Welcome To The Dark Side, Ben

If you haven’t yet seen the bombshell news, Ben is (finally) considering calling it quits with American Airlines, and considering moving his elite business over to Delta.

For regular readers of OMAAT, this is something equivalent to, say, Sarah Palin endorsing Hillary Clinton for President.

I’m not going to rub salt into his Executive Platinum wound, but I did figure this was a good opportunity to remind Ben — and, by extension, all the other disenchanted AAdvantage loyalists in our readership — why I, personally, enjoy flying Delta, what I get out of the elite Medallion program, and how I make the most out of my SkyMiles.

Last year I wrote a piece called “In Defense Of Delta,” so I’m going to try and expand on that rather than duplicate what I’ve already written.

Delta One cabin

Delta One cabin

It’s A Better Airline

For a U.S.-based carrier, Delta Air Lines is about as good as you can get in flight.

  • Delta’s on-time performance is unparalleled, and it almost never cancels flights
  • It has, dependable and fast Wifi — Gogo, to be clear — on almost all of its planes, including all of its long-haul international flights
  • You can count on lie-flat beds (and excellent bedding) with direct-aisle access on all of its long-haul international flights in Delta One; the majority of Delta One transcons are on 767s which offer direct-aisle access as well
  • The food on Delta is actually quite good, especially compared to United and American
  • Delta’s in-flight entertainment product, Delta Studio, is excellent
  • I’ve generally found customer service to be reliably warm onboard and on the ground
Cedar plank salmon and Au Bon Climat pinot noir in Delta One

Cedar plank salmon and Au Bon Climat pinot noir in Delta One

Ben himself is the first to admit that Delta SkyClubs blow the competition out of the water. Personally, I quite like the SkyClub at LAX — and the SkyClub at JFK has a phenomenal roof deck.

Delta SkyClub at SFO

Delta SkyClub at SFO

I realize everyone’s mileage varies, but personally I’ve enjoyed myself on Delta flights much more so than on other legacy domestic carriers. I actually flew American Airlines last month in First Class on the A321 from New York to Los Angeles, and while the hard product was certainly impressive, I was underwhelmed by the so-so ground experience at JFK, the barely edible food, the perfunctory service and the general sense that American doesn’t know what to do with “First Class” in a three-class cabin other than boast about it.

Delta pretty much leads the pack, and while it doesn’t offer a “First Class” like American does, its business class product is just about competitive or superior in every respect.

Life’s Great As A Diamond Medallion

To be clear, life was pretty great as a Platinum Medallion, even as a Gold Medallion (although I can’t say there’s much to notice about being a Silver Medallion). But since I made Diamond Medallion last year, the perks and level of personalized customer service I’ve received has been nothing short of spectacular.

Agents at the Diamond Medallion call center, for instance, pick up within a few rings, and are not just very friendly but tremendously competent and proactive. In truth, I feel like the Diamond Medallion line is like my own personal airline concierge service. Although Delta has few irregular operations, the one delay I did have this year was handled with aplomb.

The threshold for Diamond Medallion (125,000 qualifying miles) is substantially higher than Executive Platinum at American or Premier 1K status with United (both 100,000 qualifying miles). While that makes Diamond Medallion status harder to achieve, it also thins the herd a little, making it more of a rarefied tier (and making upgrades that much more reliable).

Even mid-year, Ben could fast track his way to Diamond Medallion status by signing up for the Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express, as well as the Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card. Just by signing up for both, Ben could get 20,000 MQMs. With $60,000 in spend on one card — tough for some, but Ben puts a lot of spend on his cards — before the end of the year, Ben could count on another 30,000 MQMs. There’s 50,000 MQMs — and Gold Medallion status — without setting foot on a plane.

But there are some terrific paid business class deals on SkyTeam carriers right now offering huge MQM payloads. For instance, Ben could book a roundtrip from LAX to Frankfurt (or anywhere in Germany, really) on Delta for ~$1,650 in business class, which would, depending on the routing, earn him roughly 18,000 MQMs a pop.

And he could take advantage of one of my favorite MQM hacks, which is a transcon flight on Alaska (say, LAX-DCA) in paid first class (usually around $1,200) which actually gives you a 200% MQM bonus — so a little under 10,000 MQMs for a simple one-day turnaround.

And no other airline offers rollover MQMs, which, if used strategically, are hugely valuable.

SkyMiles Aren’t So Bad Anymore, Are They?

Personally, I like SkyTeam carriers and Delta partners. I’d rather fly across the Atlantic on Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic or Alitalia than on British Airways, for instance. If you can deal with the inability to redeem for true first class cabins, you’ll find your options are fairly terrific. Aside from the airlines mentioned above, you’ll find pretty great redemption options with Virgin Australia and some decent options with Korean Air (which may sometimes be subject to blackout periods).

Air France's new business class cabin - available using SkyMiles

Air France’s new business class cabin – available using SkyMiles

While much has been made about the lack of an award chart, to be fair to Delta there have been as many genuine mileage discounts on routes as there have been increases. More transparency would be great, but as the miles and points world was taunting us for hoarding our devalued SkyPesos, I was finding plenty of uses for them.

Bottom Line

Now that American and United have copied all of Delta’s mileage program devaluations, there’s really no clear standout. Consequently, Ben — and many of you — must pick your airline of choice based on the user experience, not the rewards program.

No surprise the winner is Delta.

About Nick

Nick brings the perspective of the infrequent but savvy traveler who finds that getting there is actually less than half the fun, but you might as well fly business class on the way and get a good night's sleep. Despite a relatively sparse portfolio of flown miles and hotel stays per year that would never otherwise qualify for status, Nick manages to leverage credit cards, promotions and points to secure elite status and increase his chances for that sought-after upgrade.

More articles by Nick »

Comments

  1. Agreed. Although in my 5th year as platinum I’m giving up. While I enjoy it, I’m switching to paid premium fares and eliminating anything resembling a mileage run.

  2. Based on the user experience – I will continue to fly AA. I live in DFW, and most of the business travel I do is to Chicago, so it’s pretty much a no-brainer that I would stick with AA.

    My leisure travel is predominantly to Australia, and since Qantas (a OneWorld partner) flies directly from DFW to SYD, it makes sense to stick with the AA rewards program for this.

    I don’t currently have elite status with any airline.

    On another note – I have read numerous comments about Ben being “kicked out” of the UA program – for those of us who haven’t been following this blog, can we get some back story (or a link to the post which confirms this?)

  3. Count me as another AA2M planning to jump ship. If your description is even half right, it’s now a no-brainer.

  4. “Delta’s on-time performance is unparalleled, and it almost never cancels flights”

    No, it definitely is not.

    “The food on Delta is actually quite good, especially compared to United and American”

    No, it definitely is not. (Well, it’s better than American, but even United has better food now. Unless canned beef over rice or ‘bruschetta omelettes’ strike your fancy.)

    “Skyclubs blow the competition out of the water”
    Really? Hate to break it to you, but more often than not the (super cool) rooftop deck at JFK is closed. And while JFK, LAX, and SFO are nice, try going to some of their other clubs (Salt Lake City, etc.) They’re dingy and decrepit. And they all have the same snack towers of sadness.™ Delta doesn’t even give you conditioner for the showers anymore.

    “It has, dependable and fast Wifi”
    LOL.

  5. @Alpha:

    In 2015, 84.46% of Delta’s flights were on-time, compared to 80.14% of American’s and 78.99% of United’s. Delta’s completion rate is markedly higher than American’s and United’s.

    So, you can say “no, it is definitely not” ’til the cows come home, but on what basis?

  6. Seems like a lot of conjecture from a third party to help Ben convince himself that delta is so much better than United that he isn’t missing out on anything. Not saying delta is terrible, but this is incredibly slanted and certainly far from a fair analysis.

  7. @Alpha

    I earnestly believe DL just is “telling stories” about their ontime performance and their cancellations.
    Stranded recently in ATL I had a lot of time to compare DL’s website claimed “ontime” performance with FlightStats for a long list of flights on the board… and… — it’s not pretty. DL’s consistently inflating their percentages (flight numbers that FlightStats show at 70% are being reported on DL’s own site as 100%). Something’s not right in Delta’s self-congratulatory self-reporting.

    I believe DL treats their Diamonds really well. I just don’t know how anyone (starting from scratch) can stand to fly DL enough to GET to be Diamond. I don’t think Ben can stand to do what it would take…
    And they won’t even let you “transfer in” since DL thinks their own effluent smells so much sweeter.

  8. Delta may provide an all round leading product in the US but the ragtag airlines in Sky Team leaves much to be desired.

  9. @Nick Playing devils advocate has anyone really crunched the numbers and delved into a more thorough analysis of this. IE delays based on flight length, time of day, day of week, routes, etc

    Maybe Delta overall excels in on time performance but could lag behind the others depending on how you look through the glasss

  10. @Alpha

    “snack towers of sadness”

    Love it.

    I actually had a great (free) meal in the AA London Business Lounge the other day @ LHR, so I never know why people are so down on AA.

  11. Former DL Platinum here. Here is my current approach:
    -Earn miles from banks, shopping and spending. Not much earning from flying.
    -Use miles for international premium cabins or pay cash when the price is right.
    -Maintain some elite statuses in various alliances through international partner status matches. Gets priority line, baggage perks, lounge access, extra leg room seats etc. If you play it right, you can make this last several years beyond having earned real status.
    -Fly domestically based on convenience and price. Prioritize nonstops over lounge access and potential upgrades.

    The proof is in the pudding though. When I fly for work, I almost always choose Delta unless someone else has a nonstop and Delta does not. They really are better.

  12. Currently platinum, but previously diamond on Delta, I recently jumped through a few credit card earning hoops + AA platinum challenge to fly business to Japan on AA on a 787. The lounge in ORD was fine, the one in Narita much better (bought a one day pass and used it in both airports with the time change/date change arriving earlier than I left). The onboard service in AA business was outstanding, about the same as on KLM from Amsterdam to Bahrain, and better than Delta business from JFK to Frankfurt or Delta One coast to coast. Coming back from Tokyo in economy on AA even in the 787 was a poor comparison obviously. With a seat change that happened, though, boarding in ORD for my domestic first to SYR was really poor – I had to go to another desk to get a boarding pass compared to the pop out seat change on Delta. I’m not certain that I’d complete a change over to AA, but still earning CC miles and redeeming on AA or partners is about the only reason I see at the moment to use AA, for me.

    Then again, I have yet to experience real First Class international to compare.

  13. @Susan

    Ben took gross advantage of the Apology Vouchers then bragged about it to a reporter who then spilled the beans, essentially. When United got wind and presumably reviewed his FF account, they sent him a “thanks, but no thanks…you’re banned” letter. It’s roughly outlined in his Rolling Stone write-up.

    I’m guessing Ben doesn’t much talk about it because he’s either embarrassed or he may have had to sign some sort of NDA…perhaps both. Either way, he gamed the game United set up for themselves but made the mistake of being a braggart. So United used their ace-in-the-hole and closed his account permanently.

    It’s not that interesting, really.

  14. Delta is, by far, the best domestic carrier. I trust Delta. They’re reliable. They’re comfortable. They listen when I have issues. I can joke around with the flight attendants. And Delta’s ATL gate agents are just a great bunch of people (though the ones at DCA can be a bit cranky at times).

    @TheRealBabushka

    I have to take exception to your comment about Skyteam’s “ragtag” carriers. KLM offers a very good business class while Air France’s product is truly exceptional. How I miss Air France! But–alas!–my employer has now condemned me to oneworld carriers. I’ve experienced four trips on Qatar so far this year. The only thing I can say for QR is that at least they serve a really good bloody mary. Other than that, I really miss Saudia’s business class; far better food, nicer flight attendants, and much more comfortable seats (at least on the newer planes).

  15. Nick,

    Agree 100%.
    After almost a decade of Chairman’s Preffered on USAirways and Executive Platumum on AA, I am switching to Delta.

  16. Having, at various times, held status on AA, US, UA, & DL, I can concur that DL has had the most consistent and generally good hard product, operations, and customer service.

    Of course, they still suck, just not as hard.

  17. @Adam Nice summary. From what I’ve read Lucky didn’t break the rules. But he didn’t operate in the spirit of what the purpose of the rule. On the other hand, the airline could have quite easily simply put him on probation of sorts rather than take their toy and not let him play with it anymore. But nobody likes being publicly humiliated; United and Lucky embarrassed each other for no real reason other than they could.

  18. SkyTeam is the worst alliance on the planet.
    This alone gives me enough reason to go with either AA or UA and avoid DL.

  19. Best of the bottom is hardly something to write home about. Or, blog about. Saying Delta is a winner is like saying a worm has won the beauty pageant up against a slug and a maggot.
    Meh, at best. They’ve all joined themselves at the bottom. Thankfully, I don’t swim in those murky waters.

  20. I second Alaska. I switched this year from UA after 1.5MM and have enjoyed raking in the miles again. It’s hard to give up 1K and squander a whole year’s status but it’s working out well mainly with all the partners from which you can accrue miles (e.g AA, for now…).

  21. I am EXP with AA for 8 (?) years and >3 MM. From my view point the old AA and AAdvatage program ceased to exist over the last two years. From my own experience and what I hear DL and UA are not much better. However, I find long haul JAL and CX even in Y to be quite OK and certainly far superior to AA coach. I was also pleasantly surprised with Bangkok Airways and Garuda Indonesia. Seafood breakfast served in Y by Bangkok Airways during inter-Thailand flight was superior to AA breakfast meal in F. Garuda flies brand new planes and FAs genially care about you whereas AA crew is just ….
    With AA ending mileage-base earning and changing the program every 6 month I am eager trying other programs in the immediate future.

  22. While I love reading Ben’s trip reports and certainly have valued a lot of his advice regarding credit cards, etc, let’s be honest here. There’s NOTHING elite about his spend. He’s very good at maximizing the system to fully benefit from it. But his value to the airlines are marginal at best. Earning Exec Plat status from one or two $800 roundtrip business class fares from LA to Panama and Colombia via multiple stopovers? No, that’s not elite. That’s low value to the airline, and the airline is not profiting at all from that relationship (I’m sure i’m missing something, but I know he requalified early this year with those trips and maybe one other low spend/ high mileage accrual trips). The real elite, while certainly not glamorous, is my legions of friends who have to commute every week for work from early Monday morning to late Thursday night. They’re the ones who for work will hit up such hot spots as Lubbock, Albuquerque, and Fresno on a single 5 day trip visiting clients. They’re the banker who flies to Tokyo for meetings then to Hong Kong, Sydney and Auckland, all in less than a week. The point is, THESE are the flyers who provide the value and who pay for all the perks that Ben and all of us enjoy, gratis. The airlines have just gotten good at figuring out who those people TRULY are and has chosen to recognize them appropriately. The good times were good while they lasted, but I’m not surprised that they’re coming to an end. And neither should anybody be.

  23. I left Delta in 2010 for US Airways because their routes and schedules were best for my travel requirements. Last year I was merged into AA and signed on, again, for the convenience of routes and schedules. The loyalty programs mattered in the past but now it’s a wash. Maybe the leveling out of loyalty programs will foster greater competition (for elite travelers) and result in better products.

  24. Good read.

    I like collecting miles, earning free travel, elite status and its perks, but I fly to get from point A to point B with top priorities being 1) safety 2) comfort 3) cost. Regardless of the ease of redeeming skymiles to sleep in a full-size bed somewhere over the Pacific ocean, on a day to day basis it is the best of the 3 major domestic airlines, period.

    Today I had a lovely flight from LGA to ORD with reasonably fast wi-fi, decent snacks, friendly FAs and an on time arrival between two of the countries most congested airports. Sure, I earned fewer miles than I would have 2 years ago but I arrived in one piece with half a smile on my face.

  25. Personally, I travel on short notice (REALLY short notice like…..several hours) for work so I am seldom able to favor one airline or alliance. Whichever one A) gets me where I need to go sooner and B) back home cheaper tends to win the day so long as they aren’t on the company “no fly list” for safety reasons. That said, I’ve never had a truly bad experience with Delta and I fly them and other SkyTeam members a lot. Even when I have been stranded somewhere- almost always the fault of the weather or some jackoff setting fire to the Chicago TRACON servers- they have been incredibly nice to me and gone out of their way to make it right.

    Then again, while I appreciate Lucky’s reports I always have to chuckle at some of the things he finds as “faults”. Maybe I am just really laid back about stuff but many of the complaints folks have (“They only had X Brand Champagne and I prefer Y” or “They don’t have an onboard chef”) to be rather comical. Give me a comfortable seat, try to be reasonably on time and don’t lose my bags. Everything else, to paraphrase Hillel, is commentary- unessential but nice to have.

  26. If Lucky does fly Delta more in the future. then he will be able to review more Skyteam carriers, which I think would greatly improve his blog.

  27. @JASON – totally agree with you, i travel long haul weekly and have CX diamond plus – its annoying when sitting up front and being told that your choice of main dish was taken up by some “points guy” sitting in seat 2K, thankfully CX has caught on to this and have started to serve first their own members before servicing the other passengers.

  28. Only issue with Delta is airport in Atlanta. Avoid at all cost . 10 years spent living in Atlanta.

  29. So does this mean Ben will finally stop sucking up to American even though they consistently have one of the worst products around.
    I guess it’s time for the Delta brown nosing to begin.

  30. @Jason That travelling banker you talk about could save time & travel expenses by telecommuting. Will nobody think of the poor bankers!

  31. I am LP on AA and have recently started buying tickets in F on DL due to the horrible downgrade in product on AA premium class, the lack of Y+ on LUS a/c and their D+0 policy that has stranded me after the last flight of the night more than once.

    While I find DL’s food, entertainment and customer service to be very superior to AA, I must admit their FAs do a moderate to poor job in domestic F. On both near trans-cons (ATL-PHX) I was served my cocktail, meal and dessert on one tray moments after take off. This is one area where AA gets it right by offering a nice cocktail with nuts after take off and allows one a little time to get settled before the dinner tray lands (I know – first world problems.)

    If DL F/As would slow down and do a multi-step service it would be the one last thing required to finally put a nail in my Aadvantage card.

  32. Oh, boy, I loved this. At least Ben fully grasps the reality of the situation. I will also say I am kind of shocked he has never flown Alitalia J that I’ve seen on here. Probably the best food I’ve ever eaten in the sky and good hard product. After he switches to Delta, that would be the time to do it since easy to book with Skymiles.

    What is really crazy to me is how Gary and Ben will not admit that the value of a SkyMile has increased even if the award charts are hidden…..

  33. @Marcus – not when his clients want him onsite to finalize their m&a transactions. Or my good friend who runs a medical device company that had clinical trials and fundraising going on in multiple cities around the world all at once (SFO-MNL-PEK-HKG-MEL-SYD-AKL was a common 8 day trip, in paid J). Sorry, some things need to be done in person, and that’s the kind of business the airlines go for and get paid for, not cheap (though fun) $800 LAX-DFW-JFK-MIA-BOG-MIA-JFK-LAX J mileage runs.
    @global traveller good to hear! Safe journeys

  34. Correct me if I am wrong, but: One of the advantages AA still has over Delta is the ease of upgrading with miles. When we were with Delta you could upgrade from economy to business with miles, but only from certain fare classes, which were usually SIGNIFICANTLY more expensive. On AA you can upgrade from any fare class with miles (and a fee), so you didn’t have to pay for the specific fare class. If this is no longer the case then Delta is definitely getting more and more attractive.

    We flew Delta for years before moving and living half a mile from an AA hub so we switched to AA. In those 10 or so years with Delta I can’t remember ever filing a complaint about them. In the 2 years we’ve been with AA I’ve had to file several complaints. Delta really is a great airline all around and the only disadvantage was it’s crappy mileage program, but now that’s not the case.

  35. I have been an AC Super Elite for the past 9 years and have held Gold or Silver status with Delta for the past 6 years and have to say that Delta has been consistently strong within the US. I believe that AC knows me better and thus I try to stay loyal to * Alliance; however living in South Florida is tough as UA is not a stronghold in this part of the world and I have to fly through YYZ or YUL to get anywhere in EU. I do fly LH/Tap/LX out of MIA; however biz is usually much more $$ and so thus I pay for Y or Premium Y fares. Hard part is that LX/LH make you buy expensive econ fares to get 100% miles. AC always upgrades me using my ecredits so I never fly in Y, that being said I have to leave at 12noon for a EU flight from South FL. I may switch it up and become a DL elite as they have better connections through ATL and JFK. I appreciate the insight into the DL experience and look forward to seeing how they make the other big 2 up their game.

  36. Read this line from the Rolling Stone article about Ben’s true love, United Airlines: “Throughout high school, his jet-setting accelerated, as he crisscrossed the country on his beloved United Airlines. For the first time, he had found a place to belong. When Ben was 16, he earned elite status, proudly brandishing his Premier 1K card wherever he flew. He found he connected socially with Hobbyists far better than with classmates, and he started organizing meet-ups around the country, advertising them on FlyerTalk.

    Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/ben-schlappig-airlines-fly-free-20150720#ixzz4AtzXO2JQ

  37. Choosing between Delta and American is like being forced to choose between Clinton or Trump.
    Either way, you lose. They are both horrible.

  38. I left Delta this year for Alaska. Was multi year Diamond and 1MM. While I agree that the front line folks at DL really are very good to excellent, AS is at least their equivalent. When DL decided that their milage program was a revenue program and not a loyalty program I contacted AS.

    AS matched me to 75K Gold and although the flight schedule is not as extensive as DL I am wiling to put up with it as my way of telling DL that their revenue models will not include me. I sent them multiple letters before I left them and I will be writing them again to give them details of the $50K+ they have lost of my revenue this year alone.

    One thing I noticed last week on AS vs DL was that First/Business on DL is always very nice, however, once you are on the other side of that curtain, you are nobody. On AS I was in coach and the flight attendant greeted me by name every time she stopped by! Yep, sometimes its just the small things that can make a huge difference.

  39. @Jeff Z

    Bingo! DL does a great job of accommodating their premium customers– and I do believe the Diamonds getting treated like royalty.

    Back of the curtain, though, WOW… And the last thing you want to be on DL is “non-status, on an ‘E’ Fare during a day with thunderstorms in Atlanta”.

    I think it’s weird that no one mentions what a liability the reliance on the ATL hub is for DL. It means triple-hops a lot of times to get between smaller markets that AA and UA can do in two segments. And, when weather is bad in Atlanta the whole system suffers.

  40. This is a pretty compelling case for Delta, though I can’t help but think that their mindset regarding loyalty and frequent flyer programs (which has spread now to the other carriers) is what started this whole mess in the first place. AA has really just copied them to a large degree. Would I be rewarding Delta for starting this whole trend if I were to switch loyalties?

  41. Hi Lucky,
    Interesting article, however I need your help.
    I have been with Delta since it took Northwest. I am platinum this year but Delta’s prices are too high.
    I had to go to NAT (Brazil) last minute and the flight on Delta was $2,400 and United’s $920.
    I am going to Taipei and the United fare was $ 920 ( coincidence) X $1,800.
    These tickets are payed by third parties not myself. So, it is really hard to convince folks and myself to go with Delta. I also found that the economy service on United to GRU was better than Delta’s. They even had ice cream after dinner.
    I am not sure how Unided to Taipei will be, but I am already excited since it is on 787 from SFO to Taipei.
    I flew to Sydney and will go to Brazil again in a couple of weeks on Delta, but I finding really hard to find decent fares with them. Is United at war by lowering their prices like that? Or, is Delta out of their minds for charging so much?
    Please send me your thoughts via rochact@maine.rr.com
    I thinking about switching to United. I am just a member now, but have been Gold before.

    Thank you,

    Antonio Rocha

  42. @Antonio. Im with you . Delta is better but they ALWAYS charge more than American or United. Is the food and a smile worth several hundred more. No.

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