Before the pandemic Delta Air Lines was a meaningfully better airline than its peers.
- It would go months on end without cancelling a mainline flight
- Cabin crew were friendlier
- And there was more investment in the product
Delta went so far as to hot towels and welcome cocktails, along with amenity kits and thank you’s from the staff, in international economy.
The Atlanta-based carrier has had the strong brand in the U.S. aviation industry. They had the best performance. And they had a strong position at key hubs.
- If you lived in Atlanta or the Upper Midwest, the only viable option for many customers was Delta
- And they’d made sufficient investments in places like New York that they created loyal customers.
Unlike other airlines, they did not need to make the same investments in points programs to keep customers loyal to the airline. And that loyalty kept them engaged with the airline’s co-brand American Express card. They created a lucrative partnership with American Express which, thanks to the historic moment of Costco terminating their own Amex co-brand, put Delta in the drivers seat there. American Express had to overpay to secure the Delta partnership, setting off a chain reaction in the industry with ever more expensive co-brand deals.
Delta says that nearly 1% of GDP is charged on their cards, that they’re going to generate nearly $7 billion in revenue from American Express this year, and that they have an eye towards growing that partnership to $10 billion.
And they’ve been able to do with with an intentional strategy of making the SkyMiles program less rewarding than airline peers, according to the program’s Vice President Prashant Sharma. He says they want the value they offer to be “sustainable” and “not necessarily trying to play the game with customers” of delivering outsized value. Instead of a valuable currency, it’s the overall Delta “experience” that keeps customers engaged.
This strategy has worked for Delta. They’ve made consistent cuts to the value of their miles over the last decade, but when doing so their co-brand’s charge volume hasn’t suffered in the same way that co-brands at other airlines have taken a hit when making similar changes.
There is obviously some point at which Delta cuts too much,
- If the value of SkyMiles were zero it would not motivate customers
- So some amount before reaching zero is pushing too far
Here’s the thing. With Delta’s latest changes, demanding more from customers without giving them more, they believe they’ll push customers to spend more on their cards in order to maintain their experience and not lose out. Clearly they will lose some customers but the bet they’ve made is that requirements like,
- $75,000 spend on a $550 annual fee card just to keep unlimited lounge access, which is a standard perk (without spend) of similar products at other airlines
- $150,000 spend on that $550 fee card to keep Diamond status for someone who was doing so with the minimum-required $20,000 in ticket spend already
But on net they think they’ll gain. Except Delta isn’t as good an airline as they used to be and certainly not as good compared to competitors.
- They are still the most reliable overall, but only by a few percentage points each month. United and American are catching up, and Delta now cancels flights in a way that they never used to.
- They offer free inflight wifi and seat back video like JetBlue. United is adding seat back video, and has said they plan to make wifi free.
- Their flight attendants are friendlier than American’s and United’s, though not necessarily friendlier than Alaska’s or Southwest’s.
- Their inflight food and beverage program still hasn’t recovered from the pandemic. Their business class seats have doors on some planes, though American is adding this and United is expected to also.
God Save The Points says that Delta can make changes to its programs, and customers will shift their behavior to give the airline more out of a fear of missing out, because they’re the best airline. But this is anchored in the past.
One Mile at a Time points out that their business class product is inconsistent at best, featuring numerous “Boeing 767s with really uncomfortable business class seats, plus ex-LATAM Airbus A350s, that don’t even feature direct aisle access.”
Dedicated business class lounges are coming, and while Delta’s Sky Club’s still remain a cut above United Clubs and American Airlines Admirals Clubs (when you can get in, and the crowds inside detract from the experience) they still don’t have the equivalent of United’s Polaris lounges or even American’s Flagship lounges.
American and United are in many ways rising. Delta isn’t as good as it once was, though that could change. Ultimately brand follows the underlying reality, even if imperfectly and with a lag.
Delta is not a good enough airline to keep doubling down on the path of low value miles, expecting more from the consumer, and seeing the consumer continue to respond.
If you live in a Delta hub, maybe you’ll keep flying them but get off the status hamster wheel. If you live in a more competitive market, you might give American a look (if you want to earn status from things other than flying) or United (if you earn status primarily from flights).
It’s too bad that the Department of Justice entrenched Delta’s strong position in New York by preventing American and JetBlue from partnering to be a competitor there, and in Boston where Delta also considers themselves to hold the leading position.