Delta’s AwardChartGATE: Why the Award Chart is the Foundation of Loyalty

When I first graduated college I became a frequent flyer. I was flying for work. I was flying home to see my family. I was flying to see my college girlfriend. So I joined the programs of the airlines I’d fly, and they’d send me stuff in mail. I’d flip through it.

A common feature of those mailings, along with various partner offers, was the award chart. I knew that a domestic coach ticket was 25,000 miles. Cash was tight back then, I didn’t make very much, and I used a few of those — like when my grandmother passed away when I just turned 24 and I needed to get on a plane right away.

It had never even occurred to me that I could use my miles to fly to Australia and in business class! I saw that was 90,000 miles and that became my goal.

I started focusing on United, not just for flying but also with partner earnings, and I used to call Mileage Plus (the program name didn’t have a space between the words back then) on the phone to get my mileage balance every week. I didn’t want to wait for mailed statements to ensure miles were posting, and you didn’t have account data at back then.

But it all began with the award chart — learning what was possible, setting a goal, and focusing my engagement with the program.

My belief is that you need a fixed target if you want to drive passionate member engagement.

And it’s the fixed target — the award chart itself — that Delta decided to remove yesterday.

Delta doesn’t think they need this, as they explained on twitter.

As a Delta spokesman explained,

[W]e did remove Award charts today. Delta’s expanded search capabilities and calendar at offer more flexible and accurate view of Award prices.

Not only doesn’t Delta think they need a chart, there’s reason to think they wouldn’t want one.

  • There’s no reason why an award calendar has to replace a chart. American and United have both.
  • Published pricing promotes transparency. If you want to raise your prices at will, it’s easier to do that if you never told anyone your prices to begin with.
  • Delta’s IT frequently mis-priced awards. It’s easier to take away the price list (that tells people what awards are supposed to cost) than it is to fix the IT. Besides, higher prices can be seen by program executives as a feature rather than a bug.
  • They’re tired of explaining themselves to members. If you don’t have an award chart, you don’t have to announce changes (price increases). You just do it.
  • If you’re going to get rid of chart-based pricing anyway, you could start by getting rid of the chart.

I shared my own take on Twitter. That’s always dangerous to do while walking and typing on a smartphone, I miss my old Blackberry, but here’s my musings (typos and all):

I asked Delta to tell me that the elimination of the award chart wasn’t the first step of a larger change to how the program works. They wouldn’t say that. All they would say is that “nothing has changed today.”

If Delta cares about integrity, and having an honest relationship with its members, it will bring back the award charts or explain the real motivation behind what it’s doing (because yesterday’s story doesn’t cut it in the slightest).

If Delta cares about engagement with its program, it will bring back the award charts so there’s a clear goal its members can set and work towards. If they expect the value of the program to continue to sustain $2 billion mileage sales to American Express they’re going to need it.

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. DL Skymiles are like those central African currencies that are floating and tied to nothing, one needs an entire wheelbarrow of them to buy a loaf of bread one day–and a full truckload of the same currency the next to buy another loaf of bread.

  2. It’s like Germany and Hitler promising with each new advance, with each new aggression, all is necessary, all is fine, in fact………is better.

    Anyone not running from Delta is Neville Chamberlain.

  3. In this context I find it interesting that Delta accelerated their RFP (and ultimately re-signing with Amex) in Q4 ’14 of the Co-Brand card agreement. It does make one wonder if there are additional shoes to drop.

  4. Maybe in your day Grandma died and two days later you could get a 25K economy award at last minute to Wherev City but this hasn’t been the case for most (all?) of the 21st century. The reality is that the charts did not — have not for many years — reflected the goal that most people need to shoot for if they are saving miles to be at a certain place at a certain time. Judging from my friends and family, phony award charts have been creating anger and disappointment for years. I don’t see any goodwill coming to Delta from a program where a person looks at a chart, thinks they will get a 25K ticket to wherev, saves up 25K, and then when they are ready to redeem — uh oh. There are never any tickets at that price for “real” people who have jobs. I have been telling people for years that if they are inflexible as to time and place of travel that they should have at least double the miles they will think they need. The purpose of a loyalty program is to encourage people to patronize your business. The award charts weren’t doing that. They were p***ing people off! Delta should have gotten rid of them a long time ago. It’s bad business to raise expectations that you can’t afford to meet. Just my opinion but I honestly understand why Delta is making this change and I think it’s worth a try if the company values honesty rather than the oversell.

  5. “nothing has changed today.”

    Sadly, my awakening to the term “parsing” was “it depends on what the meaning of the word is is.”

    I feel just about the same way now.

  6. I love that it took only 3 posts to compare Delta to Hitler.

    Still, this is very troubling. Glad I’m done with them from any real collection standpoint. They’re a terrific airline to fly domestically, but they’re no one’s idea of a safe place to bank miles.

  7. @bellevuemike – I think these changes DL’s making suck, but your comparing DL to Hitler and Nazi Germany, and your comparing people who stay with DL to Neville Chamberlain, is far more offensive than anything DL is doing.

  8. I’ve been saving my DL miles for an aspirational redemption with VA for a long time now. I might finally be able to do that trip to Sydney on my birthday this year. I don’t fly much, so it’s only been what I could get through the ST card. Due to liquidation methods near me, I’m limited to what some people do in a couple of days for the whole month. While I’ll still collect SkyPesos (is there a currency more worthless than Pesos that we should now use?) I’m going to have to re-evaluate what I should be working towards in the future. DL will never be my airline, and this just further proves why. Going revenue based is one thing, but being as s transparent as a brick wall is something completely different.

  9. Gary, Either you were not careful or it was a typo.
    THERE refers to over there.
    Their would be used in the statement “saving their miles”,

  10. @peachfront just last year I booked a last minute flight leaving the next day for a friend for a funeral on AA. I find plenty of last minute availability domestic OR international.

  11. I would argue that replacing the award chart with the “real time” award calendar is WAY WORSE than going for a revenue-based redemption system.
    It can make the huge balance you’ve saved over years worthless overnight–much like how the Soviet Ruble collapsed in a matter of days and rendering millions, who have worked decades to save for their retirements, penniless.
    For example, what if you search every single domestic flight and it returns 20+ million miles per flight? Although delta promises that the lowest domestic award remains 25k, there is no guarantee you can find it. Literally, if they keep one 25k seat in the entire schedule through the entire calendar, they are technically not lying, regardless whether all the rest of award seats are 20 million or 20 billion each. So this allows DL to de facto write off its mileage debt on the book completely.
    There doesn’t even need to be any consistency in the award calendar. You can check the calendar today and work hard to reach the balance tomorrow, just to find the price is changed. If you log into your account to search the award calendar, it can be programed to ALWAYS displace some price beyond your balance. If you search without login, the price can still change when you login–as award availability can fluctuation in real time, and without an award chart there is no obligation for the award price to remain constant–how convenient that the award calendar is offering you REAL TIME pricing!
    I would argue this is much worse than a complete revenue-based redemption–at least you know how much your miles worth in the revenue based scheme–but without an award chart and a “real time” award calendar, you will never know what your miles worth–or IF IT WORTH ANYTHING.

  12. A marketing blunder.

    As Gary has said over and over, FF programs are the best marketing programs ever. Just earn points and one day you can do your “trip of a lifetime” or, as he has called it, and “aspirational award”.

    As much as the charts involve a colossal tease to the extent that saver awards are only occasionally available, the charts are part of the allure. Participants no longer that to which they might aspire.

  13. @Ismael: Flying Blue has a miles finder that tells you a rate based only on origin, destination, and class of service. That’s a painful award chart to use, but it’s still an award chart. DL will only give you a rate for specific flights on a specific date.

  14. Maybe Delta will be first to end their frequent flyer program. I wonder if the premise that you need a FF program for loyalty and business is correct. Seems if price correctly, you can fill planes and offer no award seats. May be best business model.

  15. I don’t care how unattainable a published award chart may appear while I am generating an airline’s miles/points by any means necessary to reach my goal – at least it is a concrete objective (or now, clearly, a fantasy in Delta’s case). Eliminating the Delta award chart confirms that Delta ultimately desires to become DeltaSpirit Airlines – “We’re profitable so you “won’t be” when flying on our aircraft”. So “Thanks for the memories” Northwest Airlines….

  16. I have shifted all my international flying to CX, save for China domestic travel, which I still put in DL SM when I fly China Eastern.. but I could easily choose Air China instead and put it in NH’s program, for example.

    The decision I have to make is this: I will be DL Plat as of 3/1, a downgrade from Diamond for the past two years. I have 27k SM rollover and expect 10-20k to come in this year from spend. Is it worth is to fly DL for 28-38k (75-27-10 or -20) miles on DL this year to requalify for Plat for 2016? The only reason is the award change fee waiver.

  17. The way it feels to me is like walking onto a used car lot and seeing no prices on any of the cars. I see an oily looking salesman in a cheap suit. I ask him, “Where are the prices?” He responds, with a smile as sincere as a two-dollar hooker, “Oh, if you’re interested in a car, just ask me the price.”

    If Delta isn’t willing to be forthcoming with something as basic as price, why should I trust them with anything? The drinks? Yes, there’s some alcohol (of some sort) in them! The food? Yes, it is! The pilot? Oh, I assure you that he’s one of our best! Has the regular maintenance been done on the plane? Would you be flying on it if we hadn’t?

    It’s all bean counters. If their conning people into believing that their IT systems are accurate (which they’ve been shown not to be) and whatever price that shows up is the (unpublished) correct price causes more people into accepting the inflated price than quits Delta in disgust, they win. If the payout for my life is cheaper than regular maintenance of a plane, then skip the maintenence. They win.

    Hyperbole? Yes. But who can prove me wrong? If they start taking the stance stance that we’re supposed to trust them with no proof on this (now unpublished) standard, why should I expect them to believe any other arbitrary standard they claim to comply with?

  18. Godwin’s law (or Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies)[1][2] is an Internet adage asserting that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1″[2][3]—​ that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism.

  19. For anyone suggesting that Delta thinks it might not need a FF program keep in mind that without a FF program people would not need or want a Delta credit card.

    If the bloggers want to help out they would put their money where their mouth is and not promote any Delta credit cards affiliate links or not. Delta holds a lot of leverage over us be cause of capacity but they do not have any leverage over our credit card spend. Delta may not care about our loyalty but they still want out dollars.

  20. I think Tiffany writing on Lucky’s blog One Mile at a Time said it best “In the meantime, I’d take screenshots of the United award chart ;)”

    As someone based in a Delta hub, I have not flown Delta in years. They’re not to be trusted.

  21. My sentiment is akin to @Ken. Even on a revenue based redemption scheme a point has a certain value to it. People can try to make the argument that an airfare is just as arbitrary a price, so how is that better than a chart, but I think for those who closely follow the industry and understand the mechanics of pricing they would disagree and recognize that is not the situation we have here. For example, on WN if I book an award ticket 3-months in advance, when the airfare is cheap, I can redeem way less points than what it would cost me on a legacy carrier where the cost is fixed, I don’t think that is DLs intention, although I am sure they will gladly charge me more to book close in when the airfare has surged.

  22. When Delta made 25k awards practically unavailable several years ago, I made my last redemption and used what was left for magazine subscriptions. I haven’t flown Delta since.

  23. Putting aside that the most likely reason for the change is obfuscation, I think Delta could plausibly claim that the award charts were causing more confusion and dissatisfaction than they were worth. Can a 5-tier award chart really be aspirational? If the lowest tier is so limited in availability, why give people false hope that they will be able to redeem at that level?

    With revenue-based mileage accrual they had already removed the other pillar of the aspirational aspect of the program. It used to be: how many more trips do I need to take before I get a free one? Now it’s how much more do I need to spend on airfare. So it becomes a conflict of interest because I want to travel more but spend less. The result of both changes is members that are less engaged in the program, which ultimately is not good for the airline.

    I was looking at United’s partner earning charts the other day and the required explanations are ridiculously complex. How can they expect the average person to understand what a “016” ticket is? I’m probably in the top 1% of understanding of these programs, but I resent the time and effort it takes to keep it all straight when planning a trip.

  24. The last sentence of the post provides us with another opportunity to express our ire. I’m calling American Express, canceling my Skymiles Amex card and asking them to transfer my credit line to another of their co-branded cards. I too am done with Dl

  25. Here’s a real world example of how this is hurting DL: I bought a domestic ticket last night. I had to choose between flights on DL and US. The US ticket was $21 higher and involved a slightly longer layover but that is the one I bought because I value Dividend Miles/Aadvantage so much more highly than skypesos. Gladly willing to pay the extra $21 to get 2250 miles whose value I can understand.

  26. Gary, love you, but don’t blame typos on your iPhone. The solution is called “taking three seconds to read what you just typed to make sure it makes sense before pressing send/submit.”

  27. I fly Delta only when they are the only nonstop carrier…. I just credit to AS. even now redeeming at 50% miles is still better than 100% SM.

  28. For a few years I have been convinced that airlines can simply do whatever they want. Get pissed off at AA, go to DL. But There will be pissed off DL customers that go to AA. Same with the others. Airline management realizes this fact. Thanks to consolidation, there aren’t many choices. Why chase customers (spend money) when everyone will get their fair share anyway?

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