Class and club contrasts: the existential satisfaction of the whole

Is flying Delta Air Lines in domestic first class automatically better than a seat in the slowly improving Comfort+ cabin right behind First? Maybe, probably, but I am finding that with enhancements to Comfort+ and depending upon type of aircraft assigned, the differences are shrinking. So no easy answer.

Regarding airport clubs, where there’s an American Express Centurion Club or Priority Pass Club, are those lounges better than Delta’s SkyClub? In my experience, it depends on where I am and where I need to be at any particular airport.  In other words, no pat answer here, either.

Back to class differences, on a recent flight RDU to Seattle on the daily Delta nonstop (DL2556, leaves at 0705), the airline had assigned one of their newest and spiffiest 737-800 aircraft to the six hour flight.  My upgrade to first didn’t happen, but I had a bulkhead seat in Comfort+ immediately behind First.

Delta has reconfigured most of its planes now with a minimal divider to separate the forward cabin from coach, just a translucent ceiling panel and a flimsy curtain.  Without a hard wall between the classes, those in the Comfort+ “bulkhead” row immediately behind the last row of first have unlimited legroom.  Sure, the side-to-side (width) is still as cramped as ever, but the spatial impression in front is a spiritual as well as a physical relief.

Hardly any separation any more between First Class and Comfort+ on Delta airplanes.

Boarding was smooth, and service after takeoff in Comfort+ was fantastic.  FAs came through five times with beverage and snack service on the almost six hour flight, killing us with kindness each time.

Which reminds me of the recent report that it is five times harder to become a Delta flight attendant now than to gain entry to Harvard. The positive attitudes of Delta cabin crew has certainly skyrocketed in the last few years, and every one on our flight to SEA struck me as someone I’d hire.

Taking advantage of the complimentary beverages in Comfort+, I jokingly asked for Champagne and was surprised to be immediately served a properly ice-cold glass of dry Prosecco, bubbling just the way it should.  Ah, an echo to the golden age of flying!  And in coach to boot, I thought.

The screens and cinema selection on the gleaming new 737-800 were outstanding.  I watch almost two movies between snacking, drinking, reading, and dozing.  Before I knew it, we were descending on final into Sea-Tac.  My initial disappointment at not being upgraded dissipated right after boarding at Raleigh. I was astonished to find myself, well, content at being in the Delta premium economy cabin.

Was it the type of airplane?  The cabin crew?  The fact that I was in the row right behind First Class? Something else?  Probably all that, but that’s what constitutes a happy experience: Not any one thing, but the existential satisfaction of the whole.

Later that day I flew a Delta 717 “shuttle” flight SEA/LAX.  There’s one scheduled every two hours.  Also in Comfort+, also in a bulkhead seat, also with a great crew eager to please.  All good, but after all, only a quick and routine flight between two busy cities.  That said, it was a darn sight more comfortable than any Eastern Airlines Shuttle flight that I often, in days of old, endured between Washington, NYC and Boston.

Returning home on December 24 from LAX to Raleigh, I was confirmed in First Class on the Delta nonstop (only about five hours) and was feeling pretty smug about it.  Ah, comfort and no stress, I thought.  After my great flight to Seattle in Comfort+, this would be the icing on the cake, and getting home just in time for Christmas.

And yet, it was just okay, not anything special, somehow missing parts of that existential satisfaction of the whole I mentioned above.  The seat was wider and more comfortable than any in Comfort+, and the Prosecco just as cold and fizzy.  We were served a good breakfast and bombarded with service from the smiling, good-natured front cabin staff.

What was missing? Little things. Perhaps it was the plane itself, an older and somewhat tired 737 that day with very tiny screens and a poor IFE system.  The cabin had that shopworn look that I’ve become accustomed to on American Airlines aircraft, as if they couldn’t quite hide its decline into shabbiness.

Okay, I admit I see things differently on airplanes than most other people.  Be that as it may, when I walked off the Jetway at Raleigh, I remember thinking that the experience going west had been more pleasant in Comfort+ overall than being in First Class on this flight.

My takeaway is that every flight has its mysteries and uncertainties to be revealed.  I just never know until the flight is done. Of course I will at all times strive for a seat in First, but I now know that Delta’s Comfort+ can be a pleasant sanctuary almost equal to the front cabin.

Back to the subject of club and lounge choices, I could have entered the Delta SkyClub on my AmEx Platinum Card, but since there was also an American Express Centurion Lounge between me and my connecting gate, I opted for that, even though Delta has greatly upgraded (in my opinion) their SkyClubs in the recent years, a process that continues, with better ambiance and dramatic improvements to food options.

SEA AmEx Centurion Lounge even provided free leather luggage tags with engraved initials.

Just the same, the SEA Centurion Lounge puts the SkyClub to shame.  It is classier, has tastier and more interesting choices in nourishment, and boasts a bar that looks and feels like a real bar.  It’s easy to forget you are in an airport at a Centurion Club.  I believe that American Express is achieving a sense of exclusivity and elegance in its airport clubs that makes them a cut above the SkyClubs and Admirals Clubs.

SEA Centurion Lounge offers a proper bar selection, all complimentary.

Arriving at Delta’s new home at LAX, Terminals 2 and 3, which are being extensively renovated (and desperately need it), it was back to Delta SkyClubs in both. Delta gave up long-held Terminal 5 because the alleys there are always congested from LAX Terminals 4 and 6. Also the LAX north-side terminals 1 (Southwest), 2 (now Delta), and 3 (now Delta) offer easy access (short taxis) to the longer north-side runways which the airline and its partners use more often.

To assure passengers make connections between terminals and to partner flights in the Bradley International Terminal next door to Terminal 3, Delta shuttle buses operate between and among all three terminals. The shuttles have an additional advantage in keeping passengers airside without having to endure another security screen. That alone is a huge benefit of connecting at LAX via DL flights and its partners.

Delta shuttle buses at LAX whisk customers between Terminals 2, 3 and Bradley International. Note Delta SkyTeam partner Air France A380 taking off for Paris CDG on the north runway.

I first spent time at the LAX Terminal 3 SkyClub, which is the old TWA Ambassador Club (I was a member in the 80s and 90s). I later took a Delta shuttle bus to the Terminal 2 club because it has showers (the old Air New Zealand lounge), and I needed one before my overseas flight. The excellent food at both Delta SkyClubs surprised me, and the happy and attentive staff in both clubs was good to experience.

Scrumptious, fresh-made Thai Chicken Red Curry Soup brought around on trays at Delta SkyClub LAX Terminal 3, one of the club’s many happy surprises.

Feeling fresh and in clean clothes after the long day, I took another Delta shuttle bus from Terminal 2 to the Bradley terminal to wait almost five hours for my international flight.  I was delighted that I never left the sanctity of TSA security from RDU, a once-and-done experience all the way to my destination overseas, thanks to Delta’s system for keeping me airside at LAX.  I thank the well-informed SkyClub staff for advising me on that trick.

Bypassing the usual airline check-in counter experience at Bradley (outside security), I did not have a hard copy of my international flight boarding pass.  However, I had checked in online and had an e-copy on my phone.  That proved quite sufficient when I eventually boarded, another new experience for me.  I don’t recall ever before skipping that trip to the international check-in counter, after which enduring another security screen.

No AmEx Centurion Lounge exists at Bradley (or anywhere yet at LAX), and there are no Delta SkyClubs at Bradley, either, but I found a Priority Pass Lounge: the KAL Lounge, which is also the SkyTeam lounge.  By contrast to the pleasant experiences earlier in the day at the Centurion Lounge at SEA and the two Delta SkyClubs at LAX terminals 2 and 3, the huge Korean Airlines Lounge was over-crowded and proved oddly to be overheated  Nonetheless, it was far superior to be in it rather than outside in the main concourse, the usual zoo.

The KAL Lounge at LAX, also a Priority Pass Lounge, was too hot and overcrowded, but I was happy to be there.

The KAL Lounge offered the normal unlimited food and drink. I grabbed a nice California Cab and walked out onto the large terrace that overlooked the central Bradley concourse to escape the heat.  There I contemplated the enormous video screens constructed to appear nearly 3-D in several directions.  They reminded me vaguely of the billboard blimps in the dystopian movie, Blade Runner. Well, I thought, it is Hollywoodland, after all.

View from the terrace of the KAL Lounge at LAX Bradley Terminal of the central concourse and giant screens.

It was cooler and uncrowded on the terrace, with a good view of similar balconies leading from other airline clubs around the perimeter of the central concourse.  Not ideal surroundings inside the stuffy and stuffed lounge, especially compared to the other clubs that day,

Okay, not perfect, but it was relaxing on the lounge porch.  I refilled my red wine a time or two and helped myself to sushi and finger food on offer as flight time approached. I reflected with relief that my Priority Pass membership to many hundreds of airport lounges worldwide (comes with AmEx Platinum Card, just as does membership in AmEx Centurion Lounges and Delta SkyClubs) had rescued me there at LAX Bradley from a long and dreary wait down below among the throngs without access to clubs.

In sum, all the clubs had their points.  Even the least of the three, the KAL Lounge, was a superb refuge from the incessant drumbeat of airport stress.  True enough, but I will be even more pleased when American Express Centurion Lounges, where the existential satisfaction of the club experience is realized, are widely available.

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