Surprisingly Good Service: Delta from Hong Kong to Seattle

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I rarely fly American carriers internationally partly because I have found their service to be so poor. But I recently flew from Hong Kong to Seattle with Delta (on flight DL38) and was pleasantly surprised by the experience, especially the friendliness of the crew.

At the airport

As an economy class passenger, I couldn’t simply check in at the counter and first had to use the self check-in electronic kiosk, which spat out an ugly, wafer thin printed boarding pass. I then went to the baggage check queue, which was very short. The ground agent who had helped me print the boarding pass had not put in a frequent flyer number and told me I could do so at the gate. Normally for a Skyteam flight I would just use my Korean Air Skyteam number without much thought. Fortunately I had checked the always useful wheretocredit.com and discovered that the fare basis on which I was travelling would earn nothing on Skypass but decently in Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, so I asked to add my Flying Club number. For some reason the ground agent at the desk was unable to input it and told me to send it in after the flights. I don’t know why these things don’t work more smoothly.

When I checked in, no gate was assigned. The flight was then scheduled to leave from the far flung gate 68 and showed on the monitors as leaving twenty minutes early, but that did not happen. The boarding process was slow and overly complex – whenever I am in an American airline’s boarding process I am always mentally comparing it to the Japanese equivalent and wishing it was even half as efficient. But it was orderly and everyone was on the plane a good twenty minutes before departure.

Equipment

The plane was operated by an Airbus A330 (registration N860NW, pictured above taxiing in Seattle after I disembarked). The seatback had a decently sized television screen with a USB. The headphone jack was also under the monitor, which isn’t very practical when eating or whenever one’s neighbour wants to pass by. The entertainment wasn’t turned on until we pushed back. There was an excellent range of films.

The seat had a bit of recline and felt a bit more spacious than I expected – it was comfortable even for this twelve hour plus flight. At the seat was a blanket and thin pillow.


Flight

We pushed back a few minutes after the scheduled time of 10.35 a.m. and arrived at gate S9 at 7.47 in the morning, around half an hour ahead of schedule. We headed out close to Taiwan and Japan and then flew over the Pacific for the duration of the flight rather than hugging the coast. Delta’s flight map shows the route only in very feint grey so you need to peer hard to see it.

As soon as we headed out of Hong Kong we hit some pretty bad turbulence. Normally turbulence feels to me like the plane is being moved up and down, or thrown gently side to side. This turbulence felt odd because the plane felt as if it was keeling sharply downwards on its port wing and then followed by the same on its other wing. There were a few screams in the cabin but we soon got back at least to normal turbulence, which continued until past Japan at least.

I didn’t think about this until, after I disembarked, the pilot from my flight happened to be beside me and smiled (another example  of how friendly this crew was). “That was a bumpy ride last night, didn’t you think?” he asked. I mentioned that it had felt bumpy for a few hours but after that I slept. He expressed mild surprise that I had been able to sleep, and mentioned that in  his opinion almost the whole flight had been turbulent.

Service

This one flight singlehandedly changed my view of American airline crews on international routes, and kudos to Delta for that. It started on the economy class jetbridge, at the head of which one of the flight crew stood to welcome passengers. The crew working in economy class was an absolute delight. I was served by two middle aged gentlemen, who worked hard for almost the entire flight. They were completely responsive, polite and smiled ceaselessly.  There were three Cantonese speaking crew and announcements were made in both Cantonese and Mandarin as well as English.

The menu helpfully contained an outline of the service planned for the flight. Before takeoff the crew distributed menus, eyemasks and headphones. After takeoff they distributed warm paper towels. They then did a round of peanuts and miniature pretzels with a drinks round. That was closely followed by the meal service, with more drinks. After that they distributed a bottle of Evian water to all passengers in economy class.

About five hours before landing there was a snack service with drinks. Around an hour and a half before landing came more warm napkins, followed by the breakfast service.

Food and Drink

The meal choices were a bit imbalanced and I chose the pasta, which oddly was advertised as coming with potatoes but in fact simply sat on a meagre three thin potato slices. The pasta was unremarkable, as was the salad.




The leek and mushroom snack was pretty tasty, and the dim sum breakfast was tasty.

Overall the food was decent and there was a wide selection of good quality drinks.

Conclusion

This flight was good and made me reassess Delta as an option internationally. Partly that was because of the comfort of the plane, but primarily it was because cockpit crew and cabin crew exuded professionalism and were polite, friendly and helpful. A good crew really goes a long way.

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