American vs Delta vs United: Who Has the Best Flight Experience?

American vs Delta vs United: Who Has the Best Flight Experience?
Glenn Beltz from Goleta, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All three of the US legacy airlines (American, Delta, and United) operate similarly by providing a full-service flight experience to domestic and international destinations. While each airline have different hubs dotted around the United States, they all serve many of the same international and domestic destinations. For those of us not locked into a mega-hub (looking at you Delta) there may be choice when it comes to how we fly. I’ve flown every carrier extensively and in this article I will share what I love and hate about each airline and name my personal choice for flying. Let’s examine how each airline’s hard product and soft product compare.

What is a hard product and soft product?

This is technical jargon for the two areas that airlines can show off their best (or worst) to passengers. Hard product is things that are a fixture with each airline, this can include things like lounges, hub aesthetics, and most importantly their airplanes. Each airline expresses themselves with the seat they offer, how they’re configured, fixtures in the airplane like bathrooms or suites. These are things that never change if you board the same plane over and over again.

A soft product to put it simply, is the people. Your journey is not just defined by the seat you’re sitting in but by the people who you see aircraft to aircraft. This isn’t just the flight attendant or pilots but the ground staff and everyone supporting the operation. The people are what makes the journey special and and can vastly affect your mood, or make something better if and when things go wrong.

I put most of my emphasis on how I fly by the people who make my journey seamless and friendly. I want the confidence that if something goes wrong with my day, like a delayed flight, that I’m kept informed and that agents dealing with unexpected disruptions have compassion and treat everyone like a human being. This can make and break an airline for me and, as much as I keep an open mind while flying, will turn my mood sour or make me lose confidence the airline will get me going to my destination in a timely amount of time.

Who has the best hard product?

"United Airlines POLARIS (36212584930)" by Alan Light is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

At the time of writing this author thinks that United has the better hard product. What I am looking for when I fly is consistency and an all around product that I don’t have to worry about an equipment swap and get a vasty different seat.

Speaking specifically of United’s Polaris seat I know with confidence if I step onboard a 787 or a 777 the seat waiting for me will be about the same no matter what. There is one exception to this, the domestic configured 777s that are 8-across, but United only sends these planes on one route between the mainland and Hawaii so it’s extremely easy to know how to avoid it. Comparing to their closest competitor Delta, I’m afraid that I can’t say the same.

"Business Class 777-200" by Alan Light is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Delta has been moving to a more consistent hard product but at the moment it’s a hodgepodge of different airliners and no fleet has a consistent product. Delta has two differently configured A350s, one has nice suites with closing doors and the other is an open cabin where you have to crawl over someone to get out of a window seat. Delta likes to advertise and show off their “Delta One Suites” for their aircraft but it’s only on a tiny fraction of their wide body airplanes, these seats are configured on a fraction of their A350s, only their newer A330-900neo aircraft, and have a doorless version on their 767-400s. If you aren’t flying one of those aircraft you’re stuck with the standard reverse herringbone seats in their A330-200s and A330-300s or a standard parallel layout on their 767-300s. The problem is that operations can swap out these planes at the last moment leaving you with an inferior product. For example only a fraction of their 767-300s are fitted with updated cabins that also feature a Premium Select cabin. If they happen to exchange one of the updated 767-300s with the non refurbished 767-300 you could be stuck with an older tired looking seat that will likely look grimy and dated.

Delta's LATAM configured A350 (without the suites)

I want Delta to do better in this department, and they are working to get there by refurbishing airplanes and updating their interiors to bring them up to a consistent fleet. At the moment they aren’t doing it fast enough and I believe it’s hurting them with would be frequent fliers if their first experience with “Delta One” was on an older 767-300 with no privacy.

I don’t have much to say about American here as they are just about to go through an entire cabin retro fit to remove International First Class from their airplanes and return them to a standard Business Class and Economy Class cabin. I will admit that their planes I have been on share the same with United, I can expect if there’s a last minute equipment swap I won’t be at risk of getting a vasty different seat for what I was expecting, but what puts United over the top is Polaris.

Who has the best soft product?

"Flight attendant in new uniform during mid-flight service" by DeltaNewsHub is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Currently at the time of writing Delta takes the cake for me. I have never seen an airline with a more consistent onboard flight crews than I have with Delta. The flight attendants are always friendly, personal, and easy to talk to. I’ve never been on an international flight with Delta and not walked away with a friendly smile to the crew as I was leaving. They tend to go above and beyond with their service and it’s one of the strongest reasons why I keep coming back.

This isn’t to say that my experiences with United have all been terrible. I have had some amazing and very personable flight attendants that made the flight amazing. The problem is that I haven’t gotten that as consistently as I have other airlines. I would have an amazing flight attendant on a short hop from Denver to Atlanta, he walked up and down the aisle and greeted all of us in first class and just radiated friendliness. On the other side I would be on a transcontinental flight from Los Angeles to Newark and have the coldest flight attendant that I think I’ve ever talked to. No emotion and demanding my breakfast order then placing the tray of food without care on my table and walking away, no drink refills, or to be found for almost the whole flight.

I would have flights where I had fantastic crews and the next I would wonder why I didn’t fly a different airline. I get that some flight attendants have “off” days and I am sympathetic to that but you are representing a whole company, for some a person’s only interface with that company and that’s how you treat them? So it doesn’t sound like I am completely bashing United I think they have the best mobile app experience of any carrier. I greatly appreciate their communication during flight delays and explain in clear language what your flight is delayed for, giving you a specific reason rather than just “delayed.”

American is a strong third on this list again, I’ve not had any disastrous crews or crews that left me with the warm and fuzzies, they are just consistently medium with interactions and service. They are in the same category with Delta on flight delays, when communication is key they don’t give many updates and usually their gate agents are not kept up to date on delay reasons leading to frustrating situations where I have no idea if my flight is going to cancel.

So who is the best?

"N27965 United Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner s/n 37815" by TDelCoro is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

As much as I travel I don’t have steadfast favorite, however I personally care a lot about the soft product when I’m flying. I like the confidence that Delta gives me while flying. On the flip side I love United for their seats, they are simply the most consistent and if I need to make sure that I’m comfortable while I’m flying on a 10+ hour flight I know Polaris has may back over an older 767-300.

I find myself flip flopping between Delta and United, both have their strengths and weaknesses but I would pick either one of them above American if I had the choice. I think variety in flying different airlines is a reality check to airlines that you could leave them at any moment and it forces them to strive to do better.

Each and every airline that I’ve flown to date I can find at least one thing for them to improve that could have been better for my journey.

What has been your best or worst flight experiences?