Delta Has Effectively Eliminated Business Class Upgrades, Charges Up To One Million Miles

Delta once promoted themselves as the best airline for upgrades. Not only did they offer ‘unlimited domestic upgrades’ for elites before United or American but they even hyped upgrades to private jets but that program turned out not to be real.

In 2019 Delta largely eliminated mileage upgrades. Instead of costing, say, 25,000 miles each way (or 25,000 miles plus $500) they now cost the difference between coach and business class, paid in miles with miles worth just one cent apiece.

Delta’s top tier elites are no longer even able to upgrade from coach to business class on international flights, something that American and United elites can still do.

At Delta, business class is something you have to pay full price for (unless you’re on a corporate discount!) and miles are just a currency ‘same as cash’. And if you prefer to spend cash they offer financing.

Mileage upgrades at Delta are now available almost any time there’s a paid seat available in business class, but that’s almost useless. An upgrade on Delta can cost up to one million miles roundtrip. Here’s one way on an Atlanta – Johannesburg itinerary:

None of this should be surprising. Delta will charge 180,000 miles for a one-way business class saver award to Europe when partner Virgin Atlantic will charge 50,000 miles for that same exact seat.

The Vice President of the SkyMiles program explains how they’re able to get away with this: people still join the program, use their co-brand credit cards, and redeem their miles.

He acknowledges lower value that he calls ‘sustainable’ and ‘holistic’ and suggests they’re “not necessarily trying to play the game with customers” of delivering more value than competitors.

If you’re a top tier elite you now have to buy premium economy if you want to roll the dice on an upgrade to business class (they can still be tough to come by) and you will spend hundreds of thousands of miles for that upgrade as well. How that encourages customers to spend money on a Delta credit card, when they’d be better off at 2% cash back since they’d get twice the return on their spending even for Delta upgrades, I find it difficult to understand.

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. “He acknowledges lower value that he calls ‘sustainable’ and ‘holistic’ and suggests they’re “not necessarily trying to play the game with customers” of delivering more value than competitors.”

    They can do this because they’re that far ahead of United and American. It sucks, but without significant improvements with other airlines, I’ll keep using Delta because it’s a better end to end experience.

  2. Delta One is not really business class, that’s first class, the headline is totally misleading too, what you’re saying is it can on select round trip iteneraries cost 500,000 each way

  3. Northwest Airlines knew how to treat their upper tier customers in their world perks program much better than Delta. Delta has a way of ruiniing a good thing just like what they did with their scheduling, the route structure, and pulling out of lucrative cities in Asia.

  4. Since DL mortgaged its skymile program during the pandemic is it actually DL making these moves regarding the use of the miles ?

  5. They think they can pull this off because they have run the financial and demand models and they know that the majority of their profitable customer base won’t leave them. The day frequent flyers switch their spending from Delta to AA or United, this will change. Until then, expect to see the lack of upgrades continue or even more things like this. One other thing to keep in mind. Delta’s market cap is far higher than AA or United, so their business strategy appears to be working (or at least the market seems to be supportive).

  6. Delta is just using the rule of business/capitalism in which the customer votes with their money. Delta is simply a better airline to fly. Period.

  7. Delta is my preferred airline. It is now my preferred airline for domestic trips. Although I understand them doing this, not for Diamond elites although. They should rethink this tier and gain loyalty from top tier customers. I upgraded my wife on a trip form Europe it cost 353,000 miles to do that one way upgrade in July of this year. The ticket costs skyrocketed and is shameful to be honest. Its all about demand although. I used to upgrade both the EU and Asia trips when space was available for 15,000 to 35,000 miles, that was a good deal and value. I just can’t spend company funds of 12,000 to 18,000 for delta one anymore. I started using AA, and United now for long haul trips and now I’m top tier with United as well. I can upgrade for value on those flights now… In the end Delta looses!!!

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