Delta doesn’t buy many new planes. It sees more profit in acquiring used airframes and retrofitting newer systems and interiors.
But the widely heralded launch of Delta’s A350s presented an opportunity to score a rare trifecta — flying a new Delta plane and sampling two new products, the Delta One Suites and Premium Select, Delta’s first real premium economy product.
On October 30, 2017, Delta began revenue flights with the A350-900s that it had been gushing over for months. On October 31, I experienced Delta’s premium economy product on the first revenue flight of A350 tail number N501DN.
On November 7, 2017, I flew from NRT to DTW in Delta’s vaunted A350 business-class suites. This is my unusually lengthy report on that flight.
The A350-900 Delta Suites Experience and Farewell 747-400
Flying a brand new airplane is fun and exciting. This flight, however, was bittersweet. The arrival of A350s spelled the end of the 747s that Delta/Northwest had been flying to NRT for nearly three decades. Over the last 20 years or so, I’ve flown those 747s to or from NRT dozens of times. Today, twin-engine, long-range wide bodies, are the darlings of the airline industry.
On October 31, I got a peek at the A350 business-class section while on the way to premium economy.
Having been quite pleased with premium economy, as I made my way from the Delta Sky Club, I was looking forward to checking out the Delta One Suite. Would it measure up to the hype?
DL 276 was scheduled to depart at 17:50 from Terminal 1 Gate 25. Boarding was to begin at 17:20. That seemed like a problem for an on-time departure. The A350-900 accommodates over 300 passengers. Delta and most other US airlines try to begin boarding 40 to as much as 50 minutes before scheduled departure for domestic flights on narrow – body aircraft. And many international flights start boarding 60 minutes before departure. Allowing only 30 minutes for boarding this flight seemed ambitious.
Boarding began with pre-boards at 17:25. Premium passengers, business class (32) and premium economy (48), together over 25% of all passengers, boarded next. Business class used the forward boarding door. All other passengers used the second door.
Delta A350-900 Specifications
Delta’s website provides some of the specifications for its A350-900:
Delta A350-900 Delta One Cabin
This is the seat map for business class:
Delta One Suite
My suite was 3A, a window seat on the port side.
Compared to other Delta One seats, the design and color scheme of the suite was impressive.
Delta provided a pamphlet to identify the suite features and explain how they operate.
In addition to help from the guide, there were several employees/contractors on board in plain clothes but with clearly visible IDs to assist the flight attendants and passengers with any questions or technical issues with the seat.
Many think a new plane is safer and more reliable than an old plane. Realize though there are reasons why test pilots are well paid. And while the A350 has come a long way since flight test, sorting out all the bugs in a complex system and crew familiarization takes time. Often there are unanticipated issues with many new airframe/engine/avionics/pilot combinations.
Delta One Suite Features
The privacy door is the feature that distinguishes this seat from other business-class seats. It slides forward to close the narrow opening into the suite. The door remains open and locked during taxi, takeoff, approach and landing. Shortly after takeoff, a flight attendant (FA) activates the door for passenger use.
Seats in the center section have a privacy screen that can be raised during flight.
I really liked the wide, flat console. There is plenty of room for spreading out for work and placing items like glasses, phone, wallet and other items one might want to keep at hand in flight.
Seat and Lighting Controls
There are two controls for the seat and lighting.
The other control is mounted on the side of the console. It is used when the seat is in bed mode. Suite lighting is “infinitely variable” between off and maximum brightness.
One of the best attributes of the Delta One suite is the video screen. The picture on the 18-inch video screen is clear and bright. The screen is positioned directly in front of the seat in a fixed position meaning that viewing is available whenever the system is on.
The video remote is concealed under a panel on the console.
In bed mode, feet and legs extend into a narrow slot under the video screen. The footwell induces some of the “foot claustrophobia” many experience on Delta 767s.
Some suites have a storage compartment for shoes. I asked one of the helpers on the flight to find it. He could not. In fact not all suites have this feature.
Delta provides pillows and a duvet, a Tumi amenity kit, slippers, LSTN noise-cancelling headsets, and bottled water. Since the A350 is Delta’s new flagship and it wants to charge a premium for flights on this aircraft, Delta should provide a mattress pad and pajamas as it does on some other long-haul flights.
The Tumi amenity kit contains a dental kit, Kiehl’s lip balm and hand lotion, mouthwash, facial tissues, socks, eyeshade, earplugs, and a pen. A shoe horn would be an inexpensive, helpful addition.
Delta has recently switched headset suppliers from Bose to LSTN. I prefer the sound quality and noise cancellation capability of the Bose headsets. These LSTN headsets are flimsy in comparison and appear to be identical to the headsets Delta provides in premium economy.
At the end of the flight the FAs did not collect the headsets in premium economy or business class. That makes me think these headsets aren’t very expensive.
While I was exploring the seat and reading the instruction guide, FAs handed out menus.
FAs brought pre-departure beverages at 17:43.
At 17:55, exactly 30 minutes after the first passengers boarded, the aircraft pushed from the gate. When the tug disengaged and the engines should have powered up, nothing happened. The pilots announced that we may need to return to the gate to address a computer message about a mechanical issue. (New plane problem?)
The A350 lifted off on NRT’s main runway, One Six Right(16R), at 18:23. The climb continued on the runway heading until crossing the coast.
At 18:34, the captain stated that there was an area of turbulence ahead. He directed the flight attendants to delay service for 30 minutes. The captain’s warning was likely based on pilot reports he received through a pre-flight briefing. Air masses move. Because this was an evening flight, convection was probably not the source of turbulence. Given the time between the briefing and reaching the area of reported turbulence, unless the area of turbulence was quite large, it seemed likely that the reported turbulence would have moved or dissipated. Still, safety first is a good policy.
First Meal Service
Sure enough, we ran into only a couple of small bumps while climbing. But service was delayed until hot towels at 19:07 followed by linen for the tray table, beverages and warm nuts at 19:19.
I was tempted to try the Japanese meal but after a week in Southeast Asia enjoying primarily asian food, Australian beef sounded too good to pass up.
The starter was king salmon wrapped in zucchini and herb chicken breast.
Next, was the mixed greens salad. It was served with creamy spinach and broccoli soup.
I tried the Inception pinot noir. It tasted like flavored water. I switched to the Rioja for the entree. It was better.
The FAs cleared the initial courses and then served the beef tenderloin.
Unfortunately, I missed my favorite part of the meal, dessert, when I fell asleep. The FA later said she tried to rouse me. I had been looking forward to an ice cream sundae, some cheese and an apple custard tart. Yes, all three.
The meal was very good except that the beef was overdone which often happens on planes. The presentation of the food and the service from the FA was terrific. I appreciated the fact that Delta has abandoned the faux wood trays it used for serving meals in business class.
Delta now uses clear plastic trays (appetizer, soup and salad only) on the first meal service and arrival meal that show the cloth underneath.
I had the croque monsieur for the mid flight snack. It was served a little less than five hours before landing.
There was a decent selection of snacks in the galley. Delta could do much better with presentation of snacks and beverages though.
These are the snacks on a shorter, recent American 777-200 flight.
As usual, the last meal service was breakfast. It would be nice if airlines served a final meal that was appropriate for the time of arrival. Breakfast was served one hour and 40 minutes before landing. Other than the tasty fresh fruit, the meal was unremarkable.
The flight landed at 15:30 local. The flight lasted 11 hours and 35 minutes and covered slightly more than the 6,398 great circle miles between NRT and DTW.
The Report Card
My grades for various aspects of the suite experience based on this flight are:
Seat – B+
The cushion seemed hard (a mattress pad would be nice). In bed mode the space for the feet felt cramped. The armrest by the window was annoying. It is small and cannot be raised and lowered. It was hard to position the seat for the perfect setting for lounging. The A350 suite is clearly the best business-class seat Delta flies. It could command a premium over other delta flights with inferior seats; however, based on this one ride, I prefer seats like the Super Diamond and even an older but larger and more comfortable seat of Singapore Airlines’ 777-200.
Personal Space – B
The console offers plenty of room for working and there are several open nooks and crannies for storing personal items in flight. I wish there was some storage in a secure compartment. Not all suites have shoe storage. Overall, however, the seat feels cramped, especially in bed mode. There is no place to put the pillows and duvet Delta supplies.
The Door – B
It is nice but not a game changer for privacy since anyone over the age of 10 who is walking down the aisle can see inside the suite. Seats that abut the aisle benefit the most from the door and wall it retracts into.
Ambiance – A+
Business class finally has some color. I found it refreshing and soothing.
Amenities – B+
Since the A350-900 is Delta’s new Queen of the Skies and it is charging a premium for these flights, this nearly 12-hour flight merits a mattress pad, pajamas and a thicker duvet. The cabin was awfully cold as on the flight on October 31. Also the LSTN headsets seemed inferior to ones from Bose.
IFE – A-
For business class the screen size and picture quality are fantastic. Unfortunately, there is no live TV and no Berlitz World Traveler system.
I found the experience in business class on the Delta A350-900 to be quite good but not the greatest thing since sliced bread as the fanfare would have one expect. Maybe “all that” minus the bag of chips. I still wish Delta had retained the order for 787s. I think all new generation long-haul aircraft should have electronically dimming windows.
Have you flown Delta’s A350-900? Do you have additional thoughts on or disagreements with my report card?