Ranking the Three Major U.S. Airlines

Ranking the Three Major U.S. Airlines

There have been numerous changes implemented and announced by the three major U.S. airlines, United, American and Delta, in recent months with modifications to frequent flyer programs, credit cards, bank relationships, planes, routes and service.

All these changes have caused many flyers to question their traditional loyalties as well as consider changes to their credit card strategies. In this article we will rank each airline across four categories and help readers determine what strategy is best for their travel needs.

Category 1: Plane and Service Quality

U.S. airlines typically lack quality compared to many of their international competitors, especially the top Asian and Middle Eastern airlines. All of the mergers over the years have resulted in service and procedures which are often inconsistent. Many, if not most flight attendant crews are not particularly friendly or helpful.

I give Delta the nod in this category as they are a notch above both United and American in terms of updating their fleet with Wi-Fi and new seats, and they also tend to have the most pleasant crews. One area where Delta really shines is on-time reliability. According to statistics from the Bureau of Transportation for total on-time percentage for the 12-month period from June-2105 through May-2016. Delta was clearly ahead of its two competitors.

AirlineOn-time Percentage
Delta Airlines87.15%
AmericanAirlines81.7%
United Airlines80.93%

United has announced a major upgrade to its long-haul business class product which it is branding Polaris. This will include significantly better seats, food options, new lounges, and hopefully better on-board service. The first Polaris equipped planes will start rolling out in December with the delivery of new 777-300ERs and will continue over the next few years with new 787-10s, A350-1000s and retrofits of some older wide body jets. Once these are rolled out, United should have the best international business class product of the three U.S. carriers.

Rankings:

  1. Delta Airlines
  2. United Airlines
  3. American Airlines

Category 2: Elite Status

Redeemable Mileage Earning

All three airlines have gone revenue-based for redeemable mileage accrual. This means that the number of miles you earn is based on the number of dollars you spend rather than the number of miles you fly. In fact, all three airlines have the exact same earning schedule for non-elites all the way up through top-tier elites.

Elite Status Qualification

All three airlines still award elite qualifying miles based on actual mileage flown. The accrual rates start out at one qualifying mile per mile flown in discount economy and go up with higher fare classes. Here, United and American tie for first, while Delta has lower multipliers for premium cabin tickets.

Qualifying Miles per Mile Flown by Fare ClassAmericanDeltaUnited
Full-Fare First/Business323
Discount First/Business21.52
Full-Fare Economy1.51.51.5
Discount Economy111

In addition to Delta’s lower accrual rates, they also require more miles for top-tier status than either United or American. All three carriers have spending requirements for status as well. Delta’s requirement can be waived all the way up to top-tier via credit card spending. United’s can be waived up to upper-tier, while American does not currently have a credit card with a spending waiver feature.

Miles Required for StatusAmericanDeltaUnited
Top-tierExecutive Platinum: 100,000Diamond: 125,000Premier 1K: 100,000
Upper-tierPlatinum Pro: 75,000Platinum: 75,000Platinum: 75,000
Mid-tierPlatinum: 50,000Gold: 50,000Gold: 50,000
Lowest-tierGold: 25,000Silver: 25,000Silver: 25,000

Rankings:

  1. Delta Airlines
  2. United Airlines
  3. American Airlines

Category 3: Award Prices, Availability, and Routing Rules

All three carriers use region-based award charts, which facilitates easy comparisons. (Delta does not actually publish award charts, but various analysts have pieced them together from large volume searches and saved versions of their old charts). Economy class awards are priced nearly identically for all three carriers for all award regions. American does offer off-peak awards which are slightly cheaper, as well as “MileSAAver” awards for select cities for credit card holders, so we will give them the edge here.

For business class awards, all three carriers are again in line with each other. American has a few sweets spots on its award chart (Northern South America, Korea, and Japan), so again they get the edge.

For first class award prices, American wins in a landslide. Delta doesn’t even allow international first-class award redemptions. United has decent rates for flights on United metal, but after their last devaluation first class partner award rates are now astronomical. Overall, both award charts are pretty horrible relative to many international competitors.

However, just as important as award pricing is award availability. Cheap award flights don’t do us any good if we can’t book them. Availability is partially dependent on the airlines but also highly dependent on the alliance to which each airline belongs. This is where United stands out. United’s Star Alliance has the highest number of members, flights, and destinations.

AirlineAlliance
United AirlinesStar Alliance
Delta AirlinesSkyteam Alliance
AmericanAirlinesOneworld Alliance

This opens up many more possibilities than either oneworld or SkyTeam. Oneworld has relatively friendly relationships between members which are fairly generous in allowing partner awards. However, this is offset by a significant decline in award availability over the past year. SkyTeam has the least friendly relationships, with many of its members blocking or restricting partner awards.

United has the most flexible routing rules, allowing for a stopover and two open-jaws on round-trip award tickets. Neither Delta nor American allows a stopover, and open-jaws need to be worked in manually by booking separate one-way tickets.

Rankings:

  1. United Airlines
  2. American Airlines
  3. Delta Airlines

Category 4: Credit Cards and Banking Relationships

United and Delta have clearly defined relationships with their banking partners, while the waters are more muddied for American. Chase Bank issues multiple co-branded United cards and United is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. American Express issues multiple co-branded Delta cards and Delta is a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards.

Citi issues multiple co-branded American cards but American is not a transfer partner of Citi ThankYou points. In addition, the Starwood Preferred Guest program allows 1:1 transfers to American (with a 25% bonus for transfers of 20k points) and the SPG cards are issued by Amex. However, the future of the SPG program is in serious doubt due to the pending merger with Marriott. Starting in 2017 there will also be new American cards issued by Barclaycard.

Airline Banking PartnerDirect Transfer
United AirlinesChase BankChase Ultimate Rewards
Delta AirlinesAmerican ExpressAmex Membership Rewards
AmericanAirlinesCiti BankStarwood Preferred Guest program

United wins this category because Ultimate Rewards are the easiest to accrue in large quantities and Chase has the best overall lineup of cards.
Delta gets second place because the co-branded cards from Amex are the only way that top-tier elite status can be manufactured without actually flying on any of the three carriers. American gets last place due to not having a full-fledged partner and a murkier future due to likely changes or elimination of the SPG program.

Rankings:

  1. United Airlines
  2. Delta Airlines
  3. American Airlines

Final Verdict

If you live near a city that is dominated by one carrier, you may be stuck with them regardless of whether or not they are optimal for you travel needs.
That being said, the choice for first place comes down to Delta or United depending on your travel plans with American bringing up the rear.

best airlines for international and domestic travelling

If you value elite status and/or do most of your travel domestically, then Delta should be your carrier of choice. Delta has the nicest fleet of planes for domestic travel and the co-branded Delta cards from Amex make earning elite status easier than for either United or American.

If you value international travel, especially in premium cabins, then United is the best airline for you. Premium-cabin international travel is the most attainable via United due to the Star Alliance network, United’s more flexible routing rules, and the ability to acquire tons of miles using Chase’s lineup of credit cards.

American doesn’t really have any standout features at this point and needs to improve its fleet of planes and lineup of co-branded credit cards just to catch up to United and Delta.

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