Why I Can’t Fully Quit Delta: My Positive Experience Upgrading With SkyMiles

May 15, 2014

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If you’re a regular TPG reader, you already know that I dumped Delta in a blaze of glory…but just last week I found myself slinking back for a one-way flight from Seattle to New York’s JFK, lured by the thought of an upgrade to the carrier’s hard-to-beat BusinessElite on its 757-200s. Even though it didn’t have the new lie-flat seats, it was still the best product on that route, which I’ll explain more about.

Let’s just call this transcontinental transgression my “flight of shame.”

Oh, Delta...I wish.
Oh, Delta…

It’s not as though I didn’t have other choices 

There are a few other carriers who could have ferried me home in (relative) comfort from Seattle to New York, but their products aren’t especially sexy, and in some cases would have required a stop. 

American has one daily SEA-JFK flight on its newly retrofitted 737-800
American has one daily SEA-JFK flight on its newly retrofitted 737-800

American. On its 737-800, the carrier flies one daily route between SEA-JFK (7am-3:40pm), but without a business class – only First, Main Cabin Extra and Economy. Main Cabin Seats have the same 17.5-inch width as Economy, but offer 4-6 more inches of legroom (35-37 inches total). (AAdvantage Executive Platinum and Platinum members, as well as anyone purchasing a full-fare Economy Class ticket, have complimentary access to Main Cabin Extra seats based on availability – otherwise, they start at $8.) The plane’s 16 First Class recliner seats, set in a 2 x 2 configuration, are 21 inches wide with a 40-inch pitch, and feature 110V AC power ports, shared access to 20-inch LCD monitors and WiFi access starting at $4.95.  I’d call the experience comfortable, but certainly not premium – it’s the plane I normally fly between Miami and LaGuardia.

JetBlue offers two daily SEA-JFK flights, but neither offers the carrier's new Mint business class
JetBlue offers two daily SEA-JFK flights, but neither offers the carrier’s new Mint business class

JetBlue. The carrier operates two direct flights daily from Seattle to JFK, both aboard an A320 with two types of reclining, 17.8-inch-wide seats: Coach (34-inch pitch) or Even More Space (38-inch pitch). However, without JetBlue’s new reasonably-priced business class product Mint, this didn’t seem like a viable option for me, especially with the lack of elite qualifying miles or even miles that can be easily used for international premium travel (which is how I usually use my miles). 

United flies to Newark on an A319 twice daily (6am and 4pm) and I lost my status matched Platinum status this year, so I had no chance of a complimentary upgrade and their domestic first class on the A319 isn’t much to write home about, plus the 6am flight was just a wee too early for me.

BusinessElite on a 757-200ER

My justification for Delta – Business Elite

Since Delta announced the upcoming changes to the SkyMiles program, I’ve not only lost interest in earning miles, but also struggled to find uses for the SkyMiles I still have in the bank- especially after their two 2014 devaluations. I’m still Platinum on Delta, but as of March 1, 2014, Delta now requires miles or Diamond-member upgrade certificates to fly on their premium transcontinental routes. Upgrades are one of the few remaining redemption options that offer good value; for 12,500 SkyMiles you can upgrade from select discount economy fares (K+) to First Class/BusinessElite within the USA and Canada (excluding Hawaii).

I had to leave Seattle in the morning after a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles and one night in Seattle, so I wanted to be able to work (read: have reliable WiFi) and snooze a little bit. Delta’s 757 recliner style business elite isn’t as sexy as what BusinessElite will be someday (Delta has just started to retrofit its transcon 757-200ERs with new 180-degree, lie-flat seats), but it’s certainly comfortable for 5+ hour flights!

The plane’s BusinessElite cabin has 16 seats arranged in a staggered, 2 x 2 configuration. Each seat (21 inches wide with 54-55 inches of pitch) is slightly angled toward the windows to maximize personal space. Add strong WiFi, a 110V AC power plug at every seat and an individual screen with on-demand entertainment, as well as a Westin Heavenly duvet, a big pillow and a Tumi amenity kit packed with Malin + Goetz products to boot, it is truly the best product, by far, on the Seattle to NYC route.

Delta's new BusinessElite amenity kit from Tumi and Malin + Goetz
Delta’s Tumi amenity kit was introduced last year

The idea of heading home in this seat and enjoying Delta’s solid in-flight food and service was enough to make me swallow my pride and go back for one more fling.

 A seamless upgrade

Delta used to hold all premium transcontinental upgrades to the gate and the competition was always fierce. I remember many flights flying between JFK and LAX as a Diamond in coach- even before they had Economy Comfort – but now that they no longer upgrade Medallions, I wondered if their mileage upgrades would become more available. In my case, I was in luck.

I booked the ticket within a week of departure and the cheapest flight on any airline was Delta at $375 one-way for a K class fare. BusinessElite fares were over $1,800, which obviously wasn’t going to happen, so I called Delta to see if mileage upgrades were available, and lo and behold, the agent said, “Absolutely, Mr. Kelly – I can confirm you in BusinessElite for $375 and 12,500 SkyMiles.” Done.

On my day of travel, I woke up at 5am and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I figured I’d rather just get back to NYC in the mid-afternoon and called to Same Day Confirm on the 7am flight. Unfortunately, no upgrades were available, but there were four seats for sale and the agent said I’d be the only person on the upgrade list. I decided to roll the dice and confirm in Economy and hope that four Seattle high rollers didn’t decide to book a last minute 7am flight to NYC and steal my chance of an upgrade!

A big comfy seat was hanging in the balance
A big comfy BusinessElite seat was hanging in the balance

I Ubered to the airport, flew through security in 30 seconds with TSA PreCheck, hopped on Sea-Tac’s inter-terminal tram system, hoofed it about a quarter of a mile, and made my now-sweaty way to the gate – only to find that I wasn’t actually on the waiting list. This wasn’t too surprising since everyone I talked to at Delta seemed a little confused about the new upgrade process, especially for someone using miles and Same Day Confirming.

The agent at the check-in desk called a Redcoat (supervisor) who informed her that she had to “activate” me on the list and with about a hundred key strokes she was able to do so and print my boarding pass in 4D. Score.

The onboard experience

The flight took off on time, and mimosas were served upon boarding. (At 7am, and with a Cinco de Mayo celebration still awaiting me, I chose to pass on these.) Breakfast was served soon after, with three options: a cheddar omelet with a side of sausage, granola with fruit and yogurt, or sugary crepes.

I had my eye on the granola, but I was seated in 4D and service was FEBO (front even/back odd) – so by the time the flight attendant got to me, my only option was the unhealthy crepe dish. I’ve been trying to eat healthy lately, so I told that to the flight attendant, who immediately offered to snag some options from coach, which I decided to try instead of carbloading on crepes doused in syrup.

I got two snack kits from Economy (including a bran muffin and some fruit), so I can happily say that I enjoyed my breakfast. Throughout my flight I experienced exceptional service from my steward, who checked back several times to see if I needed anything. By the time the snack basket came around  (which included fruit ) and warm cookies were served, I was in a happy haze, boosted by great WiFi and plenty of legroom.

Enough legroom for me? Why, don't mind if I do, Delta
Enough legroom for me? Don’t mind if I do, Delta!

Conceding a point

Basically,  I’m not ashamed to say that even though Delta has devalued their frequent flyer program, they still offer a great product on many routes. Though still, that’s not enough for me to completely forget about all the bad stuff like the elite-status policies, the new changes to its SkyClub lounge policies, and the relatively low worth of SkyMiles. In terms of convenience, comfort, service and in-flight amenities, I have to admit that Delta still has a piece of my heart.

Anyone else out there having a hard time completely breaking up with Delta – or any other airline, for that matter?

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