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Yes, I’m writing a review of the economy cabin of a U.S. carrier that millions of people fly every year. You might be thinking that this is the same sardine-class you’ll find on any carrier in economy, with just a different colored interior. But I’ve grown to love Delta over the past year and figured I’d write up a review of one of their aircraft and service. In my opinion they are a step above the competition. Plus, I still do know people who have flown only once, or not at all, and reviews like this are for them as well.
I’ve flown this same flight from Sacramento to Atlanta a fair number of times now, always operated by the same aircraft type. As long as my job keeps sending me across the country, I’ll be flying Sacramento to Atlanta, Delta 737-900 economy class (unless I score the ever elusive upgrade). Since this was a work trip, I used my Chase Sapphire Reserve card to purchase the revenue fare and was reimbursed my my employer.
SMF Airport and Boarding
The one thing that was different this time around was that I’d booked the 6:30 a.m. departure out of Sacramento instead of the later flight. Delta has 2-3 departures per day, and I almost always wake up early and drive the 4.5 hours to Sacramento to catch the midday flight. This has me arriving in Virginia around 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. (SEE: 5 Reasons Why Sacramento is my Favorite Northern California Airport). But this was by far the cheapest ticket, even with a night of hotel added to the equation (SEE: Crowne Plaza Sacramento Northeast Review). So the 6:00 a.m. flight it was.
One thing I didn’t expect was the Monday morning rush at Sacramento International Airport. I usually fly out on Sunday and back on Saturday. Terminal 1 is a whole lot livelier on Monday morning than midday during the weekend! The line for Delta check-in was atrocious. In almost every other instance I’ve flown out of SMF, the check-in line looked nothing like this.
Of course this was the first time I’d decided to check a bag. I’m usually strictly #TeamCarryOn when traveling solo, but I would be in the field this time around, with the potential for snow. It was simply too hard to pack all the gear in a carry-on. Stupid *real* winter y’all have back east. Boots, thick pants, and some safety gear meant I had a heavy bag. Still, with the Delta priority line available to me as a Platinum Medallion and TSA PreCheck, I was through both check-in and security in 18 minutes. I definitely didn’t beat my record rental-car-drop-to-gate in 10 minutes, though!
Delta rolled out a new boarding process just before this flight. I’d hoped this would streamline things a bit more, but I think all it did was confuse people. There was still a giant mess of people in the gate area. The lack of reasonable queuing at Delta and American gates is pretty much my only complaint about the airport. Wait, I do have one more: there isn’t a lounge. But this problem is being rectified.
I boarded in Group 4, Sky Priority, the few dozen of us Delta elites who weren’t in First or Comfort+. As always, passengers were warmly greeted by the Delta flight attendants. In my experience, I’ve found mainline Delta flight attendants to be more personable and engaged than those working for either American or United. Some American FAs in my experience are downright grumpy.
Seat and in-flight entertainment
I was seated in 15C on this flight, on the aisle. I used to be strictly #TeamWindowSeat, but as I’ve flown more I’ve realized I do like to be able to get up and stretch. I also like to be able to drink a coffee and stay hydrated with water, not worrying that I’ll be bothering someone when I have to get up to use the lav on a cross-country. Generally, I’ll pick an aisle seat on a flight more than 2.5 hours and a window when the block time is less than that. Seats are a standard 17.2 inches wide, a hair narrower than those on Airbus aircraft.
Of course, the best deal is when you’re flying business class with both a window and direct aisle access. But you won’t get that on a Delta 737-900, or on pretty much any product that flies across the country, short of JetBlue Mint or American’s A321 first class. Except when my wife scored United 787-10 Polaris business class on a domestic flight recently.
Legroom is pretty much standard for a U.S. carrier at 30” of pitch. I’ve never really felt cramped and always have a few inches of knee room. Sitting on the aisle helps. The one plus was that I didn’t stow a bag at my feet this time (backpack went in the overhead, since I was lacking a carry-on), so things actually felt a bit more roomy than usual. My photo, though, is from one of my previous trips where I was in a window seat. I’m a hair over 5’10”, for reference.
Shoulder room is not good. The guy next to me had quite the broad torso, and our shoulders were touching the entire flight. I ended up reclining my seat a bit so that my arm could stay behind his and I could sit upright and comfortable rather than slouching out into the aisle. An annoying problem to have on a cross-country flight, but not something that is unique to the carrier I chose. I’ve been stuck in worse, including in a middle seat at the back of a United 757 flying from SFO to IAD.
Delta outshines the other U.S. legacy carrier’s by maintaining seatback in-flight entertainment screens in much of their fleet. I know many people don’t mind using their own devices, but I much prefer built-in seat-back IFE. It’s far nicer to have a screen at face level to enjoy while I plug my phone in to just charge, rather than hold it and watch a movie on its tiny display.
The selection of films in the IFE is extensive as well. I always find something I haven’t seen that I wish to view. This trip I watched Beautiful Boy, starring Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet. It is an excellent drama, based on a true story, about a father doing everything he can to help his son overcome a crystal meth addiction. It was interesting to see Carrell in this role compared to the few other things I’ve seen him in, and Timothée Chalamet’s performance was excellent. But enough on the movie. Back to the flight.
Delta 737-900 economy service
Service started fairly quickly with the snack and meal cart first. I’m always glad when Delta operates this way, as it is better than waiting for the entire snack and drink service to proceed before you can buy food. I still remember a nightmare United flight out of Chicago where it took over 2 hours for food to be served due to the way service was structured, plus an overly cautious captain that requested the crew stow the cart due to turbulence that never materialized. Twice. And my inbound that trip was, of course, very late, meaning that I couldn’t eat at O’Hare either.
But Delta hasn’t let me down with the meal options or service. I order food at least half the time I fly. This flight was serving the breakfast options, as it was an early departure. The lunch and dinner options are served on flights that depart later than 9:00 a.m.
I ordered the maple turkey croissant breakfast sandwich for $8.99, which isn’t a bad choice. The other option is currently the protein box. Over the several months I’ve been flying Delta cross-country, the food options have only changed slightly.
A couple weeks ago I realized Delta has supplied me with eight drink vouchers. I’m going to guess four came at two different points, probably as I attained Gold and then Platinum Medallion. I used one of them to order the Cava. Well…I tried. After repeating myself twice, I pointed at the menu, and the flight attendant said, “Oh! The Prosecco.” Yeah. The Prosecco. Which says Cava on the menu and the bottle. That one. I guess I really don’t know wine! But the flight attendant was super nice about it, and she ended up not even redeeming the voucher when I offered it. Coffee and water service followed later, and then a second water service maybe 45 minutes after that. Gotta stay hydrated at 30,000 feet!
On previous trips, I have enjoyed the Luvo wraps, which are my standard lunch choice if I’m running a bit late and can’t eat in the Sacramento airport. I push the envelope at SMF, counting on getting from rental car to gate in approximately 15 minutes, often showing up with little time to spare.
Near the end of the flight I purchased an hour of internet access to make sure I wasn’t missing anything critical as people made it into the office back in California. This cost me $6. A full flight pass (or day pass?) is $20, which isn’t all that bad. In general, I’ve found the Delta WiFi to work consistently, and offer reasonable speeds, enough for email, web surfing, and other basic necessities. This has not been my experience with United’s WiFi, which has hardly worked on both occasions I’ve tried it.
The cabin crew were cheerful and friendly throughout the flight. I got up to stretch for a bit and chatted in the galley with one of them about halfway to Atlanta. The final full drink service was conducted about 50 minutes before we landed.
On the whole, flying Delta 737-900 economy is how I get across the country these days, more often than not. If someone tells you that all carriers in economy are the same, take it with a grain of salt. While you can expect the same basic experience, Delta tends to outshine the competition in all the little ways. Their on-time performance has been much better, as they’ve gotten me to Virginia without a delay every trip. Delta’s commitment to seat-back entertainment is also commendable, and a more friendly culture of flight attendants improves the passenger experience immensely.
I’ve also had great experiences with some of their phone agents, such as when I needed to cancel a ticket last minute. Even though there was no obligation to do so, the Delta representative gave me the balance of the ticket for later use and didn’t assess a change or cancellation fee. It’s these small things that really go a long way to engendering loyalty.