The Brancatelli File



July 29, 1997 -- In the otherwise dreary landscape of business travel, there has recently been one consistent bit of good news: The airlines continue to play "Can you top this?" with their international business-class service.

Almost without exception, airlines constantly add all sorts of intriguing and comfortable bells and whistles to their C cabins. In fact, the major carriers routinely overhaul and rethink their business-class cabins and business-class service almost as often as they raise fares. And every airline that has introduced a new C-class package in recent years has dramatically raised the competitive bar.

And now along comes Delta's new--and much advertised--business-class service to break our run of good luck. Once again, Delta Air Lines promises much and delivers very little.

Before its long-awaited and much needed business-class overhaul, Delta ranked dead last among the major international carriers in virtually every business-class category: seat comfort, food service, in-flight entertainment, ancillary services and the general C-class experience. Now, after its costly and much publicized overhaul, Delta rates no better than next to last. Except for Northwest's dated and physically decrepit World Business Class, you're still better off flying anyone else's business class to Europe or Asia.

Where did Delta go wrong? Let us count the ways.

First, Delta chose to remain a traditional three-class airline rather than switch to a two-class configuration. Airlines that have jettisoned first class--most notably, Continental, SAS, Virgin Atlantic, Alitalia and TWA--have had the room to create clubby, congenial and truly comfortable business-class cabins. But Delta's new business class is wedged between old-style first and coach classes and the result is a stiff, cramped, and much-too-crowded C cabin.

On Delta's flagship B767s, this space shortage creates a business-class cabin of 28 narrowish seats in a 2x2x2 configuration. The seat pitch (leg room) is adequate--about 50 inches, the current minimum acceptable standard for international business class--but the seats themselves aren't comfortable. They aren't wide enough to allow you to settle in and they lack the "armchair" appeal that has won raves for Continental's BusinessFirst service.

And then there's the matter of lavatories, or, in the case of Delta's new business class, lavatory. Because of the space shortage, there's just one in business class. That means there's usually a wait to use the lav--and always two or three passengers milling in the aisles, looking over your shoulder, jostling your seat and getting in the way of the flight attendants during meal services.

Second, Delta's business-class seats have unwieldy and unyielding mechanical controls. You have to manipulate four buttons and levers to position your seat's footrest, headrest, lumbar support and recline. On a roundtrip totaling 16 hours of traveling time, I never successfully got all four parts of the seat aligned in a position I considered comfortable.

What's worse, the mechanics of this lumbering seat take up huge amounts of space. The result? Virtually no under-seat storage for your carry-on bag. I've been traveling with the same standard-size carry-on case for more than a decade and it has always fit under the seat in front of me. But it doesn't fit under the new Delta business-class seat.

Third, the food service is poor, even by airline standards. Now, to be honest, I couldn't care less about in-flight food. As David Brenner once said, you don't expect a coffee shop to fly you to Los Angeles, so why ask an airline to make a good omelet? But Delta's meal service is aggressively atrocious. What do you make of a business-class dining experience that is so bad that the flight attendant goes down the aisle warning passengers against choosing one of the entrees? And why hand me an insufferably pompous 16-page brochure about the in-flight wine selections when the flight attendants still shamble down the aisle asking "White or red?" and, by the way, are pouring a years-too-young red that isn't even listed?

Some other notable negatives: a package of in-flight video programming that relies on 3-day-old repeats of CNN Headline News; an exceptionally limited selection of tapes to play on the personal video players that flight attendants will distribute only after you complete mind-numbing paperwork; and at-your-seat laptop power ports that haven't been fully installed despite the relentless advertising that promote their availability.

I used to worry when airlines stumble this badly on a new product introduction. But not this time. Delta has been overmatched and outclassed internationally since the day it bought the bulk of its overseas routes from Pan Am earlier in the decade. We've come to expect nothing from Delta and, once again, they've delivered nothing.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.