American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have taken two very different approaches to the pandemic.
Delta has been blocking middle seats since April 2020 while American never embraced the policy.
I took three flights on both airlines in 2021 to see how the two were handling social distancing in the skies.
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American Airlines and Delta Air Lines were the two largest airlines in the US before the pandemic, each generating billions in revenue each year and boasting the largest fleets of any global airline. Both offered similar products with the choice between the two coming down to factors like customer preference, price, and loyalty.
The divide between them widened during the pandemic, however, thanks to one key factor: safety. While Delta blocked middle seats through for most of 2020, American filed its planes to capacity as early as the summer.
I flew on both carriers in June 2020 on my first trip back to the skies since the pandemic began and found Delta to be a far sight better than American, largely because of the former's above and beyond approach to safety. But as we enter a new year in aviation's recovery, I wanted to see just how the two were faring nearly one year since COVID-19 upended aviation.
I took three flights across both airlines on a recent trip, flying from New York to Miami on American and then from Houston, Texas to Los Angeles via Salt Lake City on Delta. The result was surprising, especially as the US continues to see record COVID-19-related deaths and a slow-going vaccine rollout.
Here's which one handled pandemic flying the best in 2021.
My first flight on American took me from New York to Miami on one of the airline's most popular routes. Florida has become a travel hotspot due to lax restrictions and airlines are angling to take advantage.
When I checked in, I was required to acknowledge that I didn't have any COVID-19 symptoms and I haven't been exposed to nor tested positive for the illness. This is standard practice across all major US airlines now but enforcement has proved tricky.
Read more: United banned a Hawaii couple from flying after police said they tested positive for COVID-19 and then boarded a 6-hour flight
Check-in at LaGuardia Airport was filled with social distancing measures including plexiglass partitions at ticket counters and spaced kiosks. The same can be found at airports across American's network as is the airline's new safety standard.
Ticket in hand, I headed to the gate through LaGuardia's newly-renovated Terminal B and arrived at the gate a few minutes before boarding. It was decently crowded and I was expecting a full flight.
Here, there were more plexiglass partitions, social distancing stanchions, and even floor placards to remind folks of social distance and of the new onboard mask requirements.
The digital signage at the gate didn't do much to convey the safety message. Using this signage to promote the airline's safety measures can help flyers feel comfortable that the airline is doing everything they can to keep their customers safe, as it did for me on my first flight back.
American does, however, send a push notification to those with the airline's mobile application saying that the aircraft has been disinfected and reminding passengers to social distance.
The flight was off to a good start but quickly fell down during boarding.
While an agent was reminding passengers to wear their face coverings at all times, American hasn't changed its boarding procedure to back to front so first class still boards first followed by the first few rows of economy, and so on.
The guiding principle behind back-to-front boarding is that passengers in the back don't have to walk through a crowded aircraft to get to their seats. If you're in basic economy and boarding last, for example, you're still walking through an entire airplane full of people.
The jetway was bare with no social distancing placards. These placards are largely ignored but are, once again, symbols that show the airline is taking additional action to keep travelers safe.
Once on the plane, flight attendants welcomed us with a hello but we didn't receive anything in the way of hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes.
My seat was immaculate and I didn't have any concerns whatsoever that American didn't do a great job in this department.
American has not blocked any seats on its aircraft since June 2020 so I'd almost definitely be seated next to another flyer since this was a full flight on a popular route.
Once settled in, both the flight attendants and pilots reminded passengers to wear their face masks as part of the safety brief.
As expected, my row was initially full but I managed to luck out, however, as our middle seat occupant chose to sit closer to his companion and occupied another middle seat instead.
I was surprised to see an in-flight service start promptly after takeoff. My last flight on American saw drinks served only on request but on this flight, we were given a snack bag with pretzels, a sanitizing wipe, and a water bottle.
One pet peeve I noticed was that flight attendants were not wearing gloves while doing the service, something that differs on every airline it seems.
After the service, I walked around the plane and noticed multiple passengers flouting the mask mandate. Some either had the covering under their nose or off entirely.
Flight attendants on all airlines don't walk the cabin as frequently as they once did since there's no in-flight service and while it reduces passenger interaction, it does make enforcing the mask rule harder as it relies on other passengers speaking up.
American wouldn't reveal how many passengers have been banned for not wearing masks either when asked by Insider in January.
Soon enough, it was time to land in the warm-weather paradise of Miami.
A reminder to social distance during deplaning, however, went unheeded and most flyers defaulted to the norm of standing in the aisle as soon as the seatbelt sign turned off. This is common on any airline, not just American.
A few days later, it was time to test out Delta with two flights from Houston to Los Angeles via Salt Lake City. I had toured Delta's new "care standard" operation at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in October 2020 but now I'd be putting it to the test as a passenger.
Read More: I went behind the scenes at JFK airport to see how Delta is overhauling its airport experience to try to convince flyers air travel is safe
I arrived at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport in the early morning hours to catch the first flight to Salt Lake City on Delta's new Airbus A220-300.
Delta had completely overhauled the ticketing area more so than other airlines with social distancing floor placards, plexiglass partitions, and mask reminders.
The only disappointing aspect was the check-in kiosks. Some airlines are blocking every other kiosk or placing dividers in between them but Delta opted not to, here in Houston and at other locations.
Houston is a mere outstation for Delta, not a bustling hub like Los Angeles or Salt Lake City, so to see this level of commitment was impressive. The same setup could be found during my tour at JFK Airport.
Then it was off to the gate, which was no less impressive than the check-in with the same setup of plexiglass partitions, social distancing placards, and mask reminders.
Before boarding, the gate agent went through how the flight might be different than what most passengers are used to and explained that masks were now required by federal law.
As of mid-January, Delta had banned over 800 passengers for not wearing masks.
Read More: Airlines have banned more than 2,500 passengers for not wearing masks - here are the carriers that have booted the most
We then boarded the aircraft in Delta's new back-to-front procedure with only 10 passengers at a time. First class flyers and elite status holders, however, could board at any time.
Even the jetway had social distancing reminders. Again, these are rarely adhered to.
Flight attendants at the boarding door gave us each a Purell wipe to use but our seats showed no sign of poor cleaning.
And as Delta is blocking all middle seats through April, I didn't need to worry about having a neighbor.
As we settled in, flight attendants reminded us about the face covering rule and asked that passengers keep their masks on during the in-flight service until the flight attendant has left their row.
Our aircraft was equipped with in-flight entertainment systems, which Delta used to show a video about the new health and safety protocols being undertaken.
It showed the aircraft being "fogged" with an electrostatic sprayer and surfaces being cleaned, for example.
Even the bathroom had a placard to remind passengers of the best practices for hand washing.
Then it was off to Salt Lake City. Soon after takeoff, gloved flight attendants went up and down the aisle to offer complimentary headphones and begin the in-flight service.
Each passenger gets a snack bag complete with a water bottle, napkin, Biscoff cookies, Goldfish crackers, and a Purell wipe. All Delta flights see the snack bag service while other airlines limit the in-flight service on shorter flights.
Inside was also a small placard outlining the new health and safety protocols, as well as how to use the in-flight WiFi.
Delta Comfort+ passengers, of which I was one, were also offered complimentary beer or wine. I waited until one of the later flights to imbibe but it was odd that alcohol was being offered but not soft drinks like a Coke or seltzer.
As the flight continued, I walked around to see how well the mask mandate was working and dishearteningly saw some passengers flouting the rule. It seems to be harder to enforce on these longer flights.
It was soon time to land in Salt Lake City and we began our descent between the snow-capped mountains.
Once we touched down, flight attendants asked passengers to follow a new deplaning procedure that required them to stay seated until the row in front of them was on their way. As is human nature, however, not everybody complied.
It was a bit of a walk to my next gate for the flight to Los Angeles so I got to see the new Salt Lake City airport terminal. Every single Delta gate had been overhauled with the new safety features.
Read More: Salt Lake City airport just opened a massive new terminal where passengers journey through a massive canyon-themed art installation to get to their gate - see inside
The one feature not installed, however, was the floor placards. I guess Salt Lake City airport didn't want to mess up the new carpets.
Another difference from this terminal compared to Houston was the digital signage. All the Delta informational screens had rotating messages showing what the airline was doing to keep travelers safe.
The boarding procedure for my next flight was nearly identical with the gate agent going through what to expect for the flight and then boarding back to front. Flight attendants also gave the sanitary wipes again.
I got to my seat and noticed just a few leftover crumbs. While the plane was otherwise spotless, even the slightest crumb could make a passenger doubt the cleanliness of the aircraft.
In the welcome announcement, the cabin crew stressed that having a recent negative test or being vaccinated didn't mean that you could flout the rule, and flight attendants walked the aisle asking people to correctly wear their masks.
"Although things may look a little different, our priority is a safe and clean experience for you," reads the safety briefing script.
The service was the same, a snack bag with the same goodies as before. And a quick walk through the plane mid-flight indicated the proactive flight attendants had effectively convinced passengers to keep their masks on
The one-hour flight quickly passed as we landed in Los Angeles. Flight attendants once again asked the passengers to stay seated until the row ahead of them was on their way but once again, most passengers did their own thing.
It's been eight months since my first comparison of American and Delta, and nothing has changed.
Delta is the clear winner here over American once more when it comes to social distancing in the skies. The middle seat blocking policy is a huge factor but the little things like giving passengers sanitary wipes when boarding and making sure passengers are informed about the safety measures being undertaken by the airline truly make the difference.
I still consider American to be one of the least safety-minded airlines when it comes to the pandemic when compared to the rest of the big four US airlines and didn't feel as if the airline was going above and beyond.
Delta wasn't without its mishaps, as I did notice a lack of mask enforcement on my first flight and the seat on my second flight wasn't immaculately clean, but I always felt safer on Delta than on American.
Some travelers are still skeptical about returning to the skies, even with a vaccine, and airlines should be focused on providing an experience that's over the top when it comes to safety.