You’re planning a transatlantic flight to Paris. The thought of being crammed into an economy seat for eight hours, then to wake facing a rubbery egg served inside a half-frozen English muffin makes you cringe.
This time, you’re splurging on first class. (Leg room! Decent wine! Real silverware!) You keep frequent flier accounts with both United (UAL) and Delta (DAL), and are not sure which airline to choose. But before you leave the decision up to a coin toss, remember that when it comes to the perks and services provided in first class, airlines can vary wildly – both in quantity and quality.
Who Has the Better Stats?
Every year, the Wall Street Journal’s “Middle Seat Scorecard” ranks airlines in seven areas of service and one overall category. In 2016, Delta scored better than United in all seven, including on-time arrivals, baggage handling and customer complaints, as well as in the overall service category (Delta ranked second; United, fifth (tied with JetBlue). Regardless of whether you’re flying first class or economy, you don’t want your bags to wind up in Akron when they’re supposed to meet you in Amsterdam. It might be wise to base your choice on basic operational stats rather than what kind of beer they serve in the first class lounges, and in that case, Delta is likely a safer bet.
Here’s what you can expect when flying first class with Delta. Before boarding, you can check your email and sip a cappuccino in a Delta Sky Club Lounge — . You’ll be first to board the plane and served complimentary drinks before takeoff. Expect free entertainment; generous snacks, meals and drinks throughout the flight; reserved overhead luggage space and outlets to plug in your iPad. Keep in mind that Delta’s top class — Delta One (formerly BusinessElite) — is only available on long-haul international and transcontinental domestic flights. It pampers fliers with Tumi skincare kits and luxe Westin bedding to make the reclining seats even more comfy. Keep in mind that Delta One is only available on long-haul and trans-continental flight, shorter flights has first class, or the "BusinessElite" branding.
On United, you have access to Global First lounges if you’re on a long-haul international flight, or 45 United Clubs if you’re flying a domestic route. You can also expect similar boarding policies and generous availability of refreshments. For in-flight entertainment, the airline features DirectTV offerings (on select flights) on a screen that’s only a shade smaller than Delta’s: 15.4 inches versus 16. For beauty-product addicts, SoHo House Cowshed skincare products are a luxurious bonus.
If legroom is your number one priority, you’ll have to base your decision on another factor since both airlines feature lie-flat “suites” with equal amounts of sprawl room: 76 inches (lengthwise). Ditto with checked luggage: Both Delta and United allow you to check two free bags to most destinations.
Wine and Dine
Beer aficionados can sip on hipster brews from Brooklyn Brewery or local Atlanta beer SweetWater 420 on some domestic Delta flights. On flights of 900 miles or more, expect dinner service to feature items such as grilled chicken with risotto and spinach ricotta ravioli. Frequent fliers rave about the omelets served in first class with a side of roasted sweet potatoes (or regular potatoes, if you prefer). On Delta One flights, the meals are chef-driven and the fancy wine pairings are selected by Delta’s master sommelier, Andrea Robinson, a James Beard Award winner.
United’s six-course dinner (on international flights) includes a cheese plate and features hand-scooped sundaes for the finale. Wines are chosen by luminary sommelier Doug Frost, a contributor to “The Oxford Companion to Wine.”
The Bottom Line
Overall, Delta is consistently rated the more reliable airline. And when it comes to first class, Delta’s amenities have a posh factor that United doesn't quite match, though it comes close.
However, in many ways, the choice is a toss-up: Both airlines have added previously unheard-of levels of amenities to attract first class customers, such as chauffeured transport for passengers making connections at LAX. Delta picks you up in a Porsche; with United, you’ll ride in a Mercedes Benz. Check the fine print, however: Many of these perks require not only a first class ticket but also elite levels of frequent flier miles.