Stockholm Syndrome is a condition observed among hostages who develop an affinity and loyalty to their captors, even when held at gunpoint. I started studying the symptoms in light of a few recently heartbreaking perusals through Delta Skymiles availability calendars.
Delta Skymiles isn’t exactly a wasteland, but it’s getting there. Like any frequent flier program, there are sweet spots. 90,000 miles and $200 for round-trip airfare to southeast Asia on Korean Air is not bad, especially considering that Korean’s economy service could almost qualify as premium economy.
But I don’t collect miles to fly in economy. I save them for flights I couldn’t otherwise afford. This availability calendar for Paris flights in October perfectly illustrates my despair as a frequent Skymiles collector:
United’s MileagePlus program is now miles ahead of Skymiles in terms of redemption values. Typical premium class awards on North America to Oceania flights are wholly 30 percent less using United than Delta. Availability can’t even be compared, lest I’m prepared to visit a therapist.
With fairly frequent travel to visit scattered family, frequent travel to represent my startup company, Grapple, and travel to do points and miles research, I fly about 100,000 air miles per year, mostly on Delta, but split when necessary. Doing the same amount of business on United, I would be able to take an additional complimentary business class flight to Australia every year.
If, by continuing to choose Delta over United, I’m giving up a business class seat to Australia every year, why do I do it?
Part of Stockholm Syndrome is an overwhelming urge to defend one’s captors. Here goes.
1. Delta offers better service than either of its two major competitors.
There are loyalists at every airline who will argue in their favor, but I do occasionally dabble in infidelity. Though my experiences with American and United are limited to a few flights per year, I consistently find that Delta offers a better experience.
Bags come in 20 minutes or less. Flight attendants (almost) always smile, genuinely. Delta fights arrive on time more than any other U.S. airline. A selection of free snacks and sometimes free meals are always on offer in economy.
More importantly, Delta seems to endow its flight crews and employees with one particularly omnipotent tool: empowerment. Delta gives its employees the tools and autonomy to make decisions that help passengers in difficult situations. Remember the Delta Connection pilot with the gumption to turn back to a gate to pick up a stranded family? Not only do passengers end up better off, but the employees come out feeling better both about themselves and their airline.
I recall a recent missed connection I encountered in Dallas, during which a very senior and kind American Airlines desk agent helplessly and depressingly tried yet failed to find accommodation for me, even though I was travelling on a paid first class ticket. She felt terrible about the prospect of having to send me off to a Super 8 motel, where I would spend $150 to sleep for 5 hours. Her company gave her no other options.
I imagine this sort of helpless feeling has a cumulative effect for employees who have to suffer through these interactions on a daily basis.
Gordon Bethune, the celebrated airline mechanic turned CEO who pulled Continental Airlines out of a prolonged period of near-brankruptcy, was famous for saying “it wasn’t anything wrong with the employees. It was the management—and it always is.”
Continental was the top rated airline in North America for over a decade. Most of the employees winning those awards also worked for the Continental Airlines that regularly bottomed out the decade prior.
2. Delta has a consistently nice (if old) fleet.
Ahh consistency. For frequent fliers, consistency is king. There’s nothing worse, on a stressful and time-crunched business trip, than a nasty aircraft change that leaves one stuck without wi-fi or crammed into an unexpected middle seat.
Delta operates the oldest fleet of all U.S. carriers, at an average aircraft age of over 17 years. If you were to measure fleet age by interior updates, however, I have little doubt that Delta would come out on top.
Delta overhauls it’s aircraft interiors with remarkable frequency. Even the airline’s oldest Boeing 767s (some are approaching 30 years) are now fitted with wi-fi and brand new seatback entertainment screens.
Delta comes out a winner in seat pitch and seat width on most direct aircraft comparisons, and they aren’t cheaply refitting 757s and 767s (ahem, American) without entertainment screens. Retrofits completed on the airline’s Airbus A320 fleet leave most passengers I’ve talked to thinking they are boarding a brand new aircraft.
I know, when I fly Delta, that I’m not going to be welcomed into a dingy and sub-functional aircraft interior.
3. Delta’s Medallion program is truly special.
There are a lot of great frequent flier programs out there. Alaska Airlines offers its MVP Gold and 75K elites incredible benefits. Both American and United have great call centers and perks for their elite fliers, too.
Delta has made it more difficult to attain elite status in recent years, increasing spend requirements and curtailing waivers that helped some (including myself) circumvent spend requirements. That’s fine. There are perks to exclusivity, among them:
Complimentary upgrades, nearly every time. I sympathize with some Delta fliers who tell me they never receive comp upgrades. Scoring consistent free first class seats requires some finagleing. When I can, I often utilize complimentary same-day flight changes to move to flights with extra first class seats or a shorter waitlist.
The upgrade percentages I record are often double that of those I know flying with United. Alaska has a very straightforward upgrade process, but installs minimal first class seats on many of its 737s. American limits upgrades for most elites to “stickers”, which must be spent according to flight length and must be accumulated over time.
To sweeten the pot, Delta now offers all elites the chance for comp upgrades on all domestic and Hawaii flights, even those with lie-flat business class seats. Somewhere out there, some day, a lucky Silver Medallion is going to find themselves sitting in Delta One, for free. That’s a cool feeling.
Then there’s the call center. Over the years I’ve enjoyed time as a Silver, Gold and Platinum Medallion. While silver earners get to cut the typical Skymiles line, Gold and Platinum elites have access to their own dedicated desks, staffed by the absolute best call center employees at the airline.
Even at the Gold level, I rarely waited for longer than 2 or 3 minutes to reach someone, even during inclement weather. Platinum agents are often willing to throw out the book, bending rules to please customers who might otherwise be in a jam.
My experiences with these staff members are among the best I’ve had with representatives of any corporation, anywhere.
4. Delta leverages its global network in a way that is irresistible.
United’s membership in Star Alliance is tantalizing. Outside of its Korean Air connection, Delta’s SkyTeam alliance is inferior on just about every regional comparison. Air France and Lufthansa/SWISS are arguably a wash in the air, but transiting Charles De Gaulle can’t be compared with Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna or Zürich.
Elsewhere, a great number of the world’s most admired airlines are part of Star Alliance. We’re talking Air New Zealand, ANA, EVA Air, Turkish, Singapore Airlines.
What makes Delta’s network more appealing is the intimacy of its codeshare agreements. On a significant number of partner airlines (Air France, China Eastern, China Southern, KLM, Korean, Virgin Atlantic, to name a few) I can have international flights ticketed, at no extra cost, through Delta.
This is powerful, because it better preserves my elite status benefits and gives the Delta Medallion Desk power to jockey any last-minute changes or fixes that may become necessary.
It is sometimes possible to purchase many tickets on Star Alliance through United and OneWorld through American, but not as often, and when possible, often at a higher price.
5. Delta leverages its domestic network in a way that is irresistible.
This is probably the easiest point to make. I live in New York, which is a very competitive airline market. Almost every carrier known to man has a presence here. Don’t discount me as an east coast elite, though. Given the amount of consolidation in U.S. airlines in the past decade, most U.S. cities that are not a fortress hub (with a single dominant carrier like Atlanta, Dallas, or Houston), now enjoy a degree of parity among airlines.
If you’re flying from Cleveland to New Orleans, Nashville to Miami, or Raleigh to San Diego, all three legacy carriers, plus Southwest, have reasonable schedules to get you there.
In my time living in the midwest, however, Delta always seemed to have a slight edge. The Delta flights were sometimes cheaper, but even when they were not, they usually left at more attractive times and arrived sooner. Delta’s high punctuality enables exceedingly short connections, allowing fliers to transit a hub without hardly waiting in a line to board their next flight.
In New York, United flies out of Newark. The airline often touts this as some sort of advantage, but as a resident New Yorker I don’t see it. It almost always takes me longer to get to Newark than JFK by car, and public transit options are lousy during peak times and absolutely dismal on nights and weekends.
Alaska Airlines runs a great operation for west coast fliers, but that doesn’t do much for the rest of the country.
One potentially irresistible development might be some sort of mileage partnership between Alaska and jetBlue. If I could utilize both jetBlue’s east coast network and Alaska’s west coast network, maintaining frequent flier benefits and earning miles in one program, that could be the only thing imaginable that would pull me away from Delta anytime soon.
I hope they are reading. Until then, Fly Delta!