Delta Shuttle Service Downgrades, or Just a Weird Trip to ORD?

by John Harper

Delta has long had the ace-in-the-hole on shuttle flights. Between New York City and Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., the airline’s hourly flights have advertised perks like complimentary food and alcohol in coach, plated meals in first class and free coffee at the gate. 

That makes my experience on the shuttle this afternoon very troubling.

I arrived at New York’s La Guardia (LGA) about 45 minutes before my scheduled 2:15 departure to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) — the usual allotment I plan for shuttle flights (on these flights, Delta continues boarding pretty much all the way up until the posted departure time).

I had been in a bit of a rush. My normal means of egress to La Guardia, the MTA Subway E train from Court Square to Roosevelt Avenue, was a pathetic no-show on this busy workday afternoon. I mean really, I waited 15 minutes. No train. New Yorkers: please fire Gov. Andrew Cuomo before he does any more damage to the state and his increasingly imprisoned staff members. 

I walked out of the subway station in a huff and ordered a Juno (ride share) to La Guardia, which put me on the curb exactly 45 minutes before my departure. It was a $25 incidental expense levied entirely at the hands, again, of Gov. Cuomo (whose office is solely responsible for the fiscal management of New York City’s failing subway system). 

I digress. 

I could have saved myself the $25 car ride if only Delta would have notified me that this shuttle flight was delayed by nearly a half-hour. But it didn’t. I didn’t get a single notification through the FlyDelta app until after I observed, after passing security, that the aircraft was just unloading passengers 25 minutes before the scheduled departure time. 

Delta Shuttle Chicago New York La Guardia problems

Our Delta Boeing 717 was just pulling up to the gate when I arrived 30 minutes prior to departure. That’s also when I got a phone notification that my flight would be late.

There were no pilots and no crew. There was also none of the complimentary Starbucks coffee and magazines that Delta still advertises on its website. There were coffee canisters. It appeared they were sitting empty, below a counter, for quite some time before I arrived.

Prior News: Delta Moves Shuttle at LGA
Delta Shuttle Service Coffee Newspapers what?

There was no coffee and no magazines, or remnants of either, in the gate area. Just a lot of cranky late passengers standing around for no reason.

Fast forward about 40 minutes and I was in my first class seat. 

Let’s pause for a minute so I can offer this caveat: almost none of my occasional issues with Delta Air Lines have to do with flight crews. The attendants on this flight were warm, kind, inviting, everything most people don’t expect from an airline these days. I still think Delta people are, as Ed Bastian would say, the best in the business.

This flight crew seemingly was diverted over from another flight to work this service. The lead flight attendant shyly admitted later in the flight that she had never worked an LGA to ORD flight before. That explains, perhaps, some of what I’m about to write. 

Back to the seat. Boarding was slow. Our Boeing 717 flight was packed to the gills. Throughout the 20 minute boarding, my fellow first class passengers and I were never offered so much as a coffee. This is, very much actually, the first Delta flight I’ve ever taken on which first class passengers weren’t offered an open bar pre-departure drink service. 

Still, the flight attendants were delightful. 

Thirty minutes onward, we’re at cruising altitude and something comes out of the galley that I could not have anticipated: the dreaded snack basket. 

Delta First Class Snack service

Delta’s first class snack items were served for lunch on my 2:15 p.m. shuttle flight to Chicago.

Snack basket!? On a shuttle flight!? Even passengers flying 45 minutes to Boston are offered bagels on the shuttle service. 

I’d taken the LGA-ORD shuttle several times in the past, and was always delighted by the meal offerings, both at breakfast and lunch. I was served an actually tasty omelet in first on an American Airlines flight from LGA to ORD just over a month ago. 

Delta First Class service

The Delta first class meal I was dreaming of. Okay, maybe not exactly on my shuttle flight, but something a lot closer to this than Kind Bars. Image by Delta Air Lines.

Again, the flight attendants warmth partly made up for this unexpected service change. “I have it all, and so can you,” I was told as an overflowing wicker basket was extended in my direction. Three, four, five items in, she continued to implore me to take more treats in a charming southern accent. 

After a couple of drink refills, I decided to ask about the perceived changes. 

“Did they end the meal service on the Chicago flight?” I asked. 

“Why, I don’t know, we’ve never worked this route before,” she replied.  “Maybe it has to do with the departure time? Sometimes the service depends on departure time?”

“I can’t remember, exactly, they have a flight just about every hour,” I said.

“Wow, ever hour?”

“Yes, it’s a shuttle flight,” I replied. 

“Oh this is a shuttle, I had no idea,” she replied. 

This seemed to be a very last minute crew change, so forgive these kind folks for not having time to do their homework. 

This one is on the airline. The difference between a shuttle operation and a normal mainline domestic flight are not inconsequential. 

On shuttle services to Chicago, passengers are allowed to board up until 5 minutes before departure time (the typical window is 15 minutes). Economy passengers can order from an open bar and are provided upgrade snack offerings. Comfort+ passengers get the first class basket, and first class passengers are served plated meals. 

This situation seems almost as drastic as if the airline had prepared its flight attendants for a flight to Atlanta and put them on a transcon instead.

Still, this doesn’t explain the downgraded meal service (or the no-notice 45-minute delay). Flight attendants are given meal service placards that come with the catering. 

This appears to be a service change. 

Whether or not this is permanent, temporary or some catering snafu I’m not sure. But it feels a lot less like the Delta we know and love and a lot more like its competitors.

Heck, my American flight blew this out of the water.

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Ryan August 10, 2018 - 4:59 pm

If anything, it seems like the flight wasn’t catered properly vs. the flight attendants not serving the items. Perhaps it was a last minute equipment swap that wasn’t catered as a shuttle?

Roger August 10, 2018 - 7:20 pm

When I saw on a 717, I stopped reading. garbage aircraft and couldn’t care less

John Harper August 11, 2018 - 11:42 am

I love the 717! It’s my favorite narrowbody in the fleet!

MJ August 10, 2018 - 8:29 pm

You’re really blaming the Governor of NY for all of NYC’s train problems? Wtf?

B. Wayne from Gotham August 11, 2018 - 10:52 am

Do you live in NY? The MTA budget is solely the responsibility of the governor since he effectively controls the transportation authority. With each yearly proposed budget Cuomo has cut the annual contribution to the NYCTA expecting the City to make up the difference without having any control of how that money is spent. Mayor DeBlasio does not want the Governor to keep raiding the MTA budget for other projects and then expect the city to raise their contributions. So YES the sad state of the NYC Subway is solely the responsibility of the governor for various reasons. He should be ashamed but my guess is he’s not. The recent $836 million dollar proposal to shore up the subway in the short term is but a band aid on a long term infrastructure problem. It requires solid leadership, insight, guidance and financial support from various sources (including from the top 1%) but such decisions are not coming from this Governor in an election year.

Shaun August 10, 2018 - 9:19 pm

Seems to me like maybe a last minute swap of both aircraft and crew. Could have been not enough time to properly cater the flight too. The fact the flight attendants didn’t even know it was a shuttle flight leads me to that. I’ve taken a lot of them and FA always seem proud of it…as if it’s bit special vs a regular route.

It sucks when advertised service isn’t provided. But my guess is it was either “throw” this flight together with a crew & plane and get everyone to Chicago on time or maybe take a delay. I’d take that any day over a $2 lean cusine.


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