Total Makeover: Believe It or Not, Delta Air Lines Is Cool Again [review]

Delta Boeing 777-200LR in flight
Written by Terry Gardner

Delta’s a whole new airline, says aNewDomain travel editorTerry Gardner. No lie. Real-time luggage tracking and Southern charm make a faded Southern lady cool again. Review.

aNewDomainterry-gardner-anewdomain-geniuspack-backpack-review-geniuspack-intelligent-backpack — When Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines completed a merger in January 2010, getting a tooth pulled was more enjoyable than flying Delta. I grew up in Atlanta, where Delta is based, so I’m one travel editor who gave it several chances to redeem itself. It didn’t go well. Either a suitcase would go missing or I’d be sharing a plane with disgruntled flight attendants who made us all miserable with their high-pitched whining. By the end of that year, I was avoiding the airline altogether.

But Delta has changed. Really. If you haven’t flown Delta Air Lines lately, you haven’t flown Delta. After all this time, I deigned to give the once high-flying Delta another chance and was pleased with what I discovered.

The airline has stepped up its game with more options for comfort, better food and a cool partnership with Virgin Atlantic. It lets you earn Delta Skymiles when you fly a codeshared flight with Virgin. Nice.

I found all this out the hard way: through experience. Back in 2013, despite my reluctance, I ended up flying Delta into destinations where only Delta, KLM or Air France fly. Slowly, Delta no longer seemed like an unhappy, disheveled honeymooner.

And now, I can tell you with great certainty that whatever huge issues it had with Northwest have been resolved: Flight crews and gate attendants are actually friendly these days. I kid you not.

I mean, when I was a kid Delta had this classic southern charm about its flights. It’s back. Or so it seems. Here’s why.

Rolling the dice on a 24-hour upgrade:

So now I choose to fly Delta, especially since I’ve discovered some of the perks my elite Medallion Skymiles provide. As a Silver Medallion member I’m on the bottom rung of Delta’s elite ladder, but I still get automatic perks, including a free checked bag, priority check-in and boarding and complimentary upgrades to Comfort+ seats 24 hours before departure. I’m also eligible for complimentary upgrades to First Class, but since Gold, Platinum and Diamond Medallion members trump my status, I only seem to get upgraded to First on short regional flights operated by SkyWest Airlines.

I’ve only experienced First Class on a couple of Embraer jets — the seats were nothing to write home about. And my First Class snack involved choosing between a banana, chips or cookies. So the main perk is a free cocktail. Nice perk, but still.

Delta Comfort seat headrest-Terry Gardner shotOn international flights, I’ve had a chance to experience Delta Comfort+ seats. Word to the wise: If you can only afford the price of an economy cabin seat, try your hardest to make it a Comfort+. Your back will thank you, and your wallet won’t shrivel up.

Next week I have a Comfort+ seat from LAX to Detroit for $169. I bought the Comfort+ seat outright — rolling the dice on a 24-hour last-minute upgrade is fun, but doesn’t always work out. The fee also counts toward the $6,000 Medallion Qualification Dollars I need to spend with Delta to move up to Gold Medallion status next year. I’ve already flown more than 57,000 miles with the airline, but I’m a few qualification dollars short of Gold.

How comfortable is Comfort+? Let me tell you …

In March, Delta introduced a new category of economy seats called Comfort+. It’s not just more legroom — Comfort+ passengers get Sky Priority boarding, guaranteed overhead space, free alcoholic beverages, free snacks and extra legroom. On international flights, these seats also have 50 percent more recline than a standard coach seat. Delta even throws in complimentary entertainment.

The drinks, snacks and entertainment alone can be worth $25 to $30, depending on your appetite, and the extra legroom is generous, often up to four inches more than a standard economy seat. On some of Delta’s aircraft, seat pitch (the distance from one point on a seat to the same point on the seat in front or behind it) can be as small as 31 inches.

On a long flight, if you can only afford to fly in the economy cabin, grab a Comfort+ seat if it’s available. My brother and his wife spent a little over $100 apiece to get Comfort+ seats on their flights between Dallas and Tokyo this summer, and he came back singing the praises of Comfort+. It would have cost him about $4,000 per flight for them to upgrade to First Class, so Comfort+ was a fantastic alternative.

Getting the best seat

Beyond choosing Comfort+, if you want to maximize your investment, you’ll want to check which seats have the most legroom and recline. Instead of relying on Delta’s info about which seats are better, I recommend consulting seat maps on SeatGuru’s website or its free Android or iOS app. SeatGuru was founded in 2001 by Matt Daimler to help passengers find the best seats on any airplane. It was acquired by TripAdvisor in 2007. And if you like to see baggage costs and amenities up front when booking flights, you may want to take TripAdvisor’s flight search for a spin, too.

Other seat guide sites include SeatExpert and SeatMaestro. And if you’re hoping to upgrade or grab an exit row seat, you may want to try the SeatAlert iOS and Android app from ExpertFlyer.

My No. 1 reason for choosing Delta

delta luggage trackingI’m an app nut. Really, truly. And when it comes down to it, the Fly Delta app is the reason I gave the airline a second chance in 2013. There are versions of the app for iOS, Android and Windows phones, and my favorite feature is the free baggage tracking, which was added in 2011. In an early version of the software you had to scan your bag tag for it to track your luggage. But the app has gotten smarter — or it’s the people, I hope it’s the people — and that information automatically registers from the moment you check your bags.

Delta Luggage tracking screenshotSomeone asked me once why I wanted to track my bags. What if I got bad news and learned my suitcase wasn’t on the plane? My response will always be: I would rather know in advance that my bag isn’t on the plane. Then, instead of wasting time at the luggage carousel looking for a bag that won’t be appearing, I can head to Delta’s luggage office and get the process started to find my bag. And with the app, if my bag misses the plane, I’ll still probably get a visual on what sort of adventure my luggage is having.

Mostly, though, when I have to change planes once or twice to get home, there is nothing sweeter than seeing “Bag On Plane” from the long-recline of my Comfort+ seat.

This is top piece of mind that the Delta app offers when I have to check a bag. And do you know why Delta added the feature? A spokesperson for the airline said: “We know it’s something passengers worry about. We realized we have the information, so we put it into the app.” Simple and sensible.

A less practical — but way cooler — feature on the Fly Delta iPad app is worth mentioning. Check out this video from NYC Aviation, which shows the glass bottom jet in action.

Video: Delta Glass Bottom Jet iPad App

Oh, and one more point for Delta — the airline now flies to Juneau and Sitka in the summer. I love Alaska Airlines, but I’m glad to see competition from JetBlue and Delta. Check out my video overview of a few Delta perks on the flight home from Sitka, Alaska.

If you remember Delta as a less-than-great airline, it’s time to give it another go. I have, and I couldn’t be happier.

For aNewDomain, I’m travel editor Terry Gardner.

Video and in-flight stills by Terry Gardner, All Rights Reserved.

Delta Boeing 777-200 image, courtesy of Delta Airlines, All Rights Reserved.