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?
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…
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.
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
It’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!
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||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 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||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||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.|
|Category||Which is better?||Details|
|Domestic upgrades: policy||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||I’ve had a near perfect upgrade record with AA since late April|
|International upgrades: policy||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.