A Glimpse Inside the Character of Delta Executives

It’s truly surreal that just three years ago Delta was paying for this ad:

What does it mean for a loyalty program to be loyal? Here’s a few things.

  • Once they decide you are a valuable customer, whatever the metric, you should be treated just as well every time. IHG Rewards Club, which doesn’t require hotels to honor upgrade benefits on award stays fails this. American doesn’t upgrade on award redemptions. But United and Delta don’t dance with the one that brung them at all — a given silver customer (shows a little skin) buys a full fare ticket and they are more important (higher on the upgrade list) that day than 100,000 or 125,000 mile customers buying mid-priced tickets.

  • Loyal programs don’t retroactively devalue your points. Make changes to the value proposition going forward. But the miles you already earned, they should be loyal to those and maintain their value. You had to be loyal up front and buy your tickets. You made your travel choices. The travel provider reciprocates later. Since earn and burn is inherently intertemporal there is a trust factor required. Members need their loyalty program to be loyal, not to ‘DK‘ them when it is time to use the miles.

  • Loyal programs tell it to you straight. Loyal programs give advance notice of changes, and are honest about what those changes mean. They help members to know what the changes are, and even understand how changes affect them. And if you’re making a change, a loyal program wants members to have time to adapt and even earn more miles and then still be able to take advantage of the awards they’ve been dreaming about — rather than pulling the rug out from members.

  • Loyal programs empower members with information, they don’t thrive on keeping members in the dark. United, Delta, and Southwest don’t allow members to track their miles with Award Wallet. Making it easy to check and track miles in one place helps engage a program, stay on top of it, and even know if your account has been compromised (since you see any change much more quickly). Expert Flyer is a tool that lets you search flight availability and award and upgrade space. And Expert Flyer can email me space opens. United and Delta both block Expert Flyer from searching special classes (although Expert Flyer has a new workaround for Delta award seats only but not awards or even revenue flight availability). Are your best customers well-informed customers, or ignorant ones?

You choose your travel provider on trips where they are less convenient or even a bit more expensive. Some people will say you are foolish for doing so. That’s only because the cynics are being proven correct by the likes of Delta who aren’t loyal to their SkyMiles members, who disrespect them through:

  1. Lack of information
  2. Disingeuous communication
  3. Devaluation without notice

If you were designing a fictional airline that treated its customers with the most contempt possible, a caricature that couldn’t possibly be real, you would sketch out the past several months of the SkyMiles program.

Delta has apparently decided to do this because they can get away with it, because there are no external constraints — business-wise they are filling planes and even selling premium cabins, and in terms of risk the Supreme Court said that you can no longer sue a frequent flyer program for bad faith and unfair dealing. All that is left is character.

You may be able to make money in the short run through dishonest dealing. One hopes that you cannot in the long run. I won’t claim that’s true but it would be nice if it were.

Still, you get up in the mirror every day and ask what kind of person you want to be, what kind of company, and you behave accordingly. It’s perfectly reasonable to offer a value proposition that you’ve decided (rightly or wrongly, even) is best for your business. It’s dishonest to make an offer, have consumers respond to it and earn their miles, and then change the offer after they’ve done it. And then deceive your customers about what it means, tell them you’re giving them notice when you aren’t, and offer implausible excuses why it’s someone else’s fault (the government) why you don’t.

We all reveal our character each and every day. And loyalty programs should be loyal. Delta used to say that. Maybe they even used to believe it.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Delta can do whatever it wants with it’s loyalty program but it shows bad faith when they provide no advance warning to a devaluation. People fly and earn miles or spend and earn miles with the expectation that they can use those miles for free travel. By changing the rules or the amount of miles required for travel retroactively or with no notice it cheats people out of the opportunity to spend their miles the way they had expected based on Delta’s award chart. In the end it’s about honesty and transparency. If Delta cannot be honest or transparent about something as simple as their mileage program how can you trust Delta to be honest about anything that relates to their airline? Personally I will no longer trust anything I hear or read from Delta’s management.

  2. Gary, I think just about everybody agrees with you but the bi-daily re-hash on why Delta blows is getting tough to read. I would love to see you focus on how to still get value out of skypesos. I know that’s been covered before, but now it’s even more relevant now. I’m sitting on 125,000 that ‘ve earmarked for getting home from Italy in biz next April. Helping me and other readers use those miles is why we come here.

    And that’s not to say you can’t end each post w/ “Why delta sucks today…..”.

  3. @AtantAnne actually I think I’m underselling it. They can do what they wish with their program legally. There are some ethical limits about what they do to renege on the value of miles accumulated in the past. But there are huge ethical problems with the narrative they’ve been offering members. In the past I’ve described how Delta has a trust deficit, but they really have a truth problem. In this post I focus on the question of character that this underscores.

  4. yawn…and yet they stay in business…despite your protestations to the contrary. Guess it really grinds your gears that they’re smarter than you.

  5. I’m surprised there’s such a strong reaction to this. DL has shown that they don’t value (any) loyalty at all based on the changes since the merger and this shouldn’t be surprising.

    I’m sure there will be strong reactions when UA switches to dynamic award pricing + devalues their miles but I won’t be surprised. (Although they probably won’t do it yet cause they can’t even run the basics of an airline reliably like DL).

  6. Very well said. But I’m learning slowly. Delta doesn’t really want me as a customer and they’re going to keep making things worse and worse until I offer to give them a blank check for each trip (not going to happen) or quietly go away and spend my remaining 500,000 miles on 2-generation old electronics or other similarly bad deals.

  7. Get ’em Gary. Clearly poor moral character over on Virginia Avenue. In my experience, these things flow from the top, so I blame Richard Anderson, whose “got your back”, with a knife in it.

  8. You’ve made your case eloquently, Gary. I couldn’t agree more.
    Delta’s machinations with and dishonesty about SkyMiles have driven me away. I have taken only one Delta flight in the past two years — when there was no reasonable alternative — and I put the miles in Alaska’s program. And that’s despite the fact that you and others have indicated, and my own limited experience confirms, its aircraft and flight operations are comparatively pretty good.
    After a number of years of Gold or Silver Medallion status and multi-thousands of miles, I currently have, I believe, 212 miles; I don’t expect to add more. Even if another airlines is a bit more expensive or a bit less convenient (unless it’s Spirit), I’ll take it instead of Delta.
    And I ditched my AmEx Delta card. (AmEx should be really upset about what Delta’s done to SkyMiles, and, if it is, it just might have the clout to get Delta’s attention and demand it operate the program in line with the tenets you’ve identified. If it doesn’t do that, it will deserve the erosion of its own customer base that it will experience.)

  9. I am not tired of it. Delta needs as much negative publicity as anyone is willing to take the time to blog about it. What I dislike reading are the bloggers that bash Delta on one hand, then promote the AMEX co-brand cc on the other.
    I always respect the genuine bloggers. Either be for something or against, but don’t contradict for the sake of a few extra clicks.
    Keep bashing them. I’ll keep reading.

  10. I stopped flying Delta about 5 years ago and I never regretted it. Does Delta just not see any value in its loyalty program? Are they moving to toward a Spirit model?

  11. Basically Delta no longer has a frequent flyer program. That’s probably where over time UA will head and then finally AA. It is the beginning of the end….

  12. Gary has a platform to express himself and he’s using it–nothing wrong with that.

  13. @scottb – “eloquently”? Umm…no. You can say a lot of things about Gary — mostly good — but, sadly, eloquent isn’t one of them.

  14. Delta is the best airline–for my mother and father who are 70 and do not care about loyalty, trust, miles, etc. and only need two connecting trips each year from a Delta -captive airport. Anyone else would be a complete idiot to give Delta their business, unless of course it’s baffoons like DeltaPoints douchbag or MJ Knows Nothing About Travel. Reading those two idiots is like getting your morning news from The Onion. Or perhaps the weekly giveaway of worthless Delta “One” junk is supposed to distract us from the reality of who they pimp for.

  15. First, lets remember Delta is run by Senor Anderson from Northwest where the corporate culture included crazy things like checking trash baskets for pencils that “were not fully utilized.”

    I make my statement but never fly any U.S. carrier internationally. Never! Long live the ME3!

    Can’t wait for Emirates to announce Dubai to Atlanta, the ultimate slap in the face to Anderson and his beloved Delta!

  16. the truth is, the American people are, collectively, too stupid to react appropriately. if business travelers had any common sense, AA would be cleaning everyone’s clocks this year. the reward to fly AA right now is so superior to the other choices, both earning and using miles, that there should have been a tectonic shift towards them this year. it hasn’t happened. people are dumb. sad but true. delta knows it. delta doesn’t respect their customers because, in their experience, they don’t have to. the less they respect them, the more profitable. the benefits of a colluded quasi- 3 pronged monopoly. and, sadly, the message to AA is loud and clear and will soon be felt.

    blame delta for pushing the envelope of integrity, no doubt. blame the American people and the govt approval of 3 mergers for allowing it.

  17. @Ron Mexico I am not predicting Delta goes out of business, on the contrary they don’t think they need loyal customers because their planes are full at high fares. I’m questioning their morals, and they could potentially get bitten in the long-term, but there’s no question they’re making money. There’s honorable business, and dishonorable, the means matter for folks who have to look at themselves in the mirror each day.

  18. I’m glad I don’t fly Delta. I am also glad someone is willing to tell it like it is, so that others looking to start collecting points and miles, will see that Delta isn’t worth it, and find another airline to be loyal to. Half the reason companies probably get away with this, is because people just gripe for a minute then accept it. Blog about it all day, every day, if you can find something new to say!

  19. Certainly Delta is an extreme example of distorting the truths of its program and destroying customer loyalty by devaluing earned points. Thus, there is no motivation to join its loyalty program or to carry an AMEX Delta co-branded card. Worse yet, loyalty program devaluations across many airline and hotel programs are causing me to limit expenditures on loyalty credit cards in favor of cash back credit cards not subject to point devaluation. This further erodes the tenuous loyalty credit card value proposition since annual spend of about $20k is required to justify the now common $95 annual fee. Thus, a cash back rewards card strategy appears to be my future.

  20. Delta will continue to be rotten and more rotten until it starts costing them a significant amount of money . I don’t expect that to happen soon . I suspect that the greater number of their passengers ( realistically ) expect nothing from frequent flyer miles . They are only concerned with travelling to their next destination and skymiles are just song and dance that don’t mean anything .
    Meanwhile , others who do care about miles and award flights are just gritting their teeth and still flying Delta . I believe Delta’s gamble is that the small number of us who are concerned with this shabby treatment and will actually boycott Delta in protest won’t make a dent in Delta’s bottom line . Richard Anderson and his fellow vultures will continue to make truckloads of money .
    Possible options :
    1) A public campaign to raise awareness and mount a serious boycott of Delta .
    2) Talk about your sad feelings in the comments section . ( I am very sad as well )
    3) Buy lots of Delta stock . If enough of us owned enough Delta stock (DAL) we could influence the management of the airline and the skymiles program .
    Disclosure : I have Alaska Air (ALK) and Boeing (BA) stock .

  21. Delta Air Lines’ bad faith and unfair dealings directed at SkyMiles customers may be legally actionable outside of the U.S. It’s not like US airlines can only be sued inside the US where the government has protected/supported the US3 airlines in multiple ways.

  22. The bad guys are the high level executives behind this. Why does “Delta” do all these despicable things?
    Here is why: The high level executives make huge pay and bonuses from making the company more profitable. They are short term executives looking to max out their compensation and padding their resume by creating a “great” track record of increasing profits any way that they can – and in this situation they are doing it at the expense of their loyal customers.
    Their attitude is: Who cares if we hurt our most loyal customer? The execs are only going to be there a short time before getting a higher paying job someplace else. It will be another executive’s job to deal with any fall out from betraying their most loyal customers today.
    Short term, all of this benefits the executives – long term it could hurt the company, but the executives really couldn’t care less because they will have made big bucks and will probably be at another company.
    Unfortunately this is not unique to Delta – executives at many different companies are like this.
    If it is not loyal customers who are sacrificed, it is loyal employees who get shafted.

  23. Americans lazy. Write to senators ask for more competition. Allow foreign flights to fly domestic. No more protectionism. Doubt it. Congress is full of con men and traitors. Well line pockets to screw Americans

  24. Delta has me right where they want me. I am only happy with them when I pay for a ticket.
    I am from ATL originally and do have to travel there, but i do it on my terms and for both sides that means cash. Don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed.

  25. I’m tired of Delta’s shenanigans and their disreputable way of doing business. I can’t control what other people do but I can control what I do or what my employees do. As of yesterday all of our Amex corporate Delta Skymiles cards were shredded and our Amex Skymiles accounts have been closed. We will continue to use our membership miles Amex cards and fly on airlines other than Delta Airlines. As a consumer I have a choice and I will move my personal and business flying to airlines that offer a more transparent and honest approach to business. I’m all for making money and being profitable but there is an honest way to do it and a transparent way to do it. What other information about their company isn’t Delta sharing with the general public? Trust is very difficult to earn and when you lose it it’s not easy to earn it back.

  26. I’ve flown 1M+ miles on United and 2M+ on American/US. I gave Delta a try once for a year buying several business class tickets to India because they had a convenient schedule. Next thing I know they cancel the nonstop to Mumbai and start devaluing their self-proclaimed best-in-class frequent flyer program. Even though I achieved top-tier elite status, I stopped flying them, despite their being a preferred carrier for our company, simply because of the integrity issue. I keep reading the news, and see that they continue to keep up their old tricks. So glad I only flew them for a short time. I don’t ever expect to go back.

  27. Imagine going to a supermarket where there is no price on items and they say u will know when u take it to cashier. Delta is telling us the same thing with no award chart.

  28. Well, shit, I just got my shiny new Delta Amex Gold in the mail. Perhaps, I shouldn’t even bother to use it.

  29. I think Delta did show you some loyalty when they opened up 2 Business Class award seats for you when you missed your flight from Sydney. They covered for your mistake.

  30. I have to admit that I nearly spit out my coffee when I saw “Delta” and “character” in the same sentence. Well said.

  31. Great post! Matches my sentiments about Delta — and certain “frequent” pumpers for the miserable airline. Thankful I have an airport nearby with Southwest service. Woe to those stuck with the lying, Donald Trump attitude airline..who has utterly no conscience, no care about the suckers who wave the flag, salute the lunatics, imbibe the corporate TV soma….

    Thankfully, we have you and other independent voices calling the Delta spade what it is. It’s posts like this that WILL have me trusting this site. (and “frequent” less those too vested in shilling for Delta)

    ps,I still have 26K in Delta Sky Pesos that I can’t figure out how to use.

  32. @ScottB – I too can’t believe Amex puts up with how delta has devalued the program. I have had a platinum delta Amex since before you got credit card bonuses for signing up for it and I will not be renewing it when the fee month hits. I do have a reserve card because I run my business charges through the card and delta has made mqms a necessary part of their model. Unfortunately, I am captive Atlanta but I sure have been checking out southwest and taking them as often as possible.

  33. @Robert: too funny!!!

    “Anyone else would be a complete idiot to give Delta their business, unless of course it’s baffoons like DeltaPoints douchbag or MJ Knows Nothing About Travel. Reading those two idiots is like getting your morning news from The Onion. Or perhaps the weekly giveaway of worthless Delta “One” junk is supposed to distract us from the reality of who they pimp for.”

  34. I’m another ATL hub captive, but I’m doing all I can to avoid them. SW and AA are sometimes options, as is DRIVING sometimes. QT passes along lower fuel prices, DL does not.
    I own DL stock just like I own apple (though I’d never buy an i – anything.) Delta is as sleazy as they come and they should be ashamed. But, of course, they’re not. That’s America today.

  35. I have said it before. Delta views its frequent flyers the way a vampire views the living. Like a vampire, delta can be seductive and sophisticated. Those who become entranced enjoy a sweet, slow death. Overly dramatic perhaps, but not far off the mark IMO.

  36. When you look at measures of Delta’s financial performance (earnings reports, stock price), the airline is in a stronger position than UAL and AA. It doesn’t appear that high-value/high-revenue frequent fliers are abandoning Delta…. or at least to the point where it’s having an adverse impact on Delta’s financials.

    I have no idea why these filers are not abandoning Delta in droves (hub-captive?), but until they do Delta executives pretty much have carte blance to keep gutting and degrading skymiles.

  37. There’s a difference between Delta executives (who handle the operation/financials of the airline overall) and Delta Skymiles executives (who specifically handle the loyalty program.)

  38. Why are people not leaving Delta?

    Not all of us fly for skymiles. I fly Delta since it flies Mainline into my small airport while AA does not. It has better planes on my routes. It gets me to where I need to go and usually on time.

    That’s my expectations and that’s what I get.

    If AA were to match that then I would say the loyalty program would be a tie breaker but I like flying Jets versus prop planes.

  39. What smart traveler would be dumb enough to deliberately book a ticket on Delta or United that is going to give half the miles that American does? Especially since American has equal or better schedule choices for the same routes. I’ve been avoiding stepping in either when doing searches for years now and don’t miss either one bit. I only fly about once per month but AA keeps cranking me out several free tickets per year based on my flights, shopping and answering surveys offered that pay more than 100 miles.

    The exception I’ll make is JetBlue nonstops that save a half day’s time. I’ll book them several times a year though it will take years to earn a ticket. But now that they don’t expire I can wait.

  40. Gary,

    I respectfully think it is a bit disingenuous to confuse character and morals with business decisions. As your website indicates, it is to be considered for its “entertainment.” That I agree with but I regretfully think you are being a bit too personal in your comments. Impugning morals based on subjective observations and questioning character may appear to be crossing a line in a gentlemanly discourse. After all, it is just a loyalty program, not a life imperative issue.

    Most of the people I know who fly do not care about mileage earning (other than FT and MP denizens). They want to get where they are going with the least amount of inconvenience. Even you have commented that DL is a well run airline. Mileage is not everything.

    I have flown DL exclusively for 20 something years. They provide a great product for me and fly where I need to go. DL schedules, connections, and pricing are the best among the competitors in my market. For awards, I have always booked F, BE, and DL One seats on the dates I needed both for domestic and international travel (Caribbean and TATL) at the lowest level. I have no need for TPAC travel which I understand is more difficult.

    I could go on but I also realize that others travel to different destinations, have a hard time finding low award seats, or any other variety of issues that perhaps does not make DL the best solution for them.

    And for the record, the “2015 Award Travel Pricing From Continental U.S., Alaska and Canada” chart is still currently published on a DL site, just not easily located.

    As far as market based redemptions, it makes sense to me as a logical progression in the maturity of programs. I am not foreseeing doom and gloom or the end of life as we know it though some seem to think that. We both know many of the same people on Virginia Avenue and I get a different takeaway than you from my discussions.

    However, as with all here, YMMV. Keep up the entertainment!

  41. @Jack.. When companies refuse to be honest and transparent it is a reflection on their character and their morals. Delta consistently makes changes to it’s mileage program without notice and then makes it next to impossible to determine the costs for awards. Why do they need to hide the information? They have every right to change their program but why can’t they be honest and transparent about it? The reason is that they prefer that people not know about the changes since they reflect negatively on their program. Delta certainly isn’t the only culprit in the airline industry doing this but they seem to be the most determined to keep the information from their customers.

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