Flight review: Delta's Boeing 717 in first class from LaGuardia to Chicago
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Editor’s note: During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. Instead, we have been publishing a selection of popular reviews from recent years — like this flight review from earlier this year — as well as resuming publishing of new, previously unpublished flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken before the lockdown. We hope this will help you choose once we’re all ready to start booking trips again.
This review covers a flight from before the coronavirus caused travel to largely stop. You can expect your experience to be different today.
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The Boeing 717 is the second-smallest jet by passenger capacity in Delta's mainline fleet. Seating 110 people, it's used on routes all over the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Delta Air Lines' diverse fleet features Airbus and Boeing jets of all types, plus a raft of airplanes made by now-defunct McDonnell Douglas. The cute 717 began life as the McDonnell Douglas MD-95, but changed its name when its maker merged with Boeing in the 1990s. New Yorkers will see the 717 on several routes out of LaGuardia, although many of those are suspended during the coronavirus pandemic. Before travel demand nearly disappeared, 717s served the route from New York - LaGuardia to Chicago - O'Hare as many as 13 times a day on weekdays. We flew it on this route in early March, on an economy ticket that got upgraded to first.
The booking was made two weeks before the flight with a corporate American Express card, for a relatively standard one-way economy fare of $86.92. Booking closer to the departure date would have been considerably more expensive. One-way first class bought outright, not upgraded, would have cost about double on the same route in cash.
A full five days before the flight, Delta emailed me with the subject line "Your Upgraded Seat." My Platinum Medallion status had paid off once again. Out of 22 flights with Delta last year and so far in 2020, I've been upgraded from coach to first (or Delta One lie-flat seats flying domestically) 10 out of 22 times. That's a very respectable 45% upgrade rate, especially considering that I am not a Diamond Medallion, Delta's highest published elite tier. I may have been getting an upgrade boost from the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, which breaks in my favor any tie for upgrade with flyers with the same elite level and fare class.
Upgraded flights still earn miles for the original class, so I got the redeemable miles plus Medallion Qualifying Miles, Segments and Dollars I would have received for a regular coach flight — including the bonus I was entitled to as Platinum Medallion.
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LaGuardia gets terrible press. Last year we ranked LGA at number 45 out of 50 U.S. airports. But parts of it are getting better. The new concourse in Terminal B is one. And the new addition to Terminal D, with seven gates numbered D92 to 98, is another. The lack of decent mass transit options to get to and from the airport, road congestion and delays all remain issues — but on a Saturday, getting there in a Lyft from Brooklyn was a breeze.
Related: Your guide to taxis, Ubers, Lyfts and Via during LaGuardia Airport’s construction
Just inside Terminal D, there's a row of Delta self-service kiosks where you can print a boarding pass, which I did — always a good idea even if you've checked in online or in the airline's app. You never know when a paper boarding pass might come in handy.
Everything else before security in Terminal D is as expected, amid uninspiring airport architecture. On an early Saturday afternoon, at least it was uncrowded, even before air travel almost disappeared because of the risk of COVID-19 infection.
We didn't factor lounges into the score of this review, since Delta domestic first-class airfare does not include lounge access. I stopped at the Terminal D Delta Sky Club anyway, since I had access as an Amex Delta Reserve cardholder. It's not my favorite Sky Club — Seattle currently holds that title — but it does a good enough job, especially with revamped hot buffet options.
Related: The ultimate guide to Delta Sky Club access
Delta kept me well-informed of gate number and boarding time, via text, email and push notifications from the app. One message told me that I'd be "boarding soon, but no need to hurry." Turns out it should have told me to get there quick because when I got to gate D92 just after getting that text, boarding was well under way.
To get there I took the walkway to the seven new gates, which can feel a bit like a science-fiction movie set if you have it all to yourself.
It also offers a great view of those gates, which were all occupied — by four 717s and three Embraer regional jets.
My ride was the first of the parked 717s.
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Just like the VIN plate on vehicles, most commercial airliners have a manufacturer's tag with identifying information. This 717 bore, by the main door, the serial number 55091, identifying it as a jet with quite a history. It was built in the summer of 2001 for TWA, just months before the storied airline failed and was bought by American Airlines, which did not incorporate the TWA 717s. Budget airline AirTran picked this one up in 2003 and flew it until 2014, when the airline was acquired by Southwest, which didn't want 717s either — so Delta took over AirTran's entire 717 fleet. Delta has been flying those jets since.
The airline configures all its 717s with 110 seats: 12 in first class, 15 in extra-legroom Comfort+ and the remaining 83 in regular economy. There's no real physical divider between coach and first.
Coach is in a 3-2 arrangement, while first is in 2-2 over three rows.
Bulkhead seats in row 1 have less room to stretch one's legs; at six feet, two inches I had no problem crossing my legs in the bulkhead row, but I couldn't put my legs under a seat in front. There isn't much storage at the seat except for a pouch affixed to the bulkhead, where you'll find the usual literature, a handy guide to how to connect to the Wi-Fi and just enough room for a tablet or a small book.
I tried row 2 after everybody had disembarked and I had enough room under the seat in front to stretch my legs comfortably. Next time I would choose this or row 3 behind it.
What you do get in row 1 that the other rows in first don't have is two full windows. The seat also sports an adjustable headrest, an individual power supply and a tray table hidden inside the armrest dividing it from its neighbor. Each seat also has individual air vents.
The sliding tray table was a bit unstable, making cutting my steak entree a challenge. It barely supported the weight of a 15-inch laptop.
But where the 717 really got points from me is with a nifty addition to the overhead bins: handles that help passengers hoist themselves out of seats, or keep steady while standing in the aisle.
First class has the exclusive use of one of the 717's three bathrooms, located at the front of the cabin just behind the flight deck. Toward the end of this flight, it wasn't very clean. It had Malin + Goetz soap and body lotion.
While the lounge was empty, the flight was nearly full. At 4:04 p.m. the captain came on the intercom to tell his passengers that flight time would be one hour and 50 minutes; we were wheels up at 4:29, after a quick and quiet takeoff roll. With engines mounted at the tail, the 717 is a remarkably hushed airplane up front.
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When the MD-80 and MD-90 will be retired later this year, the 717 will be the only jet in the mainline Delta fleet without seatback screens. The entertainment aboard the 717 is what you can get via the inflight Wi-Fi. (On my flight, there were Delta Sky magazines too. Delta has since stopped carrying it in the wake of COVID-19, and it's unclear whether it will return.)
Prices for the Wi-Fi currently start from $6 for a 30-minute pass. Over that Wi-Fi, you can get free content beamed to your device from Delta Studio. I could connect for free from my phone as a T-Mobile customer, but had to pay to use Wi-Fi on my laptop.
The Wi-Fi was slow, with download speeds of 1 Mbps and upload of 0.4 Mbps — enough to get basic browsing done, but nothing heavier.
If onboard flight entertainment screens are important to you, seek out Delta's Airbus A220s, the state of the art in airplanes that seat 100 to 150 people.
The hard amenities were the standard for short-haul first class: A blanket, a flimsy pillow and a small bottle of water, all of it found at every seat upon boarding.
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Besides the water at my seat, I was offered a drink before departure, either a soft drink or an alcohol beverage.The Coke I asked for came in a plastic cup branded with the logos of two Atlanta institutions, Delta and Coca-Cola. (Pepsi on airplanes is a rarity.)
Barely 15 minutes after takeoff flight attendant Caroline, who was working first class, came around the cabin to take orders for the drinks to be served with dinner. On a flight this short, a full dinner service must be done quickly and just minutes later Caroline came to put the tablecloth over my tray table. The tea I asked for came shortly after, and at 5 p.m. the steak with spinach and potatoes I had selected online — the other option was chicken, and special meals could also be requested — was served.
I would have considered it a middling steak dish at a restaurant on the ground; for a short domestic flight, it was above average. A tiny salad with Caesar dressing and packaged brownie completed the meal.
A snack basket came out immediately after the entree. I wasn't in the mood for a snack after just having had steak, but one my small seatmates was far more interested.
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Flight attendant Caroline did a very good job and was perfectly affable with her passengers, including the two small children in my row who cried pretty constantly throughout the flight but who calmed down when she fussed over them.
On a domestic flight this short, where the soft product doesn't matter a great deal, the seat is important. Would I be happy to fly the Delta 717 again in the same seat? No doubt, yes. Its interiors feel a bit tired compared to younger or recently refurbished planes in Delta's fleet, and if a more modern plane like the Airbus A220 were available on the same route I would go for the latter, all other factors being equal. But this was a solid short-haul first class.
Delta did well on the overall experience. Steak served on a proper tablecloth on a two-hour commercial flight counts as a luxury these days. I could have used faster internet, but again, this was just two hours in the air. Compared to the 74-point average for domestic first class, this flight was right in the pocket.
All photos by the author.
This story has been edited to reflect that Delta Platinum Medallion members do not have access to Delta SkyClubs in the U.S. when flying on a domestic-only itinerary.