Written by Seth Miller for Airways
NARITA — Delta Air Lines is, once again, a three-cabin airline. The carrier launched service on its new flagship A350 aircraft this week with an updated Delta One business class cabin and a pleasant-enough economy class.
The aircraft also includes the company’s new Premium Select-branded premium economy service, bringing a true third class back into service. As expected, the pomp surrounding the new aircraft was impressive.
Festivities kicked off in Detroit with a “First Flyers Club” lounge area near the boarding gate. Delta offered pre-flight champagne and a travel wallet to passengers on the flight.
A brief set of remarks were made at the gate – smaller than I expected given the significance of what the A350 represents for the company – and then boarding began.
The scrum to be first on board was less about overhead bin space on this flight (there are plenty thanks to the A350’s larger overhead bins) and more about joining a piece of history.
Despite a late start to boarding the plane pushed back a few minutes early, beginning our voyage into the next generation of Delta in-flight service.
The A350 replaces Delta’s 747 fleet, carrying 70 fewer passengers on board but doing so with massively improved economics and efficiency.
As Delta draws down its hub at Tokyo-Narita (NRT) airport, choosing to route connecting passengers via Seoul-Incheon (ICN) with its new joint venture partner Korean Air, or to overfly the connections with nonstop flights from its US hubs to Mainland China and Hong Kong, the extra lift of the 747 is unnecessary.
The improved passenger comfort of the newer aircraft – LED lighting, improved cabin pressure and increased humidity – and the new seats combine to deliver significant potential upside to the airline and travelers with the move.
Of course, it is possible to retrofit the new cabins on to existing planes; Delta will do just that with some of its fleet. But right-sizing capacity per aircraft is an integral part of the company’s future success.
Adding the third cabin is also significant. It allows Delta to match its transatlantic partners Virgin Atlantic and Air France in the onboard cabins available.
The A350s are mostly focused on Asia initially, and in those markets the competition for premium economy passengers is well established.
This is a “catch up” move in that global context. Fortunately, Delta’s version competes well in that space.
Premium Select offers a 2-4-2 seat layout with an increased pitch and recline. That enhanced personal space is on par with other carriers’ long-haul premium economy products, including some of the same challenges such as limited personal storage space in the seat, though the large overhead bins help make up for that.
The sizeable in-seat IFE screen features Panasonic Avionic’s eX3 IFE system with a snappy touch-screen or remote control interface.
The A350s also feature Gogo’s newest 2Ku in-flight internet service, though on the inaugural flight it was overwhelmed by the number of connections and performed poorly.
Similar to the seating Meal service is squarely situated between business class and economy.
Premium Select customers get a paper menu with multiple choices to pick from. The main meal featured three options – two US and one Japanese – while the second meal had one selection from each region. The mid-flight hot snack was only a single option.
Once underway the flight tried to maintain a mostly normal passenger experience, though that is a tough challenge with passengers more celebratory than usual and crew working the galley for the first time.
— AirwaysLive (@airwayslive) October 30, 2017
The crew was augmented by an A350 launch support team, doubling up the number working to help smooth many of those bumps.
In conversations throughout the flight, it was clear that the flight attendants were learning the product just like passengers were. I expect that tweaks will come as feedback trickles up to management and some of the pain points are smoothed over.
Adding the third cabin will be a mixed bag for passengers, particularly at the “budget elite” end of the spectrum. Those who are accustomed to buying economy fares and upgrading to the Delta One product will, for the most part, need to adjust their expectations.
That will be a double upgrade in the future, something rarely granted. On the plus side, depending on the fares involved, the upcharge to get into Premium Select can be reasonable relative to the increased space and improved service offered.
— AirwaysLive (@airwayslive) October 31, 2017
With multiple premium products, both in business and premium economy classes, on sale for the foreseeable future, there is a risk of customer confusion along the way. And the fare premium for the new plane is not a small upcharge.
— Ken Hoke (@AeroSavvy) October 31, 2017
Arrival in NRT was celebrated with the traditional water cannon welcome from the fire department and a gorgeous sunset behind the aircraft.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) October 31, 2017
New friendships formed in the prior 12 hours were achieved as passengers headed onward to transit security or immigration, their “First Flyers Club” membership secured.