US Mammoths: United, Delta And American. What Airline Is Best For Passengers?

When it comes to flying to, from, and within the United States, three big legacy carriers usually appear among a wide array of options. Whether you’re in a major American metropolis or a smaller city, you may have a choice between flying American, Delta, or United. Let’s compare these three full-service airlines and see which one is the best choice for travelers.

Delta American aircraft
The largest American cities are served by all three US legacy carriers. Photo: Glenn Beltz via Flickr 

Overall customer satisfaction

If you have a true choice between all three carriers when flying between cities, customer satisfaction should be top-of-mind. Consumer insight firm J.D. Power regularly publishes lists ranking companies and their products, including the traveler satisfaction with airlines.

The company scored the big three US carriers for its 2021 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, doing so using eight factors: aircraft; baggage; boarding; check-in; cost and fees; flight crew; in-flight services; and reservation.

The 2021 study measured passenger satisfaction among both business and leisure travelers and was based on responses from 2,309 passengers.

Out of a potential 1,000 points, Delta Air Lines ranked highest in customer satisfaction with a score of 860. J.D. Power notes that this is the first time Delta has ranked the highest since 1995. United Airlines came in second with 810 points, while American Airlines was third with 791 points.

With the industry average sitting at 820 points, we can see that United and American came in slightly below average.

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Delta scored the highest of the big three airlines on J.D. Power’s airline customer satisfaction study.  Photo: Getty Images.

While Skytrax and its ratings have been controversial at times, we can note that all three airlines are listed by the organization as three-star airlines. However, customers that took the time to review and rate the airlines on Skytrax’s Airline Quality review site offered these ratings:

  • American: 3/10
  • United: 3/10
  • Delta: 4/10

Most punctual

The firm OAG posted its July 2021 list for most punctual airlines around the world. Within the North America category, here is how the big three stacked up in terms of percentage of on-time flights:

  • Delta Air Lines was the 3rd most punctual airline in North America with a score of 84.8% for its 135,629 flights. It had an impressive cancelation rate of 0.3%.
  • American Airlines was 12th on the list, with a score of 74.5% for its 179,582 flights. This airline’s cancelation rate was 1.7%.
  • United Airlines came in 13th with 70.70% over 126,129 flights. Its cancelation rate was 2.4%.

Ranking 12th and 13th may not sound the best. However, a major factor is the number of flights an airline operates. After all, if an airline operates only one flight per week and it’s always on time, it would score 100%.

Therefore, with OAG re-adjusting for the number of flights, American comes in 1st place, with Delta 2nd, and United in 3rd.

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American Airlines is a member of the oneworld airline alliance. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Most likely to lose your bags

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) published a list last year showing just how likely US carriers were to lose baggage. For the DOT, a lost bag is considered as such when it’s been misplaced for over 21 days.

Reporting on the data compiled from 2012 to 2018, Forbes notes that airlines in the US lost, on average, about two bags out of every thousand.

American Airlines turned out to be the worst major US carrier for lost baggage, losing an average of 4.3 bags per 1,000 passengers. Meanwhile, United Airlines lost 2.9 bags per 1,000, and Delta lost just 1.55 bags per 1,000.

United Airlines, Walmart, COVID-19 Tests
United Airlines’ hub serving the New York Metropolitan Area is at Newark Liberty International. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Domestic and global reach

Unfortunately, the current number of destinations each airline serves is probably not the most accurate or indicative of its reach, given the global health crisis. Indeed, many airlines are still in the process of restoring their full pre-pandemic networks. Thus, the following August 2021 numbers, as listed by FlightConnections.com, should definitely be taken with a grain of salt:

  • United Airlines serves 252 domestic destinations and 128 international destinations in 68 countries.
  • Delta serves 216 domestic destinations and 77 international destinations in 51 countries.
  • American Airlines serves 233 domestic destinations and 124 international destinations in 61 countries.

So, for August 2021, United wins out in terms of the number of destinations, both domestic and international, as well as the number of countries served.

Considering service in specific parts of the world, the maps provided by FlightConnections indicate that all airlines are fairly lacking in their service to Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. However, Delta stands out as not serving India at all, while American and United fly to multiple destinations in the country. Meanwhile, American Airlines’ weak spot is the African continent, with zero destinations served there.

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An airline may be more or less attractive because of the partnerships and alliances it has with other airlines around the world. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

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Global reach with partner airlines

However, it should be noted that global reach isn’t limited to the flights operated by our three US carriers. Indeed, we can look at the alliances that each airline is a part of and consider connectivity through partnerships.

United and its membership in the Star Alliance will win out in terms of global connectivity. If the airline can’t fully fly you to your destination itself, you will probably be able to complete the journey with another Star Alliance member. Some strong carriers include (but are not limited to):

  • Air Canada (for Canada)
  • Turkish Airlines (Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa)
  • Ethiopian Airlines (Africa)
  • Lufthansa (Europe)
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Turkish Airlines is well known for the number of destinations it serves from its Istanbul hub. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Meanwhile, American’s strongest partners in terms of connectivity are British Airways for Europe and Qatar Airways for the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South Asia. For destinations in East Asia and Oceania, Cathay Pacific will be a decent connecting airline.

For Delta and the SkyTeam alliance, Air France and KLM should cover most of Europe and onward flights to the Middle East and Africa. Additionally, Kenya Airways serves many destinations across sub-Saharan Africa, while Aeromexico will connect Americans with many cities in Central America and a few in South America.

Conclusion

Our study today didn’t go into specific onboard products or the lounges provided by each carrier, nor does it look at airline pricing, which is currently in flux and varies greatly with the destination and time of year. These may certainly be factors that will make an airline better for one traveler versus another.

However, to wrap this article up, it looks like Delta shines bright when it comes to the passenger experience – scoring the highest in customer satisfaction. This score makes sense considering that it loses the fewest bags, cancels the fewest flights, and performs well with punctuality.

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Delta appears to be the best airline for passengers. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

United Airlines appears to perform best in terms of having the most connections both domestically and internationally. This is amplified even more with its major Star Alliance partners. Of course, it does have the highest cancellation rate among its peers.

Although it leads the country in terms of the capacity it offers, American Airlines appears to be customers’ least favorite of the three carriers, having the lowest customer satisfaction score while also losing the most bags (albeit a fairly small percentage).

Does the data presented here line up with your own experiences? Or do you think this list needs to be rearranged? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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