AA vs Delta Part 2: good upgrades, bad food, and in-flight ads

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.

The point is that I believe that people should favor an airline based on more important factors than their frequent flyer program.  Does the airline in question offer the routes you need to fly?  Do they get you there on time?  Are they comfortable to fly?  How is the service?  How is the food?  How good are their elite benefits?

AA vs Delta

Also in part 1 of this series, I made it clear that it is impossible for me to be fair.  I live near a Delta hub, so Delta flights will be more convenient… for me.  I can fly non-stop on Delta to just about anywhere in the country, but with AA I’ll almost always have a connection.  On the other hand, elite upgrades may be easier for me to score on AA since I generally compete with far fewer elites.  When I fly Delta out of Detroit it seems as if everyone is elite.

The point is that my experience will not be yours.  Still, perhaps a biased comparison is better than no comparison at all…

Recent experience

Since publishing part 1 of this series, I’ve flown 15 segments on AA.  Five of these were really US Airways so I think it would make sense for me to limit my view to the 10 true AA flight segments.  Of the 10 AA segments, 8 were domestic, and 2 were international (my flight to and from Beijing).  On Delta, since part 1 of the series, I’ve flown only 4 segments.  All were domestic.  Compared to frequent business flyers, that’s not a lot of in-flight experience.  But, people keep asking me for an update to this series, so I’ll go with what I have!

I wish I could say that one airline was great and the other was terrible.  If nothing else, that would be an interesting read.  In reality, they were both mostly fine.  Still, you might find some of the details interesting…

Recent impressions: upgrades and economy seating

My four Delta segments were flown with my wife and son.  When our flights were booked together, we missed out on first class upgrades.  This was expected since Delta puts people on the upgrade list based on the lowest level elite in their party.  Separately, my wife (with top tier Diamond status) has batted near 100% on upgrades, and I (with near top-tier Platinum status) have been closer to 75%.  Note that you can ask Delta to separate the booking so that individuals in the party can score upgrades independently.  This is a good approach if you don’t mind sitting apart.

One nice thing about flying Delta as an elite is the ability to pick Comfort+ seating at no extra charge.  Delta’s Comfort+ is, at present, more meaningful than AA’s Main Cabin Extra seating.  Both offer extra legroom, but Delta throws in free snacks and drinks (beer, wine, and spirits), and free premium entertainment (watch movies for free).  So, when flying together, the three of us are pretty happy to sit in Comfort+.

On all of my AA flights, I flew on my own.  For my flight to China, I applied systemwide upgrades (from business to first class) and they cleared in both directions.  And, all of my recent domestic economy to first class upgrades cleared on AA (I missed the upgrade on a couple of short US Airways flights, but that was no big deal).

On one recent AA flight, even though I had already been bumped to first class for my ticketed flight, I chose to standby for an earlier flight.  There, unsurprisingly, I found myself in economy (actually, Main Cabin Extra).   Top-tier Executive Platinum members (and higher-than-top-tier Concierge Key members) seated in economy are allowed a free selection from snacks available for sale, so I happily munched my way through a huge bag of Chex Mix.

AA vs Delta chex mix

Recent impressions: food

Prior to Part 1 of this series, my experience had been that food served on Delta flights had been pretty good, whereas AA food had been marginal at best.  A recent Delta flight made me re-evaluate this.  The food served on my Delta flight was surprisingly bland.  It was edible, but bland.  Luckily for Delta, my recent AA food experience was worse.  The chicken served with my grilled chicken salad was so dry that I could barely eat it.  Every bite seemed to suck all of the moisture out of my mouth.  To make the meal even worse, the bread roll served with my meal was stale.  I somehow managed to force my way through the chicken, but I set the bread aside.

I hope that both of these experiences were outliers rather than trends!

Recent impressions: elite recognition

This is a topic that I don’t really care about, but I’ll mention in case you do.  When flying Delta, almost every Delta employee that I interact with makes a point of noting my elite status and thanking me for my loyalty.  With AA, in my experience, this hardly ever happens.

Recent impressions: pre-departure service in domestic first class

AA vs Delta pre-departure beverageIt’s not unusual for me to be thirsty when I board a flight.  When flying economy, I always carry water on board.  When flying first class, I usually rely on the ready availability of free drinks.  With Delta, this works fine.  Delta always has a small bottle of water waiting for each first class passenger, and they almost always offer pre-departure drink service as well.  AA, meanwhile, does not offer bottled water (a good choice for the environment, I suppose!).  I would forgive that if I could be sure to get a pre-departure drink.  In my experience, though, AA flight attendants almost never offer pre-departure service.  Have I just been incredibly unlucky or is this an AA policy?  I don’t know.  I do know that I now bring water onboard on AA flights even when I’m confirmed in first class.

Recent impressions: onboard advertising

One of the things that I strongly dislike about flying Delta are the many onboard ads for Delta and their credit cards.  I find it especially irksome when trying to watch a movie and I’m first forced to watch Delta commercials.  US Airways certainly was no better with their ceaseless loudspeaker announcements.  On my last AA flight, though, I noticed a flight attendant discretely walking down the aisle with a credit card brochure.  She didn’t announce it over the loudspeaker.  She didn’t try to catch anyone’s attention.  She simply made it available to anyone who happened to see her walk through.  That’s way to do it!

Current Ratings

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) Tie I haven’t experienced a notable difference between the two airlines on this score.
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.  I flew AA first class to China, but it was on their old product that has already been put to pasture.
Service Delta I’ve experienced both good and bad service on both airlines. Usually its somewhere in the middle.  I give the nod here to Delta only because of the lack of pre-departure service on AA in domestic first class (in my experience).
Food Delta Delta provides pretzels and/or peanuts in regular economy; real snacks in Comfort+; and tasty sometimes 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.
Wi-fi Tie Most people report better wifi availability on Delta than AA, but in my actual experience I’ve had wifi available for most flights on both airlines.  I also haven’t noticed a difference in wifi performance (it has been somewhere between barely usable and good enough on both airlines).
In-flight entertainment Delta_logo So far, only one AA segment flown domestically had seatback entertainment (but it was excellent). Delta flights are often equipped with seat-back entertainment. Almost all Delta flights provide streaming movies and TV through your own device (phone, tablet, laptop, etc.).  AA has recently introduced the same, but I haven’t yet tried it.
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.
Onboard Advertising AA I hate being forced to listen to or watch advertising while being held captive on a flight, yet Delta inflicts this punishment on us all the time.  AA recently has been more discrete.

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 AA I’ve had a near perfect upgrade record with AA since late April
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 Tie 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 applied two of my systemwide upgrade certificates to my flight to Beijing. Both were initially waitlisted, but both eventually cleared.

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

Last updated on September 10th, 2018

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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skdelta
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skdelta

Two other things I’ve noticed – minor, but do make me look less forward to an AA flight over DL:
– AA doesn’t seem to provide pillows on domestic or Caribbean flights in F/J — USAir used to have a nice international flat-bed on the SJU route and after the merger they removed their pillows — apparently to bring USAir in sync with AA. DL almost always seems to have the water, blanket and pillow ready, even in the regional jets.
– On a recent 9pm or so flight from MIA, there wasn’t even a snack basket on the AA flight for F/J (policy about night flights apparently). Even the FA was unhappy about it and said that we should complain.

Robert Marin
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Robert Marin

This articles is tailored for people who have money to spend. How bout make an article for non-elite people who don’t fly daily and don’t have any status.

Robert
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Robert

This article is tailored for people who have money to spend. How bout make an article for non-elite people who don’t fly daily and don’t have any status.

Paul B.
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Paul B.

Good comparison – I fly both airlines as well, though predominately AA since Delta keeps gutting their FF program. I am EXP on AA and it provides substantial benefits. The only point of disagreement I’d have with your comparison is that Delta’s complimentary upgrade policy is a bit illusory, since you have to be top tier or near that to actually get the upgrades. Many fewer upgrades go to Silver or Gold elites. As EXP I’ll typically clear 80% to 90% of the time, and an AA Platinum elite has a decent chance at upgrades, albeit through the use of 500-mile coupons.

The one area you omitted where Delta outdoes all the competition is in IRROPS. Besides being very good at on-time performance, my experience has been that Delta is great at handling misconnects and delays. Often I’ll have a full range of options pushed to my Delta mobile app before I even land on a delayed flight. Delta is also more flexible about alternative routings, and offers more liberal routing rules in general. My sense is that Delta’s marketing group is also (currently at least) more aggressive at flash sales, and price matching, continually poking the competition to gain market share.

On the other hand I find legacy AA flight and gate attendants to be generally very professional and dedicated employees, typically offering attentive service and a can-do attitude. Sadly this seems to be changing a bit for the worse with the integration of USAir, as USAir employees seem much more lackluster and blase about their jobs (if I can over-generalize for a bit). Delta flight crews have been good in my experience – gate agents not so much…

Now when it come to FF mileage earning and redemption there is really no contest. AA is superior in just about any category you choose, and has better relations with partner airlines than Delta does. Most gaps have workarounds and availability is quite good, even in the current supercharged market.

John
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John

I have tons of Delta miles I have not been able to use due to non availability of seats. A post on how to use Delta miles would be great

tom
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tom

“How bout make an article for non-elite people who don’t fly daily and don’t have any status.”

Please address the above statement as there are many people who do not have airline status due to earning airline points through credit card applications via advice through blogs such as this one.

Thanks

Jason
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Great to see this comparison. Currently, I’m trying to decide between Delta and American as my primary carrier for my likely air travel in 2016. Home airport is GRR, so I can choose between American, Delta, Southwest, and United. United and Southwest didn’t make my initial cut.

My comparison is for someone whose flights will require a connection 90% of the time and who does not fly enough to earn top tier status, but could possibly supplement via CC spend to bump up to top tier status.

Currently I’m bottom-level elite on both AA (Gold) and Delta (Silver), having earned my AA status thru flying and Delta via status match (and 8 segments flown within 90 days).

This year I’ve flown around 40 segments on AA and 15 on Delta. I’m in the process of gathering my thoughts and plan to blog post about my own experiences and ultimately my decision.

My own personal thought process is to answer the question, ‘which airline should I fly the majority of my flights on next year.’ All the things in your comparison – flight experience, upgrades, on-time performance, food, wi-fi, etc are all part of that equation, but for me, so too is the frequent flyer program. Getting upgrades on award tickets, not having to pay change fees on award tickets, price in miles of award travel both domestically and abroad, ease of use in redeeming miles for desired award flight destinations are all big factors for me.

The likelihood of earning higher status – for me, I’d shoot for either AA Platinum or Delta Platinum – is a big factor as well.

Don
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Don

The reality is that having low tier status won’t get you much–however, i’ve found that instead of AA gold and Delta Silver, Alaska Gold MVP has some pretty good perks on both airlines. You won’t score upgrades on either though

Jason
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Jason

Agreed — generally speaking, low level status won’t get much. However, I think sometimes from smaller airports there aren’t as many elite flyers so the odds of upgrade may be better than one would typically expect. And it can help if the plane has a good sized 1st class cabin relative to the total number of passengers. Recently, I was upgraded on all 4 segments of a Delta round trip GRR>MSP>IAH>MSP>GRR.

On AA, getting automatic upgrade requests as a Gold on flights less than 500 miles is nice, too.

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[…] AA vs Delta Part 2: good upgrades, bad food, and in-flight ads (FrequentMiler). I hate the ads. […]

Jerry Mandel
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Jerry Mandel

I just got Business Class fares for one way DFW to Rome, Italy. AA was 50,000 miles. DL was 170,000 miles.

Thibault
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Thibault

Looking at the comment on Delta enforcing some ads before watching any movie, the trick is to press the button fast forward. it works during the ads as well as in the movie => i skip the ads in a matter of seconds instead of wasting my time !

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[…] In October of last year, I had this to say about Delta’s in-flight advertising: […]