized.
Although each economy passenger had a seatback screen, passengers also had the option of streaming entertainment to their own devices. There were 80 movies and five TV shows. However, when I clicked on one movie to check the streaming quality, I got a warning that the video wasn’t available.
I was able to load another movie and see that the streaming quality was decent.
Although none of these were expected, I just want to clarify what wasn’t included on this flight: There was no live TV, tail camera, remote control or in-seat ordering on this aircraft. No headphones or amenity kit were provided, and no pillows were available on request. The lavatories didn’t have any amenities (besides soap).
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Flight attendants handed out a simple but elegant menu.
The menu said there were 11 different routes that shared the same options. As this flight was scheduled to depart at 7:55 a.m., passengers had a choice between two complimentary light meal options: Tillamook cheese and fruit, or turkey-and-Swiss bagel sandwich.
More than an hour and a half after takeoff, flight attendants passed through the cabin to serve drinks and hand out these light meals. I got the fruit-and-cheese plate.
There was no refill or other drink service for the next couple of hours. An hour before landing, flight attendants passed through to provide another drink service and offer complimentary snacks such as KIND bars, Cheez-Its, Biscoff cookies and nuts.
Miller Lite ($8), craft beers ($9), wines ($9) and spirits ($9) were listed on the menu, but I didn’t even think to consider ordering a drink, since this was such an early flight.
No more substantial food options were available for purchase.
While I received excellent service from some flight attendants, one flight attendant made it very clear that she wasn't happy to be working this flight.
The flight attendants on this flight varied extraordinarily from great to downright awful. One FA, Scott, got the flight off on the right foot by pleasantly greeting passengers at the boarding door.
On the flip side, I headed back to the back galley during cruising altitude asking for water. The flight attendant who I approached outright ignored my request, physically turning away from me. Another flight attendant who was further back in the galley who overheard my request awkwardly stepped in to get a bottle of water to fill the cup I’d brought back.
It was this same grumpy flight attendant who handed out the complimentary snacks on my side of the aisle. She skipped over at least a few passengers who weren’t ready to say what they wanted when she got to their aisle. Then, when some of these skipped passengers tried to get her attention after she passed them, she overreacted with obvious annoyance.
For many passengers, this could be a perfectly fine flight. There’s a seatback inflight-entertainment screen with tons of entertainment. There’s a complimentary light meal, two drink services and a snack. As Delta allows free messaging through its Wi-Fi system, passengers can message with friends and family — with some dead zones, but at least connected for part of the flight. And the USB outlet is sufficient for charging the only device that matters to many, a cell phone.
Simultaneously, this would be a miserable flight for other passengers. A business traveler may be stuck sharing a seat pair with another business traveler, meaning they’d have to fight for the sole power outlet all flight. After being optimistic about there being Wi-Fi, they could be frustrated at having paid $40 for Wi-Fi that only barely works the entire flight. If they get a flight attendant like ours, the FA may skip them during the light meal service for not looking up from their computer when she passes — and then they might be rewarded with attitude when trying to get her attention.
That’s an inherent challenge of these reviews: Each passenger values different parts of the experience differently, and passengers are going to have different experiences even on the same plane. As it was a weekday and I was trying to help cover news here at TPG, I was more of the latter passenger on this flight. And that experience wasn’t up to par.
All photos by the author.
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