How Delta Air Lines Will Keep Their Best Customers From Defecting

Delta announced a plan to fire a large number of their best customers.

  • Take away unlimited airport lounge access from its premium credit card holders, limiting them to 10 visits per year unless they spend $75,000 or more each year on the card and ban them from entering when traveling on basic economy fares.

  • Make status much harder to earn – consider only qualifying dollars, and no longer look at miles or flights flown – and increase the dollars required for status. Top tier Diamond would go from $20,000 to $35,000.

Their bet was they could push their best customers to increase their ticket spend and to increase their credit card spend enough to more than offset all of the customers who would defect. But they were clearly already defecting. Smelling blood in the water, Alaska and JetBlue offered lucrative status matches. And Delta’s CEO promised to unwind some of the changes.

But they aren’t really going to reverse course. This is only meant to trick you. In a remarkable fit of honesty, here’s what CEO Ed Bastian said:

Our team wanted to kind of rip the Band-Aid off and didn’t want to keep having to go through this every year with changes and nickel and diming..I think we moved too fast.

Key takeaways:

  • Delta doesn’t think their changes were a mistake
  • They believe they have a marketing and roll out problem
  • They weren’t done making changes, and haven’t changed their path
  • But they want to stop the bleeding, so are promising some (temporary) adjustments

Many of you will probably wait to see what those are, so won’t jump ship. That’s what Delta is banking on. They’re hoping that the anger will dissipate if they wait, and if they make some temporary concessions.

What Delta forgot about its customers, but has since been reminded: if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out immediately. However, if the frog is placed in tepid water that is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. You’re the frog.

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. Already jumped. I hold Platinum Medallion through 2024, but downgraded my Amex Reserve card to Gold and tossed it into the drawer until I need it for the much-more-occasional Delta flights I will take in the future. I picked up the Amex Platinum and will adjust my lounge selections. I’m already building points with the card and can apply them where I see value. Just yesterday, I put over 3k into flights that otherwise would have gone without reservation towards Delta. And I have submitted to Alaska Airlines and JetBlue all I need for a status match with them.

    This frog jumped and the water is now fine.

  2. I like the metaphor! I am a frog as I am French ( living in Spain, fortunately)
    I am AF platinum for life , that means I always choose Delta instead of AA/UA!

  3. outstanding summary, Gary.

    Delta is in PR damage control and is not changing strategy. They will make changes necessary to stem the PR damage.

    They did tip their hand about where they want to go which is all AA and UA needed to see to know where they will eventually go.

  4. The marketing approach is always the same. The Airline says, “in order to make the program better we are making big changes”. What they do not say is we are making big changes “in order to screw the passengers”. Most mileage junkies, like myself, are very savvy about these programs. Delta underestimated the intelligence of their customers. Shame on them!

  5. @Gary – You said it! Delta is treating loyal customers with contempt. Hopefully those customers will reciprocate.

  6. Ribbit. Ribbit.

    I only have gold status with DL but was at Diamond level a few years back. (I’m
    still 1k on UA and have already met the $24k spend for next year so I’ll be 1k again in 2024). I buy F tickets, I pay for a SkyClub membership, and my Amex cards are Marriott, not DL. The only negative impact of these ugly changes on me is that I may only hit silver. I don’t count on upgrades nor do I get SkyClub access through Amex, so my visits won’t be limited.

    But the message that this sends to Delta passengers is “screw you.” It is the pinnacle of corporate arrogance. And while these changes only impact me in a minor way (i.e., likely silver in 2025 rather than gold), the fact that more changes are coming makes me want to abandon Delta entirely. The one route that I use delta for on a monthly basis is one that UA doesn’t fly directly (LAX-TUS). But Alaska does, in a codeshare with AA. With the generous status match that AS is offering (I have their credit card), this may well be the impetus I need to abandon Delta entirely.

    And @Tim Dunn, I am a profitable customer for DL, as I only buy F tix, spending about $8-10k on those tickets, and I never rely on upgrades. It would be hard for Delta or any of its apologists to claim that I’m not profitable for Delta.

  7. @ Tim Dunn — Please stop stating the following as some sort of fact, as it is simply your opinion: “They did tip their hand about where they want to go which is all AA and UA needed to see to know where they will eventually go.” My opinion is that AA and UA see an opportunity to differentiate themselves and that they will be smarter than Delta.

  8. Not only is Delta treating its customers with contempt but the CEO just announced they think you’re stupid as well.
    I can’t wait to see the CEO proved wrong!!

  9. I wonder how Amex approves of these changes.

    Seems like they would have had to approve many of them.

    Do they think that Delta made the right move? I wonder what data they were going off of?

  10. Delta is in PR damage and they are trying to do damage control but it might be too late. I have been with Delta / Skyteam for past 38 years and I have never seen anything like this before and how they treat they top flyers who are jumping ship now.

  11. They did tip their hand about where they want to go which is all AA and UA needed to see to know where they will eventually go

    Neither UA nor AA would touch the clear debacle with the proverbial 10-foot pole, which they must instead view as a valuable cautionary tale. I am confident that despite Bastian’s suggestion that the changes will still proceed albeit at a slower pace, the need to regain trust will require a tangible course reversal, as half-hearted measures won’t appease or satisfy a suddenly distrustful clientele that now knows that it has the power to force a course correction and alter an unsatisfactory outcome…

  12. Word going around the proverbial/virtual water cooler is that FlyerTalk mods/admins may not be happy that major media outlets seek out and mention VFTW and TPG for reference when covering major program changes like this Delta one. Word is that they instead want major media mention of FT and FT Mods, the latter of whom seem to want to be publicly viewed as subject matter experts in the press and get paid with public attention for their “curating” member-provided info and recycling info found elsewhere online.

    It’s sort of interesting the kind of quasi-hostility or jealousy that there is on FT for major miles and points bloggers and even for FT’s founder, especially given the long standing connection between these players in the space and FlyerTalk. The dynamic isn’t limited to just the US-oriented subjects as even the proprietor allegedly is viewed with some concern at times.

    While VFTW is viewed as a credit card pushing site, at least there isn’t a pro-airline/pro-hotel/pro-government bias in how this site addresses issues and contributions from the site users. Keep up the good work on spreading the news on customer-unfriendly Delta SkyMiles.

  13. The barn is already burning and the horse has left Bastain is smoking crack thinking Amex revenue is going to go up from 7 bill to 10 billl. It’s going DOWN to 6 bill as every silver and gold dumps their card. Only the top top will put more spend on it.

  14. Delta’s probably still hoping that AA and UA got the message and decide to move ahead with devaluing their programs to be more akin to DL’s.

    I can only hope that regulators in the UK and elsewhere in Europe start unwinding the transatlantic revenue-sharing joint business arrangements allowed various big airline groups and put an end to them. That could be a good start to a return to more competition in the frequent flyer space.

  15. Just FYI, the thing about the frog isn’t true. If you put a frog in a pot of water it’ll start trying to jump out as soon as the water gets too hot.

  16. I too am surprised there’s not more discussion about American Express. Basically the ONLY reason I primarily use my Delta/Amex card is to maintain status. Now that I’m already there for 2024; there’s no reason not to downgrade Amex and use my good zero-fee Bank Cash-back rewards card. So as Amex makes about 2.6% or more on every purchase charged to any Amex card, and are Delta’s largest customer, why not expound a bit more on that aspect.. what’s in this for Amex? (Also I’m Lifetime Exec. SkyClub; so certainly don’t need a premium Amex card; and I will still fly Delta.) Key question; we know about crowding, upgrades and so on: what does this do for American Express?

  17. As a legacy airline outsider (I only fly and collect Southwest points since 1999), this seems remarkably similar to me what happened in the hotel world.

    Too many “elites” chasing free food and upgrades.

    Marriott had a robust concierge lounge system when I achieved their highest level in 2005 and it was worth it to re-qualify year after year. Then a recession hit and they simultaneously started giving away upper tier status and cutting back lounge hours, days, food quality, then quantity, not restocking over crowded lounges. Slowly boiling the frog. Similarly with room upgrades.

    Its all the same game,

    “if we’re all special then no one is special” someone important once said.

  18. Whether AA or UA follows Delta remains to be seen. There is huge opportunity for both AA and UA to take market share before Delta does an about turn.

    But, back in the day when SPG merged with Marriott and there was a huge opportunity to convert legacy SPG’ers, yet none of Hilton, IHG or Hyatt really took advantage.

    As such it wouldn’t surprise me much if UA and AA sat on their hands now. Given the clearly softening demand, however, there’s a good likelihood that doing nothing will be an opportunity missed.

  19. I have a skyclub Executive membership
    I have an AMEX Reserve card
    I always buy FC domestically
    I fly Delta One international

    What is my fate?

  20. While I am not a loyal Delta flyer I did have some conversations with a few, and it does not look good for Delta. Some very frequent medallion flyers are already saying “Delta who?”
    How does a once industry leading airline manage to do this to themselves?

  21. This is Amex’s move, not Deltas. Amex wants to get rid of all the Delta cards that are out there and not being used, while at the same time increasing spend on the cards that remain. Amex doesn’t care about anything else, while the total spend on Amex Delta cards is guaranteed to decrease with these changes, the cards that remain will be much more profitable to Amex, so Amex margins go up. Delta seems to be aqueezing their customers with the Delta changes as a way to try to make up for the upcoming loss of amex card revenue. Delta is really a dreadfully run company given the strength of their hubs relative to their competitors and the US government just improving Delta’s position at every oppurtunuity. Imagine the money to be made if Delta management was competant enough to exploit those advantages, instead of being exploited by Amex.

  22. This frog is jumping ship. I’ve ditched my card and am moving all of my mileage acct to one of the other airlines that I haven’t used in some time since I had gone to exclusively using Delta.

  23. Oh no, we turned the temperature up too quickly and now too many frogs are jumping out of the pot! Quick, let’s lower the temperature by… 2 degrees. That should fix it.
    – Ed Bastian

  24. Is this post mistitled? I don’t see anything in this post about “How Delta Air Lines Will Keep Their Best Customers From Defecting”. I expected to read something about how maybe they will work with corporate travel departments more closely, or reach out to high value customers individually to offer a special deal, instead it’s just a rehash of what we already knew about their mild backtrack.

  25. @JFKPHL
    I don’t follow your logic. All of those unused cards generate big revenue for AMEX via annual fees.

  26. Being a 2MM Diamond… def not gong back to Delta even though I would easily make the $35K.

    IMHO, the biggest mistake Delta did here was removing MQMs. I don’t want to fly an airline that doesn’t appreciate or even care if I fly them or not as long as they have access to my spending. To me, this is wrong and vulgar on many levels.
    If delta wants our money, and our spend, they have to compete, compete hard and offer a true premium service, at least in their D1. I’ve had many horrible stories flying D1 where I would really question if their FAs have an clue what Servixe and Hospitality is about.

  27. I have both an Amex Platinum and a Chase Sapphire Reserve. I get better access to Priority Pass lounges through Chase. I frequently chose Delta on trips for the lounge out of Boston. But the new Chase lounge @Logan is fantastic. So I no longer need Delta. The big question for me is whether I should downgrade to Amex Gold. I’m not sure that Platinum is worth it any more since Chase covers most of the bases.

  28. Good. Put the money on better experience and better product.

    I am sick of rich programs and no money spent on the airline (like AA, who for 6 1/2 hours from Miami to Seattle you’re stuck on a plane with no screens!)

  29. Delta will still fill its planes.

    Speaking of “ripping the bandage off”, Delta has not got around to sentencing the loyalty program to death.

    @ GUW, when are you being sentenced to banishment from Flyertalk, and where do you get all your info? Is the ban punishment delivered before or after the Flyertalk Moderator Do in Denver in two weeks? Don’t tell me your info comes from Chat-GPT or some other AI creation when you seem better informed than a plagiarist or what I can Google. And why do you have a foreign ip address affiliated with a crazy number of your crazy number of Flyertalk posts when you seem to live in the US and be American?

  30. @ Jake

    As Gary notes, the loyalty program has been boosting the airlines’ profits. Without all the money and profits brought in by the loyalty program, your favorite airlines would be more like Spirit and Ryan than the airlines you prefer to fly.

  31. At best, I believe Delta will relax the limits on SkyClub access. But, the damage is done. I have canceled two SkyMiles Amex cards and, while I will make Diamond for next year, the $35k is outrageous. For the extra $15k, I’ll shop airlines by price and itinerary and buy FC when I want it. After 10 years as a Diamond and nearly 15 as an exclusive Delta client, I am becoming a free agent.

  32. AMEX has contributed to the lounge crowding problem by giving away Platinum Cards with its lounge access. The $695 Platinum Card annual fee is waived for active duty military. As a retired Air Force officer, I applaud companies which appreciate and acknowledge the service of our military members. But, wouldn’t it be sufficient to waive the fee on the Gold Card? How many people have a no fee Platinum Card, who then compete for access with those who are paying mightily for that privilege?

  33. @ GUW — Remind me again why these jealous, angry people at FT volunteer their time “working” for free for a for profit company? Are they just stupid?

  34. @Tim Dunn, apart from the lounge restrictions (which are more of an issue for Delta because of Amex Platinum access), and emphasis on credit card spend, isn’t this where United already went three years ago? Rewarding their biggest spenders, rather than furthest flyers? What’s Delta innovating here?

  35. My wife is a Delta million miler. These changes are ridiculous. How about a little something for the effort

  36. Look as someone who has worked in the airline industry (Northwest, Air Canada and Alaska), (and a former Director whose responsibilities included loyalty) I get that Delta likely has some cost pressures right now. I just returned from a transatlantic vacation where we flew on Delta. The food on flights and in lounges was dreadful. I’d rather they offer higher level food and charge for it – they could even make this a special feature by working with some famous chef (Ramsey, Oliver, Ottolenghi, Nosrat, etc.) Lounges have been crowded for sure and its no fun standing waiting to get in only to be in a coach experience. But the answer can’t be to just service top tier customers- because that defeats the purpose – it is no longer inspirational. The answer should be something more along the lines of providing tiered service. While I get that airlines are limited on space in their lounges, what prevents Delta or any other carrier from creating a tiered experience OUTSIDE of the lounges. They could easily implement restricted access gates or waiting areas similar to Heathrow will more limited services to lower tiered customers while providing them limited access to higher tier lounges. The entire concept of the lounges needs to be blown up. When you can have a better experience sitting outside the lounge vs in – that’s a problem. What if Delta parsed the lounges in relaxing areas and quiet work spaces. When Im on business travel I often need a place to stand, strong wifi or ethernet and a place to plug in. Hey Delta – think of this as an opportunity- not a problem.

    Amex member for 30 years
    Delta Platinum for 10 years

    If there is no benefit to being in the program – then buying tickets becomes a race to the bottom or a lottery at best and credit card usage will follow.

  37. I feel the same as most. I’m good for 2024 with my reserve card and platinum status, but won’t be renewing the card after next year. Even while using the card as our primary for expenses, I’ll struggle to reach gold status in 2025

  38. Quoting Kamala and her Frog tale..??? Delta thinking it is a marketing-roll out problem is like the government when they(dnc) rolled out higher taxes and Obummercare!!They said did not communicate the message correctly to the taxpayers…

  39. I’d be curious how many people are signing up for new Delta Amex credit cards? I bet you that new enrollments are down significantly!! And what about those Delta/Amex employees trying to push Delta American Express cards at Hartsfield-Jackson? I sure hope they’re not being paid on commission!

  40. What happened to the ‘frequent flyer’ program status?? Apparently everyone at the airline companies don’t give a shit about how often you fly, or how many miles you fly, just how much money you donate to them for a cramped, discusting, flying bus experience that everyone calls normal these days. This coming from a gold/platinum member for the last 10 years. We are not stupid Delta, thank you for nothing!

  41. @JFKPH: The SCRA prohibits AMEX from charging annual fees to active duty service and from discriminating against active duty service so their options are not offer the card at all or let active duty have it for free.

  42. Unfortunately for Delta they don’t understand the core customer who collects miles (and therefore is going to have a higher credit card spend etc in the much more lucrative mileage game) are very price sensitive to award redemption rates. Those that gain status by butt in seat methods are much less sensitive to award rates. After being Diamond medallion for 5 years I swapped to AA when Dekta turned their program into SkyPesos. AAs loyalty point program is so much better for anyone that is only collecting points to redeem well priced award tickets. Until Delta brings their award redemption rates inline with the One World carriers, they are going to have serious issues with their new FF status program…

  43. If Delta wants to cut over crowding at their lounges, that’s a great thing. Best way to do it? Stop giving away free alcohol at the lounges. Period. You’ll drive out some of the people who dont know how to act in an airport, and you’ll cut down on what you’re spending. Free boozers are losers.

  44. If you email Southwest, with proof of your current deta status, they will “Match” the status with them. Sounds like Southwest may get a lot of the Delta business (except for those held hostage by Delta hubs).

  45. Delta will go out like so many other companies have. BROKE. Sears, Toys R Us, Bed Bath and Beyond, Blockbuster, etc. Why? Because they REFUSED to listen to their customers and got greedy. It then allowed smaller companies to become more competitive and attractive and then grow. It’s a game and the game goes through cycles. Decades ago, Delta was a horrible and unreliable airline. They will become that again if they don’t watch it. People are fed up with being taken advantage of and frankly we aren’t putting up with the BS greed anymore!

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