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PENNYWISE AND POUND FOOLISH FLYING
By Chris Barnett
September 11, 2014 -- The choice for a roundtrip from San Francisco to New York's Kennedy Airport was between Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways. At $464, Delta had the lowest nonstop coach fare. Jet Blue had the most legroom, 34 inches, but was $50 higher.

I opted for the cheapest price. Pennywise and pound foolish. And I should have known better.

On the outbound San Francisco to New York leg, Seat 35C on the Delta Boeing 757 was so uncomfortable that I stood up during about half of the 5.5-hour flight. It was the last seat before the lavatories so it didn't recline. But the gent in 34C availed himself of his recline.

I didn't complain. I didn't douse him with water. But when he pushed back, Delta's 31-inch seat pitch suddenly shrunk to around 28 or 29 inches. I didn't have a tape measure. But I could not open my tray table or open my laptop to balance it on my knees. So I was out of business and couldn't work. (According to SeatGuru.com, some coach seats on Delta's 757s have as little as 30 inches of legroom.)

To stretch my legs and get the blood circulating, I tried walking up and down, but the 757 has a long, narrow center aisle. With flight attendants pushing the coffee cart and every seat taken, I couldn't step out of the aisle when others squeezed by. In other words, it was impossible to go for a stroll to alleviate my seat distress.

All I could do was stand around the rear lavs with several other passengers. They had the same complaint: Their seats were so tight that they could not sit in them for a prolonged period.

As luck would have it, however, I had to fly to Syracuse a few days after my arrival in New York. And for that I had a JetBlue ticket. The advance-purchase roundtrip JFK-Syracuse fare was $274 on a 100-seat Embraer 190.

The Brazilian-made E190 is, technically, a regional jet. I'm no fan of RJs and I was expecting to be squished again. Again I was wrong.

As you probably know, JetBlue configures its E190s 2x2. Coach has 32 inches of legroom and there's a whopping 39 inches of pitch on its Even More Space option. I didn't upgrade, but still was able to stretch out on the 270-mile flight. It was a delightful surprise.

To avoid a brutal reprise on Delta's JFK-SFO return trip, I ponied up $99 for a seat in Economy Comfort. Economy Comfort promises 34 inches of legroom plus a free sandwich and a gratis alcoholic beverage. Economy Comfort also has in-seat AC-power ports.

The additional $99 was money well spent, even though I was stuck with a middle seat and the flyer in the window seat was brawny. Even though the seats are narrow, the extra three inches of legroom make a world of difference.

I hadn't flown Delta in a few years and, frankly, I bought the marketing buzz about it now being better than the other legacy carriers. And I admit I'd been seduced by Delta's enticing TV spots with the honey-throated voiceovers supplied by Donald Sutherland.

My first impression had been encouraging. On a mid-August Sunday at 6:30 a.m., the Delta check-in counters at SFO were generously staffed. There were also several friendly floaters helping passengers who chose to check themselves in and pay the $25 fee for the first checked bag. (Delta's check-in agents at JFK were just as plentiful and helpful.)

But even bypassing the check-in counter at the break of dawn, there was still a long line for dropping off luggage. I saved maybe 10 minutes by checking my garment bag curbside.

In San Francisco, Delta took over the old Northwest Airlines concourse in Terminal 1, which has been spiffed up a bit. However, it's nothing like the gleaming Terminal 2, created expressly for American Airlines and Virgin America. Terminal 2 is cool and actually relaxing. But I also lucked out: I snagged one of just four workstations with AC power in the Delta concourse.

Boarding the flight wasn't exactly the smoothest exercise. It was slowed as gate agents pulled aside passengers with large carry-ons, put the bags in sizers to see if they met Delta's carry-on dimensions and then charged $25 to gate-check those that didn't measure up. Delta's enforcers picked up some nice extra revenue on our flight, so beware. (An American Airlines frequent flyer told me that American has cut her slack several times when her carry-on was oversized.)

Onboard, Delta's in-flight customer service didn't match the friendliness and efficiency of the ground service, especially on the SFO to JFK leg. There were several grumpy old men working as flight attendants and they were barely civil.

One was playing with his phone when I mentioned to him that a lavatory "needed attention." Barely a response, no eye contact and he kept fiddling with his phone. After waiting a few minutes for him to take action, I cleaned the lavatory myself, much to the shock of two other passengers also waiting to use it. I was watching and he didn't crack a smile the entire flight.

Another male flight attendant thundered down the aisle to fetch something, banged into me while I was eating a $7.99 breakfast sandwich and sent the pesto flying. He didn't stop and never apologized. On the other hand, the female flight attendants on both legs were more helpful and engaging.

Another little annoyance? The seatback video system on Delta's 757s is several generations behind JetBlue and Virgin America and it was difficult to use.

"This is horrible," said Russell Rosen, an owner of Shastone Memorials in Great Neck, New York. "The touch screen isn't working. I'm using my iPad to pass the time."

Rosen had made the same foolish choice as me. "I wanted to fly JetBlue," he explained, "but I booked this flight late and the JetBlue fare was $200 more than Delta."

Pennywise, pound foolish and our knees suffered for it.

Research assistance by Veronika Torgashova

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ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.

This column is Copyright © 2014 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.