United eats Delta’s lunch on price to Johannesburg

March 23, 2021

As I mused last week over fancy wining and dining aboard U.S. airline flights overseas in the heyday of premium service—surely the maximum service one could dream of while hurtling through the stratosphere at Mach 0.85, my trip down luxury flying’s memory lane reminded me of the minimum I’ve come to long for on a plane: a modicum of comfort without stress.  For me these days, premium economy fits the bill.  With inconsequential differences in PE cabin comfort and space between United and Delta, it was a no-brainer to recently book UA when DL’s fare was 50% higher.

Sure, I enjoyed classy comestibles and libation served in the front cabins of North American airline flights plying international routes in the era from the 80s to the early 2000s.  I feel real lucky to have been there/done that. Pawing through my remaining menu memorabilia, I found more exquisite offerings of wine and food on foreign airlines, including Sabena, Lufthansa, KLM, Air France, British Air, Swissair, Air New Zealand, QANTAS, Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Thai Air, Malaysia Air, Japan Air, Singapore Air, Varig, and South African Airways.

That was then.  Today, international premium economy seats and service are adequate for my needs. 

Of course I opt for international business class whenever I can get into it, either for money or miles or loyalty or just a lucky upgrade.  Business class is not as deluxe as the sharp end services of yore, but the privacy, service, and sleeper seats are superb.

Nonetheless, premium economy is my long-haul flying mainstay.  PE is comfortable and private enough, even if the service can be a tad like cattle class (Air New Zealand, Delta).  Or sometimes exactly like economy (United).  Although premium economy service can also tilt in the direction of business class (Cathay Pacific, Singapore). 

I don’t care that much about those service nuances as long as my premium economy seat is a bit wider than coach, has more pitch (legroom), reclines enough that I can doze, and is in its own cabin right behind business for an easy exit at the arrival gate. All those elements are true of every premium economy I’ve tried so far. 

It’s not that I ignore other aspects.  Naturally, I value safety because, well, who doesn’t want to arrive in one piece?  I think it’s reasonable to expect not to be killed or maimed when stepping inside a jet-propelled aluminum/carbon-fiber tube to go someplace. 

Schedule reliability and convenience, network reach and partnerships, competitive fares, and helpful customer service are also factors to be considered.  After those basics, most PE offerings are good when I fly abroad.

No airline has won more of my PE business for price and comfort over the past few years than Delta.  So when I recently looked for premium economy fares from Raleigh to Johannesburg for two upcoming trips—my first international journeys since the pandemic lockdown began—I was surprised to find that Delta’s ticket cost was $800 more than United’s—making Delta 50% more expensive.

Which made me ask myself, Is Delta’s PE, which I’ve come to like, worth such a big price difference?  After all, most premium economy seat size, pitch, and placement vary only slightly. 

To find out for sure, I checked dimensions on seatguru.com for the UA 787 configuration to be used on United’s new nonstop EWR/JNB and compared to the PE stats on Delta’s new A350 planes being introduced to replace 777s on its longstanding nonstop ATL/JNB. 

On those two aircraft, UA’s PE, which it calls Premium Plus, boasts seat width of 19” and pitch of 38” in a 2-3-2 configuration (7 across versus 9 across in coach), while Delta’s PE, named Premium Select, offers 18.5” seat width and 38” pitch in a 2-4-2 configuration (8 across versus 9 across in coach).  Both DL and UA premium economy seats are in their own cabins sandwiched between business and economy.  (Every other airline’s PE can be seen at seatguru.com as well, such as Cathay’s and Singapore’s 19.5” width and 38” pitch.) 

Thus, I confirmed that seat comfort on both UA and DL are about the same.  What about service? 

On the two flights to Johannesburg (United and Delta), I know from experience that Delta’s PE service is skimpy, but consistent, whereas United’s PE service in other markets is reputed to be nearly nonexistent.  UA flight attendants working the middle cabin (PE) can be hard to find, so say some reviews.  So not a lot of difference between carriers.

Schedules?  About the same.  Both United and Delta nonstop arrive Johannesburg late afternoon, and both Newark and Atlanta have good connecting flights to the over-water plane.

That leaves only price as a differentiator.  United is pushing its new nonstop entry from Newark—presumably filling the USA/Johannesburg nonstop niche left when South African Airways went belly up—pegging the RDU/EWR/JNB roundtrip fare in premium economy a bargain at just over $1600.  Delta, however, has not competed, with its RDU/ATL/JNB roundtrip fare in PE holding at a steady $2400+. 

The $800 difference made it an easy choice for me to go with United despite its reputed lousy service because United and Delta PE offerings are neck and neck in seat comfort.

Hence, United, an airline I’ve avoided like the plague since the early 90s for its protracted abysmal service, gets my business on two upcoming trips over Delta solely on the fare chasm, despite my peon status as a “general” (non-elite) member of the United MileagePlus program versus my lofty elite status as a Delta Lifetime Platinum with 5.5 million SkyMiles. 

I do love Delta, and I really, REALLY don’t like United, but, hey, saving sixteen hundred dollars for the two trips is like getting a third one for free.  Even if it’s on crummy old United.

2 thoughts on “United eats Delta’s lunch on price to Johannesburg

  1. Just a small clarification – United’s premium economy is Premium Plus not Economy Plus. Economy Plus is their extra legroom seats in coach (no extra width). They do sell economy plus — normally as an upgrade on their web site.

    Both times I’ve booked/upgraded to it, I ended up upgraded to business (flying to/from Europe on a Thursday/Tuesday so it seems the oversold Premium Plus since business wasn’t selling).

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