Is Delta Removing Award Charts the Worst Thing Any Frequent Flyer Program Has Done, Ever?

Pizza in Motion asks whether Delta pulling its award charts off of its website (and changing technical settings to prevent search tools like archive.org from displaying them) is really that evil?. He manages a defense of Delta.

I believe that taking information and tools away from members to know how much awards are ‘supposed to’ cost — making it harder to know how many miles to save for a dream trip, to know when prices increase, or to know when awards are being priced incorrectly — is about the worst thing I’ve seen from any single airline’s frequent flyer program.

Sure, airlines have gone out of business taking their miles with them (my Mexicana Frecuenta account speaks to that). But that wasn’t the frequent flyer program which did it.

And LatinPass became GlobalPass, insisted that half of all points for an award come through their shopping portal (and tried to apply this retroactively), then stopped issuing redemption tickets altogether — complaining in an interview with Inside Flyer that members with miles ‘only wanted award tickets’. But they weren’t an airline frequent flyer program, they were a coalition program that several airlines worked with.

I’ve struggled to think of a single airline’s frequent flyer program having done anything worse, recognizing that the immolation of trust in a program is worse – to me – than the diminishing of redemption values announced in advance.

Pizza in Motion contends:

  • Since Delta had pricing glitches, the award chart wasn’t “true” and didn’t matter anyway. Although now we’ll have no chart to compare prices to in order to even know when there’s a glitch versus just a high price intentionally.
  • Delta never promised they’d publish an award chart. They also never promised not to require payment of your first born as a carrier surcharge in exchange for a partner award, but it’s assumed… they’ve published award charts for years, and indeed published updates to their charts as recently as last month, so it’s part of how the program has run.
  • Most people don’t use the chart. The soft bigotry of low expectations, making decisions based on your least-informed customers has to be the most damning with faint praise we can muster here.
  • “There’s no evidence to support that they’ll be any more or less forthcoming without an award chart.” I’ll lay out my explanation below for why less pricing transparency makes it more likely they’ll hide devaluations, whether or not it’s their intent to do so today.

Mommy Points says “Delta has lost their minds.” I don’t think so.

Whether or not the primary goal of removing award charts is to mask changes and hide devaluations, when members are only aware of the prices presented to them there’s certainly a greater temptation to make more changes. Even if it doesn’t start there, it’s hard not to end there.

Delta SkyMiles are a currency with no central bank. While far from a perfect deterrent, the only thing that keeps the program from devaluing is the fear that doing so will diminish the desire of members to accumulate more points, the fear that the airline and the program will lose future business. When the value of the miles is hidden, when information is withdrawn and transparency reduced, it’s harder to know when devaluations occur so those devaluations are more likely to occur.

My personal feeling, having spoken to several individuals, is that Delta doesn’t think award charts matter since their customers are stupid (my words not theirs) — most people don’t know about award charts, they just take the price that’s given to them, so having taken award charts away is irrelevant. If people don’t know they difference then they aren’t really hurt. Giving members less information makes them less able to tell the difference, and that seemed to me to be good from Delta’s perspective.

If I had to guess, the first you’d do if you were going to get rid of award charts (go to a new redemption system entirely) is to… get rid of award charts (from the website). If that turns out to be the route, and Delta can do what it wishes with its program, aligning itself more with domestic lower cost or limited service and route network carriers like Southwest and JetBlue, my fault here is the disingenuousness.

  • If you’re going to change the value proposition of the program — and the current one just began last month! — say so, be honest with your customers.
  • If you’re going to do this for some other reason, be honest about it — don’t say you don’t need award charts because the award calendar is ‘so good’ when the two issues aren’t at all linked.

In other words be honest with your customers, not disingenous.

Delta’s lawyer told the Supreme Court a year ago that members had no reasonable expectations about their ability to spend miles, because at the point the miles have been awarded members have “already gotten full performance.”

With most of Delta’s award charts only revealed three months ago, and only having gone into effect six weeks ago, it’s shocking — and the opposite of what members could have reasonably expected — to see those charts removed.

And when Delta is silent other than to say that their new award calender (which has been around as long as the new charts have, and which became available before the new charts even went into effect) are good so charts are unnecessary there’s absolutely little credibility and a destruction of trust.

There is no necessary tradeoff between a functional award calendar and displaying an award chart.

  • You can have a functional award calendar and published award charts.
  • From the outcry I’ve seen on the internet since this happened yesterday — blogs, frequent flyer forums, Twitter, Facebook, and most customers of SkyMiles have no idea year — it’s clear that members value having both, not just the calendar.
  • United and American have functional award calendars (and United has more partners bookable on its website than Delta does) and award charts, for years it’s been clear that there’s no tradeoff between the two.
  • No program whose pricing is consistent with an award chart has ever removed its award chart from public view.

The only reasons to withdraw the information available via an award chart are to prevent members from having easy access to that chart — whether because they don’t want members to know what pricing to expect, to have a tool to complain about pricing when Delta’s prices are too high — or as a prelude to the elimination of chart-based pricing altogether combined with an unwillingness to admit that’s the intention.

I believe this move shows tremendous contempt for members. In the absence of any credible narrative to the controversy — and believe me, I’ve pleaded for one and asked for help in presenting any positive spin to this — I’m left with no other way to view it.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s advice during oral argument in Northwest v. Ginsberg, responding to claims by Delta’s lawyer that they can do as they wish with their program? People should go find a different airline.

JUSTICE KAGAN: I just don’t see why that would make sense. Because if I knew that it was really up to you to give me the free ticket, maybe I was willing to get it and maybe I wasn’t. I don’t think that I’d be spending all this time in the air on your planes. You know, I’d find another company that actually gave me the free ticket.

(Emphasis mine.)

What do you think is the worst thing a frequent flyer program has ever done?


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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. […] Gary Leff at View From The Wing: The only reasons to withdraw the information available via an award chart are to prevent members from having easy access to that chart — whether because they don’t want members to know what pricing to expect, to have a tool to complain about pricing when Delta’s prices are too high — or as a prelude to the elimination of chart-based pricing altogether combined with an unwillingness to admit that’s the intention. […]

Comments

  1. Mark my words, we are just getting closer to FF points being regulated as currency. This is the airlines getting greedier, and we will see major pushback by people claiming their ‘savings’ were devalued overnight…again. I have been saying this would happen for years, and now we just got much closer.

  2. There goes my idea for an April Fool’s headline.

    Maybe the logical next step is to eliminate the calendar. Just select your destination and after purchase Delta will tell you when you are going.

  3. Two weeks ago I cashed in my SkyMiles to fly my wife and daughter to NYC. My account now has 1,309 points in it.

    In two weeks I have a China Southern flight (LAX – SIN in business) that would accrue miles to my Delta SkyMiles account. No longer. I am opening an account with Korean and future Skyteam trips will drop their miles into that bucket. I simply don’t trust Delta at all.

  4. While the hyperbole of “worst thing ever done” is a bit much, I have to agree that it will rank in the top 5 for certain. The thing that baffles me, given what Delta is going, is why anyone would CHOOSE skypesos at this point? Only those who live in Minneapolis and Atlanta would say “yeah, skypesos.”

    I guess the real issue is that, for the vast majority of travelers, even elites, FF programs just don’t matter. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that DL has some internal data that indicates that only a small percentage of their elites actually give a shit about skypesos. And that then drives their decision making.

    But for anyone who cares, and anyone who has a choice, then the DL FF is just ludicrous. I would never agree to take skypesos as any sort of compensation or reward if I had no idea how I could spend the damn things! I would credit all my DL flights to Flying Blue and try to wrangle a freebie to Paris every year or two.

    The whole issue with DL as it has evolved over the past year or two is simply illogical from the perspective of a frequent flyer with choices.

    I just hope Dougie has someone who can put this stuff in persecutive for him and explain how DL is f’n up massively.

  5. Gary, of course you are right. That anyone is offering to be the Devil’s Advocate on this is mind boggling. If I had to guess, removing the chart was probably the result of some VP at Skymiles throwing up his hands at the chronic inability to get their award engine to match what they publish. And rather than fixing the award engine, they get rid of the award chart. Pathetic.

  6. Gary,

    I just looked up prices to fly from RDU>ATL in cash. Then I switched to see what they would cost in miles. The cheapest flights in $ ($230) were the cheapest in miles 25k, while the more expensive the flight is in $ ($300+), the more sky pesos it costs 40k+.

    Wouldn’t you consider this to be like Southwest, except they are charging a lot more miles than SW is for a ticket?

  7. @jeff – southwest tells you how much your points are worth. delta won’t tell you. and they won’t tell you it won’t change tomorrow, at least southwest announces its devaluations in advance. plus delta has an extensive international route network and premium cabin, which southwest doesn’t offer. so they’re fundamentally different airlines in need of fundamentally different rewards programs.

  8. Gary, I know you think loyalty programs aren’t dead, but I think the airlines and hotels feel otherwise. Big data and real-time pricing will allow them to wring every cent out of their supply. Nothing will go out empty, and even if they can get $5 for someone to buy up rather than a complimentary upgrade, that will be that. With consolidation (collusion?) there isn’t anywhere for a loyalist to run, if everyone is moving in lockstep. Maybe a disruptive force will enter the marketplace; we’ll see.

  9. “And when Delta is silent other than to say that their new award calender (which has been around as long as the new charts have, and which became available before the new charts even went into effect) are good so charts are unnecessary there’s absolutely little credibility and a destruction of trust.”

    The hysterical thing is that by their own admission (in the form of manually pricing awards over the phone when they price incorrectly lately) the award calendar isn’t even good enough to price the awards it does display. That’s not “good” that’s “non functional.”

    To me this is just an attempt to close that loophole and nothing more. The award price is what the calendar says it is and that’s the end of it so no more re-pricing.

    One question I have is what about routes that are served by partners not bookable online? How much does it cost to fly JFK-CAN-MLE and how in the world do I know if I have enough miles before calling in to book it?

  10. @Sunrise089 – no, not tomorrow, and for clarity I meant nothing up front will go out empty; it’s been made pretty clear publicly that premium cabin monetization is high on the to-do list.

  11. DL believes that captive customers in the fortress hubs, plus those on corporate contracts and those who like DL’s service, don’t need to be enticed by redeemable rewards. Further, I think the DL believes that the vast majority of their customers don’t truly understand redeeming rewards and don’t bother to get educated on the topic, and therefore won’t really understand if they are being screwed. Maybe they are also confident that UA will come close enough to copying, and eventually AA. It’s quite the message, though to consider you customers ignorant and stupid. I do think they have broken the covenant of the both the flying part of the loyalty program and the credit card program by basically saying that their fiat currency is worth whatever they want it to be on any given day. But they clearly believe not enough customers will abandon them and their credit cards.

    Except customers must abandon them, or else they will be proven right in their assumptions. Certainly RDMs still have substantially greater value on Alaska and AA, and UA hasn’t shown quite the same disdain towards its members. While they have had their devaluation and are adopting revenue earning, they haven’t adopted the prohibition on changes and cancels inside 72 hours and still have far superior SDC options. Let’s hope that UA stays transparent on the award chart also.

  12. I think Aeroplan’s sudden expansion of fuel surcharges onto a host of their partners was worse. That was on top of a gutting of their award chart and subsequently followed by a thousand cuts to their elite program.

    I know it’s a peripheral program for Americans, but it has de facto monopoly status in Canada, and if you think hub-captive is bad, imagine country-captive.

  13. Deltas the best hands down
    They excel @
    Exceptional award availability At the lowest redemption levels
    Great elite recognition
    Transparent and honest fair policies at all time including advance notice
    100% customer Satisfaction policy
    Lowest industry pricing
    Award winning cuisine on board
    And more trustworthy than any airline Flying
    Please keep flying Delta all so I can enjoy my real carrier of choice!

  14. When booking award flights I never looked at the charts. They’re useless and in a way, false advertising.

  15. Airlines need to maintain the perceived value of their miles and points at well above $0.01. Otherwise customers will switch to CapitalOne and other cash rebate cards, killing the goose that has laid so many golden eggs.

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