You’re planning a transatlantic flight to Paris. The thought of being crammed into an economy seat for eight hours only to face a rubbery egg served inside a half-frozen English muffin makes you cringe.
This time, you’re splurging on first class. You keep frequent flier accounts with both United (UAL) and Delta (DAL) and are not sure which airline to choose. 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 2018, 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 first overall; 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. You’ll be first to board the plane and served complimentary drinks before takeoff. Expect free entertainment; generous snacks (short flights), meals (longer flights), and drinks throughout the flight; reserved overhead luggage space and outlets to plug in your iPhone. Keep in mind that Delta’s top-class — Delta One (formerly BusinessElite) — is only available on long-haul international and transcontinental domestic flights.
On United, you can also expect similar boarding policies and generous availability of refreshments. For in-flight entertainment, the airline features DirecTV offerings (on select flights).
If legroom is your number one priority, you’ll have to base your decision on another factor since both airlines feature comparable seats with equal amounts of sprawl. 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 premium brews on some domestic Delta flights. On flights of 900 miles or more, expect dinner service to feature items such as grilled chicken with risotto or 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 international-quality, multi-course meals come with three entree choices. Menus are designed in collaboration with The Trotter Project, named after legendary chef Charlie Trotter. United works with Trotter Project chefs to design menus and sponsors Trotter Project events and charities.
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. Check the fine print, however: Many perks require not only a first-class ticket but also elite levels of frequent flier miles.