5 things I learned status matching from American to Delta during the pandemic
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In a year of more limited travel, the value of airline elite status is reduced by its very nature.
After all, you can’t use loyalty benefits when you’re not in the air. That’s why we’ve seen every major airline extend perks through the entirety of the 2021 status year, with some carriers even reducing elite qualification requirements for 2022.
However, slower travel also becomes the perfect opportunity for airlines to poach customers — and get them into a loyalty ecosystem for the years ahead. Delta did exactly that with its targeted status match opportunity in the fall of 2020.
And I took the bait. As a years-long American Airlines Executive Platinum member, I wanted to get a better sense of the competition. So I matched my American status to Delta, becoming a newly-minted Diamond Medallion through (at least) March 31, 2021.
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With two nearly equivalent statuses in-hand, I took several flights on both American and Delta for work trips and an outdoor getaway. Here were five things that I learned while flying these two airlines during the pandemic.
Delta takes COVID-19 precautions way more seriously
The pandemic has changed the way people look at travel, especially when it comes to flying. While price and schedule remain important factors for choosing an airline, cleanliness and safety have taken on a new importance, for obvious reasons.
I’ve been impressed with Delta’s commitment to COVID-19 precautions, and while not inherently a benefit of elite status, it did convince me to book a flight with Delta instead of the competition. Elite status, combined with safety measures, made it an easy choice.
Both Delta and American have COVID-19 sanitation standards in place, with similar messaging about how they care for passengers during every step of the journey. However, on paper, Delta already does two things better. First, Delta has blocked middle seats through at least March 30, 2021, which limits capacity on flights. Second, it boards aircraft from back to front, limiting crowding on the plane’s aisles.
In practice, I noticed these to be tangible benefits to the flying experience. My flights on Delta not only felt more comfortable, but I observed Delta employees enforce mask-wearing and distancing during boarding and deplaning. Sanitizer was provided on Delta flights but not on American.
The biggest surprise here was that American didn’t nearly have this same level of exacting attention from flight attendants and gate agents. The difference was night and day.
Upgrades are plentiful for both airlines
Business travelers often make up the bulk of the first and business class cabin. With fewer passengers flying for work, upgrades were readily available on both Delta and American. In fact, that meant an upgrade on every single one of my Delta and American flights, including on the premium transcontinental route between New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX).
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I was particularly surprised to see these upgrades clear in advance on Delta for two reasons.
First, with Delta’s blocked seating policy, there are fewer seats available in the first-class cabin for upgrades. In fact, for any narrowbody plane, your odds of an upgrade are reduced by half with only two seats occupied per row (instead of four). Second, I was even upgraded to the highly-coveted Delta One cabin between JFK and LAX — and those upgrades only clear on the day of departure.
These upgrades, as both a Delta Diamond and an American Executive Platinum, show just how few elite passengers were flying in 2020 and how empty planes have been.
Delta has a more polished experience
While it was a small sample size of just a few flights, I was surprised to see how much more polished the Delta experience has been during the pandemic. These may seem minor but in the grand scheme of things, make a significant difference in the flying experience — especially if you take to the skies often.
For instance, Delta emails passengers about 48 hours prior to their flight to notify them of COVID-19 safety procedures. The airline also texts passengers immediately upon landing (and before arriving at the gate) with a simple, yet effective message. This is the text that I received from Delta upon landing in Los Angeles.
Welcome to LAX! To help your flight crew provide a safe experience for everyone, please allow some extra space between you and your fellow passengers when exiting the plane.
Additionally, Delta gate agents, crew and Sky Club staff consistently recognized my status and thanked me for my loyalty. This was notably lacking for all of my flights with American in 2020.
American has much faster, more reliable Wi-Fi
As a frequent American flyer, I had never purchased Wi-Fi with Delta before last year. American has streamlined its Wi-Fi offerings, with almost all flights having a high-speed, gate-to-gate option (at least for narrowbody aircraft).
This is an element of the American experience that I had taken for granted. After being onboard several Delta flights with Gogo 2ku service, I found the Wi-Fi experience to be consistently slower and less reliable than comparable American flights.
However, Delta recognizes this as its Achilles’ heel and plans to lay the groundwork for better (and eventually free) Wi-Fi by partnering with ViaSat.
American has a significantly better premium transcon product
Earlier this fall, I flew back to back on both American and Delta between New York and Los Angeles, a long-time premium route but one that has also seen significant schedule and service cuts during the pandemic.
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American excelled on this flight with hot meals, full service and an experience that rivaled that of before the pandemic. Delta, meanwhile, retains a reduced onboard experience in Delta One — even on its most premium domestic route — with snack boxes, beer, wine and water served only.
While an upgrade is appreciated to a lie-flat bed, American clearly came out ahead. I’m surprised to see Delta remain staunchly against the return of meal service and full catering onboard.
Overall, as a new Delta elite member — and infrequent Delta flyer — I’ve been impressed with the Atlanta-based airline. However, one sore point remains: Delta SkyMiles. In short, I just don’t find I get as much value out of each mile with SkyMiles when redeeming for the type of reward flights I take when compared to other airlines.
While the flying experience during the pandemic (except for catering and Wi-Fi) was in Delta’s favor, I much prefer earning and redeeming American AAdvantage miles. What does this mean for the future of my loyalty to a specific airline?
Well, with travel remaining in flux in 2021, I have yet to decide which airline to throw my money at. For now, Delta and American are neck-in-neck for a share of my wallet. Stay tuned.
Featured photo by Chris Dong / The Points Guy.
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