United Airlines vs. Delta First Class: Which Is Better?

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.

Key Takeaways

  • Both Delta and United airlines offer plenty of perks and amenities to first-class passengers, including advance boarding, two free checked bags, and complimentary drinks before takeoff.
  • Both airlines offer state-of-the-art entertainment options.
  • Both airlines offer chef-curated meals and sommelier-picked wines, but United has teamed with the prestigious Trotter Project toques to design its menus.
  • Delta ranks higher than United overall in The Wall Street Journal's well-regarded annual airline scorecard and is more reliable—and slightly more post—overall.

Who Has the Better Stats?

Every year, The Wall Street Journal’s The Middle Seat column publishes a scorecard that ranks airlines in seven areas of service and one overall category. In 2020, 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 overall; United, seventh (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. 

The Drill

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, Wi-Fi, and outlets to plug in your cell phone. Keep in mind that Delta’s top class, Delta One (formerly BusinessElite), is only available on long-haul international and select long-haul (usually, transcontinental) domestic flights.

On United, you can also expect similar privileged boarding policies and generous availability of refreshments. For in-flight entertainment, the airline features DirecTV offerings (on select flights) The Private Screening system lets you play games or view shows and movies from a seat monitor or your own device.

If legroom is your number one priority, you can rest assured: 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, with expedited delivery of them at Baggage Claim.

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, with the airlines teaming with local toques to design the menu. 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, an educational nonprofit 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 flying, Delta’s amenities possess 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 perks to attract first-class customers. Check the fine print, however: Many extras require not only a first-class ticket but also elite levels of frequent flier miles. 

Article Sources
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  1. The Wall Street Journal. "The Best and Worst U.S. Airlines of 2020."

  2. Delta. "Delta First Class."

  3. Delta. "Delta One: Luxury At a Higher Altitude."

  4. United Airlines. "United First."

  5. Delta. "Food and Beverage: Regional Touches."

  6. United Airlines. "The Trotter Project: A Culinary Partnership Takes Flight."

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