Is there any real difference between airlines? Given the lack of legroom confusing fees and lack of customer service at major US airlines, it can be easy to split them into one category: lousy.
However, the pandemic showed huge differences in the way these airlines treat and respect their customers. Some, like United and American, were keen to pack the planes up as quickly as possible. Others, like Spirit and Frontier, had little capacity during the pandemic. And one, Delta Air Lines, went well beyond that in its customer-first guidelines in 2020 and through 2021.
Delta is now the only major airline to block center seats on all domestic flights this spring. It has led the charge in promoting health conscious politics and has offered some of the most generous change and cancellation policies in the industry. In short, Delta has clearly prioritized customer satisfaction over short-term gains.
Now that travel optimism is returning, the questions arise. Have passengers followed Delta’s friendly guidelines? And will they return the favor with their flight money?
How Delta builds up
NerdWallet assessed US airlines’ response to the COVID-19 pandemicCompare policies as diverse as masks enforcement with the expiration of travel vouchers for canceled flights. We’ve updated these reviews multiple times to reflect changing guidelines, but each time the same winner has emerged: Delta.
Delta received 5 points on our 5-point scale, ahead of Alaska Airlines, which came in second (4.2). Airlines with a ranking between 3 and 4 include JetBlue (3.7), Southwest (3.5), Frontier (3.2) and Hawaiian (3.2). In the 2-point area you will find Delta’s colleagues American and United with identical values of 2.8. Spirit Airlines, our last ranking, is the only airline that received less than 2 points in total (1.8).
What Delta did
Here are some of the steps Delta took to secure first spot:
In late summer 2020, when other airlines like American Airlines started rolling back flight capacity restrictions, Delta doubled and blocked the middle seats until 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 to the end of 2021. These coupons, given to many customers who canceled flights at the start of travel restrictions, usually expire within a year.
With the end of the winter flood, other airlines tacitly withdrew their flight capacity limits. Not Delta – it’s an extended center seat blockage until April 30, 2021.
Why is locking the middle seat so important? Two reasons: First, health professionals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that maintaining social distance, especially indoors, is a critical means of preventing coronavirus transmission. The only way to keep your distance on an airplane is when no one is sitting next to you. Second, the bottom line is that this measure affects the airlines. Blocking seats means fewer passengers, which means less revenue.
Taken together, willingness to block center seats is the best indicator that an airline puts the needs of its passengers above the needs of its shareholders. Although the two may not necessarily be at odds.
Will it pay off?
Delta has likely adopted these customer-friendly policies for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was the right thing to do. On the other hand, the airline was probably hoping for a good PR like this article itself to strengthen its luck in the post-pandemic travel boom.
So far, investors appear to be supporting Delta’s long-term strategy. As of March 7, 2021, the company’s shares have fallen about 20% from pre-pandemic levels. This is a remarkable recovery after falling off a cliff a year ago. Compare that to United Airlines, which is down about 40% over the same period.
However, stock prices reflect many variables. It’s not at all clear whether Delta’s COVID-19 policies will result in long-term customer loyalty and subsequent profit. Whether customers are interested in more than that Lowest price for flight search results remains an open question.
Delta has certainly parted ways with the remaining “Big Three” airlines – American and United – in the past 12 months in terms of dealing with the pandemic. But did the customers notice? Many aspiring travelers have likely paid more attention to other, more pressing, home ordering news than following the airline’s myriad rules and policy changes.
The final result
Airlines get a bad rap, often for good reason, and it’s easy to ignore the seemingly insignificant differences between them. However, 2020 was an exception in many ways, and Delta made surprising efforts to forego revenue for the benefit of customer safety and satisfaction.
Will it pay off? Have customers been paying attention? Or will the airlines continue their race down when air traffic resumes its normal pace?
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