My December 17-31 trip to and from South Africa brings me a total of ten flights since 2011 in Delta’s coach cabin on their longest nonstop flight, Atlanta to Johannesburg and back again.  Though experts may arm-wrestle over the actual distance, Delta posts SkyMiles credit for this pair of flights, DL200 and DL201, at 8,433 statute miles each way, and I don’t argue with them.  It’s a good 16 hours, give or take, each way, and can be even longer with severe headwinds.  Nonstop, mind you.

I’ve posted at length about how to survive, and even enjoy, this pair of ultra-long distance flights here, and I won’t repeat myself except to say my flying experiences on DL200 and DL201 last month were good and almost carbon copies of all the previous ones.  Bravo to Delta for managing the tough experience on coach passengers so well.  The flights in sardine class were as painless as one could hope for.

What dawned me on me during the long December flights was that I have never seen an empty seat on any of the ten flights in either the Economy or Business Elite cabin.  I’ve flown in February, March, April, August, and December, and every seat has been full on every airplane.  Never one to be shy about asking for an upgrade, I inquired politely but firmly each time I flew to be whisked up to the Business Elite cabin on the basis of my five million miles and Platinum status.  Delta personnel were invariably polite about declining, and more than once they have confided to me that upgrades never happen on flights 200 and 201 because Business Elite is always sold out.

Thinking maybe that Delta upgraded a few full fare coach Diamonds or Platinums ahead of a discounted coach fare-paying customer like me, I was astonished to hear time and again from fellow travelers in the Economy Comfort cabin that their Diamond status and full fare Economy tickets failed to get them booted up front.  Several told me that they regularly make the flights (every month or two) back and forth, always paying full fare coach, and have never been upgraded.  I’ve had similar conversations with well-heeled Delta customers sitting with me in Economy Comfort to and from JNB on every flight.

Apparently even full-fare Business Elite travelers can have trouble booking a sharp-end seat.  An American mining engineer who is a regular on the two flights every 45-60 days, and who always flies in Business Elite because his company pays for it, told me that he sometimes has to hunt for an available seat even weeks in advance because business class isn’t available on his preferred dates.

Nor have I ever been able to identify a nonrev Delta employee riding up front.  Excepting the odd award travel flyer, there are apparently fare-paying butts in every Business Elite seat on Delta 200 and 201 every day of the year. You can see the difference in space and comfort between Business Elite and the Economy Comfort section of coach immediately behind Business in these two photos:

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The remarkable phenomenon of consistently full airplanes across this vast distance made me contemplate what profit Delta must be enjoying from this one pair of flights.  I Googled the flights every which way to see if I could find a clue and came up dry.  Except for an Atlanta Constitution article extolling the flights’ nonstop distances and my own earlier blog posts, there seems to be nothing on the profit margin contributions of these paired flights to and from Jo’burg.

I even went to my SkyMiles account to test what mileage would be required for award seats in Business ATL/JNB.  Using the new Delta tiers, the minimum and maximum miles required (one way) among the five levels are 80,000 miles and 175,000 miles, respectively, from the USA to South Africa.  Thus the round trip minimum is 160,000 miles, and the max round trip takes a bite of 350,000 miles.  Testing a range of future dates I was unable to find award seats for less than 255,000 miles round trip, and the majority were higher, up to 350,000 miles.  I found none at 160,000 miles, the theoretical minimum round trip, but I assume the 255,000 was 80,000 one way and 175,000 the other.  Assuming award seat availability is based on revenue capacity limits established for each flight, this indicates that ATL/JNB Business Elite seats must be selling pretty briskly.

In the absence of hard data I cannot draw any definitive conclusions, but if these flights are not Delta’s most profitable, then I feel certain at least that the CFO smiles every time he contemplates the torrent of revenue that DL200 and DL201 must be contributing to Delta’s bottom line.