Is It Time for Me to Start Flying Delta?

While there’s little chance the gap between American AAdvantage and Delta SkyMiles will disappear, it may just narrow enough so that other priorities push me to Delta. I never thought I’d even go through the exercise to see if Delta made sense for me.

Confirmed Upgrades

Delta may now have the best confirmed upgrade instruments for top elites of any airline. It’s at best debatable, and it depends on the details of American’s new program. American used to give 100,000 mile flyers 8 confirmed systemwide uprades valid on any fare and the chance to earn more through additional revenue-based ‘points’ accumulation. They’re cutting that base number to 4.

For the past two years Delta has offered both 4 confirmed systemwide upgrades valid on any fare and also confirmed domestic upgrades. At the end of 2013 Delta went from worst to respectable in confirmed upgrades.

United offers six confirmed international upgrades and domestic upgrades, but United’s confirmed upgrades aren’t offered on any fare – you have to buy up from the cheapest fares, and of course if you don’t clear the upgrade list you don’t get a refund. United makes you buy a(n expensive) lottery ticket for the upgrade with their instruments.

Domestic Upgrades

American, United, and Delta all provide complimentary domestic upgrades to their top elites.

American charges lower-tier elites for 500 mile upgrade certificates, and awards them complimentary based on flying. That’s a system I think is better for lower-tier elites since it means they aren’t competing with every other elite every time when they request an upgrade, and means a higher upgrade percentage as a result.

United and Delta treat full fare as more important than status in the upgrade queue. That was a deal-breaker in the Washington DC market when I lived there, because government employee Silvers on YCA fares would trump a 125,000 mile flyer on a mid-priced ticket. Living in Austin that’s less of a deal-breaker, but DC remains my top domestic destination so it’s a big concern.

(When United adopted Continental’s upgrade algorithm in March 2012 with the adoption of Continental’s passenger service system, those government YCA fare silvers were trumping even revenue-based Global Services members. It didn’t take United long to realize they needed to tweak that.)

Qualifying for Status

Both United and Delta have minimum spending requirements for earning status, but at 15 cents per mile that’s about what an average ticket costs. My business travel keeps me spending more than enough to qualify for status, so this isn’t much of an issue. And Delta lets you buy out of their spend requirement with $25,000 on Delta co-brand credit cards each year anyway.

Product Quality

Delta’s inflight meals are more attractive. They’re putting a lot into their clubs. And of course their on-time performance and flight completion is fantastic.

SFO Sky Club Bar Area.

What’s more, they’re putting in gogo’s new 2KU satellite internet into planes. They’re upgrading planes with older air-to-ground technology to gogo’s latest version. That means the internet is just more functional. American has internet, but it’s largely older generation air-to-ground. That’s the internet which frustrates customers because it’s so slow. There isn’t enough nearly enough bandwidth to go around.

The Miles

Delta SkyMiles is almost a parody of a loyalty program. The question is whether other elements of the airline are good enough to overlook that.

I like United miles for business class awards to Europe and Asia, based on overall availability. I like American miles for international first class awards. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I have enough miles, and flying isn’t even the largest contributor to my stash of miles, that my choice of domestic carrier needs to be overly swayed by that consideration.

However I really don’t value my Delta miles. Not only is availability an issue, and not only does Delta fail to even offer international first class awads, but their partners are of overall lesser quality than those in oneworld and Star. Holding award availability and price constant I’d rather fly Star and oneworld airlines.

What I’m Actually Going to Do

Earning SkyMiles really does hurt. I’m monitoring American’s changes, they’re likely to somewhat narrow the gap but I still expect AAdvantage to be a better program. We don’t know yet what will change on the redmeption side, or what they will do with Delta-style ‘basic economy’ fares (whether a 100,000 mile flyer is no longer a valuable customer on the day they buy the cheapest ticket offered for sale). It’s hard to imagine being worse than SkyMiles, though.

Delta’s upgrade priority – privileging full fare passengers at the lowest elite tier over top tier elites on the rest of fares – isn’t something I’m inclined to go with. It treats value of a single ticket over the value of a customer over the course of a year. This might be a small enough thing to be a non-issue if I didn’t fly to and from Washington DC as my most frequent market, where government YCA fares are so common.

During the last year of Northwest Worldperks I status matched and was a Worldperks Platinum. Northwest followed the same upgrade priority as Delta, and I’d regularly find myself — as a top tier elite — in the 30s and 40s on the upgrade list at the gate after first class checked in full for a Thursday afternoon flight. With DC as a frequent destination, Delta’s upgrade system just won’t work for me.

And living in Austin, their hubs aren’t as well-located for me as American (especially Dallas) or United (Houston). For short haul travel I’d have to fly too far out of the way.

And American’s people, especially in their clubs, take care good care of me. Net net American still makes sense for me to fly based on what we know today. Although I do wish they’d invest in updating their inflight internet.

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, I think it really depends on what kind of traveler you are. I travel internationally a lot for work, and fly business when I do. As a Delta elite, there are some trips where I’m earning 75,000 redeemable SkyMiles per trip. Plus, with SPG Crossover Rewards, as SPG Gold, I’m earning thousands of SPG points each time, since I get one SPG point per dollar spent on Delta.

    There are certainly some trade-offs, though. A big one is that Delta’s J hard product just ain’t that great. It feels particularly dated in the 767s. I have yet to try American’s 777-300er across the pond, but I’ve basically flown that seat in first class on the A321T, and I *wish* Delta had a seat like that. And like you said, while I’m earning a ton more miles per trip, the award chart is a disaster.

    For me, getting those extra SPG points sort of sweetens the deal. I wish Delta would get a new J hard product, but I think that’s a pipe dream given how cost-conscious they seem to be.

  2. Tried about 20 times in my two years as Gold on American. Never once has an upgrade cleared. I live in Dallas, a big hub, but, still, what a joke.

  3. Gary comes over to the Delta. I never thought I would see the day! I know it is not April fools? Since you are great with sweet spots in a program I doubt you will have problems booking some low level awards. Virgin Atlantic has plenty of inventory to LHR, however there is less inventory than with Virgin directly.

  4. Realistically Gary, you’ll pick up WN as your secondary airline because you’ll realize the plethora of nonstops ex-AUS will be tempting to get you home, and on a Monday morning or Thursday evening your upgrade chances on AA aren’t great anyways.

    I did this when I was SFO-based for 5+ years – flew WN on my shorthauls (LAS, SAN, RNO, PHX) where AA or AS wasn’t viable anyways, and WN offers a solid product for these flights.

  5. oops, didn’t mean to straight up imply that you will or boss you around, just that you’ll likely end up WN more and given your good experience this week will take a harder look at them.

  6. @Dave — American has the exact same business class hard product in its 767s as Delta, with the notable omission of seatback video screens. Frankly it’s embarrassing that AA’s newly renovated cabin still requires tablets for entertainment.

  7. Gary – why not credit your Delta flights to Flying Blue? I realize that the fuel surcharges can be a bummer, but surely it’s still cheaper than burning through 550,000 SkyZimbabweanDollars? And then you get access to Air France first class awards. Not sure what the rules are for redeeming Flying Blue points with Air France’s non-Skyteam partners, but their list of partners is pretty compelling – perhaps even more so than Star Alliance. Thoughts?

  8. Agree with Dave’s comments above. Not that I have an option since my hub is MSP so I have to fly Delta but I fly paid international business class a lot with them and it not difficult for me to earn 75,000 miles on a single round trip to Europe. Plus, their on board service is probably better than AA, their food is edible, wines are decent, etc.. On the plus side, I get good options to fly non top from MSP to Europe and Asia. If I cannot fly an European or Asian airline, I prefer to fly Delta among all the US airlines.

  9. I live in a market where DL has more flights and more connections. I am also at about 2.9M with AA and will be getting over 3M next year … if I continue with AA. This year after logging in about 150K EQM I am getting very tired of ending up on LUS planes and connecting through LHR almost every time I go to Europe. If AA ditches AAdvantage as we know it, I will certainly try DL especially if a status match is offered. For now, the only thing keeping me with AA is AAdvantage as almost all my colleagues are already flying DL.

  10. @Mark_S.–

    I’d rather see ALL aircraft coach seats eliminate the seatback entertainment, and instead distribute tablets, if desired. Getting rid of the big underseat boxes would provide more foot/legroom for all pax. Also, it’s easier, cheaper, and less time consuming to repair a tablet than a permanently installed video system in a seatback. Instead, the seatback could be designed with a universal bracket/strap to hold a tablet–whether airline or pax personal item– in place, if needed, along with a USB port which feeds directly into the airline’s IFE system.

  11. I abandoned Delta 2/3 years ago, and then abandoned it’s copycat United for BA – am now GOLD. I also have Alitalia Elite Plus (Platinum) status……..
    just booked a LG/ATL round trip and despite 3 emails and 3 calls, which took me the time it took to fly LG to ATL not ONE Delta person could tell me what Elite Plus benefits I would get on these 2 flights, they couldn’t even confirm a Comfort+ seat… talk about a training issue !!!
    So guess who I will most certainly NOT be giving my hard earned money to back to!!!???

  12. As a self employed person, I’m interested to know what others’ choices would be if you had to buy your own ticket with your own hard earned money rather than go with the company choice – which is often made by a manager that gets “incentivized” by airline sales staff!

  13. @kimmie a – I’m with you on the seat back nonsense … am sick to death of being hammered in the head by px behind me playing games on the screen!
    Whoever invented (or allowed the installation of) touchscreen seat back screens for aeroplanes has clearly never travelled coach and needs sent around the world on night time flights only in coach class !

  14. I’m an AA Platinum who always has to fly coach and usually fly overseas – about 4-5 trips each year. The new bonus mileage (lack of) earning plus the downgrade by BA flights (I have to fly BA sometimes) is going to be like a double punch. The BA rules may keep me in Gold. I will hit lifetime Gold in March with no expectation of lifetime Platinum ever. Once I hit the lifetime Gold, I am going to take a hard look at the other programs to see if they are better for me. I don’t understand why AA would want to entice their most loyal customers to look elsewhere. Over the past years, AA worked hard at building loyalty and trust, but now they are throwing it all away. Dumb.

  15. @GaryLeff

    “I like United miles for business class awards to Europe and Asia, based on overall availability.”

    I can’t find a single non-stop, saver, business-class award from SFO-LHR or SFO-FRA anywhere in United’s calendar. When I have looked recently and there was any availability at all on SFO-FRA, it was on Lufthansa, for the increased milage requirement.

    Given your reference for business class awards to Europe on United, do you see the lack of SFO-Europe saver business awards as an anomaly in what otherwise reflects generally good availability?

  16. Gary,

    Please stay away from Delta. You don’t want to be here. Delta sucks, and you know it.

    It’s bad enough as it is for a Delta DM. If you (and all your devoted sycophants) follow, it will get even harder to get an upgrade on Delta. Like they say, “when everyone’s an elite flyer, then no one is.”



  17. It sounds like a final ultimatum from Gary. Listen, don’t piss your royal passengers and don’t make that stupid move to revenue based.

  18. @Gary

    “west coast-europe business class non-stops are always hard. plenty of ways to get to europe in business though”

    Thanks for your thoughts — are you thinking of other airlines (though UA is the 800-pound gorilla at SFO, and thus what most of us tend to need to use for work, and thus where we accumulate miles), other airports (e.g., OAK), or using a stop-over on the way to Europe? Or some combination of the three?

  19. Is American an airline with planes that (what is the word?) actually fly? The idea that I would choose AA over good old reliable Delta is laughable if the point is to actually get from one place to another. Sure, Platinum status helps. So does performance.

  20. @Sean what I mean is that getting ANY West Coast – Europe non-stop can be tough, though there are some flights I’ve had good luck with like SJC-FRA, LAX-DUB. But that in general if you want to get to Europe in business there are so many airlines flying out of so many international gateway cities in Star ALliance that you’ll do better than through other alliances. You won’t find things easier with oneworld. Although Air France availability for their own members is pretty decent.

  21. Just start flying cheap A fares for domestic on whomever has them, then use miles from cards for your rare intl trips.

  22. Gary, how much do you value AA SWUs at? If not much, why not just fly AA and credit the miles to Alaska? Gold gets 2x RDMs and 75K is 2.75x (assuming you fly exactly 100K). This was actually suggested by someone on FT. You will also have the flexibility of flying DAL, Emirates, etc. although RDMs would be lower.

  23. Gary is confused. He moved from the most powerful city in the free world, to a little Texas town that once was weird and wonderful but is now traffic congested and not magical. And now he also likes Delta Pesos. A lot of bad decisions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *