May 18, 2021
On my first flights this past weekend in 11 months—the longest interval I can remember being grounded in fifty years—Delta Air Lines killed me with kindness start to finish RDU to Minneapolis and back.
Well, truth be told, a Blood Mary or two served on board augmented my good feelings, about which more later.
Since Americans seem to believe that the pandemic is somehow over now, with normalcy magically returned like throwing a light switch, I expected the Raleigh/Durham and MSP airports to be crowded and airplanes to be packed.
When I booked in first class some months back, however, I didn’t choose to be up front in anticipation of full planes. I was using up Delta e-credits and decided to splurge on first class because it seemed like free money.
Also because, like I said, it’s been nearly a year since I flew anywhere, so why not treat myself? In retrospect, I’m glad I did. Seated in 1B going and returning heightened the rich experience of good feelings. My real time notes follow:
Delta 710a departure RDU/MSP, an A320 aircraft. (2 hr, 23 min flight). Arrived RDU 5:00 AM.
Airport was very crowded, however, including parking deck. Even level 3 had few empty spaces. Terminal was a beehive everywhere.
To entice travelers back, RDU Airport Parking was offering special deals on “Premier” (close-in) parking, but the bargain required me to reserve a space 24 hours in advance, which I forgot to do. My $10/day drive-up rate was close and cheap enough.
No curbside bag check any longer due to Covid. Inside at the Delta counter, I was surprised to find a long queue and bedlam checking bags even in the “Priority” line. Good thing I got there two hours early at 5:00 AM, I thought.
Only one, then two, and finally three staff at Delta Priority check-in for bags. An extended family of five with grandma in a wheelchair traveling coach and clearly without any priority status nevertheless inserted themselves and their great many pieces of checked luggage in the Priority queue. Another family with seven pieces of checked luggage and two small boys also slowed down the process, especially with just a single check-in counter open at first.
The queue at Priority check-in grew ever longer. It felt like an interminable wait, but was really just 15 minutes for me. I practiced deep breathing to de-stress since I hate waiting in lines. When I finally reached the counter, though, the Delta staff greeted me with enthusiasm and made sure my luggage got Priority tags.
At the security screen—by then 5:20 AM—I found very long lines except at TSA PRE-Check. The agent, sitting behind large Plexiglas screens, motioned me to insert my drivers license into machine readers, something I hadn’t seen before, and I placed my boarding card on a scanner. It didn’t seem to take as long as when agents manually inspected my documents in the pre-pandemic era.
Nothing has changed at the x-ray machine stations that I could determine, and I was through security by 5:28 AM and looking for the Delta SkyClub to see if it was open early on that Saturday morning.
Sure enough, the SkyClub had opened 4:45 AM (changing soon to 4:30 AM, I was told). Really good selection of food, both hot and cold. The turkey sausage, egg & cheese English muffin was particularly tasty. I also enjoyed blueberry yogurt and fresh fruit.
The club was super-clean, constantly wiped and tended to by SkyClub staff. The Delta people were full of warmth—and smiles, I assume, beneath their masks. They seemed to be genuinely happy to see passengers again. Not crowded at all. I stayed for nearly an hour of quiet relaxation. Newspapers seem to have been discontinued, my only criticism. The toilet was absolutely spotless.
Boarding began at 6:35 AM, a short walk from the SkyClub, with wheechairs, kids, and those “needing assistance or a little more time” being called first, followed by active duty service folks. As usual, scads of people took advantage of that opportunity, after which FINALLY First Class was allowed on. Then the hordes. The plane was jammed.
Appeared to be as much weight in carry-on as in human mass, and with the usual long delays as people tried to find their seats, even though coach was boarded back to front to mitigate such slowdowns.
Everyone on my flight wore masks with no complaints.
I didn’t hear if Delta Elite and Comfort+ pax were boarded after first class because I was already on the plane by then.
Lots of college kids returning home judging by sweatshirt logos and bright young faces (impossible to hide even half-hidden behind masks).
Curious feeling flying for the first time in nearly a year. A nostalgia gripped me of air travel before the world changed forever.
No boarding drink in first class as the flight attendants were busy greeting and handing out cleaning wipes.
I took two vodka mini-bottles with me in case they aren’t serving booze up front at all, held in reserve to be used after we were off the ground. I had never in my entire life brought my own liquor on board a plane until that morning. Service on my June, 2020 flights via American Airlines, also in first class, had been minimalist affairs, and I wanted to be prepared in case Delta had also adopted a similar dismal policy.
The airlines claim BYOB is a federal offense (unless it’s already in your belly before boarding), so I discreetly kept the tiny bottles secreted in a plastic bag in my jacket pocket. In my mind, they were for emergency use only.
The plane left 40 minutes late due to a balky redundant nav system that died when power was cut unexpectedly twice to the plane, a glitch triggered by a bad electrical cable connection. Maintenance finally cleared us to fly anyway.
Once airborne, two flight attendants swiftly circulated through the first class cabin taking orders, which included drinks and snack boxes. I heard the fellow across the aisle order Champagne (okay, Prosecco). It lifted my spirits to hear the FA affirm she had it. Delighted, I ordered a Bloody Mary when it came my turn and promptly forgot about the mini-bottles in my jacket.
Two Bloody Marys later, and after sampling the snack boxes, I was feeling pretty fine and utterly relaxed. The FAs came around with constant offers of other snacks and beverages, not to mention a hand-written note from the flight leader thanking me for five million miles of loyalty to Delta.
I dozed for an hour and felt great as we made our approach to Minneapolis. On the ground, I was pleased to find that the “Priority” tags on my checked luggage worked: Mine were the first to arrive on the belt, with no wait at all.
Delta’s service in the waning pandemic was far better than I imagined it might be: no ascetic and meager offerings. Leaving MSP airport relaxed and refreshed, I thought: Thank God for alcohol on airplanes!