Flight review: Delta Air Lines first class from New York to Las Vegas on the Boeing 737-900ER
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Bear in mind that for the foreseeable future, service on board will be greatly reduced to lower the risk of contamination, and that the ground experience — with lounges closed or without food and amenities — will also be very different from what was available before the pandemic. According to Delta Air Lines’ site, nonstop flights between New York and Las Vegas are currently suspended and will resume on July 2.
The last time I traveled before the lockdown was a ski trip from New York City to Squaw Valley, California, in early March to squeeze some more days out of the Ikon Pass I’d bought for the season. To get to the closest airport to the slopes, I flew Delta to Las Vegas and caught a Southwest connection to Reno, Nevada. Before the coronavirus nearly halted domestic flights (and closed ski slopes), Delta served Las Vegas nonstop from New York-JFK several times a day, mostly with the Boeing 737-900ER.
Seating 180 people in Delta’s configuration, the 900ER model is the largest and heaviest of all 737s in service today. It has the range to cross North America coast to coast, but the lack of premium lie-flat seats distinguishes it from the 757s and 767s that Delta uses on its more prestigious transcon routes. From New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, up front you will find Delta One seats that turn into beds; on 737s, you get recliners. Las Vegas is a leisure market, so Delta’s flights from New York are mostly on 737s.
We paid $318.40 to book just a few days before departure, using a corporate American Express card. Had I been booking this on my own, I would have used either my Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, earning three miles per dollar spent on purchases with Delta, or Chase Sapphire Reserve, earning 3x points on travel. The Platinum Card® from American Express would also be a good choice for Delta flyers — it might in fact even be the best one for some.
When I checked in online 24 hours before the flight, the site offered me an insanely expensive upgrade to first for $1,288.93 or 119,000 miles — a proposition that was even more absurd considering that one-way first class from JFK to LAS could be purchased outright for as low as 45,000 SkyMiles or $558. In any case, I could try my luck at a free upgrade; I was fourth in line out of 16 people on the list, with four seats available. By the evening, the upgrade list had grown to 20 and the number of available seats to five, with me still at number four. Not many business travelers — the people most likely to have high airline status — want to go to Vegas at midday on a random Tuesday with no big conferences in town. So, even as a Platinum Medallion, one notch below Delta’s top published status level, Diamond Medallion, I liked my chances. The 737-900ER has a relatively large 20-seat first-class cabin, meaning more upgrade opportunities. And after all, I had been upgraded to first or business on more than 40% of my Delta flights in the previous year.
Even in coach, I reasoned, I would be just fine. Thanks to my status, I had selected seat 21F, an exit row with extra legroom and full recline, at the time of purchase. On this jet, in fact, the two best seats in the house for pure legroom are 21A and F, beating even first class.
With the mileage earnings from this flight, I made some progress toward confirming Platinum Medallion status for the year, adding a chunk of Medallion Qualification Miles and Dollars (MQMs amd MQDs in Delta parlance) to my account. Just a few weeks later this all became moot, as Delta extended the status of all current medallions for one year.
On March 3, travel had already begun to thin out. I found no line at either the general or priority check-in counters at JFK’s Terminal 4.
Kiosks were available for self-check-in both in the general and SkyPriority areas, and I used one to easily print a boarding pass. The Delta app is all you need to go through security and get on board, but a paper backup can come in handy if your phone’s battery dies, or in case there are flight disruptions.
I had to stop at the priority check-in counter, in any case, to drop off two bags. Usually I’m in the Zach Honig school of thought, traveling with no checked luggage, but the gear needed for a ski trip makes for an exception to the rule. Platinum Medallion status was very useful here, with its free checked-luggage allowance for up to three bags weighing 70 pounds apiece on flights within the U.S. and Canada.
As I sanitized my hands using the bottles provided at the counter, I asked the agent if she thought I’d get the upgrade. (I was still fourth in line, with four seats available.) “You might get lucky!” she replied, smiling.
The security area was remarkably empty. JFK has since become even emptier.
What had not changed from the usual Terminal 4 experience was the trek to get to the Delta SkyClub lounge, located by gate B32, all the way down a seemingly endless terminal. Fortunately, flight DL2093 left from gate B34 next to it.
The expanded buffet — a huge improvement over the previous one in this lounge — had hand sanitizer right next to it, which the few people who ate used dutifully. My plate of huevos rancheros, turkey sausage, bacon bits and pico de gallo would turn out to be my last meal in a Delta lounge before the pandemic. The buffet is currently closed due to the coronavirus, and may not return, at least in its current form, for a while. That’s really too bad, because the renovation had turned the food options in this popular SkyClub from a minus to a strong selling point.
At gate B34, there was power at every seat — plus points for ground experience! — but also a very loud TV, a definite minus. After the scheduled 10:45 a.m. boarding time came and went, Delta managed the snafu perfectly. An announcement from a gate agent at 11 let us know that they were waiting for the cabin crew, which had landed late from Fort Lauderdale at a different terminal and was on its way. A test of an airline’s customer-service culture is whether front-line employees are kept informed of operational developments, so they can reassure passengers. In this case, not only did the customer-facing staff know what was going on, but also made a point of informing passengers in detail.
The flight attendants arrived at 11:17 and preboarding commenced just four minutes after. While we waited, it turned out that the check-in staffer had been prescient: I did get lucky. The boarding pass in my Delta app flashed an update, telling me I was now in 1D, the last seat remaining in first class.
Docked outside was our jet: ship 3852, bearing the tail number N852DN identifying it as a four-year old 737. Fleet-tracking site Planespotters notes that it has been parked since May 7 at the storage yard in Marana, Arizona — another plane grounded by the drop in demand. Number 3852 will very likely return when traffic does, though. At just four years old, it’s got a lot of life left.
Cabin and Seat
First class on the 737-900ER consists of five rows of four seats in 2-2 configuration. In Delta’s single-aisle fleet, only some versions of the Boeing 757 have more first-class seats.
The usual minibottle of Dasani water, blanket and flimsy pillow were at each seat.
The bulkhead seat I was in has less legroom than the rows behind it; in row 1, you can’t stretch your legs under the seat in front like you can in rows 2 to 5. Legroom in those rows is 37 inches, average for Delta first, which ranges from 36 to 38. Seats are 21 inches wide.
The storage pouch held a copy of Sky magazine, which has since stopped publication.
A USB-powered port and a standard headphone outlet are found under the armrest between the seats. Another USB port and headphone connection are under the monitor mounted on the bulkhead in front of the seat. Between the seats, you’ll find two universal power outlets — no fighting with seat neighbors over a shared one. It’s all you need for five hours in reasonable first-class comfort.
These seats feature an airbag seatbelt, with one strap heavier and thicker than the usual.
The tray table comes out of the armrest and can slide forward when in place, but not enough to get out of your seat during dining. It had enough room for a 15-inch laptop, but it was also wobbly and uneven.
Each seat has an overhead air-conditioning vent. The ceiling fixtures are the same in first and coach, so you’ll find three vents and three overhead lights in first despite the 2-2 seat layout, not 3-3 like in economy.
First class has one bathroom, right behind the flight deck. It’s small and has the infamously tiny sinks found on some recent 737s. Toward the end of the flight it was also unclean; flight attendants clearly hadn’t been keeping it tidy. Neither, for that matter, had some ill-mannered fellow passengers. At the very back of the jet, you’ll find three more lavs.
With boarding completed at 11:51 a.m., doors were closed one minute later and we were airborne just after noon. That’s a fast time from pushback to takeoff, by JFK standards.
Amenities and IFE
Wi-Fi was fast and reliable, which tends to be the case on Delta planes equipped, like 737-900ERs, with Gogo 2Ku satellite internet, known for high speeds. As a T-Mobile customer with a Magenta Plus plan, I have unlimited Wi-Fi on my phone for the whole flight on planes equipped with internet from Gogo; Instagram and Twitter were blazingly fast throughout the flight on a Google Pixel 3a XL phone.
To get connected on my laptop, at download speeds that reached a fast 25.85 Mbps according to Speedtest, I had to pay. A pass for the whole flight cost $20 while a faster streaming pass was $38.
With 292 movies, 185 episodes of TV shows, 12 channels of live TV and many hours of music available on the inflight entertaiment system, you may not feel the need to pay almost double for the pass that allows you to stream your own video content from services like Netflix. The crisp, responsive touchscreen was easy to use.
I would love it if Delta injected a bit more variety into its audio choices and add new titles more often. It’s true that airplane playlists aren’t exactly the place to look for challenging new music, but the album list on the IFE is quite uninspiring and changes rarely. Delta may look at what two of its alliance partners are doing in that department; I’ve found punk-rock gems on Aeroflot and deep-catalog Bob Dylan on KLM. The airline of the American South, the cradle of some of the world’s most beautiful music, could be a little more imaginative.
No top-notch IFE system these days would be complete without a pinch-and-zoom, rotating, customizable map with navigation data, and this one delivered.
Minor music qualms aside, Delta offers a consistently good IFE. And now that the MD-80 and MD-90 have been retired, all of its mainline jets except the Boeing 717 have individual entertaiment screens.
On transcon U.S. flights, the real entertainment is often found outside your window, and this flight was a prime example. Thanks to a clear day, views of snow-capped mountains gave way to high deserts and canyons and finally Lake Mead, signaling the imminent landing.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Things were firmly average in the food and drink department. We were late, so the crew skipped the predeparture drink for first class, opting instead to button up the jet for departure more quickly.
In first, we got one main meal and a pass of the snack tray. I could have chosen my entree online before the flight, if I had bought a first-class ticket outright or been upgraded earlier, but obviously that didn’t apply to a same-day upgrade. I was still given a choice, between a burger and a chicken salad, and the burger I chose arrived at 1:15 p.m. Eastern time, about one hour after takeoff. It was served on a grippy plastic tray that helped keep things from sliding around as we hit a light chop that persisted for much of the flight.
It came medium-well — meat doesn’t get cooked on planes, merely reheated in convection ovens, so you can’t choose how you want it done — and pretty dry. Airplane burgers tend to be disappointing in my experience; I can only recall one that I would look forward to again, in KLM’s business class across the Atlantic. I ignored the potato salad but loved the gooey chocolate cake. All in all, a passing grade, but just OK.
The snack basket came out two and half hours later. No surprises there, including the classic Biscoff cookies ubiquitous on Delta flights. However, it couldn’t match our current staff favorite among airline snack baskets, found on a tiny Western airline, Denver Air Connection.
Meanwhile, we had descended from 34,000 to 28,000 feet, a relatively low altitude. I asked airline pilot and TPG contributor Patrick Smith — who, incidentally, prefers crossing the continent on a 757 over a 737 — about this, and he confirmed that we had descended to avoid a headwind that would have slowed us down and cost more fuel.
Nothing to worry about, though: The 737-900ER (for “Extended Range”) can easily go more than 3,000 miles with a full load. At 2,242 miles, this flight from JFK to Las Vegas was a piece of cake. (You’ll find the same -900ER model in service with United and Alaska Airlines too.)
Service from the ground staff was exemplary. In the air, the cabin crew hustled and made up for its delayed arrival by getting the plane ready for departure quickly. Except for the bathroom cleaning, I had no issues.
In keeping with the superior ground experience I had on this trip, my two bags were already at baggage claim by the time I got there. That was a fitting conclusion to a flight that had been very much on a par with my recent experiences in Delta’s domestic first class: competent and efficient, if not exciting. Many frequent flyers want consistent experiences from their airline of choice and that’s what Delta delivered.
Things will change on board and on the ground when we return to flying, but at the time I took this flight it was perfectly in line with what I expected from Delta. Compared with similar offerings from legacy competitors that have first class on their single-aisle jets, Delta has one big differentiating factor: individual monitors, with plentiful and free content. That matters even in the age of streaming to personal devices, and together with a good ground experience resulted in an overall score slightly higher than the 74-point average for U.S. domestic first class.
All photos by the author.
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