A Smooth Ride in Coach: Flying Delta’s Airbus A350 From Detroit to Tokyo
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To The Point
The airplane that killed the glorious 747 in Delta’s fleet is now the airline’s mainstay to Asia. Pros: A very roomy seat for coach class on a brand new, quiet plane; fast Wi-Fi. Cons: Messy boarding, mostly nondescript food, ho-hum service.
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When Delta Airlines introduced the Airbus A350 on some long-haul routes last year, aviation enthusiasts and frequent flyers were thrilled. No event is more exciting for an AvGeek than a new airplane entering service, and we at TPG were eager to try the newest airplane in service with a US carrier. The A350 stands out also because it offers the first true Premium Economy cabin on a US carrier outside of American Airlines, which TPG Reviews Editor Nick Ellis tried out on the inaugural flight while TPG himself sampled the Delta One enclosed suite. They both liked their experiences. Delta touts flying on its new jet as akin to “floating on a cloud.” Would that lofty claim hold true in the tight confines of coach class?
I wanted to go on a mileage run to help me hit Platinum Medallion status for 2018 on Delta. I found a spectacular deal on flights from New York (LGA) to Singapore via Detroit (DTW) and Tokyo (NRT) and back (on Korean Air via Seoul-Incheon) for $762.16 — an incredible bargain for 20,000 miles in the air. The DTW-NRT segment was going to be on an A350, and I jumped at the chance to try the new jet.
I paid with the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express, yielding me a total of 1,524 SkyMiles for the purchase, since the card earns 2x miles on Delta purchases. I would normally have paid with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card for 3x points on airfare, or a Platinum Card® from American Express for 5x points — but I was working to meet the $25,000 yearly spending on Delta-branded Amex cards, which waives Delta’s Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) requirement to hit elite status except for the top-tier Diamond level, which now requires $250,000 in spend on a Delta co-branded card. (Or $15,000 in spending on Delta or SkyTeam flights.) In total, the flight earned me 20,001 MQMs, $647 MQDs and a total of 5,176 redeemable miles (3,235 base miles + 1,941 bonus miles).
Check-in and Lounge
I checked in on the FlyDelta app the day before, which was a straightforward, easy process as usual. My boarding passes for the LGA-DTW segment and for the connection to NRT were available in the app; not a piece of paper was involved.
Thanks to my (then) Gold Medallion status with Delta as well as my Reserve card, I had access to the Delta SkyClub lounges, even though I was flying coach. I spent a couple of hours at one of the Detroit SkyClubs, by gate A70. It’s a perfectly fine if somewhat bland lounge which was, at 10:00am on a Thursday, far from crowded. I’ve seen it packed at peak travel times.
The only warm food available when I walked in was grits, in addition to breakfast cereal, fruit and the usual selection of snacks. About one hour later, out came more warm food as lunch time approached, which should have been good news. Unfortunately it wasn’t — I had a plate of penne marinara that turned out to be an overcooked mess in a far too sweet sauce, an embarrassing caricature of an Italian-American classic.
The A350 waiting for us at the gate bore the tail number N502DN, which identified it as the very first one to fly in commercial service for Delta, delivered in August 2017. This was my first glimpse of an A350 in Delta colors, and I liked its sleek lines and telltale “bandit mask” around the cockpit windows, found on all A350s.
Earlier that morning I’d received a text from Delta, as well as a warning in the app, telling me that the flight would be delayed by one hour. With a tight connection in Narita, it might have been enough to make me miss my onward flight to Singapore, but we still made it to Tokyo on schedule.
However, the problem turned out to be not so much the arrival time as the boarding process. The Delta app notified me that the new boarding time was 12:41pm. So I left the lounge at 12:15 with time to spare, confident that I’d just be able to breeze onto the plane among the first, as usual, through the priority lane as a SkyTeam Elite member.
But the boarding process wasn’t nearly as streamlined as our beautiful new Airbus.
While I was walking to my gate, I got a push notification that boarding had commenced at 12:21. Wait, what? My overhead bin space! I rushed to the gate, but when I got there at 12:25, boarding was most definitely not underway. It was nowhere near even beginning, and lots of passengers who looked unfamiliar with the process were crowding the gate, impeding access. This was not managed well, with no announcements telling people how things worked. 10 minutes later, boarding finally commenced, with rows one to nine, i.e. Delta One, being called first. After that, it should have been the turn of SkyPriority passengers, including me — but the announcement that SkyPriority could now board was made, who knows why, in Japanese only. In the ensuing confusion, many SkyPriority customers ended up boarding well behind general coach.
When I finally got to the boarding pass scan, the gate agent did not greet me by name and did not acknowledge my Medallion status, unlike most other Delta agents I usually interact with. Granted, everybody was in a rush to get going, but a simple “Welcome, Mr. Riva” would have taken a second.
Cabin and Seat
Finally aboard, it was obvious that this was an immaculate, brand-new machine. “It’s my first Delta 350!” I told the flight attendant who greeted me at the door. “Me too,” she replied. “It’s tight,” she added unenthusiastically when I asked what she thought of her new plane — and, as if on cue, I bumped my head into an open overhead bin. For all its efficiency and quiet, the Airbus twinjet is much smaller than the 747 it replaced in the Delta fleet: With a maximum capacity of 306 seats, it carries 70 fewer passengers. But the four-engined Jumbo Jet is a relic these days, and Delta calculates that less revenue from tickets with vastly smaller fuel and maintenance costs equals more profit.
The crew may not have liked the relatively cramped quarters of their new workplace, but they sure were proud of it. The first announcement by the purser after boarding was complete mentioned the “brand-new Airbus A350,” and that was what the captain said too when he came on the intercom shortly afterwards to welcome us aboard. Our flight would last 12 hours and 30 minutes, he told us, and take us northbound over Canada, then north of Alaska and finally down over Russia’s “Chamkatka Peninsula.” (Which doesn’t exist, but in his defense, try saying the correct name of the Kamchatka Peninsula three times aloud if you’re not a native Russian speaker.)
My seat, 41J, was at the front of the rear section of coach. I was in it for 12 hours, 32 minutes of flight, covering 6,734 miles.
This may be the best seat in coach on this plane along with its twin on the other side of the cabin, 41A. Armed with my TPG colleague Zach Honig’s excellent guide to economy class seating on the Delta A350, I made sure to choose one of the two window seats (AvGeek imperative!) that have essentially unlimited legroom because there is nothing in front. On the seat, I found the usual blanket and pillow and even a pair of slippers, which aren’t common in coach.
Every one of the 306 seats had its own power outlet plus powered USB plug, an important touch on a plane that can stay in the air for 15-plus hours. There were also individual air vents above each seat. The headrest had plenty of vertical travel, and adjustable side flaps to hold one’s head. This would have been a contender for my favorite coach seat on any plane if it hadn’t been for the lack of storage, which is limited to two pouches on the cabin wall too tight to hold anything thicker than a couple of magazines.
But the seat truly delivered on its legroom promise. I am 6’2” and could stretch at will.
The economy cabin had only four lavatories for 226 people, all of which were located at the center of the coach class section, right in front of row 40. There were none at the back of the plane. People queueing up for the bathrooms congregated close to my seat all flight long, which did not especially bother me since I was not going to sleep, but I can see it being a problem for passengers who want some peace.
Takeoff was extremely quiet, even from my seat right behind the starboard engine, a Rolls Royce Trent XWB turbine whose fuel efficiency is the main reason for the A350’s 20% lower operating costs per seat compared to the 747. While taxiing we passed a couple of Delta 747s, just weeks away from retirement at the time. Photographing them framed by the sleek, ultra-modern wing of the A350 was a poignant AvGeek moment.
Food and Beverage
A water bottle and sleep mask, ambitiously packaged as an “A350 Comfort Kit,” were distributed after takeoff. With the kit we also got a beautifully designed, trilingual menu, again not something usually found in the back of the plane.
As is customary on US airlines’ flights to Japan, the menu had a Japanese option.
A snack followed takeoff, just after we reached cruising altitude: your standard-issue pretzels and almonds.
Dinner was served 90 minutes after takeoff, making it more like lunchtime, but the sun dropped below the horizon quickly afterwards. (It would rise again five hours later over northern Siberia, letting us experience a day with two sunrises.) For my lunch / dinner I went with the chicken, a bland dish that didn’t do much more than keep me fed. The side dish of shrimp in cocktail sauce was instead fresh and zingy. I didn’t touch the Caesar dressing for the salad.
The next meal was a really tasty pizza-like thing served as the cabin woke up to natural light when people raised their window blinds, cued by the lights coming back on. I could have had a couple more of those flatbread snacks, easily.
Having tried the Western option earlier, I went with the Japanese pork yakisoba noodles for my pre-arrival meal — they were nothing special. The flatbread would remain the most satisfying thing served in almost 13 hours on this plane.
Service throughout the flight was similar to the food: nothing remarkable, and nothing notably bad. Overall this was the airline equivalent of a pair of khaki pants: They’ll do the job just fine and they won’t stand out, but that’s about it.
In-flight Entertainment & Wi-Fi
The IFE screen was tack sharp and super responsive to the touch. Pinch-zooming and scrolling on the map display was a pleasure. The extendable arm my screen was mounted on moved fluidly.
As for the selection of movies, TV shows and music, it was ample enough, mostly geared towards mainstream international taste. I watched Argo and Michael Clayton, and listened to some old U2 and Bob Dylan. Do bring your own noise-canceling headphones; unlike the serious sets provided in Delta One and Premium Select, the small headphones you get in coach are not exactly top notch. You don’t need a two-prong adapter; headphones plug into a standard stereo jack.
Delta offers free messaging (no photo attachments, though) for all customers, without having to pay for Wi-Fi. It worked perfectly to send and receive WhatsApp messages. As a T-Mobile customer, I also got one hour of free Wi-Fi on my phone, which I used without a hitch to send emails, tweets, and WhatsApp… with pictures. WhatsApp did go out later on the flight for a while, but it’s hard to argue with a free service.
I didn’t use the paid Wi-Fi, which started at $6 for a 1-hour pass, or $10 if you wanted more speed. The free connection I did use on my phone was plenty fast for what I had to do. Delta has installed 2Ku-band satellite Internet on the A350, which is said to deliver download speeds of up to 70 megabits per second. I was not able to run a speed test on this flight, but while Wi-Fi wasn’t slow, it certainly did not feel 70-megs fast.
Super-efficient big twinjets like the A350s are the future of air travel. They may not have the golden-age allure of the Boeing 747, but they are efficient, reliable and far cheaper to operate and, if you score a seat as good as the one I had, they provide a solid passenger experience.
As I hurried to catch my onward flight to Singapore, stopping for a moment to snap a parting shot of ship 3502, I felt like I would see her and her siblings in Delta livery many more times around the world — and, despite a somewhat ho-hum service, I knew I would want to fly the Delta 350s again.
All images by the author; featured image by Zach Honig.
An earlier version of this story described the airplane’s Wi-Fi as being capable of 70 megabytes per second; the actual figure is 70 megabits. We have corrected the story.
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