Trying the New West Coast Delta Shuttle (Trip Report)

Delta, Trip Reports

Earlier this month, Delta launched a west coast Delta Shuttle operation between LA and San Francisco with hourly service and a few *gasp* frills. Delta had already built up significant service in the market, but it wasn’t attracting its share of business travelers. The Shuttle was meant to change that. I was invited to try out the new operation, and I did a quick roundtrip on Monday. I think Delta has done a really nice job here, but I do wonder if it will sway the business traveler.

Disclaimer: Delta provided the flights for free.

When I originally received my tickets, they were in First Class both ways. I wasn’t happy about that so I asked to be put in coach at least one way so I could experience it. Delta agreed, and put me in coach on the return.

I was determined to try out every part of this service, including the piece about a dedicated check-in counter with a mere 30 minute check-in cutoff. For that reason, I left home a mere 1.5 hours before departure and sat in terrible traffic all the way to LAX. Traffic was even worse inside the airport. (This is why I fly out of Long Beach anytime I can.)

Since I was only going to be gone for a few hours, I parked in the $29 a day short term lot and got into the terminal 35 minutes before departure.

The dedicated counter was easily visible (and it appears to share agents with Delta’s premium SkyPriority line), though the signage seemed pretty goofy to me. Most people don’t care if they’re on the Shuttle. They know they’re going to San Francisco. So the destination should be in a big font while Shuttle should be smaller. This isn’t the east coast where the Shuttle name means something.

I walked up and a friendly agent asked if I needed a boarding pass. She pointed me to an open kiosk and my pass popped right out. There I saw the magic words. I would be able to use Pre Check for the first time. I headed up to security and then was shown to the Pre Check line. It was glorious. Remember flying in the 1990s? That’s what this is like. Belt on, shoes on, laptop in bag, liquids in bag…. It’s amazing what that can do to the whole feel of the trip.

Once through security, the gate was right there on the left. (Another promise of the Shuttle is that close-in gates will be used.) Despite cutting it close, I was there with 25 minutes to spare and boarding hadn’t even started. Nice.

The agent announced boarding and said that newspapers were available for those who wanted them. But the newspapers were strangely perched away from the boarding area on the counter, blocked by a stanchion. (I learned that Delta REALLY loves stanchions.) I didn’t bother to maneuver for the paper, and I just hopped on board.

September 23, 2013
Delta Shuttle 5832 Lv Los Angeles 8a Arr San Francisco 924a (operated by Compass)
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 50B, Runway 24L, Depart 3m Early
San Francisco (SFO): Gate 46, Runway 28L, Arrive On Time
N631CZ, Embraer ERJ-175LR, Delta colors, ~65% Full
Seat 4A, First Class
Flight Time 1h00m

The flight attendant gave a very warm greeting as I got on the airplane. This was my first flight on regional airline Compass (which operates all Shuttle flights), and I was impressed with everyone I encountered. I had one of the single seats on the left side in First Class (it’s 1-2 across). A bottle of water was waiting and the flight attendant quickly came by asking if I wanted a drink. I had some orange juice and looked around.

If I have any complaint, it’s that the airplane looked pretty beat up and dirty. For example, take a look at these overhead bins:

The seatback in front of me was also scratched up a little, and the inside of the seatback pocket was dirty with gum wrappers and other unidentifiable objects that most definitely didn’t belong.

We pushed back a little early and then went on a tour of the airport. San Francisco flights tend to take off on the north side and that means the taxi time sucks. Southwest and Virgin America most definitely have the advantage in that respect.

Soon we were airborne, and I whipped out my laptop. I had a free pass for Gogo (did you know their employees have free codes on the back of their business cards?), so I didn’t hesitate to log on. I doubt I would have paid the $5.95 for the flight pass but I might have done $3.50 for 30 minutes since that’s about all that’s usable anyway.

Shortly, the flight attendant brought drinks again, but I stuck with water. Then he passed out a snack box from Lyfe Kitchen which was actually great.

It had some apples, grapes, cranberries, and a scone. Oh, and this is given out to everyone on the airplane for free, even those in coach.

Since we took off on time, you probably figured the fog wasn’t around at SFO, and you’d be right. (On foggy days, this report would be filled with me sitting around LAX waiting for 2 hours.) Instead, we were treated to a fantastic day. This shot below has Stanford at the bottom looking up toward SFO and San Francisco beyond.

As we landed, I couldn’t help but think about those people sitting in the back of the Asiana 777 that landed short. That was on a beautiful day just like this one, and everything must have seemed normal up until the last second. How awful.

Once on the ground, I met a couple of friends and did a little planespotting. But within a couple hours, it was time to come home.

I was back at the curb 50 minutes before departure, and I headed inside to check myself in. (I opted not to check in for the roundtrip that morning so I could experience the process in both places.) After standing there for a minute, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how Delta had organized its ticket counter at SFO.

I could see the sign for Shuttle, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. Delta and its stanchion-crazy employees seem to have created some kind of maze. I wandered over to the cluster of kiosks on the side and an employee asked if she could help me. I was clearly confused. She pointed me to the Shuttle line, which is, in turns out, only accessible after you walk through the kiosk farm on the side. It was really weird.

The agent at the counter printed out my boarding pass and I was on my way. This time, the boarding pass didn’t say Pre Check nor did it say Sky Priority. Even though I was in coach, Delta says that any Shuttle passenger can use the Sky Priority security line.

I got to security and sure enough, the Pre Check line was closed. But the agent at Sky Priority did look at my boarding pass and let me on through. Having gone through Pre Check earlier in the day, I am now officially, completely spoiled. I was angry that I had to take my shoes off and pull my laptop out. Pre Check is like crack. You just need a little taste…

Once past security, I headed over to the gate. The gate wasn’t right at the front, but it wasn’t a long walk either. Delta’s concourse at SFO isn’t too bad… unless you look up.

Yep, like a 1983 Datsun, the terminal has peeling window tint. Classy. We started boarding only 20 minutes before departure, but everyone got on quickly and the doors were closed on time.

September 23, 2013
Delta Shuttle 5843 Lv San Francisco 1p Arr Los Angeles 230p (operated by Compass)
San Francisco (SFO): Gate 44, Runway 1L, Depart 4m Late
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 51A, Runway 24R, Arrive 4m Late
N608CZ, Embraer ERJ-175LR, Delta colors, ~85% Full
Seat 15A
Flight Time 59m

I do have to say that the Delta interior looks pretty nice, even though the bins on this airplane were beat up as well.

I took my seat in row 15. The Embraer big jets are really nice airplanes. They feel so much better than the Bombardier CRJ-700/900 from a passenger perspective. We just don’t get many of them on the west coast, so I’m glad to see Delta bringing them out.

The only issue was the offset window in my row. But that’s hardly anything to complain about. I did notice that the airplane could use a little touch-up paint on the outside. The blue on the winglet was peeling off and it showed what I can only assume to be old Northwest red underneath.

We taxied for a good 15 minutes before we finally got into the air and the woman in front of me promptly put her seat in full recline. That made working on my computer tough, but with nobody in the aisle seat next to me, I was able to maneuver to use it.

The flight attendant came through with a different snackbox for the afternoon. This one had carrots, celery, and crackers. It was again really tasty. I should have had a beer since they’re free on Shuttle flights, but I opted for water and just cranked away on work as we came down the coast.

We landed on the north runways and then had a long taxi back to the south side of the field. Then there was traffic in the alley, so we had to wait a few minutes longer. In all, it took 1 hour and 30 minutes from start to finish with the flight being less than 2/3 of the time.

So how was it? I actually really like the product. It feels somewhat exclusive. The ERJ-175s only hold 76 people but they feel like bigger airplanes. All of the amenities were nice little touches and the people were friendly. If I had to do this commute often, I would probably be even more interested in this. Whether this will actually sway people from competitors, however, is a whole different story. The numbers will eventually tell the tale.

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24 comments on “Trying the New West Coast Delta Shuttle (Trip Report)

  1. “Pre Check is like crack. You just need a little taste?”

    Haven’t commented in a long time but this made me lol. One reason I still start my day here!

  2. I fly the Delta Shuttle a lot out of LGA – to ORD and BOS. The experience is always excellent – just how you describe. Friendly staff, nice amenities on the plane, and they’re usually great about keeping us up to date on airport/weather wackiness. (As we know, flying in and out of LGA can be a joy…)

    The only thing that sucks is that the Marine Air Terminal doesn’t have Pre. Though there is rarely a line, and since so many of the passengers do these flights a lot, it’s usually an easy process to get past TSA.

  3. Good point about the large screaming ‘Shuttle’ sign, people on the west coast will relate the word to Shuttle by United and in the SFO/LAX market will remember many canceled flights and 747’s subsituted for three 737’s when cancels piled up. I wonder how DL is going to handle it when the same things starts happening to them.

    At first I thought the snack tray was an odd shape since they are usually square/boxy, then it hit me that it and your laptop could share the tray table at the same time. Smart idea on that one.

    For starting a ‘new’ type of service between two large business/leisure cities like SFO/LAX and wanting to grab business of UA/WN/VX, you would have thought DL would have made sure the aircraft used were in tip top shape to give people a better first impression then that sad shaped bin you showed.

    1. I disagree with both this comment and the article about reducing the Shuttle font, while I do agree that SFO should be larger. Delta Shuttle isn’t a brand on the East Coast because they kept the branding low key. If I were to brand this, I’d say DELTA SHUTTLE SAN FRANCISCO. It’s puzzling why the words “flights” is on the sign, given that surely you’re not there to get on a submarine.

      Also, totally agreed about the E175. It’s comfortable aircraft. Also, it provides more space for upgrades given the F/Y ratio being the largest on domestic flights. :)

    2. I think the snack tray shape is more just a function of the fact that its fresh food, and that snack box is a standard. Starbucks used to use it (in Seattle at least) and the grocery stores up here use it as well.

  4. I still have to question the long-term viability of a “shuttle” type service on this route, especially to such a delay-prone airport as SFO. If the target market is business travelers, how will they react to the inevitable 2-3 hour fog delays that pop up from time to time? I would think that reliability would be a necessity for a shuttle-type service. But then again, that doesn’t seem to hobble the Northeast shuttles where ATC congestion can be an issue, and all carriers flying LA area-SFO face the same hurdles, so maybe it’s not an issue.

  5. Slightly off topic, but you mentioned Pre Check a few times. It is like crack, and when an airport doesn’t have it, even when the lines are short, I get ‘cranky’ (I’m looking at you, ABQ). A few times in PHX I have been sent over to the first class line due to random additional security checks. I call that the walk of shame. The TSA agent said it’s supposed to happen 20% of the time. But when I hear the 3 beeps, it’s music to my ears.

    1. What’s worse with Pre-Check is at airports where some gates have and some don’t. At DCA, if you are in the middle pier with American or half of US Airways, you are out of luck, even though the rest of the airport has it.

      1. and the question about DCA and that pier is ….WHY? This is Reagan National for crying out loud. That concourse has UA, AA and US. No slouches, all participants in the program (looking at you, Soutwest!) and its a VERY busy checkpoint.

        1. Actually, United moved out of that pier to the South one with Delta, to the old Continental gates. But your point is still valid. If you fly US Air, it’s a crap-shoot as to whether you get the pre-check pier or not.

  6. Part of the Shuttle is to drive loyalty to the incredibly profitable SFO and LAX to JFK market. The employees at DL were recently told that those two routes are now more profitable than the entire MEM and CVG operations combined. I’m convinced that the launch of Shuttle was a low cost move by DL to gain market share in the high end transcon market. The planes are paid for and owned by DL and leased to Compass so generating any revenue is probably better than parking them in the desert. Overall, DL is probably OK even losing a bit of revenue on the shuttle if it creates more brand awareness for the transcon service.

  7. Excuse my ignorance but does UA or VX offer a similar experience, i.e. snacks, free beer, priority check-in/security? Also how do the fares compare? It all sounds really nice but it seems like a lot of catering to one route where the business traveler going anywhere else gets nothing. I can see if they are matching the competition on that route, but going above and beyond while alienating the traveler at the next gate going somewhere else seems a bad move. If I got to SFO one week and get the red carpet treatment I’m going to expect the same on my next trip but if I go anywhere else it’s just DL as usual?!?

    1. A – I don’t believe either of them offer any sort of differentiated experience. I can only assume fares are generally the same, depending upon availability. But Delta’s pitch here is that it isn’t getting enough of the high dollar business traveler so it needs to attract them.

  8. The question is, if you did have to make the commute often, would you fly this or just take JetBlue out of LGB?

    1. Ken – Oh, no question. If I had to do this personally more often, I’d take JetBlue every single time if the times worked. That’s the one problem is that JetBlue only has 3 flights a day to SFO and 3 to Oakland. So if the times don’t work, then I’d have to go elsewhere.

  9. Interesting that they’re trying to compete with in-flight food and drink. Given how terrible those offerings have become on domestic flights, I’d be pretty impressed.

    But something tells me this won’t work. If it did, we wouldn’t have the service levels we currently have in the USA.

  10. Brett, How full would you say the flights were? Load factor will ultimately be an important factor in whether Shuttle is a success or not. I doubt yields will be any better than the competition on that market given all the capacity between the two cities.

    1. Jamzz – I always put rough estimate load factor in each write-up. It was probably about 65% full up and 85% back. But those are just two flights. We need to luck and full month data to get a real idea.

  11. Not sure if you heard…

    The long-time LAX-adjacent restaurant with retired planes on its lawn plans to close by the end of the year. The Proud Bird on Aviation Boulevard in Westchester has been around for 48 years, for much of that time the go-to place for business lunches and gatherings in the airport vicinity. Its location on the south side of the airport just east of Runways 25R and 25L makes the Proud Bird ?a popular meeting point for plane spotters, or people (often tourists) who take pictures of airplanes landing and taking off,? says Brian Sumers in the Daily Breeze. ?The restaurant maintains a large collection of historic airplanes parked outside the dining room

  12. Delta really has no frequent flier base to speak of at SFO, and very little at LAX (where it’s smaller than both United and American). Business travelers tend to be loyal to an airline, so I doubt a snack box and shorter check-in time is going to attract them to Delta.

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