Delta didn’t have a strong SkyMiles program and the airline admitted it, saying that their move to a revenue-based program would make it better. They didn’t have as much to lose as American and United in shifting.
United immediately copied Delta under direction from then-CEO Jeff Smisek. The AAdvantage team had their own recommended changes, but American’s President Scott Kirby directed them to follow Delta too. Both earning and minimum spend for status were virtual mirrors of Delta.
Delta was the first to roll out basic economy, and American copied. Delta was believed to be on the verge of announcing premium economy when American pushed out their announcement. Delta rebranded extra legroom coach and added free drinks, something American is now in the process of doing.
Delta started offering meals on several long domestic flights in coach, so American rolled that out to New York JFK – Los Angeles and San Francisco. Delta bought a stake on China Eastern Airlines, American then bought a stake in China Southern. Delta led a lobbying campaign against Qatar, Emirates, and Etihad and got American to go along – leaving Delta with a new close partner in India and American Airlines severing ties with partners in the Gulf and without a close partner providing lift in and out of India’s broad array of cities or surrounding countries like Pakistan.
There was a time that Delta was an also-ran. American Airlines was the leader in the industry, the brightest minds started at American and learned their craft and then went on to run other airlines. Even a mere decade ago it seemed United did its best to copy American, at least with frequent flyer promotions.
Now the unquestioned leader in the US airline industry is Delta. They’re the most profitable and delivering better operational reliability than their largest counterparts. And everyone just assumes they’re smarter.
In a conversation about de-icing and outsourcing at a question and answer session in Miami last week, one employee winds up and concludes with a profound statement about the airline and management and how to really be the best.
He told the airline’s CEO, “You keep comparing us to Delta. That’s a mistake. American Airlines never compared themselves to another airline. American Airlines always set the standards and the other airlines copied us.”
Doug Parker says he doesn’t compare American to Delta, except to be careful not to have higher costs. But one brave employee stood up, and I hope he takes a moment to reflect on just what was said.
Parker said they’re “playing the long game” but to an outside observer it seems they’re playing it by watching Delta and to employees it seems that way when he responds to complaints about lavatory doors on their new standard domestic interior by comparing to what Delta did, saying at least they didn’t attach the crew seats to the lavatory doors like Delta did (which isn’t actually what Delta did, and then Delta removed seats to give more space to crew to work).