From Austin To LA And Back: Exploring The Delta Difference In Coach, First Class, And Airport Lounges

Earlier in the month I flew to LA as a favor to Peter Greenberg, to speak at the Travel Adventure Show. I flew out on a Saturday, back Sunday. I didn’t want to leave too early, since I didn’t actually need to speak until Sunday, and wanted to fly back as quickly as possible after I was done. United, American, Southwest and Delta all operate the Austin – Los Angles route and both ways Delta had the schedule that worked best for me.

I pulled up to the Austin airport around 1 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, which is about the only time it isn’t busy. The longest backup I had was for the Analogic machine at the main TSA checkpoint. Those machines are getting increasingly tough to avoid, and it doesn’t matter how short the line is, they always take longer than you’d expect even knowing that they take longer than they should.

Delta Sky Club Austin

The Delta Sky Club is the nicest lounge at the airport, by a lot, and I don’t get to use it often. It was closed before my KLM flight in January. It’s located right next to the Sapphire Terrace.

It’s not a large lounge, but it’s beautifully designed and wasn’t busy at all.

A key feature is the outdoor deck, and it was a beautiful afternoon, but I didn’t go outside on this visit. Instead I wanted to grab something to eat and just stuck to the dining room. I hadn’t eaten lunch, and I was flying coach.

The food was actually good. American ostensibly just upgraded its lounge food, but the offerings are meager. They had Delta as a comparison and have had it for years, yet they don’t come close to matching which is sad. Here there were choices, attractively presented, and the food was quite reasonably. You also eat amidst some decent views.

What really struck me, even more than the food, was the attention to detail that you see on Delta that other airlines skip over. American installed foot grabs on the doors to (some of) their club bathrooms during the pandemic. Delta’s doors are automatic.

Flying Delta Coach To Los Angeles

Since I was just gone for the night, I was traveling only with my laptop bag (even though I brought a suit) so I didn’t need overhead bin space. As a result I boarded about 20 minutes prior to departure. Doors were closed on time 10 minutes out.

The Boeing 737-800, which I’d be flying both directions, is Delta’s least-comfortable interior. I had a ‘Comfort+’ extra legroom aisle seat and lucked into the only empty seat on the aircraft being the middle next to me. So it was fine.

The TVs are old and small, but they handed out free headphones for anyone that needed one and the wifi was free. Expensive ViaSat on American works better, since not as many people are using it. The wifi was actually frustratingly slow.

Maybe most impressive was that the free snacks included biscoff cookies with a layer of cream inside (essentially, a Biscoff Oreo). Though we operated on time, we flew lower and slower than usual due to weather and arrived about 13 minutes late. The lavatories were tiny, they do still have hand sanitizer stations on the plane, and overall I’d say the on board experience on this plane wasn’t much different than with any other carrier.

I thought the most impressive things flying Delta were in its lounge, and that everyone generally smiled.

Marriott Marina del Rey

From the airport I made my way to the Marina del Rey Marriott for the night. The hotel is ‘fine’ but in some ways actually better than the Ritz-Carlton next door. That’s arguably the worst Ritz, a step down even from the Tysons Corner and Pentagon City properties attached to shopping malls.

The one good thing about the Ritz next door is its club lounge, but I wouldn’t have had access to that. The Marriott’s ground floor M Club was actually pretty good, with ample indoor and outdoor seating and plenty of hot and cold options for breakfast.

I checked out of the hotel and headed to the LA Convention Center to speak. It was actually tough to get to with roads shut down around it for the Grammys.

Everyone was lined up for that as I left after the event, and catching an Uber to the airport was challenging (there was also an historic downpour of rain to deal with as well, and I had no umbrella).

Delta Sky Club LAX

There have been tremendous raves for the Delta Sky Club at LAX. It’s nice for a U.S. airline lounge. I prefer the aesthetic of the American Airlines E Concourse lounge at National airport, though of course Delta has (much) better food. I like Delta’s outdoor deck, but prefer the Star Alliance lounge deck at LAX because of the fire pits and of course the United Club has a deck there as well. (The best lounge at the airport, despite having no views to speak of, is the Qantas first class lounge.)

It’s a very good, busy airline lounge but there were no lines to get in and there were seats available. The food options were nice. A few things really stood out.

First of all, the main buffet area featured a taco bar, where a staff member heats your choice of flour or corn tortillas. There were multiple meat options, meats and cheeses sandwiches and desserts. It was a pretty good buffet.

Second, there was more than one buffet, at opposite ends of the lounge. That makes it really convenient because otherwise you’re probably having to find a place to sit, leave your belongings behind unattended for awhile and walk to the other side of the lounge to get food and bring it back. Well done. (No taco bar at the second buffet.)

Third, of course, the deck. And there was a second (tended) bar outside. That made it exceptional.

While I was there guests were asked to go back inside due to the rain, as they were shutting down the outdoor deck. The deck had nice overhead heaters. No rain was getting in while I was there. A lot of thought went into the detail of the lounge.

I noticed the doors to the bathroom opening with a handwave, as I saw at the club in Austin. So much nicer than grabbing at the bottom of the door with your foot.

And I noticed small plates at the buffet, which limits how much each passenger takes on a single trip. That reduces food waste and holds down cost, and of course passengers can come up for as many plates as they wish. However the plates weren’t nearly the postage stamp-sized ones I’ve seen with American.

Overall the Delta Sky Club at LAX isn’t just nicer than the American Airlines Admirals Club at the airport, it’s probably nicer than the Flagship lounge there too.

Flying Delta First Class To Austin

We ran about 15 minutes behind. The inbound aircraft was delayed, but no delay was posted and I didn’t track the inbound closely enough. It would have been nice to wait in the lounge longer rather than at the gate.

For this flight I was in first class, as Delta was selling it pretty cheap on Sunday evening (cheaper than American or United).

I’d again be on the Boeing 737-800. The Delta blue cabin is attractive enough. But it’s not a very comfortable product. That first class seat in the upright position felt more like it was pushing me forward and was uncomfortable on my back. I don’t usually recline, but I definitely did just a little bit once we were up in the air.

The other notable thing about the first class seat, because being uncomfortable on the back, is that it’s mounted to the ground in an awkward way for floor storage – a problem American Airlines had with its new domestic product, but that they retrofitted to fix.

Once again I didn’t need overhead bin space, since I was just traveling with my laptop. The bins on this aircraft are small, and the woman seated next to me brought on a bag that would have fit with a larger bin (but probably wouldn’t fit in a bag sizer, but the gate agent didn’t catch that). She tried to put her bag up in the bin but it just wasn’t happening, and she had to leave the aircraft to gate check her bag.

I hadn’t pre-ordered a meal on the flight, but all three options were available when the flight attendant was taking orders.

I ordered the meatballs just for a taste, and they were ok I guess? I wouldn’t call them good. The strawberry bar was dry and largely tasteless. I skipped the meal after a total of three bites.

Delta, In A Nutshell

Delta comes across as a little bit more professional and polished than other U.S. airlines. Employees seem proud of the product they’re offering. They also don’t seem to cut as many corners (we took a slight delay so that aircraft cleaners could actually clean). People are a little bit friendlier.

Seating is just as tight (tighter than Southwest, of course, in regular coach). The Boeing 737-800 product is worn, and the entertainment screens didn’t feel that premium. Internet was free, and it worked, but not very fast. That will feel premium to many, but not so much to me. The first class food wasn’t good but coach snacks were.

The airline really shined on the ground. American Airlines has built new clubs in a new, much nicer style but they haven’t committed to renovations. American announced upgraded food but the food isn’t very upgraded. You can see attention to cost at Delta, but offering a leading product seems to matter. You can actually eat the food in the lounges, and people do.

I used to wish that Delta had a stronger presence in Austin. I thought I’d earned Diamond status through flying, and the redeemable SkyMiles I’d earn along the way would basically be a throwaway. I’d sacrifice mileage value for a somewhat friendlier, more reliable flying experience. Of course I’d never choose to accumulate SkyMiles over another currency for anything other than flying. (And on this trip, I did not even credit the flights to SkyMiles.) And Delta elites frequently complain to me that first class seats often go out empty with upgrades not processed at the gate.

Unfortunately as they’ve moved towards requiring more to earn status, and pushing the credit card to play an important role, I wouldn’t just need to fly the airline I’d need to spend on their card too for status, and for sufficient access to their lounges as a regular customer. That’s just a bridge too far – giving up way too much value.

So I’ll occasionally fly Delta when it makes sense, credit the miles elsewhere, and use their lounges as an Amex Platinum customer. It’s a good option for trips like this one.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 »

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Comments

  1. A Gary Leff trip report featuring Delta and Marriott instead of American and Hyatt? I’m shocked 🙂

    The post is good and shows exactly why a lot of travelers of all kinds like Delta. For example, a passenger in Economy and holding an American Express Platinum (a high fee card, but with a lot of offsets) gets access to comfortable lounges, good on-board service, good frequencies, and a reliable airline. The product on Delta is usually better, and available to a wider variety of customers. It’s really that simple.

  2. What’s nice about the coach product on DL isn’t just the creme Biscoffs as you mention- but that there are other snacks to choose from (SunChips, granola bars, and nuts, in addition to Biscoffs.) I’m so sick of only having the option of pretzels or Biscoffs on AA (neither of which I ever want to eat).

    Also, it’s a shame you didn’t like the Jon and Vinny’s meatballs- it’s actually my favorite entree out of LAX!

  3. As much as some people – mostly anonymous employees or retirees of AA and UA – can’t stand to admit it, DL offers a higher quality product than any other US airline. It isn’t Asian airline quality but it is solidly better.
    DL has older aircraft that need to be renovated and that includes the 738. DL is doing that.
    DL has invested far more in NEW SkyClubs than AA and DL is renovating older clubs faster. DL did respond to the SC crowding issue and start even more SC projects and those will continue. DL already has the most club space of any airline in the world and their lead will continue to grow. AUS’s SC just happened to be built early in DL’s SC expansion cycle in part because of DL’s commitment to AUS.
    The fact that AA aggressively expanded AUS, flamed out, and AA and DL will now be neck in neck and DL might pull decisively ahead of AA in AUS means that DL thinks long-term and strategic and was willing to wait for all of the pieces to come together.

    Your mileage and loyalty strategy makes sense other than if DL continues to grow AUS and you find more and more of your trips on them instead of AA. For many elite flyers in multiple major cities, DL has done a better job of winning over AA elites than for any other airline combination.

  4. Why compare everything with American Airlines? Who cares about American Airlines any more? Also the other US majors have lavs that are small on the same planes and I find Delta first class seats to be plenty fine on the 737-800. Just looks like you are trying to bring Delta down in anyway possible, except for the lounge which is a huge step up from American’s.

  5. @Tim Dunn
    “Isn’t Asian airline quality”.
    I AGREE WITH TIM DUNN!!!!!
    I’m selling my computer and becoming a monk.

  6. Bolognese is vegan?

    “Bolognese sauce is a meat-based sauce in Italian cuisine, typical of the city of Bologna. It is customarily used to dress tagliatelle al ragù and to prepare lasagne alla bolognese.” Wikipedia

  7. I’m an LAX based flyer, DL Plat for the past two years, and ran the numbers Gary is referring to above after the devaluation and decided the delta (pun intended) in spend that would be required to stay loyal to Delta was not worth it. I did a status match to AA, where I’ve spent 4 mos as Plat Pro and just qualified for Exec Plat.

    All things being equal, I would choose DL, primarily for the consistency of service. I’ve had fantastic service on AA. I’d even say the BEST service I receive on AA is better than the BEST service I get on DL. But I’ve had awful service on AA that I’ve never experienced at DL. Perhaps it’s related to their labor issues, but while service levels vary on all airlines, there is no baseline at AA, while at DL it’s consistently “good” at the very least.

    As far as lounges at LAX go, I actually prefer the Flagship Lounge to Sky Club. While I’ve never had a long wait for the Sky Club and the food is a bit better than Flagship, I’d take the peace and quiet of Flagship over the crowds at the Sky Club any day, even if SC is better designed with marginally better food.

    Lots of other comparisons where they basically both have pros and cons, AA hard product is more modern but bland and tight. DL aircraft feel ancient even on premium routes and wifi is unproductive, but I actually do appreciate screens on every flight. They both have tech that is far inferior to UA, and DL has really sunk in reliability of their premium CS phone support.

    If I were a road warrior who earned status exclusively flying, I’d choose Delta. Like Gary, for me the value gap in earning meager value SkyMiles and 10% accumulation of MQDs on a $650 credit card tips the balance. AA makes it easier and their miles are more valuable. As a frequent traveler who still needs to supplement for meaningful status, it makes it worth dealing with the areas where AA doesn’t match up.

  8. Darin,
    it is precisely the consistently of DL’s service which is why it is preferred by so many business travelers.
    Some AA and UA employees are capable of delivering really good performances but the range of service is far wider than at DL.

    The Flagship Lounge SHOULD BE better than the Sky Club. The proper comparison is the Sky Club to Admirals.

    Please let us know how UA’s tech is superior to AA and DL’s. I have yet to see a thing that UA doe which is consistently superior. and it is still aspirational for UA to have seatback entertainment or reliable let alone high-speed WiFi. DL’s might be slower because it is free compared to AA’s- but I have never experienced it slow to the point of unusable – when it has been on the newer platform.

    and given that DL is set to roll out international free WiFi later this year, the difference will be even more dramatic.

    You are correct that, if mileage and FF program credit is the goal, then DL is probably not the best choice – but DL isn’t aiming for that position because it already wins more corporate business than AA and UA and is growing its corporate base in part because of its growing network in business travel-rich markets including NYC, BOS, and LAX where it already is the largest carrier.

  9. I just tried to book a biz class award ticket one way from the US to South Asia.

    450,000 miles on Saudia (not exactly a premier airline).

    I don’t use Delta unless unless I have no alternative or they have a very compelling price in $ or domestic miles (which is not common)

  10. By contrast, biz class award to South Asia was 78-90K miles one way on United (with decent availability on very good airlines), 70-300K plus on AA (300K basically available daily). And AA sometimes has Qatar access.

    Delta has Saudia, Air Vietnam and (prior to the Ukraine war) Aeroflot as partners. Their biz class availability is limited and involves 6 hr stopovers in Riyadh in the summer and Moscow in the winter (really).

    They sometimes have VA biz access, but charge a lot more in miles than VA. I’ve never seen AMS/AF biz class access.

    SkyPesos!

  11. ‘ growing network in business travel-rich markets including NYC, BOS, and LAX where it already is the largest carrier.’

    Delta is the largest carrier in JFK, but it is not the largest carrier in the NYC area. That is United, which owns Newark.

    Note too that United is big in SFO, AA in DFW, so each airline has business hubs it dominates.

  12. Jon,
    Delta has the most flights at NYC’s 3 airports. DOT data easily confirms it.

    I’m not sure why it is so hard to admit, but UA is no longer the top dog, in NYC. Actually, I do know why. UA people live in their own fantasy land that is detached from reality.

    UA’s management a decade ago walked away from JFK then proceeded to not use their slots to FAA requirements, the FAA dropped slot controls at EWR, low cost carriers came in and mucked up the operation at EWR, UA’s current mgmt team pushed the limits of EWR capacity, UA’s operation melted down in June, UA but not other airlines had to cut back at EWR, and UA is now 15% smaller in terms of flights in the NYC metro.

    and in just about every major market from NYC, JFK or LGA is larger than the market from EWR.

    as was discussed in the article about UA’s supposed new hub, UA has the lowest market share of its hubs of the big 4, gets substantially less domestic revenue than either AA or DL, and is the smallest in terms of traffic domestically of the big 4.

    and specific to AUS, DL managed to pass UA first as the third largest carrier and is set to overtake AA as the 2nd largest carrier. and I didn’t see UA put up even the least bit of effort to defend its position at AUS.

    and Delta’s largest and most significant partners for traffic to the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia are Air France, KLM and Virgin Atlantic. DL does not and has never had a joint venture with Saudia or VN

    You are free to share your preferences. You are not free to make up your own facts or denial reality.

  13. Gary, I’m curious about where you are crediting (“And on this trip, I did not even credit the flights to SkyMiles”).

  14. [ I tried to post this earlier, but it got munged. If it’s not munged, I hope Gary posts it and deletes ay munged entries]

    First, United has the most passengers out of the NYC area

    https://airwaysmag.com/analyzing-new-yorks-largest-airlines/#:~:text=United%20Airlines%3A%2021%20Million%20Seats,at%20Newark%20Liberty%20International%20Airport.

    I’ve tried to book biz award flights to and from South Asia for several occasions for 10 years. The ONLY biz class tickets I’ve seen (at ridiculous prices) are via Saudia, and occasionally VA (but VA’s own rates are much better than Delta’s for the same flight). I think I saw AMS/AF once or twice for the US to Europe leg at ridiculous rates, again.

    I just tried biz award for Del -> the US March 24. Almost all (if not all are via Saudia

    And I’ve tried South Asia to the Far East or Tokyo. It’s almost always via VIN, although I’ll concede the redemption rates are merely high, not astronomical. And Tokyo to the West Coast rates are 440K!

    FWIW, I’m not a United fan. I wish there were more competition out of EWR. I do detest flying out of JFK — and I’m hardly alone in that, even most Manhattanites (let alone those on this side of the Hudson) prefer flying via EWR (compared to JFK). The increased (and now 2 way) tolls make JFK even less attractive.

    My main gripe with Delta is that their international travel award (especially biz) is ridiculously poor, compared to United and AA. That holds for partner flights too. AA gives me Qatar and even Etihad biz sometimes for 70K miles. I can get excellent availability via Lufthansa/Swiss biz to South Asia via United. . Delta gives me Saudia for 450K!

  15. I have never been comfortable in Delta first class. That’s why I stopped buying it. Gary you described the back discomfort precisely.
    It’s weird that somehow it would be different on similar equipment on other airlines – but it is.

  16. Jon,
    links get posts hung up.

    As for NYC, you and others continue to post the number of seats, capacity and boardings and come to the conclusion that UA is larger.
    In a hub market, the size of a carrier is based on what they carry in the LOCAL market – both in terms of passengers and revenue.
    United offers the most seats but carries more passengers THROUGH NYC via connections. UA’s own execs have said their strategy is to reduce the number of connections by shifting connections elsewhere – a strategy to make sense which makes the best use of their LOWER number of flights than Delta. United flights from NYC on average are longer than Delta’s because of a higher percentage from LGA that can only fly as far as the LGA perimeter restrictions. Delta is the largest airline EAST of the Mississippi from NYC while UA is larger west of the big river – and that is true across the country. UA carries more total revenue, both local and connecting, because UA uses larger aircraft on average.
    Delta has more flights and carries more LOCAL NYC passengers (who end or begin their travels in NYC).
    UA has about 15 more mainline flights/day across the 3 airports but DL has twice than many more regional jet flights. DL connects fewer passengers via NYC in part because LGA has a higher percentage of local passengers and DL uses ATL and DTW for connections.
    None of the data that you or anyone else has posted contradicts that – people read data and come to the wrong conclusions about what it says.

    And, as I noted, DL in BOS has overtaken UA at IAD in domestic size but not international – which is exactly how it plays out across the US where UA carries more international traffic and revenue.

    But UA can’t turn that larger international network into larger profits either on a system basis or, on a per seat basis, across the Atlantic or Pacific – which is why UA is trying to build its domestic network but will have to take more share from AA, DL and WN which UA knows will be hard so they are targeting low cost and ultra low cost carriers because UA thinks they will be easier to get – even though most of that traffic is lower yield traffic that is only incrementally valuable to UA and can’t form the basis of new routes but AA, DL and WN all carry that same type of traffic and will fight to prevent UA from taking it because it is equally valuable to those other big 4 airlines.

    as for redemption rates, what you see is generally in line with reality. DL simply does not offer as high of a percentage of its business class cabins for mileage redemption and gets higher average fares as a result. On a system wide basis, though, DL offers a similar percentage of total seats at similar value for redemption. And, again, DL not only makes more profit per seat mile on its international network and also gets more total revenue from its loyalty program so they have the best formula for profit maximization. There are plenty of seats on its international network for redemption but not low mileage business class awards.

    Its non-core airlines like VN and Saudia are good places for cheaper award levels but DL’s primary partners are AF, KL and VS.

    and, the point about AUS is that DL managed to grow its presence there, surpassed UA fairly easily – and yet UA fans and execs keep thinking they will just add a bunch of domestic capacity and everyone else will allow them.

    Internationally, DL’s system is more cost efficient than UA’s which allows DL to compete more effectively with other carriers, esp. across the Pacific. UA’s aspirations of growth are limited by its ability to compete against all carriers. DL has largely not focused on the international market to the same degree as UA but that is changing. And UA still knows that they cannot support a large international system w/o a comparably sized domestic system – exactly what Pan Am figured out decades ago. DL matched UA’s domestic capacity growth in 2023 including in AUS where DL exceeded UA’s growth.

    Gary didn’t say how fares compared for his trip but they were presumably comparable which is why he flew Delta. All other things being equal, DL offers a higher level of service which is part of why DL has long claimed a larger part of the business travel market than AA or UA. Anecdotes of how individuals fly are interesting but they don’t tell the whole story of the airline market.

  17. Tim

    Saudia via Delta does not offer ‘cheap’ or good value biz class award flights at all. It’s 450K one way to Delhi. I can get Emirates First Class (163k Skywards), Qatar biz via AA (70K), Alaska (85 – 170k), Avios (160k) MUCH cheaper. 450K miles to fly Saudia biz class is positively insulting.

    And VN biz awards booked via delta are not cheap either. At best, they are very expensive rates for a third string airline (and typically even those rates are only on routes where delta doesn’t have a leg). US -> Haneda -> South Asia biz class on ANA is around 90K United Miles. The best Delta can do is to get me VN only Tokyo to India for 70K miles. Tokyo US is still around 440K miles on Delta biz class! And most Far east delta biz redemptions use VN or even Saudia, not a better airline like Korean Air.

    7 years back, I saw a delta biz class redemption US to South Asia that was a mere 170K miles + 320$. Hallelujah! Except it was via Aeroflot and involved a 6 hr halt in Moscow in late Dec (really).

    And as I’ve pointed out, it charges far more for biz redemptions on VA flights than VA does itself

    There may be the very occasional partner biz class route (typically one that requires flying out of airports that Delta doesn’t fly to that is not ludicrous. But overall their miles are SkyPesos for international travel, with redemption rates that are insulting. The claim that Delta offers similar value as UA/AA/Alaska do — well, am I going to believe you or my lying eyes which often show me Delta’s regular 450K rates on Saudia?

    I don’t care how much profit Delta makes or doesn’t make on international biz class redemptions. I’m not an investor in Delta, but a (former) traveller.

    I’ll never fly paid Delta international biz or coach. And will almost never fly paid domestic either. I do have around 125K left over delta miles, which I will burn on Domestic travel eventually.

  18. All of the major global airlines are for profit companies. I continue to be amazed at the people that think they can get something that costs an airline to produce even relative to other airlines. They all compete for the same capital. United cannot continue to operate its network at lower profit margins than Delta. They simply are chasing a hope that massive growth will allow them to one day match Delta’s financial performance.

  19. doubtful.

    The woodies come from those that are obsessed with me.

    Gary’s report was objective and accurate.

  20. At this point I’m expecting TD to explain to us how Delta’s premium on board lavatories are the superior experience.

  21. Adding to this thread, I was just checking out biz award flights again.

    Delhi -> NYC
    1 Delta 495000 on VA
    2) VA Flying Club miles, 85K

    Delta should give out amenity kits which include caps with holes in them. The holes are for the ears of the jackasses who would pay 495K for booking biz VA via Delta.

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