American vs United vs Delta: Evaluating the Best Business Class Product

So I finally got the chance to fly DeltaOne on a recent flight to Amsterdam and this pretty much allowed me to check off flying the trifecta of US Airlines from my bucket list. And I thought now was as good time as any to evaluate which of these three I like the most in long haul business class. I’ll have an evaluation of economy class on the next post, coming up soon. 

So I will use simple methodology to compare the three airlines. There will be 7 categories (food (vegetarian only), amenity kit, seating, entertainment, consistency, lounges, convenience, award availability), and I will rank each airline from 1-3 for all categories.  The average of the scores will give the final score for the airline. The lowest score wins!


Food 

Food is one area where I believe that United has it won. Every time I fly United, it seems like they at least go through the effort of changing up their Asian Vegetarian Meals (AVML). And they also have the best assortment of desserts on offer for you to choose from. In my experience, on the other airlines they offer one dessert per passenger whereas on United you can have as many as you want and mix and match them. 

Delta and American are about equal in terms of quality of food, but if you order the AVML on American you are pretty much guaranteed to get the same meal over and over again. This is the exact meal I received on all my AA long haul flights out of DFW recently (3 in total): 

Where AA was a little better than Delta and United was the inflight snack station which had all sorts of desserts, sandwiches, and snacks. They actually used to have an even greater assortment, but there have been serious cutbacks. 

Winner: United          Runner Up: American


Seat

I would say American is probably the airline with the most consistent good seat. Most aircraft have some form or the other of the reverse herringbone style (except on the 767 of course).

Delta on the other hand probably has the best seating overall with Delta One Suites. I haven’t had a chance to try it out, but I’ve heard mixed reviews about it so I’m not sure what to make of it.

United is no doubt last in this category. A majority of their fleet still don’t have seats featuring direct aisle access and their new seat is really not that innovative considering the other two had a similar seat already available across the fleet. Privacy is pretty much something you can forget while flying the older United Business Class (or should I say Continental BusinessFirst).

Winners: Delta/American         Loser: United


Entertainment

Inflight entertainment on US carriers has gotten significantly better over the last 10 years with them being better than 90% of airlines. The only airlines that are better are probably Emirates and Singapore Airlines (maybe Cathay or Qatar as well). I would say all three are equal in this department with AA maybe having just a tad more TV shows. 

On the other hand we have inflight Wi-Fi which is still not as consistent as most of us would like it to be.  In my short experience on Delta long haul (3 flights), I have had zero aircraft with working Wi-Fi. While the United flights I’ve been on had Wi-Fi, the signal was pretty sporadic throughout the flight. In my experience, AA did have the most consistent internet, but the facts seem to indicate that Delta is slightly better. Just check out this study done by RouteHappy

Winner: Delta           Runner-Up: American


Consistency

In terms of operational consistency and meeting passenger expectations, I would say Delta has it won. Their on time performance numbers are well above their peers over at United and AA with an impressive 81.4% of flights leaving on time in 2017 according to a report done by OAG. And at the end of the day, I would say that nothing is more important than getting to your destination safely and on-time. 

While service was better on Delta across the board (their domestic crews are way better than the other two), my experience has been that American has had a friendlier crew on their long haul flights. This might just be my personal experience though with the DFW based crews. 

I would say United ranks below the other three in this regard because of their on board hard product being altogether inferior to DL’s and AA’s. I may revise this once the new Polaris becomes more common.

Winner: Delta           Runner-Up: American


Amenity Kit

Every time I think of amenity kits, I remember my friend Darren Booth over at FrequentFlying who collected them and systematically reviewed them on his blog. He was certainly the first to introduce me to the BoardingArea community so I’m not sure I would be here without his guidance. May he continue to rest in peace.

Anyway, I don’t think there is a contest here, Delta has probably the only amenity kit that is worth collecting of the three on a regular basis. The TUMI branding and option to monogram your own is what helps it steal first place. 

The United amenity kit comes in second with it having slightly more stuff inside as compared to the other two. AA’s amenity kit comes in dead last. Despite having a nice tote bag, AA’s amenity kit is stocked with a cheap pen, socks, and very little in terms of amenities. 

Winner: Delta           Runner-Up: United


Lounges

United has taken over this category in 2018 as the best with the opening of its Polaris lounges in LAX, IAH, SFO, and EWR. The seating and amenities offered at these Polaris lounges easily make them the best not just among US carriers, but among airlines in general. I got to recently visit the Polaris lounge in Houston and I was quite impressed with the elegance of the space, the dining options, and customer service (review coming very soon).

American Airlines comes in second on this list. Despite opening flagship lounges in JFK, LAX, MIA, and ORD back in 2017, they have pretty much done nothing ever since. The DFW and PHL Flagship lounges are yet to open and I’m not sure they even have one on the cards for CLT anytime soon. It’s quite embarrassing when you don’t even have your premium lounge at your largest hub airport (DFW). They do have a very nice Admirals Club in Terminal A though. 

I’ve written about Delta falling behind the other two in this category in a recent article. We are still waiting to see what Delta comes up with for its DeltaOne customers so it might be well into 2020 or 2021 before we see anything happening on this front. I must say though that Delta Sky Clubs do feature great outdoor spaces though if that’s any consolation. 

Winner: United           Runner-Up: American


Convenience

In terms of convenience, I thought I should consider just how easy it is to navigate the hub airports of these carriers. In this category, there are two airports that stand out as being really good connecting airports: DFW and Amsterdam.  Those are probably the only two airports where you could probably make short connections with ease (with 40 minutes or less). However given that London-Heathrow is such an unpleasant connecting airport for international flights on Oneworld, the edge goes to Delta. 

I don’t think there is any doubt that United is the worst of this category. Its major hubs in Newark, Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco are hardly desirable connecting points. And Frankfurt while still better than London-Heathrow, is nowhere close to being as nice as Amsterdam-Schiphol. 

Winner: Delta                Runner-Up: American


Award Availability

When was the last time you saw award availability on AA or Delta without having to spend an insane amount of miles? I am pretty sure you can’t remember as of lately. Well the reality is that only United releases award space in its premium cabins recently. Even United has had very few seats available as of late owing to perhaps just how good the US economy is right now. So power to United in this very crucial category. 

Winner: United                Runner-Up: American


THE RESULTS

 AMERICANDELTAUNITED
FOOD (Vegetarian)231
AMENITY KIT312
SEATING (HARD PRODUCT)213
ENTERTAINMENT/Wi-Fi213
CONSISTENCY213
LOUNGES231
CONVENIENCE213
AWARD AVAILABILITY 231
AVERAGE2.1251.752.125

So it looks like the verdict is that Delta is the best airline for business class passengers in my evaluation of the big three US Airlines. It’s a sad case when an airline without a premium lounge experience or good premium award availability wins over the competition. Overall, I would say Delta’s strength really is in its operational reliability and consistency rather than being spectacular in any one area. And given my oversimplified analysis and lack of different weights for each category, the other two airlines can very easily catch up with the leader.  Let’s see if the new year brings any changes to these rankings.


I tried to be as objective as possible with my rankings, but at the end of the day there is a reason why we use the acronym ‘YMMV’ very commonly in this frequent flyer community. I have another two trips coming up on Delta this year so I will have to see whether this ranking of the airline holds up. Delta and SkyTeam have certainly had the most competitive business class fares as of lately so I can see myself flying them more often than the other two long haul.