Delta Declares the Airport Experience the Next Battleground, But Can’t Actually Make It Better

Delta is a little bit better than American and United at running an airline operation. They’re less likely to cancel and flight and more likely to be on time. Their flight attendants are on average a bit friendlier. And they’ve committed to seat back entertainment. On long haul flights their Boeing 777s have just 9 seats across in coach, rather than 10, and they’re making modest improvements to the ‘little touches’ in back too.

The difference, though, shouldn’t be overstated. They’ve still crammed more seats into planes and reduced legroom even in first class. Although American and United have done huge favors reducing their leads, SkyMiles remains poor for redemption. And where Delta leads the differences tend to be modest (though consistent).

Delta has too many Boeing 767s flying internationally with an inferior business class product (and even the new seat won’t match the rest of their fleet). Their base Sky Club lounges are better than United and American clubs, but both United and American have higher-tier lounges for international premium cabin customers which are generally better than Sky Clubs.

Nonetheless, Delta thinks they have the flight experience part of travel down and won, and their CFO declares “the next area of competition in air travel is in the airport.”

However customers want to spend less time at the airport not more time, and the things that create challenges for customers are there because of governments making them difficult to solve. It’s remarkable how much control over their businesses U.S. airlines give up to government.

  • Nearly all U.S. airports are owned and managed by government (in much of the world airports are privately owned or managed)
  • Security is regulated and carried out by TSA at most U.S. airports (a poor practice for accountability, the agency doing security should be its own regulator)
  • From push back at the gate to arrival the aircraft is being directed by the federal air traffic control organization (in much of the world air traffic control is a separate non-profit better able to manage long-term capital investment planning)

United’s C Concourse at Chicago O’Hare

As airports grow they get less convenient. Intermodal transportation centers get built to force passengers to be dropped off and picked up farther away from the terminal. Rental car centers get built off airport. Parking gets moved farther and farther away. Remember that passengers aren’t an airport’s customers. Airports want passengers spending more time on site making retail purchases, not less time, and they want those passengers arriving in their own cars and paying to park.

Airport lounges are nice when you have to spend more time than you want at the airport, but that’s a second best. They’re useful for long transits, especially when showers are offered after long flights.

Clear isn’t a long term solution to the security problem. TSA is a mess, but priority queuing only works until everyone has priority queuing which is why PreCheck can be insufficient at time. Delta bought into Clear for the creepy biometric tech, anyway, rather than because they believed it was going to make the travel experience better. (By the way Clear isn’t permitted in any terminal American Airlines controls.)

Infrastructure projects in the U.S. are too costly to be practical, we’re not actually going to get better airports.

Instead what U.S. airlines are able to do is:

  • Squat on prime real estate. Airlines that use slots and gates are treated has having a property rights in them, they can block out competitors. That was the brilliance of Delta’s buying out much of the US Airways (American) operation at New York LaGuardia, and making plays at San Jose (since they can’t grow much in San Francisco), Boston, and grabbing much of the new space that’s been built in Austin. We should stop subsidizing airlines and protecting them from competition but as long as this regime is in place it’s a winning strategy.

  • Expedite travel for key customers. That’s the most to integrate with helicopter services in New York, offer tarmac transfers, and even private terminal partnerships.

  • Give premium customers better waiting rooms. That’s lounge investment where United and American have focused on international business class customers and Delta has worked to invest in their base lounges.

Some airlines have offered complimentary car service for international business class customers, airport concierges, and even porter service for top tier elites. You can pay for Five Star service at American and United has a partnership with Global Airport Concierge.

The last U.S. airline to really figure out the airport experience though was Legend. Their Executive Terminal at Dallas Love Field offered gate to curb inside of a minute, and there were fresh flowers throughout the facility. Southwest and American colluded to have the government seize their old terminal through eminent domain and turn it into, among other things, a car dealership.

Delta is likely to identify some some incremental improvements to reduce hassle and declare them revolutionary. And if it’s even a little better than the United and American airport experience they’ll be hailed for it.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Gary, does AA not control the main terminal at their DCA hub? I assume not since CLEAR is present there.

  2. Said well.

    Case in point:

    The stunning disappointment that is the colossal “Bait & Switch” by New York’s Imperious Governor Cuomo, where for $8 billion (or so) to redevelop LaGuardia Airport into a “World Class Gateway” befitting the city that likes to call itself the “Capital of the World” instead all that’s seen so far is a much cheaper looking, far uglier than any of the renderings that were promised originally – or even in Delta’s recent press release – “new” airport that looks more like it belongs as either a replacement for the Port Authority Bus Terminal, or 21st century jail across the bay on Riker’s Island.

    Yeah, that’s how much of a disappointment the “new” LaGuardia featuring cheaper than cheap, cheap AF materials, and even worse, interiors that actually do look like they’d belong at the Port Authority Bus Terminal as they most certainly do NOT even come close to resembling the beautiful, bright & airy Terminal & interiors seen in the oh so fake & misleading renderings that New Yorkers & visitors to NYC (and the tri-state area) were promised.

    Oh, and that’s before even discussing the stupid, last century, soon-to-cost $7.75 each way “ridiculous trolley” (aka “AirTrain” as a recent editorial in NY Daily News called it) via Flushing Meadows Park (citified/National Tennis Center) that’s guaranteed to be a (now) $2 billion boondoggle our Imperious Governor who now fancies himself as a “transportation expert” is cramming down our throats.

    Guess the Guv has never been to a city like HONG KONG where the train to Kowloon & Central Hong Kong boards steps away after exiting the customs & immigration hall, while the train arrives back upstairs on the departures level literally steps away via a short ramp that take one right into the departures hall.

    Oh, did I forget to mention one can also check their bags in Central Hong Kong all the way through to their destination and not worry about schlepping them to the airport at all?

    Now, THAT’s what an airport befitting a world class city should be – NOT the crappy $8 billion bus station now seen rising at LaGuardia Airport!

    Just sayin’

  3. 1. “Remember that passengers aren’t an airport’s customers. Airports want passengers spending more time on site making retail purchases, not less time, and they want those passengers arriving in their own cars and paying to park.” The second sentence contradicts the first. Passengers are indeed an airport’s customers as well as customers of an airline.

    2. Trains to the airport that connect to other mass transit and the city center would be a big improvement and reduce travel hassles. Uber/Lyft is great for convenience and avoiding parking fees but mass transit would be even better.

    3. Delta is wise to focus on the airport experience. CLEAR is one of the Diamond benefits I most appreciate. As long as CLEAR is present and open, you get it. Complimentary and upgrade certificates are subject to shrinking availability and the airlines’ control. CLEAR is one more Delta advantage.

    4. Giving airlines more control over airports has pluses and minuses. To the extent an airline controlled operations at an airport it would seek to advantage itself and disadvantage competitors. Airline controlled airport functions would be subject to the same profit-based, cost-cutting pressures affecting all other airline services. Airlines may have a disincentive to improve the airport experience. Improving the airport experience for the general public reduces the incentive for passengers to pay for airline services like Five Star. It might be that the worse the airport experience the better for airlines selling services to avoid the hassles.

  4. I’m not sure the anti-government complaints hold up. Recall the great snow storm of the Northeast a couple of winters ago when JFK was crippled for days — even though the terminals are operated by private entities — while Boston Logan handled the storms smoothly precisely because MassPort runs a good operation and had the necessary tools and procedures.

    I’m not sure what your proposal is for security — leave it up to private contractors? How has that worked with private prisons? Or how has privatizing other types of infrastructure — Flint Water — or highways worked out? We have a right to demand accountability of government and good performance, but privatization and unfetter markets are not the solution to all problems.

    You are absolutely correct about government-created monopolies, but what is the private market solution to overcrowded air space? Slots to the highest bidders? That’s a recipe for cutting flights on less profitable routes. That may make sense for an airline concerned with its profitability, but undermine a city or region’s economic development plans..

    You are also correct to ridicule the airlines’ “complaints” against Middle East carriers. That stuff is absurd on its face when government-owned Chinese carriers are offering flights to Asia for $400 without complaint.

    The biggest thing government can do to make US airlines more competitive is to create a national health care/insurance system like every other developed country. Labor is a huge cost for airlines and health insurance is a sizable portion of that cost.

  5. After 2M miles on AA I am a DL convert. While you see the improvements at DL as marginal I see them as significant.

    1. I can book a Y+ seat / confirmed and not have to hope it’s available after the booking process
    2. Y+ is treated like a business class with free drinks and enough extra leg room to make it worthwhile
    3. Delta Sky Club food service is light years ahead of AA (if I see another red pepper hummus I may have to throw something at someone)
    4. Delta employees routinely and usually act like they give a flip and that they may actually appreciate my business -even without any status on their airline
    5. The “little improvements’ in international Y service are huge when you compare to AA’s -it’s a bunch of little things that make the experience significantly better

    If nothing else, Delta acts like they want to run a decent airline with good, comfortable service. AA acts like they want to be Spirit. Granted, AA premium international is pretty good. But I slept just as well in the DL 767 seat as I did AA’s A330 and better than in LH’s 388

  6. Places where state-run kicks private behind:
    Weather. Look at how Europe handles snow. Private companies will prepare for the minimum, because anything more can be blamed on an act of God.

    Places where it sucks:
    Food, retail, gate management.
    At least in the US, the contract system seems to be set up for companies to bid on monopolies. This is why I find the habit of reviewing food by airline rather silly. If it’s originating in the US, the flight is catered by one of a few outfits. Non-US airlines can bring a few identity items from their country of origin, but most of what they’re serving, at least in Y and J, is made locally, by one of a handful of companies. And it’s garbage.

    Finally, I like Delta’s lounge strategy. In part, that’s because I do a lot of flying in Y, and my experience is that the companies with a tiered lounge approach make their ordinary business/elite lounge crappy so as not to complete with their own first/intercontintental business/super-elite product. It shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, but it is for many airlines.

  7. Another poorly researched, no facts piece of political fake news. Most airports are public. Let’s take the Skytrax list:

    Let’s go through the skytrax top 10 list:
    1. Singapore – government owned; government building new terminal and runway
    2. Tokyo Haneda – government owned (daily activities contracted to 2 operators)
    3. Seoul Incheon – government owned (Incheon
    Airport International Corporation (IIAC), whose shares are 100 percent owned by the Korean
    4. Doha Hamad – government owned
    5. Hong Kong – government owned
    6. Centrair Nagoya – government owned; recently built with $7 billion of taxpayer money
    7. Munich – government owned State of Bavaria (51%), the Federal Republic of Germany (26%) and the City of Munich (23%)
    8. London Heathrow – private
    9. Tokyo Narita – government owned
    10. Zurich – government controlled by Canton of Zürich (23 percent) and the city of Zürich (18 percent).

    So the only private airport is Heathrow, and its operating fees are out of this world.

    The evidence is that if you want a good airport, public ownership is the way to go.

  8. Realistically, the “airport experience” — at least as it matters to “typical” frequent flyers — consists of the following:

    1. Getting to the Airport. Is it easy, reliable and affordable? Not much an airline can do about that.
    2. Basic airport facilities. Is the rental car return location convenient? Are there decent parking options? Is the terminal area congested? Once you get through security, are there enough seats, plugs, personal space, places to eat, bathrooms? Are there enough gates (aka, no bus gates)? Is there room for airline lounges? Again, not much an airline can do about that, at least in the short term without negotiating for a new terminal facility.
    3. Security. Is there enough machines/staff, and is it run efficiently? Again, not much an airline can do.
    4. Baggage claim. Are your bags returned promptly? Finally, something an airline can (sometimes) improve.

  9. This is kind of a strange take on airports and airlines.

    Of course the airport experience can be improved, but we need a specific and measurable “problem” before it makes any sense considering changes.

    If it’s security congestion, we know the flight schedule ahead of time. We also know the throughput of the available facilities, equipment and staffing. The delays are predictable.

    If it’s airspace congestion, we know the capacity of the runways, taxiways and ramps. At LAX, we’re likely going to queue on the ground. At Heathrow, we queue in holding patterns to land. Those queues are used to improve productivity of the facilities.

    Whether it’s a for-profit, not-for-profit or public authority is going to appeal to different folks based on our politics. Sounds like politics for ideology sake.

  10. @Howard Miller

    “Guess the Guv has never been to a city like HONG KONG…”

    …or even Minneapolis. (it’s sort of hidden in the basement, but you’ll find it in enough time.)

Comments are closed.