U.S. Airline Crackup: The Four Largest Carriers Are Each At A Crossroads

The role that each of the four largest U.S. airlines plays is changing rapidly, upending the fixed narratives that prevailed prior to the pandemic. Delta’s leadership role is being challenged. American and United, laggards prior to Covid, are each focused on strategies that could catapult them to the top or fail. And Southwest Airlines faces a struggle for its identity.

Which Way Delta Air Lines?

Before the pandemic Delta Air Lines was head and shoulders above its major competition. It was the most reliable airline by far. And it worked hard to attract premium customers, even premium leisure customers, but offering a better product. They tried to deliver free wifi in 2019 (it only took until now to deliver) and they even introduced hot towels and welcome drinks in international economy.

The airline is still generally performing better operationally than peers, but the gap has narrowed. Delta does cancel flights now, it almost never used to. And the quality of its inflight product has fallen. They use a story about the environment to justify disposable utensils in domestic first class (ditching plastic for wood, hoping you don’t notice that means metal doesn’t return, and focusing on ‘sustainable indigenous’ amenity kits rather than quality ones. Meals and service have declined greatly. And in their very announcement about reducing plastic waste, they introduced… plastic cups for wine.

Credit: Delta

Delta has used milquetoast political platitudes to mask cost cuts, like its focus on going green – mostly achieved through carbon credits, which offer no meaningful benefit to the environment. It’s almost as though they want you to forget that they own an oil refinery.

It used to be that it didn’t matter that SkyMiles is such a low value program because people chose to fly Delta for the experience of flying Delta and their reputation, combined with several captive hubs, meant they were able to ink a record-breaking credit card deal.

Maybe Delta will recapture its once and former glory. They shedded a third of their staff during the pandemic despite massive government subsidies meant to ensure they’d keep everyone on board and ready to fly when customers returned. They lost tremendous institutional knowledge, and even the architect of their reliable operation. They need to regain a focus on quality across the board – from their operations to their inflight experience.

Outstanding Delta Sky Club, Austin

While this could be restored, there’s an opportunity for Delta to be displaced as the premium U.S. carrier – if other airlines don’t make the traditional mistake of ‘doing what Delta does’ on the assumption that Delta’s executives are smarter (something I had heard explicitly from competitor executives in recent years).

Will The Real United Airlines Please Stand Up?

United Airlines had been a basket case in many ways for decades. A low point came before the Continental merger under CEO Glenn Tilton when the carrier didn’t clean planes or maintain cabins – to the point that they pre-printed apology cards for customers and set up compensation websites that had pre-filled out routine issues like ‘broken reading lights’ and ‘broken armrests’ the airline simply ignored.

It seemed things couldn’t get worse, and that Continental – which had been a higher-quality airline under Gordon Bethune and Larry Kellner – would make things better. But Kellner, who seemed not to want to do the deal, left Continental and was replaced by their lawyer Jeff Smisek. Before Smisek was ousted in a federal corruption scandal he promised customers ‘changes you’re going to like’ while imposing draconian multi-billion dollar cost cuts dubbed in Newspeak ‘Project Quality’.

Oscar Munoz, a talented executive with no airline executive other than his board service, stepped into the role of CEO. He promptly went on leave with health issues. When he returned, looking to make a splash for the airline, he greenlit very high quality products. United’s business class soft product went from mediocre to downright indulgent with quality meals, outstanding bedding, and top notch dedicated lounges.

The new United Polaris business class seat was ‘good enough’. Its primary attribute was that it could deliver a lie flat product with direct aisle access (something competitors already had) without dedicated more space per passenger than their six-abreast Collins Diamond seats. When it was rolled out it wasn’t better than, and in many ways still inferior to, the products offered by American, Delta, Air Canada and Air France. That shouldn’t surprise because the seat itself was developed under Smisek.

Shortly after unveiling this new product, American Airlines released President Scott Kirby and he was hired into that same role at United. United promptly engaged in a series of cost cuts in business class, reducing staffing levels and eliminating amenities. That tracked both with Munoz going too far towards quality, and with Kirby’s traditional role at American, US Airways, and America West as someone who cut costs – and who, if you couldn’t demonstrate direct revenue from an investment in a spreadsheet, wanted little part of it. They were also one of the most dishonest airlines during the pandemic, holding onto customer money and refusing refunds when cancelling flights.

Yet now United is investing in its domestic cabin experience and investing in massive growth. Even before the pandemic Kirby declared quality mattered and (thanks to pilot contract scope clause) introduced a premium regional jet, the CRJ-550, and improvements like ConnectionSaver to hold planes for passengers to keep people from getting stranded.

United was even the first U.S. airline to eliminate change fees on most of its fares (of course Southwest never had them to begin with).

What’s the model of United Airlines under Scott Kirby’s leadership? They’re spending money. They’re offering an improved product, though they’re still far behind Delta and American in terms of business class and inflight wifi, yet they have plans in place to catch up. Up or down, United? Up.. or down?

Is American Airlines Finally About To Grow Up?

This is a strange question to ask of an airline that traces its history to 1926. For years American Airlines has talked about improving its operation and that this is the key to success with customers. Now-CEO Robert Isom was known as an operations guy, yet the American Airlines operation hasn’t been especially especially impressive. Chief Operating Officer David Seymour, responsible for the airline when it melted down in the face of poor relations with mechanics in summer 2019, continued to fail upwards.

When US Airways management took over we started to see real cuts to the business. US Airways-style inflight catering was an embarrassment to crew and an affront to customers, so much that they walked it back (somewhat) in a matter of months. In 2018 then-CEO Doug Parker talked about the only reason they were even adding power to seats was because customers didn’t know what to expect – US Airways customers knew they had to charge their devices before a flight, but American customers didn’t, and while they thought they could get away with not having it they found it was an investment they had to make. (When America West management took over at US Airways they actually removed seat power from the planes that had it.)

The airline densified aircraft, and didn’t even bother doing a mockup of their new domestic cabins before rolling them out. So they were taken by surprise at how much customers – including first class customers – hated them, and how challenging they were for flight attendants. They re-retrofited planes they’d just retrofitted to fix some of the problems.

American Airlines was clearly going down-market. They removed business class seats from planes. Boeing 787-8s are down to just 20 business class seats, and on some routes they’re restricted to sell just 19. The airline realized as far back as 2018 that they didn’t have enough premium seats to sell. At US Airways they offered a poor premium product, from markets without significant premium demand, and dumped it at a discount. They didn’t model for customers actually being willing to spend a premium.

Even now there are members of leadership who believe the schedule, not seats or service, is what American Airlines sells. And when CEO Robert Isom took over he directed employees not to spend a dollar more than they needed to.

Yet American Airlines is… investing heavily in its product. American is introducing business class suites with doors for widebody aircraft, going premium heavy in the number of business seats, and even putting business class suites with doors onto new Airbus A321XLR narrowbodies when those planes are delivered.

Credit: American Airlines

They’re planning to introduce new bedding, amenities and meals with the introduction of their new premium seats. Their new Admirals Club lounge template is downright gorgeous. I could sit comfortably inside the new Washington National Airport’s E concourse Admirals Club for hours.

Indeed, American Airlines charges less for lounge access than competitors and its premium co-brand credit card is also a cheaper way to access its lounges than other major U.S. carriers. Citibank has been surveying new benefits to go along with a higher price. If American would further improve the food in its lounges (beyond meatballs and baklava) and fast track a rollout of this new lounge design which is vastly better than the 2018-era institutional template, I’d be willing to pay more for it.

Currently American’s catering, for all of its lack of attention to detail (I’ve gotten 3 salads on a tray, and the same meal on back-to-back connecting flights) is better than Delta’s or United’s. I never thought I’d say that. Their business class lounges are good. And though there’s been some luck involved, their operation is performing better than it has in the past.

There are risks, in pilot and flight attendant negotiations that have dragged on for years, and in pending changes to AAdvantage award pricing. The courts could side with the federal government and decide that the New York market ought to be preserved for United and Delta, striking down the airline’s partnership (that DOT had previously approved!) with JetBlue.

Passengers have a lot to look forward to at American, from a new business class to nicer lounges.
If American Airlines maintains its improved operations, the DOJ doesn’t manage to undo its partnership with JetBlue, and Devon May isn’t given as much of a voice as his predecessor Derek Kerr as CFO (who had been school chums with Isom), American Airlines could be on a fantastic path to be better than it has been in years.

Is Southwest Airlines Still The Carrier It Used To Be?

Southwest Airlines has been a business school case study: an airline that’s actually consistently profitable, and a corporate culture envied across industries, indeed a heavily unionized company with great employee relations – happy people, high pay, and less onerous work rules than competitors.

Yet much of the Southwests narrative is being questioned after their huge failures over the peak holiday period at the end of 2022. Bad weather exposed gaps in their operations, and insufficient slack in their staffing. Once they began cancelling flights, their IT systems weren’t up to the task of rebuilding – so cancellations spirals, and extended out for several days.

The airline didn’t know where its crews were. They didn’t have a way to get in touch. And they literally built schedules manually for days – a task that they could only manage to keep a third of their flights in the air. This made plain the chronic underinvestment in technology they’ve been making for years.

In many ways Southwest Airlines has still been the underdog shoestring operation of its youth from the 1970s. They’ve seen shortcomings, and made some investments like a new reservations system, but there hadn’t been a fast-track corporate priority to change. CEO Bob Jordan was criticized for barely communicating during the mess, but he’s been in place for only a year and as a result largely escaped criticism for the historical decisions that led to Southwest’s problems.

Instead former CEO Gary Kelly has come under fire for taking a financial manager’s approach to running the airline, leading to its underinvestments. In the mythology the appointment of Kelly was supposed to have been the departure from the days of Herb Kelleher running the airline. Yet people forget how famously cheap Kelleher was! Southwest Airlines stopped serving peanuts in 2018 but peanuts had been closely associated with the Southwest brand for decades. The famous book about Southwest’s style of success was even called Nuts!

Other airlines served meals while Southwest served just peanuts. Some Southwest executives felt they would need to increase their investment in inflight food. Then-CEO Herb Kelleher shot that down, “Do you know what the difference in cost is between peanuts and Snickers?”

Southwest seems likely to get a handle on its problems, and at a minimum what happened six weeks ago was a long tail event that requires a confluence of events to repeat. And Southwest still offers a better product to the domestic coach passenger, which is most Americans who fly.

They give more space than other airlines. Their flight credits do not expire. They don’t have draconian ‘basic economy’ fares. They don’t charge for (up to two) checked bags. And their employees generally seem to like their jobs, and as a result passengers wind up in a better mood. This last is going to be a critical challenge for Southwest to maintain, having turned over a full fifth of its workforce, and where their new employees know the Southwest from the holidays more than the upbeat and positive experience the airline created before that.

The U.S. Airline Industry May Be Prepared For A Shakeup

The U.S. airline industry heavily regulated and protected from competition, and as a result can seem sclerotic. Change happens very slowly… and then all at once.

Each of the largest U.S. airlines find themselves in a sense between Scylla and Charybdis, torn between their pasts and future selves, facing difficult choices. While the industry seemed settled before the pandemic – Delta as the leader, Southwest as the strong profitable airline with a differentiated lower-end product, American as the financial laggard and United as dysfunctional mess – all of these past models may be upended.

United faces the financial headwinds of major capital investment, which American largely has behind them after renewing its fleet. But United is also positioning itself as a premium airline with global reach.

American is a mostly-domestic airline, that can take passengers from anywhere to anywhere in the United States and then connect them globally onto partners. It may become a premium version of itself even.

Delta still has the lead, but has to prove it can recapture the excellence it displayed in the past – though it doesn’t seem to fully realize it has slipped.

And Southwest Airlines must prove it can fill the role that it has in the past, which will also slow down its growth as its focus must necessarily be elsewhere.

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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  1. You can boil all this down to: United ascendant after the nadir of the Tilton-Smisek era; Delta stalled at the top; American stalled at the bottom; Southwest in free fall.

  2. Glad to see that my opinion that DL is living on it’s past accolades and AA is getting it’s act together is not just a fantasy. I clearly see AA’s oneworld partners influence (Qatar and BA) flowing over and DL just falling back to being the DL before NWA made them great.

    UA is the wild card and SWA is still cattle call and not worth writing about.

    Great article and insight.

  3. Well said Tom. Also, Gary, why not get a copy editor, or at least a friend or family editor to do a quick once over before posting. Could clean up errors like “[United] is still far behind United and American in terms of business class…”

  4. Astute. I really enjoyed reading that. One small point of disagreement regarding American:

    “American is a mostly-domestic airline, that can take passengers from anywhere to anywhere in the United States”

    I think “United States” should be replaced with “North America.” AA seems to have the most robust Latin American network, and nearly all OW feed to LATAM depends on AA getting people there.

  5. I find this to be a good article but overall missing some points. Much of this talks about general improvements for premium buyers. That’s great if you are the 5% that have the funds for the seat or your company will buy them. However it’s still neglecting the fact that the large majority of consumers get screwed regularly (and without a premium lounge).

    Nowhere else in the world could consumer products be sold and serviced so terribly and continue to get away with it. Boasting improvements for premium customers is a terrible mask for regularly failing at its core product – Getting customers too and from a place – when they said they would.

    I agree with the article in many respects but we should not be ignoring about all the mistakes they continue to make in recent years. Minor improvements does not count as fixing their business.

  6. Just this morning I asked to status match from DL 360/Diamond to AA CK/EP, telling AA that they had clearly moved ahead of DL on premium service and overall execution. This after many years of near 100% loyalty to DL. I know many 360/Diamonds feel DL has gone way too down market, in addition to weaker execution vs. historically. And the DL club experience is just intolerable.

  7. Obviously this is an opinion piece and others will respond accordingly but you, Gary, draw conclusions based on the few anecdotes that you manage to pull out and build your thesis around when those may or may not be the issues that matter.
    The airline industry is still recovering from covid and restructuring its strategies as a result of them. There are a host of things that the covid issue ushered in that aren’t related to covid but have to be addressed.
    No airline’s product is defined by how much they spend but how well they deliver service; the airline industry is a service industry.
    Delta’s DNA of being a customer and employee focused airline hasn’t changed. Delta has demonstrated an ability to think strategically years ahead of its competitors – ie the shift to mainline from regional aircraft and the refinery and fuel availability but Delta’s core essence of being financially conservative and being a top performer hasn’t changed.
    Southwest’s DNA of being customer friendly hasn’t changed. Their execution of their historic employee and customer engagement strategies has failed badly. The success of WN will be if they can fix their culture and technology problems which are decades behind the times and unmatched to their current size.
    American’s biggest advancements have come recently because they have quit trying to fly to places where they are sexy to flying where they need to fly to make money. All of their other issues are driven by their profitability or lack thereof. They need a cultural mindset change but they can do that to become more upscale and not impose the minimum on the majority of their passengers.
    United is simply spending money to fix their lack of spending. They aren’t spending any money that will give them a real strategic advantage but to fix problems. No one recognizes that UA is spending money the way AA did but thinking that UA will end up differently.

    Don’t read too much into what happens even in one or two quarters

  8. @Tim Dunn “Delta’s DNA of being a customer and employee focused airline hasn’t changed.”

    That’s your opinion but they’ve turned over a third of their staff and lost their ops genius. Their recent performance suggests otherwise, still somewhat better than competitors but no longer leaps and bounds better.

    Whether they get the magic back is something we have to wait and see – which is my entire point.

  9. I am not sure which AA you are flying but the one I flew to London in December-Jan was horrible. The seats in business class were an old version, the food was inedible and had colors that nobody ever wants to see.

  10. United is basically USA flag carrier at this point given AA’s week longhaul flying. They have the most affluent hubs. They just need to fix J catering so that premium leisure travelers stop booking foreign airlines

  11. Delta is in a free fall and it’s food has slipped to 7/11 on type

    Lodge is nice but you can’t enter if flight is 3 hours or later

    The lodge food is the same B & B chicken day after day

    The airline staff is going down hill also as they give you one service and disappear just like in the move catch me if you can

    Southwest well even greyhound experience is gotten better so they remain at the bottom with American

    United well it fell from grace after the Continental merger as number one Continental could not stop last place United from taking it down

    Service is worthless and if the aircraft is aged you’d think your flying a third world bus

    Service well it can’t get worst than SW I hope

    So when you fly remember it’s a experience normally a bad one but now and then you get someone who goes beyond and it’s once again fun

  12. This is an excellent article. Thanks, Gary! I agree with comment from reader Fly Guy. It is so true in case of United.

  13. As someone who flew 60+ domestic segments on AA last year, I have to say I have seen a lot of improvement. Almost every flight has been on time or minimally delayed. The one time I experienced a mechanical issue causing the equipment to be pulled from service they brought in a replacement air craft in 90 minutes which was shocking to me. The food in first class is much improved versus the last few years and AA staff that I encounter are consistently friendly and helpful. AA deserves a lot of credit in my book for stepping up.

  14. Flew Delta FC from JFK to TLV. Honestly not impressed. Flight attendants were attentive. Have had better experience with international carriers. Trying to fly to sjc from ord and all I see is price gouging. The new term for the 20’s in pricing. Guess they figure silicon valley companies do care how much. The airlines cater to the front cabin.

    Return from TLV via Virgin Atlantic tp LHR was nice. Quite cabin and great staff. Then delta LHR to Atlanta. Sat in the cabin behind FC. Noisiest 767 ever. The flight attendants were focused on their tasks and told people to just wait until they get to whatever it was. Should I mention the age {65 plus} of most of the staff and would hate to depend on them in an emergency. Bad seta, almost mediocre food, loud and bad attitude. Other than that, well we did land safely.

  15. I think a lot of people who can choose their airline avoid United because it is so cheap on basics like food. Their catering and food quality is abysmal vs any other airline that I fly.

    American internationally is a good airline in business class but domestically feels like a LCC sometimes. And they do really stupid things like when they have issues with a routing will take a customer who paid for business class and without asking move them to an economy seat and routing forcing a customer to call them and to duke it out with the occasional clueless agent that 1. this is not ok and 2. that you would like to get back to a us domestic / first or international business class seat. If they agent is really clueless they won’t understand what your issue is and not until they check with a supervisor will they understand that you have a right to get the ticket you pay for. If you don’t have status with American that can be a two hour phone call! This has happened more than once for me in two years so I’m careful to avoid them when I can. Fortunately BA has lots of direct flights to where I need to go in the US from Europe and Sky Team has plenty of options too and Delta as a domestic connection is a lot more reliable than American. I do like the One World lounges a lot so this is a shame.

  16. @Fly Guy

    “Nowhere else in the world could consumer products be sold and serviced so terribly and continue to get away with it.”

    You clearly have never flown Ryan Air.

  17. Your not speaking for most people who detest AA & comment about their awful experiences on these blogs. You really love AA, we get it. Bad is bad no matter what you write about it. It makes one question your authenticity.

  18. Delta is garbage and always has been garbage if you don’t have status. AA…I have no idea why they granted me Gold with them last year unprompted. Guess that was a side effect of their AAdvantage changes. It runs out next month and I won’t miss it. United is my main airline (of course, I fly out of ORD and when the only other option is AA…), and I have to admit that I’ve seen improvement. I got to fly on one of their newly-delivered narrowbodies that was fully equipped with Bluetooth-enabled IFE and the new cabin, and it was a very nice place to be. But the food has been at such a nadir that I’m incredibly happy with their rotating burgers in the cheap seats; at last, something edible. Southwest, I refuse to fly again after they abandoned me in Islip one time.

    Kirby just has to follow through with all aspects of United Next. With competition that are flaming dumpster fires in progress, United has a chance to take over, and I couldn’t be happier if they do.

  19. Gary,
    you would like to come up with a million tiny reasons to think that Delta has lost their operational leadership but any objective measure says you are wrong.
    Delta is still at the top of the list on every measurable operational metric that the DOT measures and in as good or better position relative to the industry than they have been in 5 years.
    Losing 1/3 of their people doesn’t mean that they have lost anything.

    And you and others continue to extrapolate out a dozen things that have occurred for a couple quarters and think it is indicative of the future when it simply is not.

    If AA lost its leadership because of the massive amount of debt that they took out, then there is no reason to think that UA is exempt from the same fate.
    UA is fixing a dozen major strategic issues like fleet age and overdependence on regional jets which other airlines already dealt with. Spending tens of billions doesn’t make them a leader.

    And United has admitted – as I have pointed out – that they flew lots of routes esp. to Asia that were not profitable just as AA did.
    They are not any more the flag carrier based on flying more capacity to the same cities that other airlines fly and then add a few more routes that they lose money on or are subsidized.

    The notion that anything of significance is happening now that predicts the long term future of the airline industry is false other than that the big 3 as a whole are stronger relative to the low cost carriers than they have been in decades.

  20. Wife and I fly DL when flying down south and United every where else. We both remarked on our last trip to BHM how DL is not as efficient as it once was. Glad I’m not alone in feeling that way.

  21. Delta has old aircraft!
    Still fly 757,767 and old 717s.
    AA has the youngest fleet.
    AA HAS debt due to new aircraft.
    However, AA HAS very good terms.
    AA PREFERED THE 787,797.

  22. @Tim Dunn – you’re once again engaging with non-sequiturs. I say “Delta is still leading operationally, but their performance isn’t as good as it used to be and the distance between them and other carriers has narrowed.” And your response is “Delta is still leading operationally.” Ok.

  23. @ Gary — Just buy first/business and close your eyes. In the US, it is all the same lame experience, just with more space than economy.

  24. @DeltaDunn may not have the benefit of historical context to know that DL has had it’s run.

    AA in the late 80s/mid 90s was unbeatable. Crandall led a revolution that took the world and industry by storm.

    UA beat them back from the mid-90s to the dotcom crash. Rhapsody in blue was on everyone’s lips, especially in San Francisco.

    In the 2010s, led by the tough-as-nails (and respected) gang from MSP, DL transformed itself from the “business lady’s airline” of the 60s to what it was 2-3 years ago.

    Every one of those airlines didn’t know it was over until it was. And then it emphatically was. The torch is being passed before us. Who will grab it and run? Where will the innovators step to the front?

    Great column Gary.

  25. Presented in the FWIW Dept., here’s my 2¢ and probably worth far less — keep the change…

    TTBOMK, I have flown DL <12 times during my lifetime (never lived in one of their hubs); UA, 52 times; AA, 64 times; and WN, 89.

    I hadn’t flown DL in years, and was pleasantly surprised when I flew it last year SFO-MSY (via SLC) r/t. Nonetheless, there is no way I’d ever become a DL loyalist as their “SkyPesos” are worth less than Weimar Deutschmarks, and I do use my airline miles for intercontinental travel. Unfortunately, I’ve flown UA recently more than I would have liked, but a) they’re the only US carrier that flies nonstop SFO-MEX, and b) they’re the only carrier to fly nonstop SFO-MSY. Nothing in my experience makes me want to focus my future flying on UA. As for AA, I have seen an improvement but I’ve also seen some absolute disasters (like when I flew MSY-DFW only to discover they cancelled my continuing flight to SFO and had no food or hotel vouchers for any of the ongoing pax).

    Having left WN (89 flights) long ago to fly on VX (131 flights), I find myself with years of status and lots of miles on AS (96 flights). HOWEVER, as AS has cut back on their service, and as the required miles for travel has increased since joining oneword, I am now price shopping between AS and WN. Of course I can’t use WN RR for intercontinental travel, but I have lots of UR and TYP points, and my wife has multiple Amex cards so lots of MR points. But while I’m very confident WN isn’t going to have another meltdown next week, I’m not ready to give up on AS yet…even if I have to pay fuel surcharges on BA (at least until IB upgrades their trans-Altantic service in J).

  26. Delta is lipstick on a pig. It’s all smoke and mirrors, and they fly ancient planes. Horrible airline.

  27. no, Gary, I am not using non-sequiturs.
    You either don’t know what the term “operational reliability” means or you are intentionally conflating a dozen other concepts with operational reliability in order to create an argument.
    Operational reliability IS a metric and Delta is still leading the industry by the same or better margins than it ever has.
    If you would like to argue that Delta’s operational reliability has slipped, then you honestly and accurately have to say that other airlines have as well.
    You have proven over and over and over and over again that you ignore or distort facts and data in order to create a narrative based on subjective factors.
    You can argue an opinion but you cannot state something that is based on black or white facts as being something it is not.

    The simple fact is that if you want to argue that Delta or any airline has slipped operationally, then you should be able to provide facts and data to support your position and compare how Delta has done to other airlines over the same time period

    As for those that want to argue finances and fleet, United has the oldest fleet among US airlines – that is also not an opinion – and is spending more on fleet than nearly the entire rest of the industry combined.

    Either United will replace old airplanes which will lower its fleet age or it will grow but it will not reduce its fleet age relative to other carriers unless it uses far more of its fleet to replace older airplanes than it does for growth.

    And no one has yet to deal with the fact that United is going to spend far more on its massive fleet replacement/supposed expansion than American did over a much longer period of time – and United is simply not making enough money nor will it to not end up with a huge amount of debt.
    Delta already has the least amount of debt of the big 3 and is reducing its debt, as is American. United isn’t even pretending that lowering debt is a goal because they cannot do so while taking delivery of $8 billion worth of new aircraft per years.

    You, Gary, are a master at winding up the crowd by throwing your opinions around andciting them as fact in order to create page views.
    Some, not many of us, are smart enough to see through your charades and will keep you honest as long as you choose to engage the public in comments. If you don’t, you lose your readers.

    The simple answer is that you have compelled no factual or logical basis to successfully argue that any US airline has changed its trajectory.

    You have failed at everything other than creating page views.

  28. A very good summary. But a bit of East Coast bias (like the sports pages). DL has a negligible West Coast presence and this will hurt them as the Asia markets are now recovering. WN was late to California but made a huge investment to surpass US Air, UA, B6 and beat back regional favs like AS and VX. It has paid off for WN as its fares have skyrocketed. UA seems to have retained its corp customers and is adding even more profitable international routes.

    Putting aside the operations and amenities, I am still amazed at the number of DL fanboys. Assuming you are not a hub captive, why would you willingly take skypesos when you could earn UA or AA miles that have so much better firepower? Yes, we all like smiling FAs, but I’d rather have miles I can use to fly biz class TATL and TPAC.

  29. Boraxo,
    Delta is the 2nd largest airline by revenue on the west coast so it is far from negligible
    Delta is the largest airline at Los Angeles which is the largest single airport market in the US – and it happens to be the largest airport on the west coast. Add in Delta’s position at dozens of other west coast airports where Delta is #2 or #3 and any factual addition would show that Delta is very strong on the east coast, the largest airline in the midwest – which does NOT include Texas as much as some people would like to think – the #2 airline in the mountain west – and the #2 airline on the west coast.
    And Delta was the largest airline in the US by total revenue in 2022.

    the problem w/ forums like this including Gary is that you and he and most of the people that make statements have no idea what you are talking about and state opinions as facts

    as to your final point, what you really want to say but twist your words around to hide it is that you can’t explain why Delta is as successful as it is and you want someone else to be more successful.

    We don’t get to assert opinions as fact.

    We can certainly give our opinions and preferences but they will be viewed as such.

  30. Boraxo hit the nail on the head for me. I fly domestically most weeks, mostly out of DCA and sometimes out of RIC. Given the routes that I travel, I’d estimate that 65% of my flights are AA, 25% DL and 10% everyone else combined. Anecdotally, sure – I’ll give DL the slight edge over AA on customer service, but this doesn’t come remotely close to counterbalancing the vastly superior value of AAdvantage miles over SkyMiles for long haul J redemptions. If I have choice between comparable flights on both airlines for a given trip (often the case for DCA-ATL), I choose AA every time for this reason.

  31. Meant to add, more to the point of the article, domestic air travel in the U.S. feels almost entirely commoditized to me at this point. Pick the best routing/schedule/price combinations, and maximize award miles for international leisure travel, where the in-flight experience really counts.

    And I enjoyed reading your analysis, Gary.

  32. There’s some Stockholm syndrome going on here.

    AA is not retrofitting TVs on its planes nor will it retrofit the new business class seats to the rest of the fleet. In any case, AA is in the worse financial position — by a long margin — of the 4 and doesn’t have the money to do so.

    The narrower 787 that AA is buying will always be a less comfortable plane than the A350 that DL flies. So yeah, AA has to bribe people with the AAdvantage program for people to fly it (and for bloggers to make it look better than it truly is).

    Undisclosed is the fact that this blogger is sitting on millions and millions of AAdvantage miles https://viewfromthewing.com/why-i-went-all-in-and-earned-7-million-american-airlines-miles-with-their-year-end-promo/

  33. Dunn, you don’t understand do you?? You just don’t get it do you?? It’s not Delta trying so desperately to be everybody’s saving grace!! It’s an OLD airline!! It’s like trying to put lipstick on a pig!!! It’s beat up planes transformed to look like spaceships! Stop it!! Even you don’t believe your own bullshit!! No!! It’s never going to have a younger fleet than United, not now not ever!! Get over it!! United is going to have the youngest and most MODERN fleet out of the big 3 and you know it!!! No, it’s never going to have the same amount of wide bodies the way United does!! Don’t lie, just don’t lie, just don’t LIE!!! And No damnit, this is not based on opinion, it’s based upon facts!! You can have your own opinion, but you can’t never have your own facts!! Grow up and face the music, or just shut up!!

  34. GPG et al,
    not only do you have no idea who I am but YOU don’t understand much of anything about the airline industry based on facts and you sure as hell have nowhere near the experience that I have.

    I have already flown more than 25,000 miles since the first of the year on 7 airlines under 3 loyalty programs.
    I am NOT a Delta fanboy because that is all I know.
    Delta is my PREFERRED airline because they have demonstrated over nearly 100 years that they run one of the best airlines on the planet.
    When simpletons like you try to throw crap out that is contradictory to any number of professional market analysts, professional travel planner and my personal experience, you will lose EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

    We all get to have our personal preferences and come up with our rankings of how well carriers do based on our ANECDOTAL evidence but we are not going to succeed in convincing anyone just because you bang a keyboard long enough to argue that in your opinion – which you refuse to acknowledge is an opinion – airline X is better.

    The simple fact is that RIGHT NOW United Airlines has the US’ oldest fleet with the poorest in-flight entertainment platform. Service on domestic flights – which is the backbone of the revenue for all of the US airlines is very similar. All of the crews on all of the airlines were decent. I have had no major issues w/ anyone.
    Those are MY OPINIONS based on MY EXPERIENCES.

    The problem w/ you and Gary and zillion other people is that you are incapable of recognizing that your tiny view of the world and your experience does not translate into anything more than your tiny view of the world. Period. Your thoughts mean nothing to the rest of the world.

    When EVERY PIECE OF DATA and EVERY PROFESSIONAL ANALYST ranks Delta at the top of the industry, then they, not you, understand what is at stake.

    As much as you want to bob and weave and deflect from reality, United has the oldest fleet and that will not change unless the Chief BS Officer Scott Kirby chooses to FULLY use every airplane on order to replace United’s fleet
    But he said United will grow.
    It is MATHEMATICALLY IMPOSSIBLE for United to change its ranking as having the oldest fleet among US airlines IF United grows its total number of aircraft.
    Delta has a fleet that is younger than United’s and has half of the aircraft on order that United has.
    Unlike United, Delta has committed to retiring certain fleets.

    And you still can’t grasp that United is at a cost and balance sheet disadvantage to Delta and that is not going to GET WORSE not better.

    Beating the keyboard in all caps because you can’t accept reality is not going to change anything.

    YOU AND only you – besides Gary – need to deal with the cold hard facts and not your opinions and not the BS that comes out of Scott Kirby’s mouth which he never seems to be able to deliver.

  35. Reasonable article….ignore the lectures from pompous asses. Personally, I think Kirby/UA are the ones to watch. Though he may be chided for having been a money-grubber coming from the HP days, I’d suggest that his marching orders came from above. Sure he conducted his role with more than just a modicum of independence. Nevertheless, he was also charged with the responsibility to execute.

    Fast forward to the present, I think he’s deftly taking the knowledge gleaned from his time at AA to position UA to fill a void created when AA was taken down market. That task will be a high-wire, needle threading prospect, but exciting to watch.

    “The problem w/ you….and zillion other people is that you are incapable of recognizing that your tiny view of the world and your experience does not translate into anything more than your tiny view of the world. Period. Your thoughts mean nothing to the rest of the world.”

    “As much as you want to bob and weave and deflect from reality….”

    “YOU AND only you….need to deal with the cold hard facts and not your opinions….”

    Damn! Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  36. What will it take for those flying in economy to realize that they, and the rest of the public, are subsidizing business/1st class flyers? Few in coach are able to ‘write off’ their costs via a business tax deduction, or pass along the remainder as….cost of doing business in terms of product price hikes?

  37. @Jake how can it be “undisclosed” that I have an AAdvantage account balance of millions of miles when you literally link to a blog post of mine talking about that fact? And by the way AAdvantage is hardly the only program in which that’s the case for me.

  38. @TimDunn — Guess what? You have no idea who I am, either. (If you can’t comment like an adult, why comment at all?)

  39. Cranky Flier REGULARLY provides DATA-BASED articles on operational reliability, comparing the performance of airlines. They did another one this week.
    Delta ended up at or near the top of the industry as it has for years. United was below Delta and American in the data but above Southwest.

    The entire basis of this article was based on opinions and the complete exclusion of facts that are actually counter to the narrative that Gary would like to believe is reality.

    And then a dozen other people jumped in with THEIR anecdotes which simply don’t matter given that the big 4 airlines all carry more than 100 million passengers per year. Your or mine or anyone else’s opinion is meaningless in a sea of opinions which everyone has.

    And then there are people like GPG and others make which not just exclude data but make statements that are factually inaccurate.
    United CURRENTLY HAS the oldest fleet among US airlines and that cannot mathematically change given the known size of each of the big 4’s airlines.
    United CURRENTLY has the weakest onboard product. Domestic airline travel is largely a commodity; United DOES NOT HAVE what even AA and WN have for onboard streaming services – none of which compare with what B6 or DL have.

    Scott Kirby has repeatedly failed to deliver what he said he would do including coming up with the first pilot agreement that would be industry leading. And he continues to spew BS including trying to trash competitors including Southwest which is STILL the largest airline at Denver based on LOCAL MARKET passengers – and that isn’t going to change.

    People here choose to argue opinions as facts and ignore facts that are actually counter to what they write.

    Who cares what Gary or anyone else thinks.

  40. For me its American . What a drastic improvement. All aspects onetime arrivals, cabincrew attitude , customer service, they have dedicated department called premium services for advantage members .those guys sitting in tht clubs are great and can do magic . Amazing conversation. They tell me every time now that they appreciate my loyality . Last week in London they thanked me for the buisness when I was leaving admirals club at . Did more than 14 segments in 1 month. Not a single delayed flight. My company thinks the same . This year they are planning to change our contract from UA to AA .

  41. I think a lot of airline decisions get masked with language, when there is one true culprit, weight.

    I remember when American got rid of glassware in First for pre-departure beverages. Why? Less glass meant less weight. It also meant F/As could toss plastic cups in garbage bins, rather than stowing glasses, meaning a shorter time on turnaround. That was long before the US Air merger.

    By ditching metal utensils and glassware, Delta is removing weight from the cabin. With oil still in the $73 to $82 a barrel range, saving every gallon of jet fuel is important.

  42. Let me state the obvious after reading many, many posts by Tim Dunn. I can’t tell you the exact financial arrangement, but he is clearly receiving compensation from Delta to press their case.

    No one goes to length that he does to defend a company just because they like the product so much.

  43. All you have to do to prove I am wrong is counter my facts with your facts.
    Operational reliability and fleet age are not opinions. They are facts.

    When Gary presents statements about factually verifiable information as fact and a dozen other people jump in with their own statements that are either opinion or completely opposite of facts – we call those lies – then it isn’t hard for me to jump in and highlight those realities.

    Asserting that I am paid because I cite facts that you and others either get wrong or refuse to use is not a sign of me being paid or not but a sign of how poorly this article was written and how some people are no more capable of defending their statements than Gary.

    If what I write is factually wrong, it shouldn’t be hard for you or anyone else to counter those facts.

    Writing opinions as facts is not defensible.

  44. “People here choose to argue opinions as facts and ignore facts that are actually counter to what they write.”

    Sir, this is exactly what you did in the AUS/DAL thread….argue opinions as facts & ignore facts that are counter to what they write.

    For example, you posited DL as having been “among the biggest winners” as a result of the DAL settlement. But, you also conveniently ignored that DL is only getting half of the DAL ask. Lets set that table:

    DL currently has 0.5 gates (or 0.27 if measured in turns), will obtain 1.0 gates as of June vs. original ask of 2.0 gates.
    DL currently has 1 nonstop destination from DAL, will offer 3 n/s destinations as of June vs. original plan of 5 n/s destinations.
    DL currently has ~450 departing seats on offer from DAL, will offer ~1200 as of June vs. original plan of ~2450.
    DL currently has 4 daily departures, will offer 9 as of June vs. original plan of 22.

    With regard to growth in AUS, you asserted that DL “used it’s gates more efficiently than AA”. Okay…fine if you wish to posit that opinion. However, you realize that the City of Austin has a formal gate usage metric, right?

    “Who cares what Gary or anyone else thinks.” – Yet, it is the sum of your replies – as measured by number of paragraphs written – that makes up half of the bandwidth of this thread.

    “not only do you have no idea who I am but YOU don’t understand much of anything about the airline industry based on facts and you sure as hell have nowhere near the experience that I have.”

    “….I am NOT a Delta fanboy because that is all I know.”

    Mr. Dunn, may I ask – for your sake – to tread lightly when attempting to troll? After all, you once admitted that you post….[self redaction].

    God forbid if someone were so motivated to attempt to exact their piece of internet revenge. And to be clear, I say this with true concern. I’ve been acquainted with you since the ‘World Traveler’/A.net days. I merely shrug my shoulders at your bombast.

    Others that aren’t as acquainted may take offense.

  45. aaway,
    whatever happened on any other site a decade or more ago under other user names has no bearing whatsoever to this conversation.

    WT on that site was highly critical of AA’s strategies and he/it said that AA would end up in bankruptcy and would pay a high price for not addressing its competitive issues then. WT was right. AA is NOW addressing some of the things that WT said more than a decade ago – and to no one’s surprise, AA is dramatically improving its financial position.

    MY criticism now is of UA which is why a whole nother group of people have come out of the woodwork. UA has not provided any sustainable evidence that it has changed its position of being a middle of the road performer in all of the metrics that matter among the legacy carriers regardless of what Scott Kirby says or wants anyone to believe – and there are a whole lot of sheeple that have latched on to what he says because they want to believe that UA is better than it is. And the real issue which no one here or anywhere including Scott Kirby wants to address is that he is spending money in the exact same way that AA did when he was there and yet somehow we are supposed to think that UA will end up w/ a different fate than what AA went through.

    And specific to the issues you raised here, the fact that Delta didn’t get everything it wanted at Love Field doesn’t change that it was and still is the biggest winner and DL’s win came at the cost of others. WN did not succeed at kicking DL out of DAL, DL is taking away the ability of some airline to grow at DAL as much they could have- likely AA post 2025, and DL will be in a stronger position at DAL compared to its position at HOU or MDW with service to 3 of the top 5 markets from both airports in the Dallas metro area. DL is more than doubling the number of seats on 80% more flights. Until you can counter those facts – and not opinion, Delta is indeed the biggest winner in ending its long-running battle for more access at Love Field.

    As for Austin, all kinds of people created all kinds of expectations for DL at AUS when DL itself never defined its goals. Delta clearly complied with the gate usage requirements at AUS and, after watching AA and WN battle it out, DL is now in a position to grow at AUS more than any other carrier. DL already passed up UA at AUS and will increase its share relative to AA and WN. Those are simple, confirmable facts.

    and specific to this discussion, the entire thesis of Gary’s mental rearrangement of the industry is based on flawed logic and misuse of or ignorance of data. Operational reliability is a measurable characteristic and data clearly shows that DL has not slipped but has actually improved its performance relative to the industry.
    A dozen other people jumped in with their own anecdotes which are contrary to facts where there is a factual, measurable characteristic such as fleet age.

    You and others hate when someone comes along and logically points out the flaws in your logic and provides facts that counter opinions and incorrect statements.

    that reality was true of WT and it is true of me here.

    Do a better job of thinking through and preparing your participation in aviation social media and admit when you have lost the debate.

  46. @Tim Dunn

    “Who cares what Gary or anyone else thinks”.

    Ok, you say that at least ten to twenty times per day. So, why not sign off and start your own blog?

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