A week ago I read a piece over on Forbes about the Delta Air Lines’ amazing turnaround over the past decade. I didn’t realize how dire things were for the airline back in 2009. Delta and Northwest, both hemorrhaging cash, managed to strike a deal that would combine two struggling airlines into one. The hope was that the airline would simply survive. Becoming solidly the best U.S. airline wasn’t even on the radar.
The bet worked. Delta has gone on to become an excellent carrier over the past decade. From business travelers, to their employees, to Wall Street, all are singing the Delta’s praises.
Now with five year of profits exceeding $5 billion and the largest market capitalization of any airline, they are king of the hill. But it is little wonder that Delta carved out its place as the best U.S. airline.
Delta Has The Best Service Culture
My experience is obviously anecdotal, but Delta’s staff are solidly the best among the three major airlines. I’ve yet to have a truly poor service interaction with any of their staff. Considering the number of times United has let me down and the surly flight attendants I’ve encountered on the few American flights I’ve taken, this isn’t a high bar. But they go above and beyond.
Behind the success is Delta’s profit-sharing program where the airline pays out a chunk of the company’s profits to their employees. In 2017, this amounted to around $1 billion, 10% of Delta’s pre-tax earnings. If distributed equally among employees, this would have been over $10,000 per person.
The 2019 bonus is even bigger at $1.3 billion. Every Delta employee will be paid 14% of their base annual salary as a bonus. Taking the case of a ramp agent making $45,000 per year, Delta is putting another $6,300 in their pocket.
It’s little wonder that Delta has made the list of 100 best companies to work for. Taking care of your employees means they come to work happy, they feel fulfilled in their jobs, and they take care of customers. Not to mention the 86,000 Delta employees are non-unionized (aside from the pilots). This is what happens when you maintain a vision for your workforce and treat your staff well. The lack of union leadership pitted against management also leave you without the “us versus them” mentality.
Delta has a family. I mean, their employees once bought them a 767. That truly is the spirit of Delta.
Not to mention employees are empowered to be generous and understanding. I cannot express my gratitude to the Delta agent who waived the $200 per ticket cancellation fee when I explained the situation that had us canceling tickets last-minute. This was just the first of several service interactions over the next 18 months that made me a solid fan of the airline.
Delta Is Preferred By Business Travelers
Delta has been named the best U.S. airline for business travelers on more than one occasion. I absolutely agree, and I pick them for the all business travel that I can. If I need to get somewhere on time, I pick Delta, as flying arriving on time with United is a bet I’m not willing to make.
Besides the superior operations, the airline has other amenities that help it stand out for business travelers. Their SkyClubs are better, for one. I’ve only set foot in three, including Salt Lake City and San Francisco, but both have been better than virtually any United or American Club I’ve visited.
The airline is even being proactive about targeting future business travelers.
Admittedly, Delta’s weakest aspect is their frequent flyer program, which is an issue for some when considering business travel loyalty. However, I’m a fan of their elite program. With the ability to earn both significant Medallion Qualifying Miles and Dollars from partner flights, solid co-branded credit cards that offer the ability to boost your status, Delta makes it easier to reach the great array of perks at the upper tiers.
But the value of their redeemable miles isn’t always the best. All other things being equal, I would take an equivalent number of United miles, given the choice. But this doesn’t mean there is no value. Delta often runs some excellent award sales, and depending on your flexibility and travel plans, you could easily score tickets for fewer miles than with other airlines.
Sure, premium cabin redemption can cost a fortune, but I’ll contend that burning 85,000 miles per person to fly China Airlines business class is a fine deal.
But miles mean nothing matter when an airline messes up your vacation plans or fails to get you to an important work meeting. I’m willing to overlook the weaker value due to Delta’s strong operation.
Delta Is A Good Bet Financially (As Far As Airlines Go)
Delta has had an excellent 2019 financially. If you simply look at market capitalization, they are definitely the best U.S. airline. Their second quarter earnings exceeded estimates with an revenue of $12.5 billion, an increase of 20% year over year. Things have slumped a bit later this year, but their 2019 is still looking to be a fine year in terms of profits.
Yet the financial footing of an airline is always tenuous. Even with Delta’s record profitability, there are numerous things that could undermine this. Airlines are complex operations, with multiple unique staff complements and supply chains that are out mostly of their control (think 737MAX issues and the price of oil). They can also be casualties of political unrest, as we’re seeing with Hong Kong Airlines and Cathay Pacific with the ongoing democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Still, if there was ever an airline I’d be willing to invest in, it is Delta. The carrier is projected to do well by financial analysts, with some anticipating share prices to rise 20% or more within the next two years. With a market cap of $38 billion already, this adds tremendously to the valuation of the airline.
Delta Has Strong Partnerships
My mouth dropped open when the news broke that Delta was entering into a partnership with LATAM. The loss of this carrier represents a massive blow to American Airlines. LATAM will be exiting their partnership with American and leaving the Oneworld alliance completely. This comes of the heels of American attempting to secure a joint venture with the Chile-based carrier, which was blocked by that countries supreme court. This will take them from having a lackluster presence in South America in terms of partners to one of the best.
In Europe Delta has strong partnerships with Virgin Atlantic, KLM and Air France. Admittedly, the other major U.S. airlines have great European partnerships as well, such as American’s relationship with British Airways and United with Lufthansa Group.
In Asia Delta has Korean Airlines as a major partner, entering into a joint venture with the Seoul-based carrier. The JV partnership has already spurred growth for Korean Airlines. Other partners in Asia include China Eastern and Taiwanese flag carrier China Airlines. In the land down under, Delta has Virgin Australia.
The only continent on which Delta doesn’t have a strong partnership is Africa. But with their own service to a select number of countries, from South Africa to Senegal, and plenty of additional service through European partners KLM and Air France, Delta provides enough connectivity to Africa as well.
All This Makes Delta the Best U.S. Airline
I freely admit that Delta Air Lines has been my favorite airline since I started flying them more regularly for work in early 2018. Things got so bad during a couple work trips, with multiple significant delays and botched experiences with United, that I will literally drive four hours to fly Delta instead.
They haven’t let me down. The staff are great and the experience is always a pleasant one. Through credit card spend and enough travel, I managed to hit more than low-tier status for the first time in my life, securing Delta Platinum Medallion for 2019 (sadly, my 2020 plans went off the rails).
But I don’t plan to abandon Delta anytime soon. They actually get things right, which can be rare in airline customer service. I’ll happily go out of my way (and even pay a bit more) to fly them. Delta is solidly the best U.S. airline.