DL/UA head-to-head: CLT-MSP-SAN 6 Jan and SAN-IAD-CLT 18 Jan

Heading back to San Diego for the final weeks of engagement with this customer, the flight options were limited. I wanted a late Sunday morning departure, but the best I could do was 8:15 connecting through MSP. It’s the latest option until a 4:30 PM departure that arrives close to 10:00 PM and that’s just no good. So here we are.

I still haven’t hit my Gold challenge officially – Delta only started counting when they finished processing the request, not when I actually made the request. In between, there were two full CLT-ATL-SAN round trips, so I’m hoping that this trip manages to finish that off or get them to pull back the start date.

06:30 arrival at the airport, the shuttle bus from long term parking dropped me at the ticketing area at 06:45. A long line for Delta economy ticket agents, but I only waited a minute before getting an open kiosk in front of the Sky Priority lanes. The agent quickly tagged my two bags (it’s a two-week trip) and put yellow priority tags on them. I backed over to the B security checkpoint and there were about 35 economy passengers waiting but zero in the Preferred / Elite line. A quick “opt out” pat down and I was on my way. As usual, it was almost completely useless.

I stopped in the B concourse US lounge with my United Club card for a bagel (no toaster?), oatmeal and coffee. Lounge was busy but fully stocked. No bar tender on duty, as usual for US in the morning.

Gate A8 is one of the former Northwest gates, as this flight was headed to MSP. I’ve been headed to ATL almost every time I’ve been on Delta lately, so I don’t know if this is intentionally still splitting the two former carriers or what. UA still splits – A2 and A4 go to Chicago and Washington (and two AC to YYZ) where A10 and A11 seem to go to Houston and Newark.

The flight was called a bit late (7:55 for 8:15 departure) for preboards (no takers), F and then “Zone 1”. It should have been “Sky Priority” but I didn’t correct the gate agent. On board, I perched in 4A on this ERJ-170 even though my seat was 4B to avoid getting smacked by rollaboards and handbags. Row 4 is the first in Y and where the middle aisle realigns. I was 3 of 4 for 2 upgrades, so I didn’t get it today. On the plus side, my seatmate didn’t show up. Economy Comfort seat with great legroom. We pushed back, were first for departure and were wheels up at 8:24.

F had a hot breakfast, Y had a single pass with a full can and choice of pretzels, peanuts or Biscoffs. The FA’s did not deploy the curtain to separate the two classes. I signed on to gogo using a borrowed account and surfed. Excellent, but not worth $10.

At MSP, it was a long walk from the arriving gate F5 to departing gate G20. No trains and few slidewalks, it took me 20 minutes at a medium pace. Coffee and a muffin from a one-off coffee shop while I waited and watched the kettles head to MCO and MIA.

Another flight where I failed to upgrade (9 of 16 for 8) that was similarly uneventful. We arrived in SAN 25 minutes early.

Before I knew it, two weeks in SAN was coming to an end. We had a change of plans and my flight to AVP was cancelled. By Thursday afternoon, all of the Delta flights for Friday night out of SAN were sold out or extremely expensive. So over to United.com I went, where I found an exit row to IAD available.

Friday evening, I arrived at Terminal 1 at 8:00. SAN still has the backscatter machines and I did my usual opt-out. I mentioned to the TSO that she shouldn’t even be *near* the machines and she said that she’s pregnant. Yep, that makes sense.

United has a club in Terminal 1 for the United fliers to Washington and Chicago, but the former Continental flights are still in Terminal 2 where there is no club. One airline, eh?

It took me a bit to find the lounge as it’s behind you as you step off the escalator. But there it was, with all the usual United amenities – Milanos, snack mix and self-serve coffee plus the usual wrapped cheese. Free beer available at the small bar were Bud Light, Heineken and the local Karl Strauss Brewery’s Amber. I had the Amber and sat for an hour with my laptop on their free wifi.

Over at the gate at 9:40 for the 10:20 departure, I could tell it was going to be slow. 35 teenagers on a school trip to Washington for the inauguration. All with rollaboards and backpacks and all in Zone 4 or 5. I boarded with Zone 2 (I was 8 of 22 for 2 seats). Seat 21A on this A320 is the second of the two exit rows. Excellent legroom in an Economy Plus seat with the tray table in the armrest. 35 minutes of watching the junior kettles and their bags come on and then be removed later, we pushed back 20 minutes late. Light out and a dark beverage/BOB service, the movie Pitch Perfect was on the overhead IFE. No gogo and no inseat power, I worked on my laptop until the battery died and then I had the only overhead light on the whole aircraft with my book for the rest of the flight.

We ended up 20 minutes early into IAD, which was very quiet and very dark at 6AM. I found the D concourse club for a bagel and some juice before heading to the gate.

At the gate is where the trip started to go a little sideways. The gate agent made an announcement that we were delayed because the aircraft was too cold to board and we would have to wait until it warmed up. Fifteen minutes later, the same again. At 8:27, the overhead board reported our 8:17 departure was pushed to 8:29. Finally at 8:50, we boarded the aircraft. I had been upgraded (yay!) to seat 1A on this Embraer 170, so I got to experience the cold Washington weather even though the flight attendant drew the curtain over the door.

The captain made an announcement that we were delayed a few more minutes because the host on the APU starter had cracked due to the cold and we were waiting for a replacement. In the meanwhile, the FA did a pre-departure drink service. Finally, the jetbridge retracted, the door closed and we pushed back at 9:10 for a short taxi to the penalty box. We were informed that due to the late departure, we had missed our landing slot at Charlotte and would be here for 15 minutes to wait. Fifteen minutes later, the second engine started, we taxied to the runway and were off. Another drink service in F, trash pick up and then descent into Charlotte.

Gate A4, so a short walk to the baggage claim which amazingly started only 5 minutes later. That very rarely happens! One of my bags was the second to appear. The second bag was much further back. Both had “Priority” tags on them. Out to the shuttle bus area and even better, a bus to long term 2 was already waiting. That also very rarely happens!

Both carriers provide similar service in the back of the cabin with Economy Comfort or Economy Plus seating. Drinks and a snack. Delta’s wireless internet might be a selling point for those who are willing to pay for it but it’s not enough to cause me to make the switch. The gate agents in SAN should have done a better job with the rollaboards – I’ve heard Delta gate agents make multiple announcements to courtesy check bags but I did not heard that from United.

Summary: Comfortable and safe travel, no real complaints. I’d like to see better passenger handling by United in San Diego. Both carriers did a fine job. A- for Delta and B+ for United.

With as many flights as Delta has from CLT to ATL, MSP, DTW, MEM, JFK and even SLC, they should consider a small Sky Club here.

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Delta versus United: A new Delta frequent flyer’s perspective by Bruce

I have flown fourteen segments on Delta in the last four weeks since I requested that they match my United Gold elite status to Delta’s Gold Medallion. In that time, I have experienced Delta in economy as a non-elite flyer (the status match request took three weeks to be processed) and in the first class cabin (50% upgrades so far). I have also seen how they handle irregular operations.

First of all, economy is about the same on Delta as on every other carrier: zone 4 or 5 boarding, no room in the overhead bins by the time you’re on the plane, small seat pitch, and your checked bags are not the first onto the carousel. That said, Delta’s aircraft (at least the Boeing 757/767, Airbus 319 and MD-88’s) are clean and functional. Longer flights have a beverage service with a choice of peanuts, Biscoff cookies or pretzels. On seven of my eight forty-minute flights between Charlotte and Atlanta, we did not have a beverage service “due to the short duration” and on the eighth, the flight attendants passed out mini bottles of Dasani.

Once my status match was processed, I was upgraded on two of my four segments. On the others, I have received Sky Priority boarding, which is ahead of Zone 1, and when I checked bags, they were yellow Priority tagged and were in the first few to arrive on the carousel.

On one of my trips, there was a ground traffic problem that caused our push-back to be delayed by 45 minutes. During that time, the Captain made announcements every 10 minutes with the status and he apologized for the delay. Arriving late in Atlanta, I missed my connection, which was the last flight to San Diego. Delta gave me a hotel voucher (the agent allowed me select the hotel), $22 in food vouchers, and a small amenity kit of personal care items. I understand that non-elite travelers receive a bit less.

For the replacement flight, Delta booked me in first class (I might have been upgraded, not sure). First class is top notch. On the long Atlanta to San Diego segment, we were served a full breakfast –cheese omelet with sausages and potatoes, a bowl of fruit, a toasted bagel and decent coffee. On a Charlotte-Detroit flight segment in first class, I was offered a pre-departure beverage (I chose a gin & tonic, which came with a squeezed lime), another one in flight (I was offered a third) and the snack basket.

Almost all of my flights had in-flight entertainment. In economy, the movies and TV shows are not free – usually a dollar for a half-hour show or $4 for a full length movie. When I got bored with my book, I watched the free satellite stations  – CNN, ESPN, TNT – and the broadcast networks.

Where is Delta better than United?

Delta’s flights have WiFi, which for many is a big deal but has not been for me. My work does not require that level of connectivity and I can’t justify $15 to surf for entertainment (though Delta’s website is free and they have also had free access to eBay). There are satellite stations on the in-flight TVs. Delta Sky Clubs have better snacks and drinks than United. I am truly sick of the three choices of wrapped cheese and the Walker’s shortbread cookies. (US Airways is an alliance partner of United and their snacks are awful!)

Where is United better than Delta?

I have had a few bumps with Delta’s app for Android where it gets confused with viewing my itineraries. United’s app has more features: you can actually book a flight on it and do basic searches for award bookings. Delta’s app has also gotten stuck a couple of times on loading itineraries and never completing the request. Both have flight status searches, airport maps, and searches for clubs. Searching for flights by schedule and by price is easier on United.com. Delta has hidden the price when I searched by schedule. Channel 9 allows you to listen to in-flight communications with ground control. Delta does not offer this.

So for now, I’m a happy Delta flyer. I would much rather connect in Houston or even Chicago rather than Atlanta. I find Atlanta a difficult airport to change concourses. I found that I needed at least 45 minutes, especially if you’re not in the front of the aircraft. However, Atlanta’s One Flew South restaurant is excellent if you have the time.

CLT-XNA on US Airways by Bruce

Allergy season in Northwest Arkansas and the Mrs. has had it develop into pneumonia and my daughter is also unwell. So when I got a call Thursday evening, I dropped my weekend plans and burned some miles for a last minute flight. Booking the award on united.com was easy and fast – 25000 miles and $5 for a direct partner flight on US. [I’ve since learned that with my Gold status, it should have been $25.] During booking, I was offered the itinerary for $346.10 if I wanted to buy it with cash. I was at the airport 90 minutes later.

When printing my boarding pass, in addition to the usual “destination weather and highlights,” I was offered tick boxes for Sudoku and crossword puzzles (with the answers on separate sheets). Nice touch!

Parking shuttles at CLT are hit-or-miss. Sometimes, it’s quick. Sometimes, it isn’t. I missed the first one that was just arriving when I parked as I had to run back to my car for my phone. The next one was 10 minutes later and I was the only one boarding in the Long Term 1 lot at 21:15. The ticketing concourse was quiet with a dozen or so people in line at one of the US counters and no one elsewhere. Security gates A & B were closed and there were 10 passengers in the line at C. There was no one in the “preferred” line and I was not queried for my status. The TSO scanned my boarding pass, glanced at my ID and I stepped into one of the three scanning lines.

When directed to the AIT, I opted out. The TSO had me regather my items from the belt before they went into the scanner and sit in the chair (penalty box?) for a few minutes until the “male assist” arrived, still putting on his new gloves. He put my two bins and two bags back on the belt in front of another passenger (not very politely) and I went through the magnetometer without alerting. Standard “enhanced” pat down. All told, ten minutes from entering the queue to putting my shoes back on.

I stopped in the US Club with my blue “United Club” card for a drink, but there were five people already waiting to catch the bartender’s eye. I bailed, grabbing a bag of “sweet potato” chips and 6 packets of Milanos. The D/E corridor was busy in the opposite direction with arriving passengers and this is the first time I’ve been down the E concourse in at least a year. [Is that a new international arrivals TSA scanning station at the top of the escalator?] No other changes – the slidewalks were working and I stopped next to E27 at the combined Salsarita’s / Burger King for a burrito. I got to listen to the CLT-AVL being weather delayed at the next gate while I ate.

My flight was called on time with a warning about how boarding works by zone. I was prepared and with Zone 1 on my boarding pass, I was the first to board the aircraft. This gate has one of the “regional jet” jetbridges, so we were not outside. I left my yellow-tagged rollaboard at the door. Seat 3A on this CRJ-200, I was fortunate that a seatmate never boarded allowing me a reasonable amount of comfort.

Our flight attendant was super excellent. Truly top notch. I’ve never seen an FA ensure that ALL of the passengers were paying attention to the safety briefing and he achieved this with humor and a great outgoing nature. “Welcome aboard US Airways to Rio de Janeiro. Oh… wait. Sorry!” and “The word of the day is ‘unencumbered’.” Professional, but engaging. If I had an Above and Beyond certificate, I would have given it to him. Instead, I wrote a compliment on usairways.com. The highlight was his spot on lip-sync to the recording while he demoed the equipment. He got a full round of applause and took a bow at the end.

Lights dimmed, we were third to go on 18C. Half-can service with buy-on-board. Smooth flight, we were 12 minutes late as we had to zig-zag around two weather systems. There was also a slow loop over XNA for some reason after which we landed smoothly and taxied to one of XNA’s new gates. Gate checked bags were brought out with the usual idiots blocking the way in the jetbridge.

Summary: I can’t complain much. I was transported safely and in a timely manner to my destination. US did what they do just fine. If I had had a seatmate, it would have been uncomfortable for two hours. But I didn’t and with the great FA, US gets a B+. 25000 miles for an 800-mile roundtrip is a lot – I could have gone to SEA or SAN for the same “price.” Even a “Saver” award to LHR is only 50000.