I’ve always tried to own up to my errors on the exceedingly rare occasion when I’ve been in the wrong (my wife has a contrary opinion to both assertions). In that spirit, I humbly admit that after I badmouthed Delta Airlines in my previous post just before Thanksgiving, the gate staff at Raleigh/Durham and at Minneapolis/St. Paul airports came through with upgrades for me, my wife, and my family on RDU/MSP and again on MSP/RDU. Thank you, Delta gate agents!  I had to eat Delta crow for Thanksgiving, but it was worth it.

Let’s hope they don’t lose their jobs for being nice.  In helping me, RDU and MSP airport gate personnel violated their employer’s ironclad rule that one companion traveling with an elite member, and one only, may qualify (if seats are available) to be upgraded with the elite member from Main Cabin (Basic Economy flyers are entitled to nothing, not even an advance seat assignment, regardless of elite status). Usually the upgrade, if available, is to Comfort+, and, once in a blue moon, to First Class.

I had booked the earliest RDU/MSP flight, a 6:00 AM departure, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, usually the busiest air travel day of the year, which meant my chances were slim for an upgrade even had I been traveling alone.  As my wife and daughter were with me on the same record, and because of the one-companion-and-only-one upgrade rule, what chance did I have of escaping the mid-cabin row 17 that read on our boarding passes? None, I thought.

However, a lifetime of flying has taught me that it never hurts to ask.  Thus I spoke to the RDU gate agent about 5:00 AM when she opened her podium.  I was candid in saying that I was aware that three on a record disqualified me from the upgrade scrum. She smiled politely and said she would see what she could do. Just asking her satisfied me; nothing ventured, nothing gained, after all.  I relaxed and joined my wife and daughter and fully expected to be sitting in row 17.

My surprise was genuine when the gate agent called me just before boarding to inquire whether we would mind being split up in seats 1D, 2B, and 3D in First Class. It is fair to say, in fact, that I was nonplussed, but I recovered quickly and stuttered that split seat assignments were fine. And so it was that we enjoyed the comfort and service—breakfast even—for the 2 hour, 20 minute ride up to the Twin Cities.  I had a Bloody Mary to celebrate once we boarded and promptly nodded off until the meal service began.

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Delta’s refurbished A321s include 5 rows of First Class (20 F class seats–more chances to upgrade), mood lighting, and bigger in-seat screens.

Delta that morn had assigned a newly refurbed A321 to the flight with all the new interior mood lighting and controls.  It was a fun experience that forced me to reflect on how Delta is investing so much more in technology and service than AA or UA while at the same time instituting death by a thousand cuts upon its more frequent flyers.  But if you can manage to somehow get into a front cabin seat on even a nondescript domestic flight, Delta is inching towards making the experience better than what I’ve called it since the 1980s; that is, a mere escape from coach.

Coming home was a different story. Our Saturday-after-Thanksgiving MSP/RDU departure was scheduled for 8:20 PM, Delta’s last nonstop of the day on that route.  The Minneapolis airport was throbbing with holiday travelers going home. The area around MSP Gate G12 was already congested when we arrived a good 75 minutes before flight time. I figured lightning couldn’t strike twice on the same itinerary, but what the heck, I asked just the same.

This time the gate agent was just shy of brusque as he informed me that upgrading more than two on a record was against the rules, thrusting my Main Cabin boarding passes (again, in row 17) back to me. No matter; we had enjoyed the unexpected upgrades flying up. I found my wife and daughter to wait for the Sky Priority group to be called.

Just before boarding, the same gate agent who had seemed officious tapped me on the shoulder.  When I turned to see who it was, he was smiling and handed me three new boarding passes in the bulkhead row of Comfort+ immediately behind First Class (seats 10A, 10B, and 10C).  “Think of it as early Christmas present,” he said, and I thanked him profusely.

Once again we delighted in the flight, another refurbished A321.  In fact, because Delta has removed the physical bulkhead that used to separate First from Economy, we enjoyed extraordinary legroom under the First Class seats in front of row 10. The newly designed overhead compartments were also capacious enough to hold two roller bags plus heavy coats we’d worn in anticipation of frigid Minnesota temps (it was 14 F. when we arrived the day before Thanksgiving).

The front-to-back comfort was, for once, really there in Comfort+, even the “plus,” thanks to the bowling alley-length legroom despite the distinct discomfort in width.  And the service, too, was great.  The First Class flight attendant came back to make sure we had plenty of premium snacks and beverages.  My wife and I thought it rude to decline her gracious offers and thus imbibed and munched all the way to Raleigh, where we arrived a whopping 30 minutes early.

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No bulkhead between First & Economy on Delta’s refurbished A321s means lots of legroom for those lucky enough to snag a seat in Comfort+ Row 10.

Grateful thanks again to the great Delta ground staff at Raleigh/Durham and Minneapolis/St. Paul.  I certainly hope you are not penalized, let alone terminated, for treating your most loyal customers like human beings by breaking the rules.  Please persist in that customer sensitivity as you climb the ladder at Delta.

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