Delta, KLM, Virgin Atlantic: old line carriers I flew in business class on a recent trip to South Africa.  The over-the-moon kudos for business class service often go to Cathay and Singapore or to Qatar and Emirates.  Who sings the praises of premium cabins on the likes of Delta, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic?  Well, I guess I will laud them here because, to my surprise, the business class services on all three (mostly) met or exceeded my needs and expectations.

My itinerary was curiously convoluted because I traveled on a Delta award ticket:

Delta in domestic first class – RDU/DTW – CRJ900

Delta in Delta One class – DTW/AMS  – A330

KLM in World Business Class – AMS/JNB – 777-300

South African Airlink – JNB/SZK/JNB – ERJ135

Virgin Atlantic in Upper Class – JNB/LHR – 787

Virgin Atlantic in Upper Class – LHR/JFK – A340

Delta in domestic first class – JFK/RDU – CRJ900

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The Detroit gate for DL132 to Amsterdam; the Delta 747 at the adjacent gate is impressive but not our airplane

Odd though this routing appears, the connecting schedules worked out for me with minimal layovers at every airport, and—bonus—I was able to sample the carriers’ respective lounges at RDU, Detroit, Amsterdam, Johannesburg, London Heathrow, and JFK, about which I will separately report in a future post.

Though I am a TSA Pre and Global Entry member, my habit is to arrive at every airport two hours early, and that was more than sufficient at RDU to get to Detroit.  I made it through security in time to stand by on an earlier flight to DTW, which in turn allowed me to see if an earlier Delta flight DTW/AMS was available.  Delta has three daily Detroit-Amsterdam A330s at two hour intervals (4:00 PM, 6:00 PM, and 8:00 PM).  The Delta gate personnel were able to move me to the four o’clock departure (Delta 132) and even grabbed seat 2J for me (at my request), the most forward right hand side seat in the Delta One cabin in the Airbus A330.

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Seat 2J on DL132 DTW/AMS

Delta One customers boarded first, about the same time as passengers in need of assistance.  I was greeted with friendly enthusiasm by the crew and was immediately offered a nicely-chilled glass of Champagne.  I polished off a second flute before pushback.

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The comfortable Delta One cabin on DL132 affords lots of privacy

I was immediately struck by the similarity between the new Delta One cabin and the one I had recently experienced on a brand spanking new Qatar A350 in business class.  The Delta business seats angle in towards the windows, providing privacy (since you are not looking at your neighbor—a big deal for me), and the space is ample and quite comfortable.

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Big screens in the Delta One A330 cabin

Fiddling around with the IFE (in-flight entertainment) system, I liked the variety of movies offered and clarity of the screen.  Though the Delta flatscreen didn’t appear to be as big as the one on Qatar, it was perfectly adequate.

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Delta One headphones are comfortable but not noise-canceling like my Bose

Delta provided a comfortable set of headphones, but the phones were not noise-canceling.  I had brought my Bose phones, as usual, which I used throughout the flight.

Ditto for the KLM and Virgin flights—none of the three carriers on this trip had real noise-canceling headphones, which I thought was odd.  Bose or something like Bose headphones are now an expected standard in any premium cabins around the globe.

All three airlines offered power outlets at each business class seat for recharging smartphones and other electronics.

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The Delta One cabin on DL132 DTW/AMS

The meal service was not memorable, but it was filling and all I needed.  After watching a movie, I dozed off, and we landed early at AMS at 11:35 PM eastern, 5:35 AM local. It was a very easy and extremely comfortable flight with efficient, friendly service. These days that’s all I need or expect, and it opened my eyes to Delta’s commitment to a high quality premium international service with consistent follow-through.  It was a happy revelation to see Delta catching up to its competitors in premium services, finally, and Delta One is now on my radar screen for future trips.

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Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport map indicating my departure gate

Because I am compulsive about taking earlier flights whenever possible (why wait for a later flight to be delayed or canceled?), I had arrived two hours ahead of my original schedule and faced a four hour wait at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. However, it’s a great place for a long layover, and the time flew, especially while enjoying the KLM lounge.  Before I knew it, my KLM 777-300 flight to Johannesburg was ready to board.

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KLM World Business Class cabin on my 777-300 flight AMS/JNB

KLM’s “World Business Class” is not spectacular, but it met my every need.  Seats are 2-2-2 in business on their 777s, and I enjoyed the left side bulkhead aisle position (again, my preference).  The fellow in the adjacent window seat had plenty of room to get around or over my extended leg-rest without disturbing me, and the privacy panel between us was adequate.

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My World Business Class seat on KLM flight AMS/JNB

It was a fine and enjoyable flight on KLM to Johannesburg. The service went smoothly, with clockwork efficiency, as I expect from the Dutch.  The Champagne was ice cold and delicious, and the business class cabin crew was gracious and always trying to help.  It was a senior group of flight attendants (all appeared to be 50 or older).  The food service, as on the previous Delta flight, would not inspire a letter of praise to the EVP-Marketing, but it was plenty good.

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KLM 777-300 World Business Class cabin AMS/JNB; the flight was full in business.

This long eleven hour flight allowed me to sample two movies before falling asleep, after which I enjoyed a snack from the galley.  Every airline seems to leave out a goodly supply of nibbles on overseas legs, a great practice, in my opinion.  I chatted with the crew in the galleys fore and aft between naps and got a warm reception.  KLM FAs on my flight were comfortable in their own skins and expert in carrying out the duties of their profession, which made for a wonderfully relaxing experience. The human element is as important as spiffy cabins and fancy service in making or breaking a travel experience aboard an airplane.

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KLM’s headphones proclaim to be noise-canceling, but if so, the effect wasn’t much.  My Bose phones were far superior.

The KLM IFE was not as modern as the system in the Delta One cabin, nor was the selection of movies as broad or deep, but I was never bored.  Once again I had to use my own Bose noise-canceling headphones rather than the comfortable but technology-challenged pair provided by the airline, but I didn’t care.  I usually find my Bose are preferable no matter what carrier I am flying.  The flight attendants were dead honest in advising to use my own phones, saying the KLM product needed upgrading.

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KLM snack in World Business Class was delicious.

Seated near the 1L door, I was first off in Johannesburg, then through immigration and customs and checking in at the airport hotel within 30 minutes of gate arrival.  Overall, the KLM experience was exemplary, and I’d use it again.

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KLM World Business Class AMS/JNB looking forward during the flight.

Two weeks later I was back at Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo Airport for my Virgin Atlantic flights to London Heathrow with an onward connection to JFK.  Check-in for Upper Class, Virgin’s business class product, was swift and efficient.  Tambo has no equivalent to a TSA Pre or London FastTrack lane, so business class customers are all thrown into the same long queues for immigration as everyone else.

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The immigration screen at Johannesburg where all passengers are equal in the queue.

The gate for VS602 JNB/LHR was at the far end of one wing of the airport.  Seats were spread along a narrow hallway harshly lit by florescent lights.  There were no windows.  The effect was claustrophobic and prison-like.

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The strange, claustrophobic gate used by Virgin at Johannesburg.

The Jetway boasted only a single arm to enter the 787 aircraft.  It was positioned at the 2L (second left) boarding door, which is the dividing line between Upper Class and Economy.  Gate staff could easily have boarded Upper Class first without disruption to early boarders.  Instead, Virgin’s boarding procedure ignored Upper Class customers in favor of people who needed extra boarding time.  It proved to be a nightmare of babies and cripples, and Upper Class passengers were not called for another 25 minutes. When I finally approached the boarding door, I was halted by families with young children and their strollers clogging up the area.

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Virgin’s method of pre-boarding families with children congested the Jetway, making it impossible for Upper Class passengers to  reach the doorway.

I understand that every airline has its own policies about boarding, but I was unhappy with the long delay, which could easily have been avoided by allowing Upper Class passengers to go first.

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Upper Class cabin on Virgin Atlantic 787 JNB/LHR configured with seats facing the aisle, not the windows.

Once on board, things started looking up.  I was cheerfully escorted to my bulkhead seat on the left side (again, my choice), and a glass of Champagne was whisked to me.  Taking a sip, I was repulsed to discover that the Champagne was warm, not even a little bit cooled.  The flight attendants admitted none of the bottles had been chilled because the plane had been sitting all day unattended.

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My Upper Class seat on the forward port side of the Virgin 787 JNB/LHR

When I suggested that they shouldn’t have served it at all, the FAs apologized and took the glass away.  Just before the doors closed for pushback, the senior flight attendant presented me with a mostly chilled glass of Champagne which they had taken from a bottle doused in ice water just for me.  I was pleased, and I enjoyed the bubbly all the way into the air.

At first I was not so impressed with the Virgin Upper Class seats.  To maximize capacity, Upper Class seats face the aisle, not the window. I bemoaned my lack of a sense of spatial privacy.  The seat arrangement seemed too close to other passengers.

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Virgin Upper Class seat configuration angles away from the windows and faces the aisle, reducing the sense of personal privacy.

The seats also seemed narrower than the Delta One and KLM World Business Class chairs.  Nonetheless, I began to relax and enjoy the cabin’s openness and the extremely nice flight attendants.

Testing out Virgin’s IFE on the brand new 787. I found technical problems with the screens which locked up the system.  Flight attendants rebooted the IFE for my seat, and the problem was corrected. Once again no noise-canceling headphones were provided, and I used my own Bose phones.  The selection of movies to pass the time was comparable to that on KLM.

The in-flight services, including the meals, were fine, and the personal touches by the many Upper Class FAs never ended.  I once again fell asleep after watching a movie, and later in the flight wandered the new aircraft to get a feel for it, m first on a 787.  I found the cabin crew everywhere to be upbeat and anxious to help, even back in coach, all of which made the experience pleasant and stress-free.  My complaints about the size and position of the seats dissipated as I ignored the surrounding passengers and slept well.

Heathrow’s Terminal 3 is undergoing massive renovation, and our inbound gate was unluckily as distant from my connecting (outbound) gate as could be.  After an interminable walk through the maze of construction, though, and after suffering through a long queue at the mid-terminal security screen, I found my gate and boarded another Virgin flight, an A340 to JFK.

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The Upper Class compartment of Virgin Atlantic A340 London to JFK was configured exactly the same way as the 787 Johannesburg to London, that is, with passengers facing each other towards the aisle, which minimized privacy.

There’s little to say about the LHR/JFK flight, as it was almost a carbon copy of the JNB/LHR experience: different airplane, but same seat (by choice); very helpful, cheerful, attentive FAs; great in-flight service of meals and beverages, punctuated by intermittent napping and chatting with the crew.

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Delta One cabin was the most comfortable and private of the three carriers, but all were quite good.

Thinking back on the Virgin experience, KLM’s business class was better in many ways: more space, more privacy, roomier seat, less claustrophobic. Delta One’s was superior in the same categories, especially seat comfort. Nonetheless, the in-flight services and general comfort level were about equal on all three carriers, and the cabin crews were universally excellent—the latter a measure of greater personal importance to me.

I opted for this tortuous itinerary because it was a cost-effective use of my Delta frequent flyer mileage to get to South Africa.  My expectations of business class on the three carriers was, well, low.  I wanted a comfortable ride in a prone position when I felt like sleeping for such a long journey.  Otherwise, the bar for good service was not high in my mind because my past experiences on Delta, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic in their premium cabins left bad memories.  I fled their services years ago to alternative airlines and never looked back.

This trip generated positive feelings and changed my thinking.  Delta, KLM, and Virgin business classes are not in the same grand category as Cathay Pacific, but they all succeeded in achieving more than a modicum of satisfaction and—importantly—relief from the stress and pain of flying.  I plan to fly them all again in business.

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