How United And American Can Capitalize On Delta Squeezing Its Best Customers

Delta Air Lines announced major changes this week, and customers overall seem very unhappy.

  • Limits on lounge access for customers with the airline’s premium credit card: only 10 visits per year instead of unlimited, unless they spend $75,000 per year on the card, and no visits when traveling on a basic economy ticket.

  • New much higher hurdles for earning elite status. They eliminated miles flown and segments as status criteria, focusing instead only on qualifying dollars. Credit card spend on premium cards and Delta third party hotel, rental car, and vacation package bookings earn qualifying dollars, too. But it now goes from $20,000 qualifying dollars to $35,000 to earn Diamond.

The airline’s bet is that people will stick around. They’ll lose some customers but overall SkyMiles members will stretch – give Delta more of their flights, and give Delta American Express cards more of their spend – in order to reach their status goals.

Historically Delta card spend hasn’t suffered when SkyMiles devalues, the way that card spend at United and American have taken a hit. Delta and Amex believe this will generate more card spend on net, not less. It’s an open question whether or not they’re right or if they’ve pushed things a little too far.

Unquestionably, though, there are many unhappy customers. Most hub-captives in Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City will see themselves not having much choice about whom to fly. Anyone living in a Frontier Airlines market would be foolish not to status match to the 100K level, which waives all fees at the high fee airline, if only for a free agency option when flying Frontier makes sense.

But customers in competitive markets should be looking at what makes the most sense for their travel. Maybe they should still fly Delta, as a free agent, and just not earn on a Delta credit card. Maybe they should take a fresh look at other airlines.

  1. United and American have both improved in some ways since before the pandemic.
  2. And Delta’s superiority in terms of reliability and product has waned. The gap between them all is smaller!

United is reportedly going to revamp its status challenge. For now it’s available here though note that unpublished they will offer a challenge for Delta Diamonds (and American Executive Platinums) to their 1K level.

American Airlines has status challenges, called Instant Status Pass, that are way too confusing.

  • Earn points in the first few four months that determines your status in the next four months
  • And your earning during those four months determines what status you have for the next four and what status you’re “going for”
  • Finally, during the last four months to earn points to keep the status for the year ahead

I spoke with a law professor recently, whose job it is not just to parse language but to teach lawyers how to parse language and ambiguity in the airline’s status match terms meant that he was sure he’d earned enough points to keep his status but the airline disagreed – and told him to pound sand.

In contrast, when United Airlines had their troubles cutting over to the Continental Airlines systems a little over a decade ago – itineraries were lost, miles disappears, upgrades mucked up – American pounced.

  • They historically had offered a paid status challenge. They straight up matched status for United 1Ks.
  • And they followed that up with Admirals Club lounge passes
  • Separately, they sent the matched 1Ks coupons for free inflight internet. American had inflight internet back then and United did not. (Some would say United still doesn’t.)

American made a simple offer to United’s elites looking to make the switch. And that wasn’t the end of it. They followed up. They highlighted their product. They highlighted their unique differences. And they kept a lot of business from that offer.

What could they do today? Forget Instant Status Pass. They should want Delta Diamonds. Match them to Executive Platinum through February 2025. Send them a couple of lounge passes, “we know your lounge access at Delta is limited, we welcome you to our Admirals Clubs.” And take the message a step farther, “we value your business, every time you step into the airport. You have full benefits every time you fly, no matter what the fare. We’ll upgrade you on basic economy fares, and welcome you into our lounges.”

Status matches too often are ‘match and done’. That’s a mistake. A customer that’s matched status is at the peak of their interest. The status match is focal. The customer will pay attention to the product, and you should be educating them about it and helping them to educate themselves. It should be a simple process for a customer you actually value, and there should be a follow up communication strategy.

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. my suggestion is for DL to spend a little money and open a Delta ONE and Executive Skyclub membership only club. The regular clubs could then be for regular members and AMEX cardholders.

  2. Really great points, especially on that follow-up opportunity by American. Let’s see if they jump on this soon!

  3. Gary: Good points here and I think there is one more HUGE opportunity for UA and AA. Namely, Delta Reserve Card holders.

    Either (or both) should try a card match. Prove to them you have a Reserve Card and give that card holder the United Infinite card or the AA Executive Elite card for free for one year (or at least 6 months). That would enable the customer to try the airline (and its lounges and ancillary benefits) without actually laying out the fee.

    The DL Reserve card used to have (3) key components: a) Sky Club access b) Companion Ticket c) MQM Spend Waiver

    Now…only one benefit remains and IMO it was the Sky Club that had the highest value proposition for most people.

    The UA and AA cards still come with unlimited lounge access. If I were those airlines I’d try the card match idea too.

  4. As much as you or AA or UA want to believe that they are “almost as good as Delta,” DOT data shows that there is a much larger gap in the customer service metrics besides on-time and cancellation rates between AA, DL and UA.
    AA and UA are operating much better than they were and DL has cancelled the “we have cancelled cancellations” campaign because they can’t say it any more but on baggage handling, oversales, and consumer complaint ratios, AA and UA are simply very inferior to DL in their delivery.

    and the big item is network. AA execs touted for years that their network is their product and yet they have dropped to #3 in the big 3 markets (NYC, Chicago and LA) but are no longer in many major markets including BOS, LAX, LAS, and MCO and behind DL in major UA hub markets like DEN, IAH, and SFO. Given that WN is the 2nd largest carrier in many UA hub metros, for AA to be behind DL means they are as far back in the pack as UA is in Florida.

    And there is the whole list of product attributes that God Save the Points noted – and happen to align with what I have noted.
    Delta has simply invested billions in their product and do offer a product that is not just a little better than AA or UA but much better when network and all product attributes are considered.

    As Points note, if current DL elites that won’t make the cut want to leave, they just need to swallow their pride and accept inferior service
    and they shouldn’t expect that there will be masses of people that will do the same to the point that DL will be hurt.
    The elites that do remain at Delta will get even more enhanced products and better value for their loyalty.

  5. I don’t know. I got an EM today from DL extolling the great things I’m going to experience on my FC flights next weekend.

    A white chocolate macadamia nut granola bar.

    I’m so excited, I could pee.

  6. @ Tim — Are you actually DCS. You are the two most stubborn, blindly loyal people I have ever heard.

  7. I’ve flown all three this year in F and DL is still better by a wide margin. I had an AA flight in paid F didn’t even get water. Luckily I was using the last of my COVID dollars and just proved to me that AA isn’t what it used to be. Sucks if you’re in ATL or one of DLs fortress hubs can’t exactly fly AA or UA out of there. So DL will still get the money while providing less perks. I’m sure the volume at ATL, SLC and MSP more than makes up for losses say at LAX with these new changes.

  8. I would change your headline. Delta just rescued its best customers. Finally, genuine premium travelers on Delta will not have to endure deal nearly as much middle-class riff raff. They realized they went too far courting aspirational affluent Americans. As a former 360, I could not stand waiting in lines behind Amex middle-class riff raff. I have shifted to AA. Delta does indeed have superior product and performance (less so than in the past, but still superior) — but they poisoned their relationship with wealthy travelers who do not wait in lines with middle-class Americans — ever. Delta also had far too much riff raff passengers in their premium cabins — also reflecting Delta shifting its brand to aspirational and away from wealth. I may try Delta again in 24/25 if/when they have pushed out enough riff raff. No, AA is not perfect, but it does have the best overall mix, in my view.

  9. Deltas done a good thing by running off those who think they are masters of the universe to AA.

    Thank God they are out of our FC cabin.

  10. Not sure why Delta took the nuclear option versus merely splitting the strategic SkyClubs into a 2nd lounge exclusively for Delta One and F customers.

    I always enjoyed the AA CK/Flagship lounge in LHR even though it shared the same check-in desk. Never waited in line, ever. Never crowded and the sit down table service was an added plus.

  11. “You are the two most stubborn, blindly loyal people I have ever heard.”

    Every group has a Delta Dunn. They’re not dumb, occasionally have something valuable to add. But they have ZERO self awareness and can’t be told anything. As a result, a lot of people in the group automatically tune them out or frequently ignore the noise. He’ll never learn. At least it remains mildly entertaining.

  12. and yet you read, David.

    Captain Freedom,
    think through REAL CAREFULLY what you just wrote.
    there isn’t enough capacity for the services Delta was offering. Breaking one group into a more elite group and another into a less elite group just ensures the less elite group gets even worse service.

    And once again, the impact of these changes is months away.

    The reason why Delta made the announcement now is so that people can make their decision.
    There are some that intend to stick it out that are celebrating the soon-to-be thinner crowds and they will get better service.

    Every zig has a zag

  13. Give out free 1-year status matches to EXP on AA? Great, devalues my status even more. It’s not as if we’re swimming in upgrades.

  14. @Tim Dunn — Unfortunately, the more elite group will gain nothing, while the less elite group will receive diluted benefits, which Delta will happily sell back to them. In other words, this is all just a way to raise prices. Given the travel recession which we just entered, Delta picked the wrong time to raise prices. At the end of the day, a portion of my business will be redirected to airlines offering better value, and there are many of those.

  15. @Mark: Congrats on winning the award for “Most use of the words riff raff” in a single post.

  16. @ Tim — Are you actually DCS. You are the two most stubborn, blindly loyal people I have ever heard.


    Yet another stupid comment from the master of stupid comments.

    For your and your ilk’s edification: “blind” loyalty is loyalty that is divorced from facts. With that in mind, you should applaud rather than disparage me for my invariably factual comments, which have kept travel bloggers honest over the years (e.g., shooting dead the canard about how “a Hyatt point is the single most valuable hotel points currency”).

    Importantly, unlike @Tim Dunn whose one metric for everything, including the quality of a loyalty program, is DL’s financial performance “supremacy”, I seldom tout Hilton’s financial performance as a reason for forgiving Hilton Honors’ every sin or transgression, and that is because I know that financial performance does not necessarily translate into a great or a poor loyalty program. From the viewpoint of rewarding its members, DL has the worst loyalty program ever. Therefore, while Tim and I are passionate about the programs that we each patronize, that is as far as similarities go. He touts DL’s financial performance when what people rebel against is SkyMiles (and it is a truly awful program), and I tout Hilton Honors as a loyalty program that is highly rewarding for members who know who to take advantage of it. A big difference that you are clearly too stupid to grasp.

    Finally, I put my money where my cyber-mouth is. After patronizing UA MileagePlus long enough to earn the program’s 1MM status, I decided to hop off that hamster wheel when they raised the requirement to earn/retain the 1K status from $15K PQD/100K PQM to the equivalent $24K/year. For the first time in a very long time, I will not requalify for 1K and I feel liberated, and that is despite having been every bit as loyal to MileagePlus as I am to Hilton Honors. The obvious conclusion: my loyalty is not as “blind” as your and your ilk think it is. I will quit Hilton Honors the day it stops being the rewarding loyalty program that it has been for me for a very long time.

    Call me if you have any questions, but I hope the preceding makes it clear that you are in no position to judge my loyalties or how I play the game and should avoid referring to me in your stupid comments.


  17. I must be one of the few that will benefit from this change. I’ll never have an American Express card. Love my Chase card. I only fly Delta internationally and never domestically unless all other options are worse which is seldom the case. I’m A-List on Southwest because even though I don’t really like them they have direct flights. My spend will be $21-25k a year on Delta Right now that’s Gold which is meaningless. Next year I would be Platinum, which will also be meaningless. But it will result in lower crowds at the Skyclubs hopefully. That’s the biggest advantage I see. If I could get to an Asian airline without first having to board United or American Delta would lose that spend from me.

  18. I don’t like the changes Delta is making, but I’m not heavily affected. I am a Delta Reserve cardholder, but I no longer fly or spend enough to earn elite status with any airline anymore. I’m not chasing status either. When I want an upgrade, I just pay for it. I also don’t visit SkyClub more than 10x per year. So, I’m not really losing much, and I still think the Reserve card is worth keeping.

    @Mark, I am the Amex riff-raff occupying a spot in the lounge and standing in the way of elite upgrades because I paid for my seat in the premium cabin. If the wealthy don’t want to see riff-raff, they should just avoid commercial airports and fly private. Otherwise, I’ll see you all at Sky Club, bitches!

  19. @tim dunn. I respectfully disagree.

    Delta could easily split up its 25,000+ sq foot SkyClubs (LGA, ATL-F, etc) with little effort and could designate certain other clubs as Delta One only.

    The core problem is the clubs were imagined years before Delta and Amex decided to issue and grant club access to millions of new/additional card holders without adding significant/corresponding increase in total capacity. So something had to give, in this case limiting or eliminating demand by increasing the price (to ridiculous levels IMO).

    No doubt Delta will backtrack a bit after “listening to its valued customers” (as it’s done countless times before).

  20. Gary the business wiz tells AA: it’s so easy! just give away everything! Yes, they should be courting Delta elites, but no, they shouldn’t upgrade basic economy fares. Basic economy was designed to attract price sensitive leisure travelers, not high spending elites. In that respect Delta is correct. They just went way too far in making elite status only about spend, and not about shifting consumer choices, and pissing off their CC customers when CC revenue is the most profitable part of their business. Way to kill the golden goose, Delta.

  21. @ DCS — You really don’t need to call me stupid. It is childish.

    That said, I do agree that your loyalty to Hilton is much more rational that Mr. Dunn’s loyalty to Delta. I don’t doubt you are treated very well by Hilton, while Delta doesn’t really deliver very many significant benefits these days. Just alot of vapor.

  22. @ Gary — “Most hub-captives in Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City will see themselves not having much choice about whom to fly.”. Why? It’s not that difficult to connect at ORD, DFW, IAH, DCA, LGA, CLT, MIA, PHX, DEN, IAD, EWR, SFO, SEA or LAX. That sounds like tons of choices to me.

  23. DCS,
    you and anyone can drone on endlessly about perceptions of quality.
    I use financial data because it is about the only OBJECTIVE measure to compare loyalty programs.

    you can’t divide the same existing facilities to create a better experience for some users without deteriorating it for others.
    And while you and others talk about the need to add capacity, how about you list all of the totally new or expanded- not replacement – clubs that have been opened by each carrier in the past 5 years. Delta, hands down has added more capacity.

    Don’t let the door hit you on the backside on the way out.
    Any rational person would recognize that if you are so unhappy and so certain you’ll do better elsewhere, JUST GO.

  24. Loyalty programs have been shown to only work if customers have a good experience with the product; they don’t make a difference otherwise. Improving the experience is the only thing that UA (and especially AA) should focus on.

  25. DCS,
    you and anyone can drone on endlessly about perceptions of quality.
    I use financial data because it is about the only OBJECTIVE measure to compare loyalty programs.

    People know whether or not a loyalty program is delivering on its promises, which in turn shapes the perceptions of quality. Therefore, there are objective metrics for assessing the quality of a loyalty program, and that is why your financial data-based arguments, however objective, usually miss the mark in this medium. It is utterly ridiculous to use a company’s financial performance as a measure of the quality of its loyalty program, and DL and SkyMiles are Exhibit A. DL has thrived in spite of its loyalty program because it did everything else better than the competition, but even there the gap is tightening, as it was bound to. The days of DL’s financial “supremacy” are numbered…

  26. @ Tim Dunn — Bottom line isn’t my happiness but my wallet. I am going to ride up front only and almost always visit a nice lounge and stay in a nice hotel suite when I travel, with whomever gives me the best value. I have no illusion that any of these companies care one iota about me or my business, so I focus on what’s best for my family. Delta apparently won”t be able to deliver that value for now, so I will move along to the an airline that will.

  27. Well, I am one of the unlucky ones here. Been Diamond for last 5 years (majority of it Trans-Atlantic 5-6 times a year)- with rollover miles and multipliers, maintaining Diamond was very reachable every year, and I have been very loyal because of it. However with the new system (my spend is ~$20K) I become the “riff-raff” and instead of having my loyalty supported and rewarded, I am sent into Boarding Group 4. I’ll enjoy my Diamond until it expires in January of 2025, (I’m calling myself a Lame Duck Diamond) but I will be spending 2024 working on status on UA or AA, because I will be thrown to the curb in ’25 by Delta. Too bad, the best people, service, equipment, experience. Profit over people I guess.

  28. I just downgraded my Delta platinum to gold that’s enough I’ve had enough of Delta and American Express. The mile requirements to fly. First class are ridiculous compared to United and American. I’m done even though I still have 700,000 miles.

  29. Why board early on DL? I check my two bags. I get a six-ounce bottle of water at my seat. I put my small personal bag into the hatrack. Then I sit in the front row aisle seat with absolutely no welcome alcoholic beverage and my feet scrunched away from the ausle while the rest of the passengers bang their heavy-set bodies and oversized carry-ons into my elbows and head, and half banging into my head while checking the hatrack above me for storage space. After that is the seemingly endless parade of coach passengers using the 1st class lav, overstuffing the towel waste bin.

    I paid how many extra dollars for this lackluster experience?

    The only thing that keeps me on DL is fear of tiktok TMZ antics on AA or UA.

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