Delta Explains Their New Basic Economy Award Ticket Restrictions

This morning I wrote that Delta has added basic economy restrictions to the lowest award prices for some routes. That’s punishing frequent flyers — redemptions were once a reward for loyalty and so customers were treated better when using their miles. That’s why award tickets have always been more changeable, for instance, than revenue fares.

That made business sense for the airline, too — customers who have a good experience using their miles become more loyal. They start accumulating miles faster. They earn miles with more partners, too. That’s great for credit card revenue especially. And the benefits of the basic economy strategy haven’t made sense for award tickets.

  • Whereas the major airlines have used basic economy restrictions like no advance seat assignment, no upgrades, and no changes as a targeted fare increase, a way to make the lowest fares worse so that some customers will spend more to avoid them, that’s never seemed necessary with award tickets. Delta has raised award prices whenever it has wanted to without this tool.

  • Basic economy has also become a way for airlines to maintain the separation between business travel fares and leisure fares but that’s largely built-in to frequent flyer awards already, since in general people may earn miles on business travel but will use miles for personal reasons. (Small business owners are more like leisure travelers in this model.)

One Way Domestic Award

I reached out to Delta to find out why they are doing this and to learn what we can expect in terms of this spreading. A spokesperson shared,

Our customers have told us they want the flexibility to use their SkyMiles on more types of Delta products, and we are always looking at new ways to expand those options, while making that process simple and intuitive for them. As a part of this effort, we are testing the ability for customers to use miles for Basic Economy tickets on select flights.

So this is a test and Delta isn’t sharing whether or when it may expand beyond the limited routes where basic economy awards are offered today.

However they want you to believe that they are making the cheapest awards more restrictive to help you. Apparently Delta customers have been telling the airline that they want the flexibility not to be allowed to get seat assignments in advance. And they’ve been saying that more rules and restrictions are both simpler and more intuitive. As a result this is an enhancement you should like.

None of this would matter — SkyMiles isn’t the reason for flying Delta, you fly Delta for their operational performance in spite of SkyMiles, and you do have a choice — but United and American tend to blindly copy Delta so the test here creates the risk that other programs will follow whether it’s in their interest to do so or not.

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. “As a result this is an enhancement you should like”

    Is Jeff Smisek now in charge of SkyMiles?

  2. “you fly Delta for their operational performance in spite of SkyMiles”

    Nailed it. These programs have been so gutted and miles devalued there’s minimal incentive to fly one or another frequently for reasons other than reliability and price.

    The amount of upsells I’d need to buy and more expensive fares to get high enough status to matter nowadays just isn’t worth it.

  3. “Our customers told us ….”

    BS. Not one customer told Delta they want to spend more for less. BTW, 35,000 miles from CHS to DTW is a huge rip-off in and of itself.

  4. Doesn’t Delta already have enough problems with Skymiles that they need to intentionally cause more? As they devalue at will and avoid offering any desirable space at a reasonable cost whenever it suits them, this just seems like a silly, and even spiteful move.

  5. @ Gary — What a shock. You steal form people, and they don’t complain. Why not steal more?

  6. If this is a test, every Delta flyer needs to loudly communicate that we don’t want this. E-mail, tweet, and message them.

  7. Didn’t Delta just win “Best Airline Mileage Program” from another blog??? So confused… lol.

  8. I don’t see the this in such a bad light as many do. I personally only book award space for J or F, but I have spoken with many who would NEVER use award miles for what they see as an extravagance. The lowest amount of miles to get somewhere is what they want. This is a choice for those consumers.

  9. I look forward to using miles to upgrade from basic economy to coach. Just another stealth devaluation.

  10. I’m not familiar with the program, but did they lower the price to add Basic economy or did they make the old economy saver basic economy and raise the price of saver awards? I know they don’t have a chart, but I don’t know what they usually charge…it’s hard to tell what this looks like in practice now.

  11. @HT…the BE awards will essentially be the same price as the current saver, whatever price that is with no chart. The only place I’ve seen BE lower than old regular cash prices during sales is the current transatlantic fare war environment. HOWEVER, a lot of those BE round trips at $250 to Europe require a week-long stay; if you can afford to buy clothes once you get to Europe you probably aren’t buying a BE fare to get there. Domestically, BE is the same ass the old “regular economy” price. Awards will be no different.

  12. Just like when they offered basic economy fares, they aren’t offering cheaper tickets, instead it’s restrictions on the same price ticket so bad that you want to pay more. cute.

  13. Why does anyone deal with these swindlers who conceal their price-list, so you have to make a daily query just to see whatever lousy devaluation Delta has dumped on its customers that day?

  14. I worked for UAL for many years and we had to bend over backwards for the customers. I fly full fare on Delta often and I don’t see that at Delta. I have been treated very poorly at Delta, but they fly where I need to go out of Atlanta.

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