AA vs Delta Part 1: Intro

In frequent flyer communities, you’ll get laughed out of town if you ask which is better: American Airlines or Delta? Obviously, AA is better. Unlike Delta, AA still rewards flyers with miles based on distance flown; AA has a very generous award chart and they continue to publish it for the world to see (Delta has taken away their award charts); AA lets you put awards on hold for up to 5 days; AA lets you book international first class with miles (Delta allows only economy or business class); and AA has a few outstanding partners with which you can spend your miles (Cathay Pacific anyone?).

AAvsDelta

The problem with the above “analysis” is that it is really a comparison of the airlines’ frequent flyer programs.  It has little to do with the airlines themselves, and not much to do with each airline’s elite status benefits. Let’s concede outright that AA offers better rewards for flying: you’ll usually earn more miles and the miles are more valuable. But, here’s the thing… I want to know which airline is actually better to fly on. Which one offers the best in-air experience? Which airline offers better upgrade options and availability? And, which airline offers the best elite benefits and recognition?

I’m currently in a good position to start answering the above questions. I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan which is close to the Detroit airport – a major Delta hub. So, I have had years of experience with flying Delta, but only spotty experience with American Airlines. Late last year, though, I took advantage of an opportunity (no longer available) to earn top tier AA status by undertaking a US Airways challenge: fly 30,000 miles within 90 days to get top tier status (details here). I completed the challenge mostly flying US Airways and with only a few AA flights. And, now that AA and US Airways have merged their frequent flyer program into one, I now have top tier AA Executive Platinum status through February 2016. Since I already have over 30,000 elite qualifying miles for the year, and have booked trips that will earn quite a few more, I’ve decided to fly AA and partner airlines enough this year to re-qualify for Executive Platinum status for 2016 (Executive Platinum status requires earning 100,000 elite qualifying miles in one year).

My expectation is that the act of re-qualifying for top tier AA status will give me enough experience with AA to make some meaningful comparisons to flying Delta. Meanwhile, I will continue to fly Delta when it offers the best routes, prices, and times; and I’ll continue to qualify for near top tier Delta status (Platinum: which requires 75K medallion qualifying miles) through manufactured spend (see: “How to manufacture Delta elite status“). And, my wife will continue to qualify for top tier Delta Diamond status (125K medallion qualifying miles) the same way. This will give me a good view over the next eight months or so of flying with top tier status on both airlines.

A biased view

My observations of the pros and cons of flying AA vs Delta will necessarily be biased by a number of factors:

  • Flying out of a Delta hub: Since most of my flights will be to and from a Delta hub, I will be more likely to experience Delta’s updated aircraft with back of seat in-flight entertainment, new seat covers, etc. Meanwhile, AA aircraft flying out of Detroit will not be anywhere near AA’s top of list for equipment upgrades. On the other hand, complementary upgrades from economy to first class should be easier with AA since, with Delta, I’ll be competing with many other elites.
  • No (or few) Transcons: Airlines have been battling for the lucrative Transcontinental market: flights between JFK and LA, for example. The major carriers have introduced premium cabin overhauls that make these flights similar in quality to international long-haul flights. It would be interesting to compare AA to Delta on these routes, but I’m unlikely to fly those routes anytime soon.  Luckily for all of us, Eric at Travel Codex has already completed this comparison (found here).
  • Flying with status: The experience in flying with top (or near top) tier status is very different than flying without it. Any experiences I have, good or bad, may not apply to those with no status or lower status.
  • Personal preferences: Things that matter to you may not matter to me, and vice versa. For example, I rarely drink alcohol while flying, so if good wine or cocktail choices are important to you, you won’t find that information here. Conversely, I really enjoy the experience of being served a full meal while flying so I will pay attention to which carrier offers better food and food service. If you prefer to bring your own or to pickup food in the airport, then you may not be interested in what I have to say about this topic.
  • History: I have a long history (both good and bad) of flying Delta, but only a spotty history with AA. While I will try not to be biased by this history, I know that people have a hard time doing so. Something to keep in mind.
  • AA / US Airways merger: American Airlines will be heavily focused throughout the year on completing their merger with US Airways.  Usually, when airlines merge, there are significant bumps in the road.  And, if nothing else, AA can be forgiven for focusing more on the merger than on improving the flight experience over the next  year or so.  The result of all of this is that my comparison will be a bit unfair to AA.  Delta, after all, has had years to recover from their merge with Northwest.  C’est la vie.

Comparison Categories

My current thought is that I’ll compare the airlines along the following lines:

  • Flight experience
  • Upgrades
  • Other?

“Other” is a placeholder for other categories that I may (or may not) add going forward.

Current Impressions

Overall, I don’t feel qualified as of yet to rate American Airlines since my experience is limited, but here are my impressions so far:

Category Which is better? Details
Boarding process Tie Mostly similar, but: Delta Diamonds board with 1st class; AA Exec Plats board after 1st class.
Seats (domestic) Not enough experience to rate Newer Delta seats too tight in economy, but very good seats in 1st. Limited experience so far with AA but from what I’ve experienced so far, I’d give Delta the win for 1st class and AA the win for economy.
Seats (international business class) Not enough experience to rate Delta’s lie-flat seats feel cramped (to me) when trying to sleep, and there is little storage space. Otherwise, they’re comfortable.
Service Tie I’ve experienced both good and bad service on both airlines.  Usually its somewhere in the middle.
Food Delta Delta provides pretzels and/or peanuts in regular economy; real snacks in Comfort+; and tasty meals in 1st class.  AA offers large, but not great meals and delicious/warm chocolate chip cookies in 1st; and provides free snacks in economy to Exec Plat customers.
In-flight entertainment Delta_logo I have yet to fly a AA or US Airways flight with any in-flight entertainment.  Delta flights are often equipped with seat-back entertainment.  Almost all flights provide streaming movies and TV through your own device (phone, tablet, laptop, etc.).
Delays and cancellations Not enough experience to rate Delta does provide snacks (and sometimes meals) at the gate when flight is delayed. I haven’t experienced a significant delay with AA yet.

Upgrades

Category Which is better? Details
Domestic upgrades: policy Delta_logo Delta has the edge here because they allow unlimited complimentary upgrades even on award flights.  Also, Regional Upgrade certificates (available as a Choice Benefit to Platinum elites) can be used to upgrade at time of booking or (more likely) increase your chance of an upgrade closer to departure.
Domestic upgrades: success rate Not enough experience to rate Since gaining Executive Platinum status, I’m batting only 50/50 with AA (out of only two flights). I think that my success rate is higher with Delta but I haven’t kept close records.  I’ll do better going forward 🙂
International upgrades: policy AA

Both airlines provide upgrade certificates to their top tier elites that can be used to upgrade international flights booked in almost any fare class.  AA automatically provides 8 certificates to Executive Platinum.  These systemwide upgrade certificates can be applied to anyone’s flights.  Also, AA certificates can be used to upgrade from business class to first class.

Delta gives Diamond Elites the ability to choose 4 global upgrade certificates as a Choice Benefit.  Upgrade certificates can only be used for the member’s own flight and/or a companion on the same flight.  Delta does not have 1st class, so these certificates can only be used to upgrade to business class.

International upgrades: success rate Delta_logo

My wife has had excellent success with her Delta global upgrade certificates. She has successfully been upgraded with 7 out of 8 certificates at the time of booking.  With the one exception she was wait-listed, but she was then upgraded just a few weeks later.

I have limited experience with AA so far: I tried to apply two of my systemwide upgrade certificates to my flight to Beijing.  My flight was booked in business class but my hope is to fly first class.  At this time, I’m confirmed in first for the return flight, but still waitlisted for an upgrade for the outbound.

So, those are my current impressions.  Overall, Delta definitely has the edge at the moment, but I’ll be very happy if AA changes my mind going forward.

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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Pingbacks

  1. […] In part 1 of this series, I made it clear: my goal is not to compare the AA and Delta frequent flyer programs.  On paper, at least, AA’s program has Delta beat by a mile.  And that’s partly because it is on paper.  That is, AA publishes their award chart.  Delta does not.  But there’s more: AA offers significantly lower international award prices.  AA offers first class international awards (Delta tops out at business class).  AA let’s you put awards on hold for up to 5 days…  I could go on, but that’s not the point here. […]

Comments

  1. Very curious to see the results. Flying primarily out of DTW and MBS (which connects me to DTW or MSP), 90%+ of all my flights have been on DL. I have AS, SW, UA, and AA all booked for the next 12 months and excited to get a feel for more airline experiences in general.

  2. Overall great analysis and I look forward reading the results later this year! I agree with Delta Points though that wifi would be a good category to add. I’m used to flying without wifi, but I definitely look for it whenever I enter a plane ever since 2013.
    Another category I’d add would be on-time arrivals. It’s always good to know how reliable and accurate an airline is in getting you to your destination on time.
    When you talk about economy seats, do you mean economy economy at the back of the bus or the preferred/extra legroom economy seats that elites have access to for free?
    Yes I agree AAdvantage is a better FF program but one perk I like about Delta’s frequent flyer program that you didn’t to mention is the concept of rollover miles. I wish AA and UA had it but unfortunately they do not.

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I will keep an eye on wifi.
      Economy: I’ll try to remember to list specifically whether I’m talking about regular economy or enhanced: Comfort+, with Delta; and Main Cabin Extra with AA

  3. I fly out of MSP, a Delta hub. I have accumulated almost 200k AA miles and it is near impossible to use them out of MSP without multiple connections and a horrible schedule. In regard to Delta’s ff program, miles never expire and you can book close-in with no additional fee (but it will probably cost more miles). It’s hard for me to have an unbiased view because of what I experience living in a Delta hub. I’ll be following, to learn of your experiences with both airlines.

  4. Very superficial analysis.

    Blogs typically ignore the most critical aspects of this game: actually redeeming/using miles for a trip you actually want, in conditions that won’t leave you miserable. Accumulating mountains of miles is the easy part (but that’s how bloggers get paid, so of course that’s what they tend to spend all their time on).

    Yes, Delta does some really annoying – even sleazy – things. But despite all the hate and contempt heaped on them, Delta’s pesos are actually a lot more usable than AA miles, at least to many of us.

    American’s miles may be OK for domestic coach – but that’s not what I’m interested in. Try booking a flight to Europe in business class, and see what your AA miles get you. They get you crap. Stunning high fees (because they shunt you on to BA flights) and miserable connections, all designed to inflict pain on you so you will pay double or triple miles to lessen the misery and take a reasonable flight. This is not an accident, it’s by design.

    I’m sitting on over a million AA miles, and I am unable to find any use for them. Yeah, if you want to go to Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific sounds nice. And if all you care about is a coach seat to some domestic or Caribbean destination, maybe that works for you. But IME, AA’s miles are nearly worthless for the kind of travel I like to do. I wish I could trade my million-plus AA miles for an equivalent number of Delta pesos – I’d do it in a heartbeat.

  5. Other minor things to look at as you travel both airlines: tghese have affected my flying experience with both AA and DL domestically: DL offers pillows, even (often?) in C+, which affect comfort on long flights for sure (even on flat-bed international A330s on domestic routes, no pillow 🙁 ); DL lounges — enough food/snack options to make a meal between flights, whereas in AA lounges I don’t think I’ve seen decent food at all (even the soup seems to be served in more restricted hours than DL lounges :-))

  6. It would be great to do an update given recent devaluation by Delta and also a few more months of flying AA as exec Platinum. Also, while you have never held Platinum status, I think a comparison of the second Tier status (AA Plat vs. Delta Plat) would be great.

    My thinking is that given Delta’s recent devaluations, AA stands out as a clear winner by miles. Upgrades should be tie to Delta slightly ahead.

    For AA Plat vs. Delta Plat, Delta probably wins since AA Plat never get complimentary upgrades on flights more than 500 miles except with stickers, which would be about 20% of the time.

    • It turns out that I sort of jumped the gun on this series: my flying travel has shrunken way down over the summer so I don’t have a lot new to add. I should be able to do a new post on this subject in the fall when travel picks back up.
      .
      I don’t see how the Delta changes are relevant if you’re talking about changes to skymiles awards. I specifically left that out of the comparison. My goal is more to see which program is better to fly and to have status with. I’m not trying to debate which airline is more rewarding in terms of miles offered per flight or value of miles for redeeming awards.

  7. Sorry, but “the obvious” which u stated in the first paragraph is far from so.

    Of course AA is revenue based now too. But even before that, their miles have become nearly worthless. U can’t get any decent number of economy or biz seats on any flights. Esp not internationally. AA is slipping far behind. Their name used to be synonymous with value, now it’s clear deltas Skype so are FAR more valuable.

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