Delta – What Most Travel Bloggers Get Wrong

If you spend some time looking at travel blogs around the web, you’ll find a common theme – Delta sucks.  Many of these bloggers are great experts on award travel, the points game, using credit cards to get miles, and how to find some of the best award seats and I have learned lots from many of them.  But, many of them seem to hate Delta.

But, what they really hate is Delta’s frequent flyer program.  They’ll tout the much greater availability of award flights on United or the upgrade certificates that American offers on trans-continental flights and they’ll tell you all the bad things about Delta SkyMiles – how the program keeps getting devalued, the lack of availability of low level award seats, the inability to book one way awards, and the broken Delta website search engine.  Many of these are valid points.  As a regular Delta flyer, there are some things that I think could be improved.

What they rarely talk about, however, is the quality of the flying experience.  At the end of the day, if you are a butt-in-seat traveler – and many of them are not – a frequent flyer program is only as good as the product you get to experience in the end.

For example, I recently used award miles to fly some long haul flights on United.  United is often touted as one of the best frequent flyer programs on the market, largely due to award availability and their Star Alliance membership.  My first flights occurred during the “polar vortex” and United simply froze up.  Seriously.  You could not even get in the queue on the telephone, their Twitter service offered to rebook me, for only part of my journey, five days hence, and my email to them got a response over a week later basically saying, “We hope it worked out for you.”  Yes, there was some bad weather, but United’s systems imploded.  If not for some local counter agents who were great to work with – and don’t actually work for United – I might have never gotten on with my trip.

Then, on my return flight to Chicago from Frankfurt, Germany, I experienced their 777 business class product that has the most cramped business class I could have imagined with eight seats across vs. the four that Delta puts on that same piece of equipment.  Four seats in the middle in business class…wow.  And, then there is the constant moan I hear from frequent flyers on United who, since the merger with Continental, have only experienced pain and suffering and a devaluing of their benefits.

So, while United miles may be great as to award availability, the actual experience may not be that great.  US Air, which recently merged with American, is also a Star Alliance member.  But, fly a few times on their airline and you will soon be cured of any desire to do in the future, especially if you have to go through one of their biggest hubs in Philadelphia.

Delta offers the best in-flight product and customer service of any of the “legacy” carriers in the U.S.  Perhaps my view is a bit skewed as a Diamond Medallion member, but it seems like Delta keeps winning the rankings of major domestic carriers as was recently reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Airline Rankings 2013

Airline Rankings 2013

Look at the chart and tell me how much you would want to fly on United week in and week out?

Delta recently introduced upgrade certificates on international flights to be more competitive with American’s offering.  They already have a better policy for redepositing award tickets as long as it is done more than 72 hours prior to travel.  They recently introduced a change to their Sky Club access that was almost universally panned by the blogger community but applauded by people like myself.  Again, there seems to be a vast gulf between the perceptions of those who travel primarily for award travel accrued by credit card spend and those of us who are on planes pretty much every week.

That’s what they get wrong.


Why I’m Staying with Delta Airlines

I have been with Delta for years and have been a Diamond Medallion with them since this level was created several years ago but this year presented me an outstanding opportunity to try another airline.  I rolled over 127,500 Medallion Qualification Miles which means that I had already achieved Diamond status through Feb. 28, 2015 even if I flew no miles on Delta this year.

And, since I carry both the AMEX Delta Reserve card and the AMEX Delta Platinum card, I can earn up to 50,000 Medallion Qualification Miles each year by meeting spending thresholds on each.  If I were able to meet those thresholds in both 2013 and 2014, I could end up with 102,500 MQM’s towards extending my Diamond status on into Feb. 2016.  So, if there was ever a good time to try another airline, it seems like this year would be it.

Flying out of LEX, I have options to fly on United, US Air, and American and would simply be connecting in cities other than DTW and ATL as I currently do on Delta.  In addition, both United and American do status matches/challenges that would allow me to fast track to elite level status with either of them.

So, why didn’t I jump ship?  The simple answer is that Delta does a great job of taking care of it’s elite customers.  Their in-flight product and service are quite good, they have widespread Gogo internet on their fleet, and they have topped the other legacy carriers on almost every survey in the past few years when it comes to customer satisfaction and on-time performance.

Yes, there are some things that are aggravating and they have made some changes that are negative to me, but I’m not hearing great things from my fellow elites over at United or American.  For instance, Delta’s recent changes to the same day confirmed change are not positive (and I’m not sure what “problem” they are solving with the change) but it is not out of line with what other carriers have had in place for years.

The other knock you will hear about Delta is how hard it is to book award tickets at low levels with SkyMiles.  While the criticism has some merit, I have had some real success with award bookings this year which I will write more about in the upcoming days.

The bottom line is that fliers tend to complain about whoever their primary carrier is and think the grass will be greener and the sun will shine brighter on another airline.  But, for me, Delta continues to earn my business.

Delta’s Performance on Airfarewatchdog’s Rankings

In September, Airfarewatchdog came out with a ranking of U.S. airlines based several months of data including data from the Transportation Department and the American Consumer Survey Index.  On first reaction, one could read the rankings as bad news for Delta Airlines as they came out tied for sixth overall (with Southwest).  However, it doesn’t take long for a Delta fan to see some really good news here.

First, the five airlines that beat them were Virgin America, JetBlue, AirTran, Alaska, and Frontier.  In other words, if you want to fly a “better” airline, you will be limited to where you can fly, if you can fly anywhere at all.  For instance, the only of these airlines that has any service whatsoever to my hometown, Lexington, KY, is…wait, NONE of them fly to Lexington.  If I were to drive to Louisville, I would have access to Frontier that provides one flight a day to Denver.  That’s it.  One.

Second, Delta finished above every other legacy carrier – US Airways was eight, followed by American in ninth, and United in last place.  In fact, they beat the other legacy carriers in pretty much every category such as on-time arrivals, fewest cancellations, and fewest mishandled bags.

I’ve been flying for over 25 years now and one thing that I have learned is that almost everyone hates the airline they fly most often.  But, I think Delta does a really good job and this data seems to bear it out.

Hilton, Delta Score High on Customer Satisfaction Index

My two “go to” travel providers – Delta Airlines and Hilton Hotels – scored well on the American Customer Satisfaction Index that was released a couple of weeks ago.

Hilton scored first in the category beating runner-up Marriott Hotels.  Hilton’s large footprint, range of brands in both price and amenities, and their consistency of service are what keep me coming back to them

Delta scored third in the airlines category behind JetBlue and Southwest but firmly ahead of other “legacy” carriers such as United/Continental, US Airways, and American.  When reading other travel blogs and message boards where Delta’s frequent flyer program, SkyMiles, is held in such low esteem, I always wonder if I should try out some others.  However, as a butt in seat traveler, my number one concern is the product and I don’t think Delta’s can be beat..

New Delta Facilities at EWR

When I checked in today at Newark (EWR), I discovered that Delta has moved their check-in facilities from level 4 down to level 2 with celebratory balloons everywhere.  While it is not clear to me that the customer experience will be all that much different, everyone of the Delta agents was pretty jazzed up about it.

Newer equipment, better layout, a little more space, and fresh paint all make a difference when working a station day after day.  Delta probably can’t do anything about the air traffic at this airport, but at least seems like they are doing what they can with their facilities.

I have not seen any PR releases from Delta on this so it appears I happened into this right at its launch.  Maybe Delta will give more details on these improvements might change  the customer experience?

Delta Airlines – Flight Notes

After several months of blogging regularly on my travels, I have come to the conclusion that flight recaps are probably boring to both of us.  Unless something really unique happens or it is an unusual trip, such as the ATL-JNB flight, there just usually isn’t too much to differentiate one flight from another.  As a result, I’m going to change to posting periodic notes and comments about my flights instead of detailing every single one. 

I just got done with several trips on Delta including roundtrips to London, Dallas, and Newark.  Here are some random thoughts from these flights.

  • I had one of the last flights to London Gatwick and Delta has now consolidated all their service to Heathrow.  I’m sure that makes sense but I’m going to miss Gatwick as it was so easy to navigate, there was a nice arrivals lounge with showers, and it was certainly easier to get through passport control there.
  • I had the good fortune of getting bumped up to Business Elite on the Gatwick flight but it was the old 767 configuration and it is clear that lie-flat, herringbone configurations have completely spoiled all of us.
  • The Purser on the Gatwick flight was outstanding and I was pleased to give her a “Great Job” certificate. I think Delta’s flight crews are typically very good.
  • Newark airport is just as bad as it was 12 years ago when I flew in and out of it regularly due to living in the area.  I cannot imagine being a United/Continental customer there and having to deal with it every week.
  • I still have 100% upgrade success this year domestically.  If there is a FC cabin, I have been in it and have usually cleared well before the flight.
  • My on-time performance has been very good.  There was s delay for mechanical issue a couple of months ago and one for a sick passenger in the past few weeks, but those have been the only exceptions on the record this year.

As you can see, I’ve had some pretty good experience on Delta this year and their in-flight product has been very good.  I’ll share more thoughts after my next set of flights.

Delta Airlines – LEX – ATL – JNB Roundtrip

Flight Review

This year, I had the opportunity to take my family on the “trip of a lifetime” to South Africa to go on safari in the African bush.  As a result, we also got to fly Delta’s longest route – Atlanta to Johannesburg – which tallies about 15 hours flight time on the outbound and 17 hours on the return. 

Due to the long nature of the flight and the expense of business class tickets, I used 945,000 Skymiles to put my wife and two kids in the forward cabin – 315,000 miles for each seat.  While this redemption was not great, I had limited flexibility on dates, as we were timing the trip to our kids’ spring school break, and I wanted to lock in the arrangements well in advance.  I purchased an economy ticket that was not eligible for a SWU but I was able to pick an Economy Comfort seat due to my Diamond Medallion status with Delta.

These routes are serviced with Delta’s Boeing 777-200LR aircraft.  On these planes, Delta’s Businesss Elite class features lie-flat beds in a herringbone pattern that allows every passenger direct aisle access and quite a bit privacy.  My daughhter really liked the 14A seat since it puts you back in a corner that gives an even greater sense of privacy and seclusion when reclined.

Of course, my family enjoyed the flights a lot more than I did but, as I’ve noted in previous posts, the economy comfort seats do offer more rooom and a bit more recline.  While I generally have a hard time sleeping in a reclined position, I did find out that I can do it if tired enough.  Since I just got back from China on Weds. and left for South Africa on Friday, I was able to sleep some on the flight.

Service was competent on all flights and our on-time performance was pretty good.  For only the second time this year, I did have a slight departure delay due to a sick passenger that had to leave the plane in Atlanta.  However, Delta was very quick in getting the passenger’s checked bag off the plane and we were about one hour late in depating.  But, it is hard to fault Delta on this issue.

Final Grade: A

Points and Dollars

My ticket cost $1691.  For this, I earned 17,866 MQM’s plus my Diamond bonus miles of 22,332.  Add in the 3,382 miles I’ll get from charging it to my DL Platinum AMEX and my Skymiles total comes to 43,580.  When you put this in context, it is the same as purchasing Delta Skymiles at 3.9 cents per mile and having the flight thrown in for good measure.  Delta normally sells their miles for almost 3.8 cents each.  Now, I’m not saying that is a great deal but the miles earned on this route were pretty attractive for the cost of the ticket.