Aviation News

July 16, 2012

Delta Economy Comfort Reviewed: A Little More of Everything?

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By: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren
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Economy Comfort Seatback
NYCAviation’s Premium Economy Challenge continues with a look at Delta’s Economy Comfort. The carrier initially began offering Economy Comfort in 2011 solely on international flights. It must have been pretty popular—and apparently profitable—as the Atlanta based carrier completed rolling out the option on all dual-class aircraft worldwide just last month. If it wasn’t obvious already, it means folks flying within the US now have a chance to get their hands…err rear ends?…on Delta’s newest cabin option.

Delta provided NYCAviation with a roundtrip ticket to test it out, so we gave it a thorough inspection on a recent transcontinental trip: Seattle to JFK.


The Economy Comfort Flight

Delta Air Lines Flight 842
Route: Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (SEA)-New York John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)
Aircraft: Boeing 737-800
Seat: 10A | Economy Comfort

Another typical day in Seattle (overcast and dreary) began to unfold as the sliding doors ushered us in to the ticketing level at SeaTac International. The scene was busy as throngs of people arrived simultaneously to meet the early bird bank of flights. Delta has a strong presence here — mostly the result of the merger with Northwest several years back — and the line for the manned check-in desks looked dauntingly long. Thankfully we weren’t checking any bags, and were able to access one of a number of self-check-in kiosks that sat mostly unused.

Security was not a pleasant process, and the long, snaking line made the check-in queue back at the ticketing desk look like a cake walk. Thirty-five minutes and one freedom search later we busted out of the gulag, boarded the train to the S gates, and then waited thirty minutes before boarding began.

Fliers with an Economy Comfort (EC) ticket are assigned boarding in group one.  Noting that we had an EC seat assignment for this leg, we were pleased to avoid the usual general boarding malaise. While space in the overheads is not specifically dedicated to EC, functionally it might as well be since there is virtually no one else on board yet. Our carry-on tucked away above us, we settled into seat 10A, a bulkhead row.

Wheels were up a bit behind schedule at 6:54 am local time as we began to jet our way eastward. As we ascended toward our cruising altitude, little TVs descended from the cabin ceiling and began to offer a mix of TV and the usual feature film. We were slightly disappointed that this particular flight did not offer any personal inflight entertainment, but the content provided to the masses was sufficient to at least maintain our interest for the four hour, thirty minute flight. We tried out the Wi-Fi from GoGo ($15) as well and it worked well for most of the flight.

Breakfast in Delta Economy Comfort. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Breakfast in Delta Economy Comfort. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Feeling hungry, we ordered breakfast while the first drink service was being completed. While there has been improvement, it has been hard for airlines to shake the (generally well-earned) perception that for-purchase meals offer little in the way of quality and quantity yet still come with a heroically marked-up price tag. So expectations were appropriately set when we ordered the turkey, Canadian bacon, and egg sandwich; on a croissant for roughly $6. And we won’t lie: we were impressed; we might even say we were in flavor country. The decent-sized sandwich graced our meal tray for all of five minutes before it graced our satisfied belly. We would definitely purchase it again.

Delta Economy Comfort Seat 10A (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Delta Economy Comfort Seat 10A (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Switching over to comfort country, EC domestic offers one primary perk: more comfort via more legroom. In this department we were quite pleased. However much extra space we actually had (we didn’t carry a tape measure), it was more than enough to stretch out.

The other big perk, which goes hand in hand with the comfort aspect, is seat recline. Here we were left disappointed. Though the economy comfort page on Delta.com does state the extra recline is only offered on select routes within the US; Seattle to JFK is not one of them. Another downside, though minor we must admit, was that the bulkhead wall pushed outward into the row at waist-level. While seated this was not a problem, but when needing to get up getting to the aisle without tripping was tough.

Our flight landed on time at 2:24 pm local, and we were on the T3 curb only a few minutes later in the sweltering Big Apple heat.

The Economy Flight

Delta Air Lines Flight 1043
Route: New York John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)-Seattle–Tacoma International Airport(SEA)
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300ER
Seat: 26B | Economy

Chaotic is the only word that is sufficient to describe the atmosphere in Terminal 3 when we arrived. The check-in area was overly cramped, and by choice or otherwise clearly tried to shove one too many operations into too small of a space: lines for something going somewhere snaked every which way without being clear what they headed to, except for security, which ran along the back wall for what felt like miles.  Pushing our way through the crowd we found an empty self-check-in kiosk, printed our boarding pass, and joined the eternal security line.

An hour later we arrived at the gate to discover the aircraft was a Boeing 767-300ER, a big up-gauge from the Boeing 737-800 we expected. Boarding began a bit late, though the double aisle of the big 767 ensured a quick enough process. Our carry-on found home two rows behind our regular coach seat in 26B: good enough.

The flight, once we started anyways (more on that later), was pretty uneventful. Once again we were mildly disappointed by the lack of personal entertainment, though the content playing on the screens mounted on the center bulkhead walls and affixed to the ceiling kept us interested enough. Since this particular aircraft is normally reserved for long-haul international flights, there was no Wi-Fi available. No matter, as some sleep and our iPad kept us busy.

The seat had a standard amount of legroom for coach, nothing surprising there.  What did surprise us, and pleasantly we might add, was a very generous amount of recline. In fact we pushed back so far we almost thought it was broken.

Economy legroom on the Delta Boeing 767-300ER. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Economy legroom on the Delta Boeing 767-300ER. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

We paid a visit to the rear galley to pick up a snack pack about halfway through the flight that came with various pick-me-up type food items and a cold beer – total cost about $12. The friendly flight attendant quickly rang up the purchase quickly and we were back at our seat in no time. The snack pack hit the spot nicely.

Unfortunately everything else fell into the “one of those days” category. First, our seatmate was, well, interesting. We won’t get into details, but we will say this person had zero qualms about violating personal space: ZERO. Second, as we hinted earlier we were a little late…well really late: like five hours late. An initial thirty minute delay for bags cascaded into being unable to beat a line of severe weather that hit the city. We received the three hour tarmac tour plus another two hours at the gate before finally taking off. Total onboard time: roughly eleven hours. We do have to give props to a great crew who handled the situation well — especially on the ground.

Neither of these irritations was Delta’s fault: they can’t control the weather, and they certainly didn’t place an inconsiderate person on the plane next to us intentionally. Still, both factors unfortunately ended up dominating the experience.

We landed in Seattle at 11:31 pm — about five hours behind schedule — a little groggy but otherwise happy to be home.

A Closer Look

The defining elements of Delta’s intra-US Economy Comfort product are a.) more legroom and recline and b.) priority boarding. Otherwise the experience is identical to that of regular coach.

We’ll go for the recline aspect first. And as we pointed out, we were less than impressed. Unfortunately up to 50% more recline is only offered on JFK to/from SFO or LAX and ATL to/from HNL in addition to most international flights. Delta tells us the extra recline is not offered on domestic flights “in order to allow for laptop use”. As you may have guessed, this is the reason we were so impressed with the recline on the return flight: our airplane was internationally configured while the outbound flight was not.

Economy Row vs Coach Row on Delta 737-800. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Economy Row vs Coach Row on Delta 737-800. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Legroom was another matter though. For one, you could see the difference easily on both aircraft we flew on (737-800 and 767-300ER). The extra space was particularly noticeable on the return flight when we found ourselves pining badly for those four inches we had on the outbound leg. While we did not take our giant laptop this time (no power outlets to satisfy its deep hunger) it would have fit pretty easily into our space in EC while being cramped in regular coach. Like the recline aspect though, legroom is subject to variation depending on the plane. The Delta website touts an extra three to four inches overall, and more than one person we talked to suggested that bulkhead rows on occasion have even more. In fact we noticed ourselves while boarding our 737-800 that the bulkhead row appeared to have a noticeably larger amount of legroom when compared against the other EC rows.

Our bulkhead row on our EC flight was an extra plus for a little more room. Since the product dominates the first few rows after business, it creates a feeling of being set apart from the rest of the cabin. While in coach on the 767, the EC cabin was placed between galleys and lavs, leaving it entirely in its own isolated section. Sure, in both cases you are still basically in coach, but don’t knock perception here: seeing fewer people in front of you definitely make it appear as though you are in a more spacious environment.

Priority boarding was a plus for sure, as it all but guarantees overhead bin space. That plus the ability to avoid the jet-bridge queue and general boarding chaos make it a stress-reduction and convenience perk. We noticed the difference on the return flight when finding overhead space took some effort.

Unlike some of the other premium economy services we’ve reviewed, Delta’s pricing is straightforward: $20-$99 depending on the distance flown. For an example, the upgrade fee at the gate on our return flight JFK-SEA was $79. We imagine that Boston-New York would be closer to $20. New York to Chicago probably comes in around $45.

As always, value is in the eye of the consumer, and one must balance the perceived value of perks provided against the cost to upgrade.

The Bottom Line

Overall, we weren’t blown away by it, but we definitely were not disappointed either. We enjoyed flying with Delta; the inflight service on both flights in both cabins was definitively positive. The inflight crews were more attentive, friendly, and polite than some others carriers we have flown with lately. But with so much variance in the Economy Comfort product across the fleet we feel it is hard to pass meaningful judgment.

Still, we can draw some useful conclusions:

First, the inflight experience is identical in Economy Comfort to regular coach when flying domestically (free adult beverages on international). So, if you are looking for a quasi business class or major inflight service upgrade when flying intra-US, EC isn’t your product.

Second, it’s mostly about the legroom. Priority boarding is a nice perk for sure, but we didn’t speak with anyone on either flight that cited it as the primary reason they purchased the upgrade: all said it was the legroom. So if you have long legs, a huge laptop, or just like the extra space, Economy Comfort should deliver suitable satisfaction.

Third, the product varies. First, pitch varies three to four inches. Yeah we know, griping over one inch. But the upgrade fee at check-in for JFK-SEA was $79; that’s $3.64 to $4.85 per inch per hour (based on the scheduled five hour thirty minute flight time). Second, the recline factor can make a very big difference too and is only available on select routes or a lucky airplane substitution (like us). Of course additional amenities common to both coach and EC vary by aircraft as well, though chiefly in the inflight entertainment department.

If we had to pass judgment we feel the perks would be most easily appreciated on flights at least three hours long, and if it was in our budget we’d swing for it. Anything under three hours is probably not enough to warrant it – even at the lower cost. Add in priority screening though, and we’ve got a new ballgame (Delta tells us they’re evaluating the possibility – we hope they go for it). Still, there is no question we noticed the difference: a little less stress and a healthy dose of extra space made flying on Economy Comfort a little more comfortable.