Delta Has A New Way To Prioritize Who Gets Upgraded Starting In January

Delta Air Lines has announced several changes to its frequent flyer program for 2024, to replace the changes they had announced to its frequent flyer program for 2024. In the midst of all of the rancor and chaos, there’s a change to who gets upgrades going forward.

The airline says it now sells 75% of first class seats.

  • That includes low yielding routes where first class rarely sells. On premium routes the percentage is much higher.

  • That includes low yielding days and times. At peak travel times the percentage is much higher.

Upgrades have gotten very difficult for most Medallion members, most of the time. As the leftovers that Delta customers fight over become more and more scarce, SkyMiles has changed how they divvy up the scraps. Key changes for 2024:

  • On domestic (complimentary upgrade-eligible) flights with premium economy, those buying premium economy will have priority for upgrade to the forward cabin.

  • In most cases million-miler status becomes the number one tie-breaker for upgrades. A Diamond million miler trumps one who isn’t.

  • The fare class you buy you buy no longer matters for upgrade priority. Being on a full fare ticket won’t help you anymore.

  • How many qualifying dollars you’ve earned in the current calendar year now matters, but it’s a tie-breaker below just having the airline’s premium credit card and whether or not you’re part of a corporate travel program. (At American Airlines, the number of loyalty points earned on a rolling 12-month basis is the first tie-breaker for upgrades after status.)

  • The final tie-breaker remains date and time of upgrade request.

There are two major problems that limit upgrades at Delta. First is, given that they’ve gone from selling 13% of first class seats to selling 75% of them (for some amount of cash), they no longer have enough first class seats. This is something entirely in their control. It makes sense to add seats now that they’re monetizing them so well.

Elite upgrades do still matter for driving long-term business and for encouraging co-brand card spend where the airline is working to grow annual revenue Amex revenue from $7 billion to $10 billion.

Second, Delta is notoriously bad at actually processing upgrades at the gate. I’m constantly hearing from readers who don’t get upgraded and where flights go out with empty seats up front. If you aren’t upgraded in advance, it’s in the lap of the gods whether upgrades will be processed.

SkyMiles Elites Headed Towards The Back Of The Plane

Addressing these two issues would allow Delta to sell more premium seats and retain the loyalty of premium customers who increasingly have to spend more with the airline and on its premium co-brand cards just to stay even (or, with fewer seats for upgrades, to still fall behind). Adding premium seats would come at the cost of the marginal coach seats on the aircraft. Ensuring that gate agents process upgrades would not come at such a cost, but would take crucial minutes as they try to get flights pushed back.

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. i have been a Diamond Medallion for a decade, and while I won’t be any longer, I just wanted to say that over all that time and all that flying I can think of one occasion where I was on a flight that went out with an empty seat up front because of the upgrade list not being processed. I think you’re massively over-extrapolating from some (rightfully) disgruntled people who bothered to complain to you in claiming this is a common problem.

  2. Two things.

    1) What’s crazy is that United is actively adding premium seats across its fleet. Delta isn’t. In fact, on long-haul planes like the A350, there are actually fewer business-class seats than on the 747 it replaced. If Delta can sell 90% of seats on Detroit to Denver, which is hardly a major Delta route, then it needs to add a row or two of first-class seats.

    2) It’s not talked about, but Delta’s buy-up algorithm seems to offer non-status or low-status customers a cheaper paid upgrade in the theory that they will get hooked and buy first every time. Higher-tier status customers don’t seem to get these $40 upgrade offers that regularly get talked about.

  3. This. This is my issue with Delta- they have issues with capacity and it effects their members negatively but they just change things to make it worse for loyalty members instead of seeing where they could solve a problem- e.g. more first class seats, more Delta clubs or larger ones, or even premium Delta clubs for business class (a la AA First or UA Polaris). They don’t have a top of the line product any more but they act like they are the best of the best.

  4. Why not sell less seats for a higher price instead of selling as many seats as possible for a dirt cheap price? With higher prices, you can actually offer a good product.

  5. @BGriff, the issue is not EMPTY first class seats and no one got upgraded, it’s that they only have none or one seat available for upgrades at all most of the time, so a major perk of being loyal is not available. So what is the point of being loyal?

  6. I am rarely above SM anymore – because DL uncompetitive fares are commonly out-of-policy in my Corp travel tool – but in recent years I have seen very occasional First seats open, and much more common multiple Comfort Plus seats open (and this is not the ‘decline middle’ feature).

  7. This is a really interesting priority list… You’re giving your first tiebreaker to the people without any incentive to do any additional spend beyond their ticket. And are people really going to fly your airline for 10 years to get the first tiebreaker (that may not even be the same in 10 years) when they can hop to the front of the upgrade list on AA within a year?

    Suppose you now “have” to carry the Reserve card to have an OK shot at upgrades, but you don’t have to spend on it!

    AA’s system seems much better aligned to driving additional spend.

  8. Also unmentioned is the GUC/RUC list, which continue to have four issues. First has been the lack of available inventory to clear when booking. In my experience, on any domestic flight, regardless of distance or flight time, once 2 or 3 FC seats are booked, availability changes from RUC to GUC. This is a ridiculous standard. Second, if you waitlist any RUC/GUC, when inventory is available – often in the final five days – while your seat may “clear” for upgrade, Revenue Management will not reprocess the ticket until gate boarding time. This has several consequences – you get an Error attempting to check-in. You can’t pre-order a meal. And worse, upgrades and FC seats may still be sold ahead of you. Finally, if you ask them to attach the RUC/GUC upgrade request on a connection flight dependent on the long segment, they do not automatically clear you onto the short segment as well. Unless you call and specifically ask, you won’t get the short segment outside the normal complimentary list process.

  9. Delta’s Translation: Stop purchasing full fare tickets hoping to get an upgrade.

    But Delta also wants its SkyMiles members to maximize spend via selling…full fare tickets, lol.

    Any questions?

  10. The main consequence of this change that I see is that the Reserve card now becomes a significant tie breaker if fare class no longer matters. MM status also becomes much more valuable as you will always be at the top of the list as a diamond even on a V fare.

    When you say “premium economy” does that including buying comfort seats?

  11. “It’s not talked about, but Delta’s buy-up algorithm seems to offer non-status or low-status customers a cheaper paid upgrade in the theory that they will get hooked and buy first every time. Higher-tier status customers don’t seem to get these $40 upgrade offers that regularly get talked about”

    I’ve often wondered about this. As an MSP fortress hub hostage, we mainly need to fly Delta unless the destination is a hub for another airline.

    We buy First 90+% of the time. I sometimes buy Coach and Comfort plus and then later upgrade. (work pays for Comfort, then I just pay the difference to F).

    Years ago, we’d see the price of the upgrade oscillate and you could get a deal. But for the last 2 years I have not seen this happen once. Even when F is empty weeks before takeoff. It simply stays at whatever the price in F happens to be.

    So they’re upselling F, but unclear to whom!

  12. There is a debate right now on Flyertalk as to whether Comfort+ is a separate cabin such that a passenger with a paid Economy+ fare would have upgrade priority over a passenger with a regular economy fare (all other factors being equal.)

  13. Delta isn’t investing in its lounges, planes, routes or training for their FAs. They have reached capacity so they tried to kick ppl out of their elite program. What Delta needs to do is actually kick out Bastien and bring a CEO who’s willing to invest back in the company and improve the experience, only then they will have the option to make it harder to reach top level and ppl won’t push back.
    Maybe offer AlAkbar of Qatar the job?

  14. As a multi-year DM and AmEx reserve card holder, this gives me heartburn. I fly a significant amount all year and the allure of an upgrade is a nice perk….but old Ed just keeps f****** with everything. It’s all to clean up the cardholder sky club crowding and covid rollover status bloating. Get off your high horse Wd and don’t forget the regular business travelers that drove your revenue. I’d switch carriers but MSP limits that as my home airport…..

  15. I’m $300 shy of silver . I don’t care . I can’t compete with MM & Diamond wallets rightfully so status means nada to me . Just get me A to B without major delays . Every year JFK christmas week nightmare delays . Don’t care about lounges . Just grab me SBUX

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