Delta Begins to Thaw Complimentary Upgrades on Premium Domestic Routes

Delta always used to be fantastic for domestic flyers looking to upgrade, but awful for anyone who cared about being bumped up to a better cabin internationally.

Sure, they prioritized full fare over status (which United does now as well, since integrating with Continental) but they do give away unlimited complimentary upgrades and their domestic premium product is above average.

But international upgrades — those required buying a nearly full fare “M” class economy ticket even to be able to play the upgrade lottery. You’d pay about as much as a discounted business class ticket to get on the upgrade list, and you wouldn’t get any money back if you didn’t clear the upgrade.

Delta vastly improved their international upgrade policy for top tier elites but with a kicker.

They introduced ‘choice benefits’ upgrade certificates — confirmed domestic upgrades for 75,000 mile flyer Platinums, and confirmed international upgrades for 125,000 mile flyer Diamonds.

At the same time they eliminated complimentary upgrades on premium cross country routes to and from New York (Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle) as well as Atlanta – Hawaii.

The only way to get a complimentary upgrade on these flights became the new Diamond choice international upgrades. A 125,000 mile flyer can have four of these, enough for two people to upgrade roundtrip… once.

It’s incredibly frustrating for Delta elite members to sit in back while looking ahead throughout the entire flight at empty seats in the forward cabin.

It’s not quite as frustrating as US Airways offering complimentary upgrades to first class but charging to ‘upgrade’ to premium coach seats without extra legroom. But it’s still pretty frustrating.

And with Delta’s revenue-based program, minimum spend required for elite status, these are presumably valuable customers sitting in back while these seats generate zero revenue. Delta’s theory, one imagines, was that taking away upgrades would encourage people to buy the seats. And it would ‘protect the value’ of the seats if they couldn’t be as easily obtained for free. But there’s been a huge backlash of unhappy members who used to receive complimentary upgrades on these routes and no longer do.

Chris McGinnis reports on a partial thawing of the policy, recognizing that perhaps Delta went to far.

While Delta still isn’t including their premium New York – Los Angeles/San Francisco/Seattle flights in the automatic upgrade process, they are at least proactively upgrading elite members into empty seats at the airport. Essentially, they’re doing complimentary operational upgrades even when they don’t have to (oversold coach, empty seats up front).

“Delta is handling this on a case by base basis,” Delta spokesperson Anthony Black told TravelSkills. “While the policy has not changed, we have now begun to award our top medallion customers upgrades on those flights during slower travel periods or as the operation permits.”

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, 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. “But international upgrades — those required buying a nearly full fare “M” class economy ticket even to be able to play the upgrade lottery. You’d pay about as much as a discounted business class ticket to get on the upgrade list, and you wouldn’t get any money back if you didn’t clear the upgrade.”

    This is not completely accurate. While I can be a bit of a Delta “fan-boy;” and I do believe they provide the best US Legacy “experience” and have the best operational performance :

    (a) “M-fares” in many markets are 100% refundable and changeable. They are refundable as a credit on my credit card (prior to travel); not just future travel vouchers. Also, they allow you to change flights while in the middle of an itinerary.
    (b) In my market (-AMS); I’m often paying a premium of 300 to 600€ each way for an M-fare over least expensive economy class (and, those “least expensive economy class fares have large change fees). But, I believe there is good value in the flexibility and changeability of these tickets.
    (c) Z-fares (discounted business) are awesome values (heck, I’ve gotten some ex-AMS to The States for 1600-1900€ all-in roundtrip); but please remember, these have the same very high change/cancellation fees as discounted economy class. (I can’t speak for this, regarding other airlines; but I do believe most discounted biz fares have change and cancellation fees).
    (d) Delta now handles M-fare upgrades up to departure time in many markets; and will list you on an upgrade list if the upgrade has not cleared -24 before departure.
    (e) I do believe there is a correlation to the difficulty you make upgrades and the potential for them to clear. At least in the competitive transatlantic markets; Delta upgrades (in my experience) have a very high percentage chance of clearing. And, since my M-fares are 100% refundable and changeable I can just change to a flight with more upgrade potential. (especially in markets with multiple AMS-XXX flights).
    (f) Delta, in recent months, has been very good at releasing upgrade space 7-14 days prior to departure. Once again, with the help of alerts and ExpertFlyer it’s very possible to find a flight with upgrade space (and change to that flight)
    (g) As we know, the entire widebody fleet is 1-2-1 “lie-flat”; which is a huge plus to me, personally.
    (h) In the hope of seeming “less biased,” my experiences basically stop at Delta transatlantic; I do believe the transpacific market is different with respect to such things as upgrades clearing, as well as the fact that I believe more flights are likely to be closer to 100% full in BusinessElite on departure date.

    I guess, my point, is that Delta isn’t necessarily as bad as it seems vis-a-vis transatlantic upgrades for everyone. Add the new Diamond Medallion Global Upgrades from lowest fare; and the package is decent, IMO. Of course, when you are ex-AMS you are quite biased. (see, I admit my bias!) AA treats their ExPlats great; but they have no way of getting me from BOS-AMS in 6 hours +/-, and I’d rot in hell with a cheap Atlantic City whore before I would fly UA AMS-EWR-BOS.

  2. I can confirm this happened to me on Monday of this week. Traveling from NY – LAX on a newly remodeled plane. Was sitting in economy comfort, and was brought up to business (along with another passenger) shortly before take-off.

    The flight was not oversold, and I have Platinum status.

  3. This has always been a question of setting customer expectations appropriately. If people don’t expect an upgrade and are op-upped, they are delightfully surprised, but when you advertise “unlimited complimentary upgrades***” and caveat it, people feel things are being taken away. I’ve found it kind of silly when carriers think they are protecting revenue instead of maximizing revenue out of every seat at any price point above cost. The vast majority of people paying for premium cabins are authorized by their company to do so. They aren’t going to buy coach to save their company a few bucks and gamble with their comfort. Similarly, someone who usually flies coach may be willing to pay an extra $30-50 out of pocket for more legroom or drinks, but making a transcon upgrade harder to get probably isn’t going to incentivize people to shell out >$500 each way to get a slightly nicer experience. Etihad, and a few other carriers using auction processes close to departure, are probably the most savvy in maximizing premium seat revenue, understanding that every seat (economy and premium) should be full and all bids over cost should be taken. Where elites fall into that value is probably highly dependent on the route and season, but I’d probably bid $200 transcon every time for ET (or even DL’s) product.

  4. They were really protective of these seats after the change. I had a Paid F ticket and took a VDB where they were desperate (over by 11). The only available flight that night was a premium transcon in J connecting to my final destination. They wouldn’t do it under any circumstances (per 2 employees and redcoat, who explained they’re not allowed to). Instead, they paid for a hotel room and sent me thru ATL in the morning in F.

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