Cool-Headed Service: Delta on a 767-400ER in Economy From San Francisco to New York
Transcontinental routes have become a big money maker for US airlines, especially since they’re so premium cabin-heavy. I’m one of those flyers who contributes to that, since I fly back and forth between New York and California about five times a year.
I normally fly Alaska Airlines between the two coasts and hold MVP elite status, but I was assigned to review both American Airlines’ A321T on the outbound and Delta’s 767 coming back to New York. I was excited to experience the elevated service I had read about and compare it to my beloved Alaska.
Since we booked this San Francisco (SFO)-New York-JFK flight less than two weeks before departure, we decided to purchase a cash ticket at $246. That’s not a horrible rate, but there’s so much competition on these transcontinental routes that you can usually find round-trip tickets for just a little bit more.
We paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express, which earned 5x points on flights purchased directly from the airline or through Amex Travel. That netted us 1,232 Membership Rewards, worth nearly $25 dollars, according to TPG’s valuations.
Paying cash meant I was able to earn miles for the flight. I earned 1,085 redeemable miles (worth $13), $217 Medallion Qualifying Dollars and 2,586 Medallion Qualifying Miles toward Delta Medallion status.
If we had booked the flight with miles, there would have been a couple of different options. Delta doesn’t have an award chart, but it’s likely that rates for this rate wouldn’t have fallen below 12,500 SkyMiles for the one-way flight.
However, Delta’s award charts are quite dynamic these days, so it’s possible to see rates below that — or much higher. For a more consistent booking experience, we could have used Virgin Atlantic or Air France-KLM’s Flying Blue miles, which would have cost 12,500 miles for a one-way domestic award ticket on Delta. If we’d decided to go that route, we could have transferred Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou points to both Virgin Atlantic and Flying Blue at a 1:1 ratio.
I pulled up to Terminal 1 at San Francisco Airport, where Delta, Frontier and Southwest operate from. I arrived around 12pm, two hours before my flight, to ensure I had plenty of time to take photos and experience T1.
There were plenty of self-check-in kiosks, but because Delta automatically checks you in if you have the Delta app, I already had a mobile boarding pass. I appreciated that I could still change my seat in the app right up until check-in.
Still, I needed to drop off my luggage, so I headed over to speak to an agent at baggage drop-off.
It took about 10 minutes for me to get to an agent. It wasn’t a crazy long line but you’ll definitely want to budget extra time if you have to drop off a bag.
Since I wasn’t an elite and didn’t hold a Delta cobranded credit card, I had to shell out $30 to check my bag (recently increased from $25). I paid with my Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3x points on the purchase. Once I was at the desk, handing my bag over wasn’t an issue, and my interaction with the Delta ground agent was pleasant.
I breezed through security using the TSA PreCheck line, which I received for essentially free, since my Sapphire Reserve covers the $100 Global Entry application fee (and Global Entry includes PreCheck privileges). PreCheck is arguably one of the best perks for travelers — even for those who may only fly once or twice a year — it’s saved me an untold amount of time and helped me avoid missing more than one flight.
The Delta terminal was packed, which made sense for a Friday-afternoon departure, but I had to weave in and out of crowds of fellow flyers while trying to spot a an open seat near my gate.
For those with an Amex Platinum or Delta Reserve credit card, you could head over to the Delta Sky Club and enjoy free food and refreshments. Just note that unless you hold an eligible credit card, you won’t be able to enter the lounge as an economy passenger unless you pay $59.
I won’t be diving into the Sky Club in this review, since it wasn’t part of the normal economy experience, but it is worth noting that you can elevate your airport experience as a coach flyer with the right credit card. While the lounge was pretty packed, it was a great spot for AvGeeks — I was able to spot some birds docked, taxiing and taking off.
I headed to Gate 46, where Delta Flight 2216 was scheduled to depart from at 2:05pm. Boarding was set for 1:25pm, but there was a bit of an unknown snafu that lead to a 15-minute delay in the boarding process. When the agents finally did call the first group, it was for premium-cabin passengers, with Sky Priority customers getting to board next. I was in boarding Group 3, second to last, since I had purchased a main cabin fare. Group 4 was reserved for those unlucky flyers in Delta basic economy.
Since we were boarding a wide-body Boeing 767, there was a larger-than-normal group. Everyone bunched up near the boarding area, and it felt more chaotic than boarding American’s transcon flight.
Other than the delay, boarding was relatively uneventful, and the gate agents were clear in their announcements. After Group 3 was called, I walked with my fellow passengers onto the aircraft, which was about 60% full at that point.
Cabin and Seat
Delta’s 767-400ER could carry 40 passengers in business and another 206 in economy, with a comfortable 2-3-2 configuration in coach — this meant there was less than a 15% chance that you’d be in a middle seat on a full 767 flight.
I was seated in 24C, an aisle seat about halfway between the front and back of the coach cabin. The seat itself was plenty comfortable and didn’t feel as old as the 18-year-old aircraft. There was enough padding (very welcome as seats are getting slimmer and slimmer) and the leather made for a pleasant seat for the five-plus-hour journey.
When it came to pitch, there was just enough legroom to not feel entirely claustrophobic, but it felt like there was more legroom on a recent flight on American. I’m about 6 feet, 1 inch, and my knees were getting quite close to the seat in front of me. Still, I felt like I had enough room to be comfortable but wouldn’t say this was a standout economy product.
The armrests on the 767 were much wider than many newer seat models, making the seat feel a tad more narrow than it could have been. That extra inch means a whole lot when you’re crammed in like a sardine in coach class.
There are only a few things that can increase your comfort levels on long-haul coach flights, and using your adjustable headrest correctly is one of them. However, mine was broken and wouldn’t stay in place — frustrating for a taller person who might’ve wanted to catch some shut-eye.
It may have just been in my head, but it felt like my seat reclined a bit less than most other economy products. Every half inch matters in economy.
Working on flights is difficult enough as it is when you have seatmates next to you, but it’s even harder when your laptop is jutting into your stomach. While the tray table was large enough to fit my 15-inch MacBook, if I wanted to look at the screen at a reasonable angle, I had to pull my computer toward me.
Another aspect of the cabin I appreciated was how high up the overhead bins were, which made the cabin feel much larger than a narrow-body and allowed for easy movement up and down the aisles.
Coach class was probably about two-thirds full, meaning there was plenty of traffic to the four available lavatories. I had to wait both times I visited.
The bathroom I used was plenty clean and offered enough room to turn around, but there weren’t any special toiletries available in the lavatory.
Amenities and IFE
While Delta has plenty of aircraft with new inflight entertainment and has committed to keeping seatback screens as other carriers do away with them in favor of streaming to personal devices, this aircraft definitely revealed its age with its onboard IFE system.
You could tell this was an older model by the screen’s size, which was quite small and definitely on the lower end for many mainline carriers. Don’t expect any 4K here, or even 1080p, for that matter — the low resolution on these screens was so obvious it was almost distracting. It did include a screen which was touch-sensitive, but the screen had lots of difficulty recognizing my finger and even more trouble loading.
If you were willing to put up with the IFE screens, you were rewarded with plenty of content. There were recently released movies like “Annihilation,” “The Incredibles 2,” “Mission Impossible: Fallout,” “McQueen” and “TAG,” as well as great older movies including “The Big Sick,” “The Blind Side,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Forrest Gump.” Like other carriers I’ve flown recently, Delta had its Sky Kids children’s section with games and movies like “Frozen,” “The Jungle Book” and “The Lion King.”
There were about 60 TV shows, each with two to four episodes, including premium programming from HBO and Showtime.
Still, I would’ve fared much better with a smartphone or laptop — I’d recommend streaming Delta’s IFE to one of those devices, since you’ll get a much better picture, sound and overall user experience.
I did receive free headphones from the flight attendants shortly after being seated, which was handy, since I normally carry around Bluetooth headphones that won’t connect to any IFE system. But I got audio about as clear as a radio station on a cloudy day.
Headphones were the sole amenity we were provided — no blanket or pillow for us lowly economy passengers until we got to our destination.
To round out Delta’s subpar entertainment experience was its inflight Wi-Fi. Delta used a ground-based connection from Gogo as its internet provider on this 767. Access to the system was turned on shortly after takeoff, an outdated feature as gate-to-gate wifi becomes the norm.
I got sticker shock from the high prices just to connect to the system (although the airline did provide free messaging): $11 for 30 minutes, $40 for the entire flight and $50 for the entire day. In comparison, I paid $16 to be connected for the entire six-hour flight on American’s A321T, which provided an incredibly quick connection.)
At just 2.28 Mbps, I was able to connect and slowly browse the web. I had trouble streaming videos and loading image-heavy web pages. At one point, the Wi-Fi went completely out and wasn’t working for more than five minutes.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Meal service started about 30 minutes after takeoff. To my surprise, I was offered a complimentary meal. Yes, you heard that correctly. Delta serves economy passengers free food on select transcon routes.
I was offered three choices: a pastrami sandwich, fruit-and-cheese plate or veggie wrap. I went with the veggie wrap, which was prepared by Luvo foods. It came with a side of fresh fruit and grapes and Luvo’s double-chocolate-chunk cookie.
On top of that, I ordered Delta’s featured cocktail, a margarita with tequila Cazadores and Hella Cocktail Co. margarita mix. It tasted fine, but there didn’t seem to be anything special about it compared to other airline’s cocktails, especially considering I had to mix it myself. Adding something as simple as a salted rim could have made this drink truly “signature.”
The carrier charged $8 for spirits and $7 to $8 for beer — on par with other mainline carriers. For all the grief, I gave Delta about its IFE, it did allow you to order drinks from your seat’s IFE even after the beverage cart had come and gone.
Now for the main event: the fresh and tasty veggie wrap filled with spiced chickpeas, farro and sweet peppers. This definitely topped the list for domestic economy meals I’ve tried. The wrap tasted like it came straight off an assembly line at Sweetgreen. The fruit matched that farmers-market-fresh quality, though it was a measly amount with just one strawberry. Finally came the cookie, which was flavorful but a bit dry for my liking.
With an hour and a half left in the scheduled flight time, the staff came through the cabin with beverage and snack service. I ordered a water, Kind Bar and the classic Biscoff cookies that have begun slowly creeping into my dreams as I fly more and more.
It was nice to get a tasty, yet still healthy granola bar, as a snack. I appreciate Delta’s efforts to make airplane meals healthier without sacrificing flavor.
In addition to the complimentary meals, there was food available for purchase. I was satisfied with the free options, so I passed on ordering extras.
Delta's pilots provided great communication during a frustrating delay, and other crew members were more than helpful to passengers when it really mattered.
After we had boarded the aircraft and taken our seats, the pilot came over the intercom, telling us that air traffic control had said that, because of bad weather in the east, we wouldn’t be able to take off for another hour and a half, delaying an already late flight. A big bummer, but there isn’t much you can do about bad weather.
About seven minutes later, the cockpit notified the cabin that it would only be a 50-minute delay. OK, a little better, and I appreciated the communication.
Another three minutes passed, and that calm, cool and collected voice that every pilot seems to have came over the speakers telling us our delay has been shortened to 30 minutes. We ended up taking off at 3:15pm, an hour and 15 minutes after our scheduled departure.
While it was frustrating to be delayed, especially when we were already on the airplane, I really did appreciate that the pilot was giving passengers quick, real-time updates. It almost felt like the crew was fighting the delay, which would make sense given Delta’s great track record for on-time performance.
That wasn’t the end of our problems. As we approached New York, I felt like our journey was taking longer than expected. I looked at the IFE map and saw that, while we were still flying, we weren’t getting any closer to our destination.
We were then gifted with another announcement that we were in a holding pattern over Teterboro Airport, since traffic was backed up at New York-JFK (classic JFK). Radar tracking showed the few loops we made before we descended over Manhattan and the New Jersey coastline, making our way back over Long Island and finally landing.
Airport operations were so bad that day that, once we landed, we had to sit for another 25 minutes until our aircraft could park at a gate. Frustrating, but that’s the nature of traveling during bad weather.
My interactions with Delta’s flight attendants and ground agents were positive but limited, though I did overhear a flight attendant helping a frustrated flyer who was nervous about missing his connection to Tel Aviv because our flight was so delayed. Though the man kept asking the same questions and took out his irritation on the woman, she continued to work with him in and help him find a solution that eventually calmed him down — and she didn’t lose her cool once. This all occurred midflight, and she seemingly juggled this along with all of her other duties.
I wouldn’t say Delta’s my preferred way to fly across the country, but it definitely isn’t a bad one either. The airline upheld its reputation for good service, and the crew was great about communicating every detail of the delay. I was quite impressed by the quality of the food, and it was even better that the meal was free.
Still, the hard product showed wear, and the IFE and Wi-Fi needs a serious overhaul. Would I go out of my way to fly Delta’s transcon economy product? Probably not, but if it were at a competitive price, then I would be more than happy to choose it again.
All images by the author.
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