Elusive Delta premium economy fare to Johannesburg

An old friend I’ve known since Kindergarten wants to join me in early 2020 on my next jaunt to South Africa’s Kruger National Park.  My friend, not a frequent flyer, trusted me to find that perfect balance of comfort, cost, and convenience that will make the long trip bearable to both our bodies and our wallets. I found it, too, in Delta’s new premium economy on the carrier’s nonstop Atlanta-Johannesburg flight (DL200/201), albeit just barely.

Knowing after 28 years of ferreting out bargains to South Africa that it’s never too early to look at options from Raleigh/Durham to Johannesburg and then on to the little Skukuza airport in the Kruger Park, I began poking around on websites scarcely within the 330-day window for advance booking. Because Delta’s nonstop from Atlanta to Jo’burg is a convenient way to get there (just two flights to get to JNB), I looked at delta.com among other itinerary and airline possibilities.

As a baseline, I began by checking the old way to getting to South Africa: flying through Europe.  The fares on some carriers RDU/JNB were lower than $1400, but the all-day European layovers were brutal, and it also killed another day that we might be having fun in the Kruger.

I also tested Gulf carriers, including Qatar Air using oneworld partner fares with AA from Raleigh to Johannesburg, a routing I have done in business class, but never in coach.  I found that Qatar economy fares were not big bargains, and the total travel times were not better than the European-stopover routings.  Ditto for Emirates, which partners with Jet Blue.

South African Airways had a decent schedule and competitive coach fares with its partner, United, RDU to Dulles, then IAD to JNB to SZK (Skukuza, the jewel of an airport in the Kruger), but I tend to shy away from flying economy on airlines on which I hold zero elite status.

Still, SAA fares were comparable to what I subsequently found on Delta in Main Cabin; that is, about $1500 to JNB, or about $1750 round trip all the way to Skukuza. The SAA schedule into Johannesburg also allowed a same-day morning connection to Skukuza, another advantage over Delta and other carriers.  That was mighty tempting.

On Delta, I initially checked fares for late January outbound, returning about 12 days after. Delta.com was showing only Main Cabin, Comfort+, and Delta One classes for January departures. Fares in Main Cabin were reasonable at around $1500 RDU/JNB.  With no competition, South African Airways consistently charges about $300 round trip JNB/SZK, so the total would therefore have been $1800 or so to get to Skukuza and home again.

(By the way, I always check business class fares, too, but as nearly $11,000 round trip RDU/JNB on the dates I needed, booking Delta One was a nonstarter.)

Now I admit without shame that flying in a cramped Delta coach seat to Africa is not fun.  It is a challenge of endurance for 16 hours.  Though hellish, I have done it, and I can do it again.

However, I was counting on my Lifetime Platinum status to grant me and a companion (my friend) complimentary Comfort+ upgrades on DL200/201 ATL/JNB/ATL.  Flying Comfort+ doesn’t make the economy seats any wider, but at least there is 3 inches more between rows, and I have a strategy for enduring that long flight in Comfort+.

The prospect of those extra 3 inches in Comfort+ tilted me a bit to Delta from South African Airways, though SAA’s same-day morning connection at JNB to Skukuza made the comparison with SAA a hard choice.

Why not premium economy? Because I knew that the 777-100LR aircraft used on the route had not been updated with Delta’s “Premium Select” premium economy product, and somewhere I had read that the Johannesburg planes would be among the last to get the interior cabins refreshed.  DL200/201 are money spinners as presently configured. After all, Delta is the sole American carrier with a nonstop to Johannesburg; only South African Airways flies competing nonstops from the USA.

But then my friend alerted me to his preference to leave a month later, departing RDU in late February and returning in mid-March.  Having pretty much settled on a Delta itinerary, I waited a few days so that our return date in March was within the 330-day maximum for advance booking,

To my surprise, the outbound and return dates on delta.com showed a fourth class of service available on DL200/201 ATL/JNB: Premium Select.  Fares in premium economy were $2000 RDU/JNB, which included Comfort+ on the RDU/ATL legs.  A $500 round trip difference struck me as about right for the extra difference in comfort and personal space.

Okay, Delta’s premium economy service is lackluster compared to, say, Cathay Pacific, but the seats are undeniably far better than coach (see my post on Delta’s Premium Select), and so I grabbed two seats for me and my traveling buddy at that fare.

Delta Premium Select (premium economy) seats on an A350 DTW/PEK

Out of curiosity, I checked the next day for the same itinerary, and the Premium Select fare had gone up to $2500.  The fare had risen $500 literally overnight.

The RDU/JNB premium economy fare has been $2500 ever since for those dates. I’ve checked delta.com from January to April, 2020, and the Premium Select fare is always $2500.

What happened?  Who knows?  Perhaps I came across the one day in eternity when Delta’s new premium economy fares were loaded into the system at a relative bargain price for the nonstop to Johannesburg, after which the gods of Delta revenue management decided to goose the fare $500.

When I checked other origin cities, such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Washington, Premium Select to JNB was (and is) priced at $2500 or a few bucks more. Only NYC/JNB through ATL on the nonstop is slightly higher at $2700, and, oddly, MIA/JNB through ATL is $2272 in PE. Why Miami to Johannesburg in premium economy is cheaper by $230 than flying from Raleigh is another mystery.

Talk about elusive! I’m fortunate, of course, to have snapped up a fare on the single day it would be $500 below the price of forever-after, but I am perplexed that the lower, reasonable fare vanished in 24 hours.  The $2000 fare I purchased is a $500 difference over Main Cabin, a fair value cost, in my opinion.

At $2500, though, the current premium economy fare is almost $1000 over Main Cabin, which is not good value for the product. I wouldn’t have paid that much and so would have chosen either South African Airways’ attractive same-day morning connection at Johannesburg to Skukuza or Delta in Comfort+ with a one-night layover in Johannesburg before going on to Skukuza. Chances are, I would have chosen convenience over comfort to go with SAA, with greedy Delta the loser.

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