This week, going head-to-head are two of the United States’ legacy carriers. This specific article will be focusing on the economy cabins of both United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. We will look at what the two veterans do best. We will also see what they fall behind on and determine which one comes out on top.
To keep it fair, we will be reviewing the class on a plane that they both have, on the same routes. Naturally, we will choose the delightful Boeing 737-900ER. The Boeing 737 is one of the world’s most popular planes, and United & Delta are both happy customers.
We will firstly be looking at the route from New York to Atlanta, leaving from Newark International (EWR) to Atlanta Hartsville-Jackson (ATL). We will also be looking at other domestic services.
Having flown both United Economy and Delta Economy, I’m going to get into the service design of each. We will start by comparing these airlines’ basic services, including pricing, seating and comfort, service, food and drinks, and entertainment.
Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.
It’s rather tricky to find a direct route for both airlines that does not involve moving through their various hubs. However, both seem to be very competitive with the New York to Atlanta flight. The pair shadow each other’s prices and scheduled times.
What about other economy fares?
Here is a brief summary of various direct routes around the continental USA. All these fares are approximate and for one-way tickets pre-pandemic.
|Route||Delta Price||United Price|
|New York - Atlanta||$89||$89|
|San Francisco - Boston||$119||$119|
|Minneapolis - Chicago||$94||$94|
However, if a passenger is happy to connect through one of the two carriers’ hubs, what would the price be then?
|Route||Delta Price||Delta Hub||United Price||United Hub|
|New York - Los Angeles||$145||DTW||$127||ORD|
|Seattle - Denver||$74||SLC||$90||SFO|
|Miami - Chicago||$97||ATL||$85||IAH|
|Washington D.C. - Dallas||$125||ATL||$146||ORD|
|San Diego - Boston||$153||MSB||$133||ERW|
As they are so cut-throat, the price is really not a factor as they seem to go out of their way to stay competitive. Looking at a random selection of five cross country flights, there is no clear pattern or winner, just that each airline competes based on where its hubs are and how it can best implement economies of scale.
So if the pricing is roughly the same, what about the experience?
Let’s start with the seat specifications
- Seats: 139 available
- Pitch: 31 inches
- Width: 17 inches
- Seats: 120 available
- Pitch: 31 inches
- Width: 17 inches
Noticeably, these two airlines are nearly equal in this department. Both carriers do what they can to make passengers as comfortable as possible for budget prices.
Looking at actual photos, I can barely tell the difference. The seats are even the same color across both offerings.
So, if we can’t separate the two by price or seats, what else can we look at?
Food and Drink
This is where it starts to get a little more interesting. Both United and Delta serve complimentary food on board. However, the latter has a restriction that a flight under 250 miles will not have anything served. Meanwhile, United is happy to offer a drink and a snack no matter how short the flight.
Both airlines offer more substantial food for sale in the economy cabin. Yet Delta offers a meal for free on select transcontinental routes.
What about the price of extra food?
If we look at both menus available on their websites, we can compare their snack boxes. Delta provides a box with chips, chocolate, and dips for $8.99. United offers snack boxes of equality quantity for $9.59. With regards to something more substantial, United seems to win with a bigger range of hot food, all for a max price of $10. Delta offers some wraps for upwards of $10.49.
Moreover, both firms provide special meals for those adhering to specific dietary requirements. For instance, gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian meals, along with dishes prepared to certain religious traditions are all offered across the two carriers’ services.
Altogether, as most flights won’t take advantage of Delta’s complimentary meals, we will have to suggest that United wins this round on product range and price. Whether or not the food is of great quality is up to the traveler. Furthermore, the global health crisis has forced airlines to repackage their food for safety reasons. So, the overall quality may differ at the moment.
Entertainment and WiFi
This is where things heat up a little more. Notably, United has been phasing out its back-of-seat entertainment screens.
United argues that passengers typically carry a smartphone or an iPad with them. So, the carrier has slowly been removing screens and providing entertainment via the onboard WiFi. It offers a variety of shows for free and additional movies can be paid for starting from a price of $4.99. Nonetheless, select Boeing 737 aircraft do have DIRECTV available.
Delta offers personal IFE units on most of its planes. The company has plenty of movies and provides this service for free.
Both airlines offer headphones for sale. United recommends bringing passengers to bring their own headphones. However, if travelers forget them, they can request complimentary earbuds, available by request on select flights. Delta also provides complimentary headphones on some flights. Also, there is purchasable WiFi on board for both airlines.
Naturally, as Delta offers the superior entertainment product, it wins this round.
For general travelers in Delta’s main cabin on a flight within the United States the first checked bag costs $30 (under 50 lbs., each way). After that, a second checked bag costs $40.
Meanwhile a standard domestic checked back with the same weight at United in economy is $35 or if prepaid, it is $30. The second bag is also $40. So, if well-prepared, the baggage fees are the same in this situation.
Additionally, in the present climate, it is important to note the measures are in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both carriers have ramped-up their safety policies this year. Each operator highlights the use of HEPA air filters, enhanced cleaning procedures, and the mandatory wearing of face masks. However, out of the two, only Delta is still enforcing the blocking of middle seats amid social distancing efforts.
The company will block seats up until at least January 6th, 2021. It confirmed in August that seats in the main cabin are part of this policy.
Significantly, both firms have now dropped domestic change fees.
Should I fly with Delta or United?
This is such a subjective choice. Altogether, both airlines offer almost the same experience.
The level of service varies from each airline, and sometimes passengers might have a flight attendant who is having a bad day.
Altogether, there are passengers that have their preferences. So different travelers may prefer what one airline does over the other, depending on what they are looking to get out of the experience.
Our recommendation is if it’s a short flight, fliers should choose the most convenient direct flight for the lowest cost. However, if the distance of the journey is a little longer, then Delta may be the better option. Ultimately with the Atlanta-based carrier, passengers sitting in the main cabin would have a chance to get a complimentary meal (if the flight is long enough) and free inflight entertainment.
Which airline do you think has the better economy cabin? How do the offerings of Delta and United compare to you? Let us know what you think of the two airlines’ services in the comment section.