The Critical Points: Why I’m sticking with Delta over American and United

Sep 6, 2019

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I was born and raised in Atlanta, and while Delta has a certain kind of nostalgia for me, I’ve never been one to let emotions get in the way of solid travel and loyalty strategy. I moved away from Atlanta in 2008, living in Asia and on the West Coast, which allowed me to experience many airlines and multiple elite status programs. After returning to Georgia almost two years ago — and after a stint as an American Executive Platinum elite member for 2016-17 — Delta has once again become the clear choice for me when it comes to domestic travel.

Let’s look at why I’m choosing to stick with my hometown airline over the other two legacy carriers — and really all domestic carriers.

Consistency and superiority of onboard product

The Delta fleet provides almost the same experience regardless of which aircraft you board or where you are flying. Not counting the aging MD-88/90 planes — which I actually enjoy flying — almost every seat is going to be the same when you board a Delta domestic flight. I feel the cabins are better designed, the seats have better comfort and there’s almost always seat-back entertainment. I can connect to in-seat power, and every domestic Delta flight has Wi-Fi. Most importantly (and unlike the subpar Wi-Fi service offered on United or American’s mix of Viasat Wi-Fi), Delta’s Wi-Fi is reliable, and I can count on it to get work done during my flight.

American’s fleet is not only inconsistent; the carrier is also refitting its cabin interiors to a terribly uncomfortable and cramped design (project Oasis). You can still fly legacy US Airways A321s that have no power on transcontinental routes, and there are so many variables within the fleet you have to be a pro at looking up plane registration numbers to know what you’re going to get. Last week I flew American from Atlanta (ATL) to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) on a good 737-800 in Main Cabin Extra, and there was no power, minimal leg room and only overhead screens. Compared to Delta’s Comfort+, it is a losing proposition.

American Main Cabin Extra seat on a hotel 737-800 with no power, IFE and smaller leg room than Delta. Photo courtesy author.
American Main Cabin Extra seat on a 737-800 with no power, no IFE and smaller leg room than Delta. Photo by the author.

United’s 737s can have 30-inch seat pitch (that I don’t fit into) and no inflight entertainment. The Wi-Fi has better odds of not working at all being functional, and first class on the carrier’s A319s and A320s have only two or three rows of seats, making your odds for a complimentary Premier upgrade pretty small. I also find the interiors of the United domestic fleet worn and drab compared to Delta’s. Let’s also not forget about the new Delta A220s, arguably the best plane currently flying domestically.

When you look at international fleets, Delta has A350s, retrofitted 767s with suites and A330neos coming onboard at a rather quick rate. The old 767 “coffin class” is finally disappearing. While American’s 787s and 777s are very comfortable, the operational reliability we’ll discuss below limits my excitement for them. AA also still flies 767s with no power and only overhead screens in addition to very worn, legacy US Airways A330s. United’s Polaris business class is very attractive and well done, but the majority of the international premium fleet is still eight-across business or 2x2x2 Dreamliner business.

Long story short … Delta’s onboard product is consistent and a better overall experience than what any other domestic carrier has to offer.

Medallion benefits

I am a Delta Platinum Medallion, and one of the best benefits is eligibility for complimentary upgrades to first class on paid and award tickets beginning 120 hours before departure. This extends to Delta One flights within the US, and even Silver Medallions can receive complimentary upgrades on the same routes beginning one day before departure. I can make same-day flight changes for free and select Comfort+ seats immediately after booking. This year I selected regional upgrade certificates as my annual Choice Benefit, and I almost immediately get a phone rep when I call the Platinum line. I also find Delta phone agents to be the most empowered to help you through tough situations or offer gestures of goodwill to their loyal customers.

At American, only Executive Platinums can get upgrades on award tickets and they’re the only ones to receive confirmed upgrade certificates (System Wide Upgrades). Meanwhile, American makes lower-tier elites acquire and use 500-mile upgrade certificates to score a seat up front on most routes. In my opinion, American Platinum Pro benefits just do not match up to Delta Platinum Medallion, and neither do the perks of United Premier Platinum. When you add in the ability to rollover Delta MQMs for the next qualifying year, Delta Medallion benefits really are the best among the legacy carriers.

It’s worth noting that I don’t see any additional (tangible) benefit to pursuing Diamond Medallion status over Platinum outside of earning Global Upgrade Certificates. Living in Atlanta, even the Diamond members don’t clear upgrades, so I am content to skip those additional 50,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) and to achieve Diamond over Platinum.

Airport experience

Los Angeles Delta Sky Club (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)
Los Angeles Delta Sky Club (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

I don’t think many people can argue that the quality of a Delta Sky Club compares to that of an Admirals Club or United Club. While Flagship Lounges and Polaris Lounges are a great premium niche that Delta doesn’t offer, the average Sky Club across the US — which the majority of lounge patrons visit — is far superior in design, food and drink options compared to those offered by AA and United. Redeeming SkyMiles in Sky Clubs for premium champagne or bourbon (at really great rates, believe it or not) is also a nice luxury perk to have in your back pocket.

Even if you aren’t eligible for Sky Club access, Delta hubs like Atlanta (ATL), Detroit (DTW) and Salt Lake City (SLC) are much more passenger-friendly, both in layout and efficiency, compared to a Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Newark (EWR) or Charlotte (CLT). Delta also guarantees your checked baggage within 20 minutes of arriving or you get 2,500 SkyMiles, and in Atlanta, the bags beat me to the carousel every single time I fly home. Delta gate agents are typically pleasant and not pushing a questionable D0 policy like American agents (an extreme emphasis on a plane pushing back from the gate exactly on time without any room for flexibility). AA agents routinely board early and cause frustration for people in early boarding groups who arrive at the gate to find no overhead bin space or a missed upgrade.

Overall, I enjoy the Delta airport experience much more than the hubs, staff and lounges offered by United or AA.

Reliability

Earlier this year, Delta set a record of 43 days without a flight cancellation by both its mainline and regional carriers. With an added emphasis on reliability (excluding severe weather events out of the airline’s control), I have complete confidence that Delta will get me to my final destination, likely on time. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics for January — June of this year back me up, as Delta posted the lowest percentage of delayed flights at 14.7%. United (22.2%) and American (22.5%) were both more than 1.5 times as many delayed flights (note that this doesn’t include cancelled flights).

And of course, American is just wrapping up an incredibly challenging summer, where labor negotiations with its mechanics along with the 737 MAX grounding have created enormous reliability issues for the carrier. It’s reached the point where I have no confidence I am going to get to my destination if I book an American flight — let alone make it on time. Once details from July and August are added to the database, I imagine the 22.5% of American flights delayed will increase substantially.

As far as United goes, I’ve had particular trouble with its regional carriers to the point that if I must be on time to a destination, a United Express flight isn’t an option for me. If I need confidence that my flight is going to depart and arrive on time, Delta is the way to go.

SkyMiles: A possible detractor, but not for me

Delta’s critics routinely refer to SkyMiles as a strike against flying the airline on a regular basis. As I’ve written about several times, I find tremendous value in the currency, so much that I can never seem to keep any in my account. Is it annoying to never know how many miles an award flight is going to cost? Absolutely. However, I am still able to find great domestic, economy redemption options on a regular basis. SkyMiles are likely not the best for flying international premium cabins, unless one of the SkyMiles sales comes out, which is an important reason we all diversify the points and miles we collect. There are now weekly sales that can yield great value, like this week’s round-trip flights from New York (JFK) to London-Heathrow (LHR) for a staggeringly-low 20,000 miles.

No, that’s not a typo; 20,000 miles for a round-trip award flight from the US to London.

Bottom line

I have yet to meet anyone who is willing to argue with my argument that 1) Delta’s domestic fleet is the best, and 2) the airline is operationally superior to American and United. Sure, American and United miles can be worth more (but not always), but with United’s upcoming shift to a dynamic award chart and American’s move in the same direction, I imagine they’ll both mirror SkyMiles soon enough. It’s true that I live in Atlanta and can fly nonstop almost anywhere I want to go, but there are plenty of hub captives who pursue elite status with other airlines.

Given the pleasant Delta flight attendants, hard-working ground staff, great Medallion benefits and a top-notch airport experience, Delta is the way to fly domestically.

Featured image by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.

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