American Airlines vs Delta: Which airline is better?

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The two largest airlines in the world reside a few hundred miles from each other, both based in the U.S., American Airlines and Delta are fierce competitors who will both do just about anything for your business.

So who makes the biggest effort? If you’re trying to decide which airline to loyally invest your money in, or if you’re trying to decide which airline credit card you want to open, we’ll break down the biggest questions readers ask about these airlines to help you decide.

(Photo by Flashpop/Getty Images)

Which airline is safer?

Air travel is extremely safe. The odds of some sort of malfunction or error that endangers flyers is truly infinitesimal. The International Air Transport Association places the odds of dying in a plane crash around 1 in 5.9 million. The more relevant queries nowadays surround which airlines are taking the most drastic coronavirus precautions.

Both American and Delta mandate face coverings and are known to ban passengers indefinitely from future travel if they fail to comply. They both claim to have rigorous cleaning policies, too.

However, there are a couple of ways in which Delta goes the extra mile for its concerned passengers. It’s the only U.S. carrier that continues to limit onboard capacity, and it’s blocking middle seats through March 30, 2021. Also, Delta boards their flights from back to front, in an effort to help their passengers keep their distance from each other.

You can read our post on which airlines are taking the most precautions against COVID-19.

Winner: Delta

Which has more customer-friendly cancellation and change policies?

American and Delta have both permanently waived all change and cancellation policies for domestic flights, including award tickets. The only exception is Delta and American Airlines Basic Economy — and even changes for those tickets are waived for the rest of 2020.

The noticeable difference between these airlines lies in their 24-hour cancellation policies. When you buy a ticket, you are allowed to cancel within 24 hours of purchase. But the airlines have their own rules as to how close to your departure date you can cancel.

American allows you to cancel within 24 hours of purchase, as long as it’s two days before your departure date. Delta, on the other hand, allows you to cancel within 24 hours as long as it’s midnight of the departure date of the first flight.

In other words, Delta squeaks out this win. They allow you to cancel a last-minute flight within 24 hours of purchase by midnight of the departure date.

Winner: Delta

Which has lower baggage fees?

Both Delta and American Airlines baggage policies are pretty well identical. You’ll pay $30 for your first checked bag and $40 for your second. Both will charge you extra if your bag weighs 50 lbs or more.

There are plenty of Delta and American credit cards that waive baggage fees, so this shouldn’t be an issue anyway. Delta’s credit card policies, however, are slightly more generous than American’s:

  • Most Delta credit cards, including the popular Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, offer a free checked bag for you and up to eight companions on the same Delta flight reservation (a total of nine free bags!!). Read our post on how to use the Amex Delta checked baggage credit.
  • Most American Airlines credit cards offer a free checked bag for you and up to four companions on the same reservation. You’ll have to hold an ultra-premium American Airlines card, like the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, to receive up to nine free bags (including yourself and eight companions traveling with you on the same reservation).

Winner: Delta (barely)

(Photo by Philip Pilosian/Shutterstock.)

Which has a better boarding process

Both American and Delta use very standard boarding processes, embarking passengers in different groups.

American Airlines has nine groups:

  • Group 1 – First Class, active-duty U.S. military
  • Group 2 – American Airlines status (AA Executive Platinum, oneworld Emerald)
  • Group 3 – Elite status flyers (AA Platinum Pro, Platinum, oneworld Sapphire)
  • Group 4 – Elite status flyers (AA Gold oneworld Ruby), AirPass, Premium Economy seats, Citi AAdvantage Executive cardholders
  • Group 5 – Main Cabin Extra seats, select American Airlines cardholders
  • Group 6-8 – Regular coach seats
  • Group 9 – Basic Economy

Delta’s boarding groups look like this:

  • Pre-Boarding – Anyone needing assistance, active-duty military
  • Delta One – Delta’s business class product, Elite status flyers (Diamond Medallion)
  • Delta Comfort+
  • Sky Priority – Delta elite status (Delta Platinum and Gold, Flying Blue Platinum and Gold, Virgin Atlantic Gold, Virgin Australia Platinum and Gold, GOL Smiles Diamond, SkyTeam Elite Plus)
  • Main cabin 1 – Elite status flyers (Delta Silver, Flying Blue Silver, Virgin Atlantic Silver
  • Virgin Australia Silver, GOL Smiles Gold, SkyTeam Elite, SkyMiles Select), Delta Corporate Travelers, Delta Gold, Platinum, and Reserve cardholders),
  • Main Cabin 2 and 3 – Regular coach seats
  • Basic Economy

These boarding processes are very similar, and both airlines offer an abundance of credit cards that will give you preferred boarding.

Also, note that airlines have tweaked their boarding processes in response to coronavirus. You’ll generally be instructed to stay seated at your gate until your particular boarding group is called. As mentioned above, Delta boards their flights from back to front to try and keep aisles clear when passengers are seated.

Winner: Its a tie

Which has better in-flight amenities?

The “little things” onboard a flight is the thing you’ll notice probably only second to the pitch and legroom of your seat.

Both airlines have comparable Wi-Fi (the top two U.S. airlines for onboard connection — both of which participate in free inflight wifi for T-Mobile customers), and both have a similar number of outlets per seat.

Delta takes the cake with inflight entertainment, however, providing the most up-to-date experience on most of their planes. They’re not just better than American, they’re better than all other U.S. airlines.

American, for instance, has resorted to installing personal device holders on the back of their seats instead of proper screens. I actually prefer this myself, but it’s far from cutting-edge.

Winner: Delta

Which has better in-flight food offerings?

When flying over 200 miles on American, or 350 miles on Delta, coach passengers usually have modest snacks. American gives you the choice of Biscoff cookies or pretzels, plus non-alcoholic drinks. Delta offers a choice of Cheez-its, almonds, KIND Dark bars or Biscoff cookies.

Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, you won’t have any snacks on most American Airlines flights. In an effort to reduce the spread of coronavirus, very few flights have any kind of onboard service for coach passengers — even for purchase. You can request a beverage, and if you’re flying over 900 miles you can expect some pre-packaged snack when you board.

Delta provides pre-packaged snacks for flights over 350 miles. That’s considerably more generous than American Airlines — and their food is notoriously healthy, as well!

Winner: Delta

Which has a better first class?

In terms of most luxurious domestic first class product, American Airlines is the champion. Its fantastic lie-flat seats aboard the Airbus A321 are top of the line. However, you’ll only find this on very few routes, including New York (JFK) to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Boston to Los Angeles.

First class aboard Delta are not lie-flat. The airline does have lie-flat business class seats, which are paradoxically much nicer than their first class seats.

Read our post on the best domestic first class seats for more details.

Winner: American Airlines

American edges out Delta when it comes to their business class product. (Photo by Abdul N Quraishi – Abs/Shutterstock)


Which is best, American or Delta?

Delta is (and always has been) the better airline in terms of experience. They outperform American Airlines in nearly every way, such as inflight entertainment, coronavirus precautions, and change policies — but also things like cabin quality and on-time percentages.

American Airlines may have an edge when booking award travel, on the other hand. In my experience, award flights are almost always cheaper than the same routes on Delta. That increases American Airlines miles value and may be worth a more tattered cabin experience or a late flight now and again (read our guide on how to track American Airlines flights).

What airline is bigger between Delta and American Airlines?

American Airlines is the biggest airline in the world. In fact, they’ve got a whopping 200+ more planes than Delta. They’ve got a comprehensive network, existing in the largest airline alliance in the world — meaning booking with American can take you just about anywhere. Read our post on how to use American Airlines miles for more details.

Which airline has the most international flights?

American Airlines offers the most international flights of any airline in the world, clocking at over 360 destinations. Delta, on the other hand, serves around 330 international destinations

Bottom line

On nearly every front, Delta Air Lines comes in ahead of American Airlines. If you want the best domestic coach experience, they’re the ones to book.

It’s worth noting that I find less value from Delta miles than from American miles due to things like great sales, more destinations, and greater fleet size. There are loads of ways to earn both types of miles, so whichever you choose, you can know that your flight will be free.

Let us know which of these airlines is your favorite! And subscribe to our newsletter for more travel analysis posts like this delivered to your inbox once per day.

Meghan Hunter is an editor for Million Mile Secrets. She covers points, miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels and general travel. Her work has also appeared in The Points Guy.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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