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Excellent food, friendly crew and supremely comfortable bedding.
Underwhelming lounge experience at JFK, the seats themselves don't feel particularly premium and the IFE screen is far too small and dim.
Earlier this year, when I set out to review Air Europa in both business and economy on its 787, we had to get creative with booking in order to both review more products on the same trip and keep prices down. So this involved booking three separate tickets, with six flights total. I flew four of the six in the spring, but the remaining two flights weren’t until June, so I just recently completed all three of these tickets.
Thanks to the specific way we booked the flights, the remaining two segments were on two separate tickets but would bring me back to Madrid, Spain, for a long weekend. The outbound flight from New York-JFK to Madrid (MAD) was a Delta One flight on its ubiquitous 767, and was actually the latter half of a business-class ticket that originated in Madrid and involved a connection in Paris (CDG) to Air France’s A380 back to the US.
Though Delta has already begun giving its 767-400ERs a desperately needed overhaul (one of the refitted birds has already flown), the current product is, well, everywhere on Delta’s route map, and it won’t be a particularly quick undertaking to retrofit the entire fleet of 764s, so another review was in order. Though there are still definite upsides to this product, as TPG Senior Strategist/Writer Darren Murph noted on a flight to Honolulu (HNL), I still maintain that the retrofit project can’t happen fast enough.
As I mentioned above, this flight was booked as part of a larger trip composed of three separate tickets:
- A round-trip, economy ticket from New York-JFK to Madrid (already flown) and then from MAD to Paris to New York-JFK (review coming soon)
- A round-trip ticket between MAD and Bogota, Colombia (BOG), with one segment in biz and one in coach (already flown)
- A round-trip, business-class ticket that was MAD-CDG-JFK and then JFK-MAD (this review)
It goes without saying at this point, but booking Delta flights with SkyMiles is a grim prospect. One-way business-class tickets on Delta metal to Europe often go for 360,000-plus SkyMiles, which is just a cruel joke. Luckily, though, Delta flights can be booked through its joint-venture partner Virgin Atlantic, where rates are much more reasonable. If you can find availability, you should be able to book a one-way business-class flight on Delta metal for 50,000 miles plus taxes and fees. Another option is to look for flights through the Flying Blue program, though mileage rates aren’t fixed there, so what you pay will depend on the date and exact flight you want.
A huge upside of booking with both Virgin Atlantic and Flying Blue is how easy it is to amass miles in these programs. They’re both transfer partners with all three major transferable points currencies — American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou — so even if you don’t have enough points in one account, you can combine points from the various accounts in order to acquire the miles necessary for booking the flight you want.
Related: The 7 Best Starter Credit Cards
This ticket originated in Europe, and the prices are often much cheaper than if you were starting in the US. In this case, it worked perfectly, and we booked a ticket with two long-haul business-class segments for about $2,200. Plus, I was able to earn SkyMiles and elite-qualifying miles, helping me tremendously in my quest to requalify for Diamond Medallion status this year.
Things didn’t start out well for me on this trip. As if I were a complete travel newbie, I left my passport at my apartment, even though my plan was to head to JFK right from TPG HQ in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. The one silver lining, though, was that it forced me to take the subway to the Long Island Rail Road to the AirTrain from Brooklyn, which probably ended up being quicker than taking a cab from Manhattan. All of this meant that I’d have less time to relax in the lounge before my flight, but this turned out to be a moot point, as you’ll see.
Delta’s long-haul international flights depart from Terminal 4 at JFK. I arrived just after 6pm for a 7:32pm departure. Typically, I like to arrive earlier for international flights, but I was doing all right, considering I had to to run back home and get my passport before heading to the airport. Plus, I have CLEAR, which has been invaluable for me — New York has some of the country’s most crowded airports, and the ability to bypass the sometimes obscenely long lines is pretty much priceless.
Delta has a separate SkyPriority check-in area that it shares with Virgin Atlantic. Predictably, the lines were pretty long here, since it was peak time for evening international departures, but Delta was ready. They had extra agents in the line asking for people who had already checked in and had their boarding passes to follow them to another area for bag drop.
I was one of those passengers, so I hopped out of the SkyPriority line and followed an agent to the regular check-in area and was helped immediately.
Even though the terminal was busy, I breezed through security as expected, thanks to CLEAR, and was finally on my way to the lounge.
As a business-class passenger, I was allowed to enter Delta’s T4 Sky Club, but had I been flying in Premium Select or Main Cabin I could have entered thanks to the Platinum Card® from American Express, which grants Sky Club access to anyone flying on a same-day Delta flight.
Generally, Delta has a pretty strong network of lounges in the US for domestic travel, though that argument falls apart when you move up to premium-class international travel. I think Delta’s a great airline, but its offering for business-class passengers flying on long-haul flights pales in comparison to what its competitors American and United offer. I’ve visited both an AA Flagship Lounge and a United Polaris Lounge, and both of those products can compete with some of the best airlines in the biz. Every time I visit a Sky Club before a long-haul flight, I’m reminded that Delta flyers are missing out on the fun of a top-notch premium lounge.
On the night of my flight, the Sky Club was the opposite of a relaxing place to hang out before a flight. To be fair, the lounge was undergoing pretty significant renovations — including the addition of a slick retractable roof over the Sky Deck — but I had to do multiple passes throughout all the seating areas before I could find a place to sit down.
And there were massive lines for food, which was squeezed in a very small area which felt chaotic. However, the food quality was great, even if the presentation was a little messy. I helped myself to a bit of the kale caesar salad — I was pretty hungry but didn’t want to totally spoil my appetite for the meal I was to have on the plane.
Since this flight, though, I’ve returned to the same Sky Club to find that the renovation project has been moving along swiftly. The space has opened up once again, it looks new and fresh and the food has found a new permanent home in a nice-looking buffet area.
On the day of my visit, though, it wasn’t a particularly relaxing or luxurious experience, and the renovations won’t change the fact that Delta doesn’t have a product on the ground that can compete with AA and UA.
After a 20-minute visit, and a quick stop at the windows to gaze at the airplanes lined up outside, I made my way to the gate, where I found our Boeing 767 decked out in SkyTeam livery — a first for me!
Boarding began on time and was reasonably organized, but I accidentally got into the wrong line (it was a rough day for me), and thus missed out on being among the very first people to board, which is not ideal when you’re trying to get clean cabin photos.
Cabin and Seat
There’s no way around it: The business-class cabins on these birds are old. From how they look to how small the IFE screens are to how the seats struggle to recline, everything about these cabins needs an update. Delta’s aware of that, too, and it’s begun a retrofit program for this aircraft type — though the one downside to the update is that the number of total seats in the Delta One cabin will decrease from the current 40 to 34, meaning it’s going to be harder for Diamond Medallions to use Global Upgrade Certificates on these aircraft.
The seats are arranged in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration, and each one is 21 inches wide and reclines all the way into a flat bed that’s 78 inches long. Another downside to the retrofitted 764 is that the width of these already narrow-feeling seats is decreasing by an inch.
While the middle paired seats are actually quite good for pairs and families, as a solo traveler I’d try my very best to avoid them.
My preferred seats on this aircraft are window seats in the odd-numbered rows, as these seats are directly adjacent to the window, and the storage areas, tray table and consoles of the seat “protect” it from the aisle, which makes things a little cozier and reduces the chance of having any brushes with the service carts as they come down the aisle.
On this flight, I was seated in 7D, which has become my go-to seat when I fly up front on this aircraft. I like being toward the back (though not all the way back) of the cabin because there’s less noise from the galley overnight. In the past, it was sort of a gamble to sit near the back, as there was a chance that you wouldn’t be able to get your first choice of meal. Now, though, Delta allows you to preorder your meals before your flight, which eliminates this risk altogether.
The seats themselves were clad in the familiar Delta blue-and-red leather color scheme and were actually quite comfortable.
However, there was really no storage to speak of. There was a tiny space on the ground that might have been intended for shoe storage, but it was not even big enough for both of my shoes. Beside that, there was just a mesh pocket in the back of the seat in front that was not good for much more than a passport, wallet and an AirPods case.
When in lie-flat mode, the seat certainly felt narrow, since it reclined deep into the well and each side is fixed and quite high, so you get a claustrophobic feeling. The tight footwell didn’t help the situation, either. In my opinion, the only way to avoid this is to sleep on your side, which I did. I actually got about three and a half hours of sleep, which is pretty great on a short transatlantic hop.
Amenities and IFE
Waiting at my seat (and wrapped in a whole lot of plastic) were Delta’s signature Westin Heavenly bedding pieces, which included a fantastic pillow and duvet, a full-size water bottle, a pair of the mediocre LSTN headphones and a Tumi amenity kit.
Just days before I boarded this flight, Delta shared that it would be replacing its much-loved hard-shell Tumi cases with soft-sided kits that will include upgraded amenities from Le Labo. The new kits have already begun their gradual rollout, with JFK being the first hub to see them. So if you’re flying from one of the airline’s other international gateways anytime soon, there’s a chance you’ll still be able to snag a hard-sided case.
Within the Tumi kit, I found the typical Delta goodies like socks, hand sanitizer, an excellent Tumi eye mask, tissues, earplugs, a pen, a toothbrush and toothpaste and lotion and lip balm from Kiehl’s.
We won’t be so sorry to see the LSTN headphones go, on the other hand. While no details were divulged, Delta said that it would be working on a replacement for the mediocre set. The Westin Heavenly bedding was as good as ever, and it’s still one of my favorite onboard bedding sets, even though it’s been around for several years. The pillow feels just like a high-quality hotel pillow (as it should, I guess) and I’ve found that the duvet doesn’t result in me waking up sweating.
The IFE screen on this aircraft is hilariously small and not very sharp or bright, but with the window shade down and thanks to the screen’s swivel, I didn’t have much trouble watching a movie while I ate dinner.
There was a mix of new-release Hollywood films and classics to choose from. On a short transatlantic red-eye such as this one, I only plan to watch one movie before falling asleep, so I was more than satisfied with what was on offer.
I played with the air show a bit, and it was predictably dated along with the rest of the physical elements on the IFE system. No tailcams or pinch-to-zoom here!
I had to work the next day upon landing in Madrid, so my priority on this flight was sleep. Thus, I didn’t purchase a Wi-Fi package, as I thought it’d be a waste at $21.95 for the whole flight. Delta’s free messaging feature was enough to keep me connected for the 90 minutes or so that I was awake after takeoff.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
I guess you could say that the food-and-beverage service began before I even stepped foot on the plane. A couple of days before my flight, I got an email from the Delta culinary team inviting me to preselect my entree for my upcoming flight. I had a choice of a beef tenderloin with a mushroom demi-glace, mashed potatoes, green beans and shallots; herb marinated chicken with tzatziki sauce, lemon and parsley rice and a medley of roasted zucchini, yellow peppers and grape tomatoes; halibut with corn mousseline, grape tomatoes, red onion and a fresh tarragon salad; or mozzarella lasagna with Calabrian tomato sauce.
I selected the chicken and received a note saying that my entree would be confirmed if available on my flight.
Cabin service began a few minutes after I settled into my seat. A very friendly flight attendant came around with a tray of orange juice and sparkling wine — I chose the latter. As I sipped the bubbly, I chuckled to myself when I thought of just how stark the contrast between Delta’s design-driven glassware and the old, shabby 767 cabin is.
Before we pushed back from the gate, I was given a menu, which sported a new design for Summer 2019. As I mentioned, I’d already selected my meal, but I liked browsing the menu regardless, especially the wine section.
We had quite a bit of turbulence after takeoff, so initial cabin service was delayed, but as soon as they were able, flight attendants began serving the first round of drinks to the business-class cabin. I selected Delta’s signature cocktail of Bombay Sapphire gin with cran-apple juice and ginger ale and a glass of sparkling water. This was served with a ramekin of warm nuts.
Next up was the starter course, which consisted of a classic shrimp cocktail, a Little Gem salad and a soup. I was expecting corn chowder, but when the flight attendants came around to distribute the starters, they explained that the soup would be tomato instead of the corn chowder, and added that the wines listed in the menu weren’t accurate.
It was no big deal to me, as the tomato soup was delicious and I’m not picky when it comes to wine, but it seems that there may have been a lag between rolling out the summer menus and what was actually on board.
Menu quirks aside, I really enjoyed the starter course, though I’m not the biggest fan of a traditional shrimp cocktail. I’ve especially come to like the salad that Delta serves, though wedge lettuce on planes isn’t the easiest to deal with.
Like I mentioned previously, I had preordered the grilled chicken with rice, vegetables and tzatziki sauce, and I was really happy I did. It was super fresh, and the chicken was tender — not dried out at all. It was the perfect balance of being filling and satisfying without being too heavy — exactly what I want before a short transatlantic red-eye.
I was full after the main course and really wanted to get some sleep — especially since meal service was delayed due to turbulence — so I planned on skipping the dessert course, but then the cart rolled by, and, well… I asked for one of the mango passion fruit mousse cakes, which was delicious. Other options included ice cream sundaes and fruit and cheese plates.
I really appreciated that the flight attendants let me sleep until we were about 45 to 50 minutes from landing, at which point I said that I’d have breakfast, even though I’d just had a full meal about three hours before. There was either a Caprese quiche with bacon or granola with fruit and nuts served with milk and yogurt. I chose the quiche, which I only had a few bites of, since I wasn’t all that hungry. It was tasty, though, and the bacon it was served with was excellent. My favorite part of breakfast, though, turned out to be the raisin bread that was served on the side.
I haven’t typically been blown away by Delta’s onboard food, but this flight really exceeded my expectations. So much so that I hope I have the option for that chicken entree on future flights — and to encounter that raisin bread again.
While I didn’t interact with the crew all that much on this relatively short flight, I experienced great service. I’ve found that Delta’s service, while not over-the-top, is consistently good. You know what you’re going to get, and there are typically no surprises — good or bad. Flight attendants addressed me by name and were happy to accommodate any requests I had. Finally, I was very appreciative of how late they let passengers sleep before turning the cabin lights on. That extra bit of sleeping time can make a huge difference in how you feel the next day.
Delta provides a solid experience in business class, with consistently good service and food. However, the experience is severely let down by the crowded and generic-feeling lounges and ancient hard product on the 767. While the new seat looks to have largely the same bones as the current product, it’s going to bring this fleet largely up to par with the rest of the family so that it’s no longer drastically worse than the business-class products on Delta’s other wide-body jets. For now, though, this product is nowhere near the top of the heap.
All photos by the author.
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