On October 31, 2107, I flew from DTW to NRT on a Delta A350-900, tail number N501DN, on its maiden revenue flight. Tail number N502DN, made the first Delta A350 revenue flight on October 30.
The flight departed from DTW Gate 40.
Ironically, right next door at Gate 46 was a 747-400, the plane Delta is ditching in favor of the Airbus. While the 747 is now permanently retired on Tokyo routes, it still flies DTW to/from Seoul/Incheon (ICN) until sometime in November when Delta puts more A350s in service.
There were more agents at the gate than normal but none of the fanfare of the inaugural flight the day before.
I got to the gate a few minutes before the scheduled boarding time and chatted briefly with a couple of the agents and a redcoat who was the same guy we met the week before during the 747 farewell mileage run to Manila, Philippines. (Tip: get to know gate agents a bit, especially at your home airport. Being pleasant never hurts and might be rewarded with a little above-and-beyond service now and then.)
Although the gate agents seemed busier than usual and somewhat anxious, boarding began precisely at 12:50pm. Business class boarded through the forward port door, and economy used the second door between business and premium economy. I peeked at the business-class section.
On the return from NRT on November 7, 2017, I flew an A350-900 in the new Delta One suites.
Using two boarding doors cuts boarding time and makes the process easier on all passengers as well as the cabin crew performing pre-departure service in business class.
Turning right after proceeding through the galley, I entered the large premium economy (Premium Select Delta calls it) section.
Premium Economy (PE) Seating
PE seats are 18.5 inches wide and have 38 inches of pitch. Economy seats are 18 inches wide but have only 31-32 inches of pitch. The A350 has no, zero, nada Comfort Plus (C+) seating.
No C+ seating is a serious drawback for those who buy regular economy tickets. Unless I was very confident there would be an empty seat next to me or was willing to accept a set in an exit row, the prospect of 13 hours in a seat with 31-32 inches of seat pitch is enough to make me reject the A350 and choose a flight with C+ seats that have an extra three or four inches of legroom. Exit row seats have more legroom but often are located near the lavatories and galleries. Other passengers love to congregate nearby exit rows as that is usually the only place to stretch cramped bodies. Bulkhead can offer some extra room but people often use the bulkhead row as an aisle to get from one side of the plane to the other and personal items cannot be placed on the floor for takeoff and landing.
My PE seat for this flight was 24G, an aisle seat in the center section on the starboard side.
Delta PE seats have a footrest with calf support. Many PE seats on other airlines only offer a footrest bar.
The video remote, storage pocket, and controls for the seat and footrest are located under the armrest opposite the tray table.
This armrest has two small spaces for drinks or snacks.
The tray table for 24G is located on the right. It self deploys after lifting a latch.
A/C power is available at every seat. Outlets are placed on seatbacks near the floor. They are easy to reach although unplugging is advisable to allow aisle access for middle passengers.
In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) System
All seats on the A350-900 have the same IFE system and content. PE has a huge video screen with excellent picture quality. The system has no live TV and no Berlitz World Traveler.
Premium Economy Amenities
PE amenities are on the seat when passengers board.
The blanket seemed to be slightly heavier than the blankets Delta normally provides in coach. The overhead bins were stocked with additional blankets. The slippers are comparable to those in business class.
This is the Tumi amenity kit.
While those are all great amenities, the piece de resistance is the LSTN noise-cancelling headsets. These aren’t the best quality headsets out there but are better than most PE headsets.
Flight attendants (FAs) never collected the headsets before everyone deplaned.
The Flight and Service
DL275 was scheduled to depart at 1:40pm and arrive at NRT at 5:00pm. The great-circle distance between DTW and NRT is 6,636 miles.
This is what IFE said about our aircraft:
Ten minutes after I boarded, FAs served pre-departure beverages in PE!
The aircraft pushed at 1:42pm and began to taxi. Takeoff was at 1:58pm. Service began at 2:16pm when the FAs handed out Japan immigration forms. Six minutes later they presented the service plan and menus.
Lunch began with beverages at 2:30pm.
I selected the Japanese meal. When the FAs got to me in the second to last row of PE, they were out of the chicken entree and sake.
The Japanese meal was terrific. I especially enjoyed the salmon.
About one hour after lunch there was a call for medical assistance for the passenger in seat 24A. Not long after, they announced a similar call for a passenger in row 40. Those calls were resolved quickly. I hoped they were unrelated to the food.
The FAs served the mid-flight snack as we flew over the Bering Sea. It was preceded by beverages.
The mid-flight snack concluded with a chocolate covered vanilla ice cream popsickle.
The final beverage service began 67 minutes before landing. FAs served the pre-arrival meal only 50 minutes before landing at NRT. I chose the Yakisoba noodles with chicken.
I think the food, especially the first meal, was a cut above what is served in standard economy. The service certainly was. Except for the mid-flight snack, meals were served on linen with clear plastic trays, cloth napkins and silverware.
In between meals, I watched some movies and tried to stay warm. This was the coldest flight I can remember. I used two blankets and even pulled my hoodie up to retain some body heat.
Two lavatories between the business-class and PE cabins were available to the PE passengers. The lavatories were good sized and they were clean throughout the flight. Hand lotion would have been welcome.
With the pre-arrival meal being served so late, the descent from 41,000 feet had begun before the FAs cleared the trays. There wasn’t much time for everyone to stow gear and make bathroom runs.
The IFE had a basic, although slightly outdated, diagram of the Delta area at NRT Terminal 1.
DL 275 landed at NRT on runway one-six right (16R) at 15:45 local. We arrived at Gate 26 at 15:50.
Delta’s A350 is a beautiful aircraft. The seat, food, service, video screen, and amenities clearly elevate Delta’s Premium Economy over the experience in coach. Given that the A350 has no extra legroom seating in coach, it will be very tempting to pay a steep price to get a premium economy seat (usually about double the cost of an expensive economy fare) or to select another aircraft or airline and fly cheaply in an extra legroom economy seat. In comparison to the flight in premium economy on an Air France A330, this flight was without question a better experience.
Air France and Cathay Pacific are the only other premium economy products that I’ve flown. The experience on the DL A350-900 was much better than PE on Air France from IAH to CDG. It was also better than Cathay Pacific PE from JFK to HKG because of amenities like slippers and better headsets.
Even in PE it is nice to sit next to an empty seat. To increase chances for that, select a seat at the rear of the cabin. The tradeoff is that it is possible that menu choices may be limited once the FAs get to the back of the cabin.