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Ten years ago I took a new job that was going to require me to become a “road warrior”. As a points and miles enthusiast, I was looking forward to the prospect of getting to travel a lot for work, and of course the first step was to choose an airline to maximize returns from the time spent on the road.

From my base in Eastern North Carolina, my options for airports were limited. The closest was Pitt-Greenville (PGV), a quick 20-minute drive; Raleigh-Durham International (RDU) was a good hour and 45 minutes away. Flying out of PGV meant my flights would be limited to US Airways, now American Airlines — but the short drive and ease of use of a small airport won the day.

Eventually, I held Gold status for a number of years with US /AA.

I never had a bad experience in a decade as a passenger with US Airways and AA, and I have no doubt that my status helped. I didn’t have a single lost bag, though my checked luggage did make a round trip to Minneapolis once without me due to weather. I got frequent upgrades, and for a while I was sitting up front on more than 80 percent of the flights that had a first-class cabin. I always got great service.

But a few years ago the amount of travel I was doing began to decline, and I eventually lost my status with AA. When travel picked up again — at the start of 2019, I already had quite a bit of travel on my calendar — I needed to make a choice: stick with AA, or try a new airline. Not having status made me a free agent. One inclined to try out Delta, in fact, after AA switched hardware on the PGV-CLT route, introducing the cramped Embraer E-145 regional jet.

Even with all of its small-airport benefits, PGV would be a no-no for me with those planes. I had started flying out of RDU — which also happens to be a Delta Focus City — a couple of years earlier for what little travel I was doing. Already being in the groove of flying from RDU on mainline jets meant I had options when it came to airlines, and I settled on making the jump to Delta.

A flight from Atlanta (ATL) to RDU and a round trip to Washington-Reagan (DCA), however brief, have convinced me that I made the right move. From the Fly Delta app, to check in, to inflight service and on to baggage claim, Delta feels better than what I was used to with AA.

Check-In

The Fly Delta app sent me push notifications as soon as the 24-hour window opened that I had been automatically checked in. Obviously I don’t have status with Delta yet, but automatic check in will hopefully come in handy in the future. I didn’t have to answer any questions or check any boxes or confirm anything, the app simply checked me in at the right time, which was great. With the AA, I may or may not get an on-time notification to check in for my flight. The AA app also requires me to open the app, and confirm my check in before completing the process and offering my boarding passes. The Fly Delta app is simply a more streamlined process, mainly because there isn’t anything I actually have to do to check in for a flight.

Boarding

I arrived at the boarding areas for these flights to find Delta’s new multi-lane boarding system. AA, with a large number of boarding groups just like Delta, uses two lanes — a priority lane and an “everyone else” lane — which often makes for a very crowded gate area. It’s not a great experience for any of the passengers, let alone the airline’s elite flyers. Delta’s system kept the boarding area in front of the gate agent’s desk open for passengers with questions, or who wanted to courtesy-check their bag. The environment around the gate was calm, not a feeling I have ever had waiting for my group to be called to board with AA. Everyone seemed to have found their lane easily, and the boarding process was smooth and orderly.

In The Air

On those three flights with Delta, I just happened to be in first class, on paid — not upgraded — tickets. The first thing I noticed was a bottle of water waiting at my seat when I boarded. I certainly never had a beverage waiting for me when I took my seat on a short-haul flight with AA. Little things add up.

Along with my bottle of water, I was promptly offered a pre-departure beverage. On AA, this can be hit or miss — it happens or it doesn’t, with no apparent reason. My Delta flight home from DCA was delayed, with a gate change to boot, and I still got offered a drink before takeoff.

Once we were airborne, the flight attendant again returned to ask each passenger if they wanted a beverage. The FA came through the cabin with a pad and asked each passenger for their drink order, returned to the galley, and brought all the drinks out on a tray to hand them out. On most AA flights the FAs work row by row, asking for a drink order, returning to the galley to make the drinks, deliver them and then repeat the process with the next row, often only working a single side of the aircraft at a time. The Delta FA’s approach to service seems to be much quicker than the norm for my time with AA.

Delta made me change my mind about inflight entertainment too. AA’s approach to IFE is that everyone has their own device with them, so why do we need seat back monitors? That more and more common “bring your own device” approach was fine with me.

But having the IFE in front of me meant not having to get my laptop out and open up the tray table to watch a movie. It meant I had a lot more space to comfortably enjoy my flight. Granted, my flights were short hops. But having the IFE at my disposal to waste some time, or simply watch our flight path, without having to dig around in my carryon and break out another device was an additional benefit I didn’t even know I was missing.

Baggage Claim

Because I was flying in first, I didn’t have to pay to check a bag. I never paid to check a bag in years on AA flying no matter my class of service because I had status, and when that went away, my Red Aviator MasterCard still got me a free checked bag with AA.

My experience — and that of other AA frequent flyers I know who fly out of RDU — is that it takes about 20 minutes for bags to hit the belt. To my surprise, by the time I got down to baggage claim on the Delta flight from ATL,  our bags were already popping out. I assumed this was just a stroke of good luck. But a week later when I returned from DC, a ping from the Delta app told me that my bag was waiting for me at baggage claim 3, only eight minutes after getting off the plane.

This is another example of how the Fly Delta app is far better than the AA app. While I can check the AA app to see at which baggage claim my bag is supposed to be, the Fly Delta app simply sends me a push notification when the bag hits the belt and tells me which claim to head to, all without ever opening the app.

I can’t tell you that Delta is always going to have my bag out super fast at every airport. But I can say that knowing they seem to outperform my previous airline at my home airport is a big deal for me.

Earning and Redeeming Miles

SkyMiles and AAdvantage are just about carbon copies of each other when it comes to earning miles. Both programs start with a base earn of 5 miles per dollar spent and increases that amount for those holding elite status. The big difference comes when it’s time to redeem all of those miles for award tickets.

Delta threw out its award chart and now uses variable award pricing that is tied to the current ticket price for the flight along with a few other factors. This means that with a bit of digging, flexible dates, or plenty of lead time, you can find some great value on rewards. As an example I looked at flying from RDU to LAX in June. I was able to find award availability with both airlines. The trip on AA hardware would set me back 60,000 miles for a round trip in coach. The same trip with Delta I was able to find for a mere 26,000 miles. Delta also likes to do “SkyMiles Flash Sales” and even has a dedicated page on its website for promotions and deals for award travel. TPG readers voted Delta SkyMiles as the best frequent flyer program for the inaugural TPG awards in 2018.

It seems that in a number of ways AA is making it harder to redeem those hard-earned miles. While AA does do MileSaver awards, the flights are rarely convenient for travel leaving in the very early morning hours and if you are connecting, normally coming with ridiculous layover times —sometimes overnight — essentially making those awards worthless for most travelers. This means that if you want to find flights that won’t have you headed to the airport before the sun comes up only to sleep in your connecting airport that night, you will be turning over more of those miles for flights.

TPG currently values AAdvantage miles slightly higher than SkyMiles — 1.4 vs 1.2 — but the variable award pricing used by Delta means it’s still possible to find good if not better value for those miles on Delta. Just like the RDU-LAX example I could book two tickets on Delta for less miles than I would burn booking a single ticket with AA.

Final Thoughts

While I will grant you that the sample size is small and that all of these flights were flown in first class, my overall experience was simply better. I’ve never had a bad experience with AA, and I would have no problem flying with them again — which I am sure to do based on my AAdvantage miles balance — but I can easily say that for any non-award travel in 2019 I will be flying on Delta hardware.

For elites who have sunk so much time — not to mention money — into a brand to gain and then keep elite status, the idea of jumping ship might be a bit nerve-wracking. It certainly was for me. The thought of abandoning a decade’s worth of travel towards Million Miller status on an airline bothered me quite a bit, but after my first few flights with Delta, I’m glad I did.

Featured image by Alberto Riva/TPG

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