Delta’s New International Main Cabin Service: Atlanta to Rio de Janeiro in Comfort Plus

This is the first of three posts covering my November 2019 trip to Rio de Janeiro. You can read about the origin of this trip here.

Delta Flt. 2349 Washington-National to Atlanta (DCA-ATL)
Airbus A321, Economy
Sched. Dep. 3:02PM          Sched. Arr. 4:59PM
Actual Dep. 2:59PM           Actual Arr. 4:37PM
Delta Flt. 61 Atlanta to Rio de Janeiro (ATL-GIG)
Boeing 767-300, Comfort+
Sched. Dep. 7:17PM          Sched. Arr. 6:45AM+1
Actual Dep. 7:12PM           Actual Arr. 6:21AM+1

So, I’m going to be going a bit out of order, and going to skip over my Labor Day Weekend Paris and Luxembourg adventure for now, and instead go directly to a short series covering my November 2019 trip to Rio de Janeiro. One of the interesting things about this trip was that it was just days after Delta unveiled its new upgraded International Main Cabin service, which really is just a slightly upgraded food and beverage service for the back of the plane. On my two flights, I had very different experiences, as I’ll explain in the next few posts. As a reminder, this trip was booked via Delta Vacations with their 2 cents per mile promotion.

My trip started at DCA, where I had a fantastic lunch at the Skyclub. I really enjoy my home Skyclub. The staff is always super-pleasant, everything is kept clean, and the food is frequently restocked. And this trip was no exception. And while American and United are increasing the quality of the experience at their more exclusive lounges (Flagship Lounge and Polaris Lounge, respectively), Delta’s decision to provide a better experience for all its passengers accessing lounges shows similar thinking to their investment in the main cabin experience with the new international service (among other things). Delta’s treatment of non-premium cabin travel is a major reason I stick with it, despite the generally low-value Skypesos provide.

For lunch, there were two different sandwiches available, a turkey and a caprese. There were also two kinds of macaroni and cheese and a variety of toppings, two kinds of soup, and a salad bar, including hot chicken.  The mac and cheese was too rich for me, but it was a nice start to vacation, particularly as staff was walking around offering glasses of a rose sparkling wine.

A light Skyclub lunch

My flight from DCA down to Atlanta, where I’d pick up my flight to Rio, was not particularly notable but for the fact that it was exceedingly elite heavy, even for that route which I do frequently. At departure, there were ninety-three people on the upgrade list. There are only 172 coach seats on the A321 we were flying, so that meant that more than half the coach cabin had Medallion status (or was a Medallion companion). Naturally, that also meant that the boarding line for Main Cabin 1 was insane. Flights like this really make me wish Delta divided Silver Medallion boarding from credit card holder priority boarding. (I’ve never understood people who complain that there are too many groups for boarding. Seems reasonable to minimize jostling and jockeying for position.) Unsurprisingly, there was a massive backup on the jetbridge, but we ended up leaving on time anyway. The A321 had a fresh interior, complete with Delta’s solid personal TV, and there was a friendly snack service despite the short length of the flight.

Delta A321 DCA-ATL

We arrived early in Atlanta at the A-concourse, and of course my next flight was scheduled to depart from the F-concourse, the two farthest spots at the airport. I had plenty of time though. When I got to the Skyclub by the F-gates, I realized the gate had then been moved to the E-gates.  I figured I’d just stick where I was, though.

I’ve been to, and reviewed, this lounge before. It’s not one of my favorites due to its odd layout, and it was quite crowded. I peeked out at the outdoor area before finding a seat near the bar, and grabbing a little bit of food from the too-small food area. There was a range of hot dishes, including a Moroccan tagine and a gross beef dish, a cold cauliflower salad, other salads, and desserts including Rice Krispies treats. The one oddity was marinated jackfruit.  I picked and had a cocktail, before heading to my gate at the E-gates

Deck at ATL Skyclub Terminal F

Buffet at Terminal F ATL Skyclub

Given the news just before my trip that Delta was going to take a huge share of LATAM and divest itself of its partial ownership in Gol, I was thinking how it would impact Delta’s Brazilian flights. But I’m not sure how much it will—particularly to Rio. Delta currently only flies to Rio from Atlanta (with sporadic JFK flying), and I don’t see them dropping that flight.  While LATAM has a lot less connectivity than Gol did there, there should be enough GIG O&D traffic to keep the route going. More interesting will be to see what happens for other Brazilian cities currently served by Delta and Gol from the US. LATAM Brasil and other LATAM carriers probably serve sufficient destinations from Sao Paolo-Guarulhos to keep Delta with the same JFK and ATL flights there for now (though fewer South American destinations than Gol). But without Gol, Delta will have no codeshares on flights from the US to Brasilia or Manaus. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Delta try a flight from ATL to either of those and see how it does (while also perhaps adding flights to Lima, Santiago, and/or Buenos Aires from other hubs).

I got to the gate about ten minutes before scheduled boarding. The gate area was not too crowded although there was a guy doing capoeira in the boarding lane. Unlike a lot of Delta gates these days, they didn’t have stanchions for different boarding zones. When they announced preboarding, as is common with South American flights in my experience, everyone 50 and over approached to board for pre-boarding, which started a few minutes after scheduled boarding time.

Boarding ATL-GIG

My upgrade to Comfort Plus had cleared and the seats were pretty roomy. The cabin was almost completely full but for a few seats. The 767-300 has older overhead bins, and the ones in the center section couldn’t hold rollaboards. Tons of people had put small items up as soon as they boarded, so they were out of room pretty quickly. There is one outlet between each seat, and a smaller IFE screen than there had been on the A321 I flew down from DCA on. There were USB ports at each seat, though.

Passing through Delta One Business Class

Delta Comfort Plus seating, 767-300

Delta’s website says on long-haul flights Comfort Plus gets an “amenity kit” as opposed to the “travel kit” in the main cabin, but on this flight, I just had the standard travel kit passed out, which had earplugs, a wipe, and an eyeshade, as well as headphones. One of the features of the new International Main Cabin service is a “Welcome Cocktail,” which I expected to be part of the predeparture services, but it wasn’t.

Comfort+ legroom

Welcome onboard

Oddly, once boarding was completed, they asked people who had bought duty free to walk back to the front of the cabin to retrieve it. That seemed silly. But then we pushed back at 7:14pm, and wheels up at 7:30pm. Twenty minutes later, bottles of water, menus, and a hot towel were passed out, along with one of the elements of the new service- a rolled up placemat made of textured paper, that had plastic cutlery inside. Unwrapping it was seemingly obvious, but a lot of people had trouble, and the Flight Attendant was giving demos, explaining it was the first few days of the new service.

The rollup (unrolled)

The menu was the most detailed economy menu I’d ever had, laying out the whole service. IT definitely seemed upgraded in content. For the first course, there was a choice of a caprese salad or harissa shrimp. For the entrée, there was a choice of chicken marsala, ricotta ravioli, or a salad with grilled chicken- which reminded me of Delta’s domestic first-class meals. There was a full hard alcohol menu, though no wines listed.

Delta New International Main Cabin Dinner Menu, ATL-GIG

At 8:20, the “welcome drink” was distributed. As part of Delta’s new international main cabin, the idea is that “even in coach” you get a welcome drink. The first featured welcome drink, which they say will rotate, was a Bellini, referencing Delta’s Georgia home. They were obviously not made to order and were distributed off of a tray, but it was fine and not overly sweet. I do feel, though, that a “welcome drink” like that should come less than an hour after wheels up, though it’s hard to know if that was supposed to be the schedule or was rather a kink in a new service.

“Welcome” drink (Bellini)

One thing that made it weird was shortly after the welcome drink came a full drink cart, followed by the meal cart, at around 8:55pm (less than 90 minutes after takeoff). The new meal service definitely takes like longer than a standard service, as the flight attendant takes requests for both the appetizer and entrée and assembles them onto a tray. I did the caprese salad which was fine—indeed great for coach, but my neighbor’s harissa shrimp looked really good.  The chicken was definitely one of the best coach meals I’ve had, though hard to cut on a tiny tray table.

Tray with airplane meals

Delta’s new International Main Cabin Dinner

About 9:30pm, the dessert came out, which was Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and had already melted—the opposite from what I often find on flights.  It was cleared about 20 minutes later, followed by a coffee and wine cart.  All told, meal service ended about 2 hours after take-off, which actually isn’t too terrible as it’s a longish flight. Hopefully as the flight attendants get the new service down, it will move more quickly.

I watched “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” on the IFE and dozed on and off for the next 5-ish hours, before the cabin overhead lights came on at around 75 minutes before landing, followed by a hot towel service, somewhere above Brasilia. About twenty minutes later, there was a drink cart. Annoyingly, my personal TV then got stuck on the flight map for the rest of the flight so I watched the air show.

Breakfast was a similar service to the dinner, with the same roll-up placemat and two items placed on the same grey plate/tray thing by the flight attendant at each seat. In this case, it was a box with an egg croissant sandwich that reminded me of a greasier Starbucks breakfast sandwich, and a fruit cup.

Breakfast, Delta Main Cabin, ATL-GIG

While breakfast was being served, there was a lot of turbulence and the flight attendants were asked to take their seats, and I think some maybe didn’t get breakfast at all. Trays were only cleared as we were making our final approach and it was very hurried. There was also no arrival chocolate like Delta talks about, which again I can’t tell if it’s based on the specifics of this flight or what.

Approaching Rio

We were on the ground at 6:15am local time, and then it was a long walk to immigration, where we merged with arriving Air France and Alitalia flights. The line was on the long side, but moved quickly, and I was out at 6:50am. I annoyingly got pulled for screening at customs, before having to walk through the large duty-free shop, but was at the arrivals hall at 7.

At GIG, Uber pickup is at the departures level, so I went upstairs, and waited about 6 minutes for my $12.50 Uber to the Hilton Copacabana. Traffic was terrible, and took about 90 minutes, but I made it.

In all, I found Delta’s new international main cabin service really nice, though slow. As you’ll see in my report from the return trip, it’s also something that they really can’t replicate from outstations, at least in the quality of food. This was the first week of the service, so I think the kinks will get ironed out.

Next up, I’ll report on my stay at the Hilton

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