Is there any real difference between airlines? Given the lack of legroom, confusing fees and lackluster customer service among major U.S. airlines, it can be easy to lump them into one category: lousy.
Yet the pandemic revealed major differences in how these airlines treat and respect their customers. Some, like United and American, were eager to pack planes to capacity as quickly as possible. Others, like Spirit and Frontier, hardly limited capacity at all during the pandemic. And one, Delta Air Lines, went notably above and beyond in its customer-first policies throughout 2020 and into 2021.
Delta is now the only major airline blocking middle seats on all domestic flights through the spring. It's led the charge in promoting health-conscious policies and has offered some of the most generous change and cancellation policies in the industry. In short: Delta clearly prioritized customer satisfaction over short-term profits.
Now, as travel optimism begins to return, the questions loom. Were airline passengers paying attention to Delta’s friendly policies? And will they return the favor with their airfare dollars?
How Delta stacks up
NerdWallet rated U.S. airlines’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing policies as diverse as mask enforcement to travel voucher expirations for canceled flights. We updated these ratings several times to reflect changing policies, but each time the same winner emerged: Delta.
Delta earned 5 points on our 5-point scale, ahead of second-place Alaska Airlines (4.2). Airlines ranking between 3 and 4 points include JetBlue (3.7), Southwest (3.5), Frontier (3.2) and Hawaiian (3.2). In the 2-point range, you can find Delta's peers, American and United, with identical scores of 2.8. Spirit Airlines, our last-place ranking, is the only airline that received less than 2 points overall (1.8).
What Delta did
Here are a few of the steps Delta took to earn the top spot:
At the end of summer 2020, as other airlines like American began rolling back flight capacity limits, Delta doubled down, blocking middle seats through the end of the year.
Delta has consistently offered one of the most flexible change and cancellation policies (along with Southwest, which always has flexible policies) for customers facing uncertainty during the pandemic.
Delta has extended the expiration date of its travel vouchers through the end of 2021. These vouchers, which were given to many customers who canceled flights at the beginning of travel restrictions, usually expire within a year.
As the winter surge ends, other airlines have quietly withdrawn their flight capacity limits. Not Delta — it's extended middle seat blocking through April 30, 2021.
Why is middle seat blocking so important? Two reasons: First, health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, agree that maintaining social distance, especially when indoors, is a crucial means of avoiding coronavirus transmission. On a plane, the only way to stay at all appropriately distanced is if nobody is sitting right next to you. Second, this measure hits airlines on the bottom line. Blocking seats means fewer passengers, which means less revenue.
Taken together, the willingness to block middle seats is the best indicator that an airline is putting the needs of its passengers over the needs of its shareholders. Though maybe the two aren't necessarily at odds.
» Learn more: Your guide to earning Delta Air Lines SkyMiles
Will it pay off?
Delta likely enacted these customer-friendly policies for a few reasons. For one, it was the right thing to do. For another, the airline was likely hoping for some good PR, like this article itself, to boost its fortunes in the post-pandemic travel boom.
So far, investors seem to support Delta’s long-term strategy. As of March 7, 2021, the company’s shares are down about 20% from their pre-pandemic levels, a remarkable recovery after falling off a cliff a year ago. Compare that with United Airlines, which is down about 40% over the same period.
Yet stock prices are the reflection of many variables. It’s not at all clear whether Delta’s COVID-19 policies will lead to long-term customer loyalty and subsequent profit. Whether customers will care about more than the lowest price on airfare search results remains an open question.
Delta certainly separated itself in the past 12 months from the remaining airlines of the “big three” — American and United — in terms of how it handled the pandemic. But were customers taking notice? Many would-be travelers were likely paying more attention to other more pressing news during stay-at-home orders, rather than following airlines' myriad rules and policy changes.
» Learn more: How much are my Delta SkyMiles worth?
The bottom line
Airlines get a bad rap, often for good reason, and it’s easy to ignore the seemingly trifling differences between them. Yet 2020 was an exception in many ways, and Delta went to surprising lengths to forgo revenue in favor of customer safety and satisfaction.
Will it pay off? Were customers paying attention? Or will airlines resume their race to the bottom when air travel resumes its normal pace?
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