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.

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The Frequent Flyer’s Quagmire by VPP

The Frequent Flyer’s Quagmire
Exactly what do you, as a frequent flyer, give up when “status” trumps all else?

I wish, after reading various frequent flyer blogs, I had a quarter for every time I’d read about someone going on a “mileage run” otherwise known as taking needless trips, needless stops, and generally going out of their way in search of frequent flyer miles, “Elite Qualifying Points,” or some other reason to just spend time frivolously, padding the frequent flyer account. For that matter, I wish I had the time I personally wasted doing “mileage runs.” I, too, am guilty of flying from Providence, RI, to Miami, FL, via Houston. In my past life as an employee of the pharmaceutical industry, I did it. I will say I saw a “mileage run” posted the other day that basically took someone from Miami up to Boston, through Chicago and Seattle on their way to Santa Barbara. And I’ve known at least one person who went to Anchorage and one to Milan, Italy, and their stay was less than four hours. The one person who flew to MXP reported being hassled because no one could quite comprehend why he had just landed and was ready to head back to the States. I wouldn’t necessarily have hassled the person from a security or drug running standpoint. Instead, I would have wondered (and hassled) “Why would you waste your most precious commodity you own, time, on something so silly?”

So, there are two questions that come to my mind. First is, “Exactly where are a person’s values when they spend time like this?” and the second is, “When we buy air transportation, exactly what are we buying?”

The first question, for me, is easy.

I know in my life, there are many things replaceable and at least one thing that is not. I can get cars, clothing, money, houses, books back…etc. One thing I know I can’t get back is TIME. Time is finite. The number of heartbeats a person has, the amount of time to enjoy the company of a loved one, of a friend, is finite. It’s not replaceable. It comes and passes but one time. This alone leads me to the conclusion the concept of a “mileage run” is silly. The fact I would miss time with my wife, with loved ones, with my friends, doing something I want to do, is enough to quash the short sighted idea of a “mileage run.” At least one that involves multiple time zones and airplanes.

And for what reason do frequent flyers do those “mileage runs?” For that all mighty “status” that gives them the ability to get that first class seat, or the emergency exit row seat, or the bonus frequent flyer miles. All the while, two things happen. The first, and perhaps saddest, that person loses valuable time. Time that is irreplaceable. Time that they can never get back.

The second, and perhaps, in a strange twist, they surrender and accept a transportation product that is not just imperfect, but often flawed. The “mileage run” flies in the face (if you’ll pardon the pun) of what a person is actually buying: transportation! When I read these blogs and stories, I invariably ask, time and time again, “Are these people buying frequent flyer miles or are they buying transportation?” I dare say, frequent flyer crazies have lost sight of the reason to spend money with an airline!

Southwest Airlines (WN) exploited this and exposed airlines first in the 1990s when their “legacy” cousins had silly and stupid pricing policies, supported by a lack of competition as well as a public that was all too happy to purchase a subpar product, in the name of “status and frequent flyer miles.” WN took their legacy cousins to the hoop, simplified the product, made the value proposition of the product quantifiable, and actually thumbed their collective noses at the big boys. I for one am glad. I love the airline, but that’s not what this piece is about.

With nothing other than a GREAT positioning, WN made their place in aviation known and felt: ”You are buying a seat, a means of getting from point A to point B” and then they over-delivered. Suddenly, they are first in domestic passengers emplaned, and getting bigger and better. And those legacy cousins of WN who don’t understand or believe that “international travel is in their sights,” I would warn you not to be naïve.

And then there are other carriers, carriers like Midwest Airlines (YX) and Icelandair (FI) who, with a very small and very limited reach offer a product, often vastly superior, to their Goliath-like cousins. For less money than nearly any competitor, a person can fly FI from BOS/JFK/YYZ to many points in Northern and Western Europe. In the case of YX, from MKE or MCI, a person can get to a number of places and for the same price, if not a lesser price. My trips on FI and YX include a much more personalized service: better food, better drinks, better seats, better everything. Let’s face it, these little guys MUST work harder to provide a better value proposition, since they can’t compete with “global networks” and frequent flyer alliances. They understand, at the core of their existence, a very good, if not excellent product, must exist. Therefore, they are selling a transportation product, not frequent flyer miles.

And with WN? Oh my goodness, a person can purchase and have a better product in many ways. In fact, I believe the boarding process WN has is the best in aviation. The seat pitch, when you must fly coach, is very good. And let’s not forget, as opposed to a “Barbie Jet” or a God-forsaken CRJ (otherwise known as “Satan’s Chariot”) you get a REAL airplane with space, a friendly and fun crew, and perhaps most importantly, none of those insane $150 change fees.

Yet, my brothers and sisters out there, when offered the choice, opt to fly their Goliath carrier in search of that added segment, or those bonus miles, in hopes of getting that first class seat. And I for one, do NOT get it. It’s almost like they say, “I know it’s more segments, harder to get there, a lesser product, but I’m buying frequent flyer miles, not transportation!” Think about it, for goodness sake.

Now to be sure, I appreciate loyalty. I am a loyal and loving fan of Continental Airlines and I do try to fly them. And I’m loyal to Southwest Airlines and to Icelandair. So I understand loyalty. And I understand “status.” I happen to be a Platinum member of Continental’s One Pass program. I fly enough, I’m elite on DL and US as well, and this year, there’s a good chance I’ll make, in addition, WN’s “A-List” as well as FI’s “Saga Silver” program. So I get that.

And, to take it one step further, “status” does enter into my mind when purchasing. But it doesn’t cloud my vision. Is making Platinum on CO something that I want to do? You bet it is, but will I fly from PVD to FLL via ANC to do it? No way.

Here is a brief list of things travelers, customers, and employers lose as a result of this idea that status trumps all things in air travel.

TIME– The ultimate loss. The traveler him or herself loses valuable time. The employer does too as well. I wonder what an employer would think of their employee flying from BOS to MIA via DEN? Think it’s absurd? Think again. It happens. I read about people doing this type of crazy thing ALL the time. Again, I feel worse for the traveler, him or herself who places this silly value above their time. And I feel for the family and friends as well.

PRODUCT QUALITY – Here’s the thing I’m certain travelers DO NOT realize: “When you put ‘status’ and frequent flyer points as your reason to buy, you surrender, to an airline, the demand for a high quality product. What you are essentially saying is, “I’ll take the points over the actual product.” And folks, WHAT are we buying here? A seat? Air travel? Or frequent flyer points?

MONEY – OK, so if you need to fly SEA-LAX and can do it for roughly the same price via MCI that you do direct, see the rationale above, and remember, “Time is money.” I really wonder, “Is it really less expensive?” I also wonder, “How many people spend more money (and time) flying their “favorite” airline to get the points or be upgraded when they can save both time and money and fly another airline? How many times does a traveler pick an airline that is charging $20 more for the points as opposed to the time of the service? I would be frightened to know that stat. (The airlines, of course, bank on it.)

Truth is, I could go on, but I think you get the point. The “price you pay” for “status” and frequent flyer points is very, very high. Can we put a price on a commodity such as “time” that is irreplaceable? I think not. And is it really a good deal to surrender product quality in the name of “points?” Apparently, for some it is, I would argue, “NO WAY!” And finally, if you lose time and product quality, are you really saving money? I think not.

Are there times when a “mileage run” can make sense? Certainly. For example, if I were within 2,000 miles of getting to CO Platinum, it were December, and I had no more trips planned, might I try to go see my mother in Kansas City and thereby generate the 2,000 EQMs? Certainly. Provided the timing and price made sense. I will assure any reader, I’ve skipped flying my favorite airlines and flown carriers I’m a “nothing” on in order to save time and money. And I’ve skipped my normal carriers, like CO or WN domestically, to fly a carrier I love, like YX. In fact, as I type this I’m on an YX flight from SFO-MCI. Might be my only YX flight this year and I’m sacrificing a couple thousand points and segments I would have received flying CO through IAH, or UA through DEN. But I’m saving my time and frankly, getting a vastly superior product. I can’t put a price tag on my time and being in a clean, comfortable “Signature Seat” makes my time that much more enjoyable, even with the knowledge I very well could miss Platinum on CO.

Finally, because of how I value time and money, I will say, “status,” while important to me, is actually down the list in my reasons I buy air travel. As time is my first and most important commodity, I’m not afraid to “put my money where my mouth is” and buy first class service or fares that are instantly upgradeable, thereby not being at the mercy of those hard to snag “unlimited, complimentary upgrades.” In fact, when I travel more than four hours on an airplane, for the most part, I won’t accept sitting in coach, because without some space, I can’t work. Therefore, I pay the price. And because of that, “status” suddenly becomes less valuable. But in my world, “time” is the one commodity that is priceless. And “product quality,” or the “value proposition” offered is not far behind.

In summary, I find it strange, almost bizarrely troubling how frequent flyers place values on their priorities. It always makes me pause and want badly to really understand how that “extra segment” or that “extra 10-hour trip from CLT-MXP via DCA & PHL” is more important than time with loved ones.

But in the ultimate twist, it really makes me struggle to understand why travelers will accept a subpar product, and endorse it, in search of the almighty segment or frequent flyer status.

Delta Business Elite CVG-JFK-LHR March 8 by J. Augusta

Talk about a perfect weather weekend- with temps in the 70s the whole week it was a nice departure from the cold and grey in London. Of course all good weather comes to an end and it looks like I got out just in time. I arrived at CVG approx 2 hrs before the flight to a very empty airport, got my shoes shined, and skipped the Crown Room in favor of a large Sam Adams and pretzel sticks at Max and Ermas for one last dose of good food. The flight boarded about 30 minutes early- a Trans-Atlantic configured 757-200 (The same plane I took over from JFK that I didn’t write a report on). While boarding I ran into my seatmate from the flight over who was headed back to JFK on the same flight, I love odd airport coincidences like that.

For those who are interested the DL TA 752 feels very similar to the CO ones- although in a bit better condition since they’re newer and they have the leather seats. The seat, although different from CO’s, has a very similar feel as CO’s. One note is that there is no underseat storage in any seat up front. However the recline was great and there was plenty of room in the overheads. I think this would certainly be a decent plane to spend 8-9 hours on up front. Once on board a pre-departure Heineken was in order. F had about 6 seats empty on boarding, but 5 were taken by deadheading crew leaving one seat open. The back was mostly empty too. Talk about a light load for a Sunday night flight- although I guess it was a bit late of a flight to connect to most international flights so that may explain it. We left on time and were #1 for takeoff. Flight time was under 1:40- FA did several beverage runs (Club Soda and vodka for me with some biscoffs and chips). Delta on Demand was at every seat, although the movie selection is the same as on the 767 so I chose to listen to my Ipod instead. We arrived into JFK about 45min early keeping my early arrival trend alive (I arrived from LHR into JFK 45 min early and into CVG from JFK over 1 hr early)—what a difference light loads and nice weather make on JFK flights!

At JFK I decided to kill some time at the Crown Room sipping a bloody mary and making a few phone calls to friends and family (“Surprise, I’m here in the states… but I’m leaving tonight!”—doesn’t go so well with the parental units). Boarding started about 40 minutes before departure- sort of late for a transcon flight- but boarding was completed on time. Note that since Europe isn’t in Daylight Savings Time until later this month most flights were leaving an hour later than scheduled.

The flight was another 763 and also in good condition. Delta 1—always cool to fly the flight #1. I took a seat on the left side today- 5B. Business was full and Y looked to be about 80-85% full. Just an observation but I recommend the other side of the plane as it is closer to the bathrooms and seems to get less traffic. After a brief chat with my seatmate I sipped a glass of bubbly and read through the menu. Unfortunately Delta is much like Continental in that although they rotate their menu- this is the 3rd time I’ve had the same choices in food (including starters). I guess I need to start timing my flights on Delta to be on months that have the other menu rotations. Or maybe I fly too much.

Starters were a cold shrimp with some sauce I don’t like, tomato salad with blue cheese on romaine (served with Balsamic and Ranch), and a tasty tomato soup (my description, not Delta’s!)

The mains (as copied from the website):
• Grilled filet of beef with grain mustard sauce, served with redskin mashed potatoes, baby carrots and sautéed Belgian endives
• Fettuccini Alfredo with Broccolini garnished with roasted tomatoes and hazelnuts
• Cold plate of roast beef and gravlax with a deviled egg and heart of palm
Grilled chicken Ras el Hanout with yogurt sauce, accompanied by sautéed zucchini and leek medley and olive couscous

When the friendly FA came around I placed my order for the chicken. They used to let you choose 2 of 3 starters but gave up on that and just give you all 3 now—which is good because they catered all 3 the other times and usually threw the extra away.

We pushed back on time and were #1 for takeoff.-Another big surprise coming from JFK! The pilot announced that with the 100 mph headwinds we’d most likely arrive at LHR about 1hr early. Once in the air nuts (not hot) and drinks were offered. I decided on one last glass of champagne and then water with my meal as I’ve drank way too much this weekend! I turned on my Delta On Demand unit and started playing around- decided to watch the new Bond film again as since I had seen it once I could afford to fall asleep during it. No need though as my unit kept resetting after like 20 minutes while tuned into any movie (and I overheard others so it seems I wasn’t alone here). I took it as a sign to get some sleep instead.

The meal was served quite promptly. I know I’ve complained about Delta service in some reports last year (they seemed short staffed up front to me) but either I’ve had good crews recently or things really have improved as this flight was awesome in terms of service. I did have my own “dedicated” FA come around often with water refills and extra bread. And others were doing the same all during the service. One of my complaints with CO is the time it takes to serve the meal… this wasn’t the case here. Starters were on our table about 10 minutes after the nuts were offered, and the meal followed directly after the starter. The starters were okay- although the soup was quite good as mentioned before. The chicken was actually very nicely cooked and tasted relatively healthy (At least that’s what I told myself)—so much so that I decided to do the ice cream for dessert. Delta’s sundaes aren’t quite as good as CO as the topping choices are a bit more limited, but it was a nice end to the meal. After finishing my sundae and some peppermint tea I decided to try and get some sleep.

However it never fails, I really can’t sleep on overnight flights. I probably dozed off and on for about the next 3 ½ hours while listening to my Ipod. It wasn’t that I wasn’t comfortable, I just can’t sleep (something about being overwater on an overnight flight just keeps my body from being “trusting” enough to shut down for a few hours- if that makes sense?… I’ve done about 20 of these over the past 2 years and it’s still an issue!). About 1 ½ hrs before landing they started with breakfast service. Unlike CO they didn’t turn on the overhead lights, which allowed people to keep sleeping until the very end (A nice move!). I passed on breakfast since dinner was only about 3 hours ago but did notice how diligent the FAs were to check with everyone within about 30 seconds of them showing signs of waking up. Another sign of a great crew!

As we got closer to LHR we were placed in a short hold giving us a nice circle around the London/Westminster area. We still ended up landing about 1:15 early- making this 4 for 4 flights with early arrival this trip—average early arrival time of approx 1hr. Customs was quite empty and by the time I went to change in the bathroom (no arrival lounge yet…) my bag was on the belt. Luckily my driver checked the flight info and was waiting for me at the other end of immigration. I was actually at my office (40 miles away) within 10 minutes of my scheduled landing time.

I must say I’m very impressed with Delta. The only thing keeping me to Continental is the 2x EQMs they offer EU residents- otherwise I’d probably choose Delta more often as I’d say they are at least on par with CO. When taking a short 4 day weekend break being on time is of great concern and I was a bit worried flying through JFK but Delta (and luck) delivered. And service was great on all 4 flights. As business class flights continue to be dirt cheap (Flights in Nov are pricing at $1,600 round trip) I would highly recommend giving Delta a shot- if you get the luck with JFK traffic and weather you won’t be disappointed. If you don’t get so lucky- don’t blame me. Thanks for reading.