I’m not a particularly frequent flier. In fact, aside from a brief job hunting period in 2015 that saw me leaving SEA for a different destination each week for three weeks straight, I haven’t flown on commercial airliners more than twice a year ever. With that in mind, it was an interesting contrast when I booked my Delta Air Lines tickets for PAX South (a video game fan convention) with a route of FSD-MSP-ATL-SAT in economy to get there, and SAT-MSP-FSD in first class on the way home.
My trip planning had been determined by two main factors. The first was that the outbound routing gave me two legs on the MD-90. I love the DC-9 aircraft family, and will happily grab any opportunity to fly on them, particularly as they’re becoming increasingly rare in the fleets of major carriers. The second factor was my returning connection. When I booked my flight, I was only going to have a forty-five-minute layover in Minneapolis. I hoped that booking myself into seat 1A would ensure that I could make my connection, no matter how many terminals apart my two flights were.
An old college sports injury left me with a right knee that gets very uncomfortable in a ninety-degree bend for an extended period of time. For flying in economy, this means I book a left-side aisle seat whenever possible. I’d much rather have a window seat, but at 6’1″ tall and over two hundred pounds, that isn’t usually going to happen.
For the very short flight from Sioux Falls to Minneapolis, however, I got the best of both worlds. There’s one exit row in economy on the MD-90 that is configured 1-2 and for which Delta has yet to start charging extra. When I saw that one was available during my web check-in, I grabbed it immediately.
Did I mention that the flight to MSP was short? In economy class, there was no drink or snack service. Just find your seat as quickly as possible, stow your carry-ons, sit back, and relax. Or in my case, remain with the seat-back locked, one knee jammed into the seat ahead of me, and one leg poking out into the aisle. Boarding, taxiing, taxiing, and deplaning take longer for this flight than the actual flight time.
Next up came the much longer flight from MSP to ATL, once again on an MD-90. Delta’s MD-90s don’t have any kind of IFE system, but they have been fitted with Wi-Fi for people who don’t want to look out the window or read. I didn’t sample the available offerings, but the inflight announcement said that there’s a selection of free games, movies, and TV shows that can be streamed on your personal device.
Since this was a longer flight, Delta provided us with a choice of snacks: pretzels, honey-roasted peanuts, packaged cookies, or a small yogurt bar. I had the pretzels, which were exactly like every other bag of pretzels I’ve ever had on an airline – small, salty, crunchy, and nothing special. “Premium snacks” were also available for purchase, but I knew my next layover, in Atlanta, would offer a much better food selection at a lower price.
An uneventful landing in Atlanta then saw me trekking from the A to D terminals for my connecting flight. Good thing I had three hours to kill! Chick-fil-A makes a much better chicken sandwich than anything Delta will sell in economy, so that plus a quick Pinkberry stop was all I needed before boarding the final leg.
This time, we were on one of Delta’s “newer” Boeing 757s. I realize the 757 hardly is a new aircraft, but Delta’s fleet has been fitted with individual seat-back screens throughout the aircraft, with a wide variety of movies, TV shows, and apps for free, or a moving map to show your cross-country progress. Most of the plane had the same convention destination I did, making it a very friendly crowd.
I should note that in a plane filled with gamers of all ages, no one was bothering with the games on the IFE. Lots of people used the flight to watch movies (Storks and Ice Age seemed to be particular favorites) or were playing games on their personal phones, tablets, or handheld gaming systems, but whatever was being offered on the IFE for gaming couldn’t even compete with the latest Angry Birds iteration.
Beverage and snack services once again made the rounds, with the same selection as on my previous flight. This time I tried the yogurt bar, which was surprisingly good. Small, true, but moist, not too sweet, and more satisfying than I had expected. Premium snacks were offered once again, but San Antonio (SAT) has several In-N-Out locations, and there was a Double-Double Animal Style, well-done fries, and a Neapolitan shake waiting in my immediate future.
Monday morning saw me in the San Antonio airport checking in for my flights home. Delta’s computer problems that past Sunday had prevented me from checking in ahead of time, but the gate agent was happy to help. At some point between when I booked my flight and when I checked in for my flight, Delta had changed the connection from a forty-five-minute layover in MSP to a seven-hour layover. One of my original reasons for booking the first-class ticket had disappeared, but I certainly wasn’t going to step down to economy now!
The flight from SAT to MSP was aboard a Delta Connection CRJ-900. The -900 looks like a baby DC-9, which is reason enough for me to love it, but it was also my other reason for flying first class: the back rows of a CRJ are so loud that you can barely hear yourself think, even with good noise cancelling headphones.
Walking onto first class is a completely different experience to economy. There’s a small bottle of water waiting in the cup holder on your armrest, a small pillow and wrapped blanket should you want them, and thanks to a very attentive flight crew, your first drink is in your hand within minutes of sitting down – the better to watch the economy passengers stream through to their seats.
I travel with a pretty large laptop computer. It’s optimized for programming and gaming, but unfortunately, it’s impossible for me to use while sitting in an economy seat. Placing it on the tray table causes me to tilt the screen so far forward as to make it unusable; placing it on my lap has the same problem, and adds to it by the laptop being about the same width as the seat. None of this is a problem in first class.
Lunch – an actual lunch – was served in first class, along with the second round of drinks. They started by handing out small, warmed hand towels for us to wipe down our hands, then laid down a placemat on our seat trays before bring out the actual lunch tray service.
The tray service had a cloth napkin, actual metal silverware, ceramic plates, and tiny plastic salt & pepper shakers. The lunch itself consisted of a chicken salad with crackers, small Greek pasta salad, a side of carrots and cauliflower, and a cookie for dessert. I’m not a big fan of chicken salad in general, but this was surprisingly good, as was the Greek salad. The large sugar cookie was the perfect finisher and throughout the flight the cabin crew was fantastically attentive.
We arrived in Minneapolis early, and it was time to find somewhere to spend my long layover. My plan had been to park in the Delta lounge, which I mistakenly thought I had automatic access to. Unfortunately, the lounge is only open to International business class passengers, Platinum members, and certain Delta credit card holders. The booking snafu from the previous night also meant they were sold out of day passes. I had to make do with one of the small general booths in the G terminal, which were perfectly adequate. The G terminal at MSP has lots of seats with ample power connections for electronic devices, free Wi-Fi, and iPads at each table that can be used to play games, check flight statuses, and order food and drinks to be brought to your table.
Finally, it was time for the last leg of my flight – first class again, this time in seat 4A on an Airbus A319. One noticeable difference between this and my earlier flight was that the blanket waiting at my seat was thicker, and a different color. Whether that was due to Delta versus Delta Connection, or a southern-based aircraft versus a Minneapolis-based aircraft, I don’t know.
The contrast in service between first and economy was readily apparent here. Where economy again had no service at all during the short flight, first class did. Two snack basket passes (the same snacks that they pass out to economy passengers on longer flights) and a pair of drink refills. Somehow, the flight attendants managed to ensure that I had the same number of drinks going from MSP to FSD as I did earlier in the day going from SAT to MSP.
This is probably the only time in 2017 that I’ll be flying, though I’m tentatively planning a similar trip next year. For the cost of the upgrade, first class was definitely worth it for me. Delta put a good amount of thought into their domestic product for this, and, especially if there’s a chance to fly on a few more of their MD-90s or 717s, they will be my first choice next year.
This story was written by Aaron Giddings for AirlineReporter. Aaron (@AMGiddings)is a blogger, game streamer, and software test engineer currently living beneath the traffic pattern of South Dakota’s busiest commercial airport. He’s been obsessed with aviation ever since his first flight at age four, and can frequently be found on his Harley re-enacting the motorcycle vs F-14 race from Top Gun with the ANG F-16s that fly out of FSD.