“In Delta’s Frequent-Flier Magic Trick, Not Just Rabbits Disappear”

An article in today’s New York Times brings many of the drastic changes at Delta SkyMiles that I’ve been talking about into stark relief.

[O]ne of the carrier’s biggest critics in recent months has been Gary Leff. Mr. Leff has a day job working as a chief financial officer at a university research center, but he spends his spare time running a service that helps people redeem their miles and blogging about loyalty programs. He has posted about Delta repeatedly.

With unwritten 3 week advance purchase requirements for many saver awards, miles are less helpful for last minute trips.

With more revenue-based redemptions — lower mileage requirements for super cheap flights, and much more expensive redemptions on pricey tickets — they’re taking away the opportunity to get outsized-value from the program.

Additive pricing — if you’re willing to pay extra miles for a level 3 or level 4 award on Delta, and one of the flights miraculously has saver award space, you can’t include that flight at the higher pricing. You get charged level 3 or 4 pricing for the expensive flight plus saver award pricing for the connection.

Delta does offer some free flights for less than 25,000 miles round-trip now. But Mr. Leff has done the math and has pointed out that the value you get per mile (when compared with the cash cost of the ticket) seems to rarely exceed two cents, an important figure that we’ll come back to shortly. Also, free flights in business class to Australia on Delta (long one of the magic redemption destinations for mile hoarders industrywide) now sometimes cost 830,000 miles per ticket, multiples of the former price.

The lack of clear predictable pricing irks Mr. Leff, even as it may help drive more people to his award-booking service. “I think Delta is not telling the truth, at a macro level, about the direction they’re taking the program,” he said. “And they’re making it harder for members to understand what their miles are worth.”

Changes implemented without notice — miles you’ve been saving for a honeymoon or anniversary suddenly become not enough for the trip you’re planning.

From the Times article:

Instead, Delta issues proclamations like this one that came along a few weeks ago: “For travel on or after June 1, 2016, the number of miles needed will change based on destination, demand and other considerations. But most Award prices will remain unchanged.”

Which destinations? How much demand? What other considerations? Which prices? The airline won’t say. You’re just supposed to cross your fingers and hope that you have enough miles come vacation time or if you have to get to a funeral quickly. Or hope for some magic.

But the biggest issue for me is what I believe is dishonest communication — they’ve taken away award charts so members can’t know what to expect, or when changes have even been made. When the airline says they’ve made changes, they won’t tell you what the changes are. It’s as though the airline believes that an ignorant consumer is their best customer.

You can still get value out of Delta miles. For now, international business class awards on partner airlines still make sense… although you may not be able to get Delta flights to connect to and from those, even more so than before with increased ‘journey control’ since you can’t even always combine multiple Delta flights that actually offer saver award space if you can find them.

Ultimately, the Times writer spoke with Delta, American, United, and American Express. The responses of each were telling.

I tried to get a Delta spokesman, Anthony Black, to address Mr. Leff’s truthiness point squarely, but I failed to get much that was new other than a link to a list of low-cost redemption opportunities.

…United and American customers who are aware of Delta’s moves are worried that those carriers will follow suit. “We won’t comment on any such changes, planned or otherwise,” said Rahsaan Johnson, a United spokesman. That’s not exactly encouraging. At least American’s representative, Laura Nedbal, said that the carrier planned no changes to its award chart, albeit with the now-standard “at this time” disclaimer. “We are always watching the competitive environment, and we’ll make sure AAdvantage is positioned as an industry-leading loyalty program,” she added.

…American Express issues the Delta credit cards, and when I asked the card company whether it thought the value of Delta miles had increased, decreased or stayed the same over the last two years, it refused to answer. That tells you all you need to know, doesn’t it?

Read the whole thing.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. This is actually a great post, Gary. I’m glad I’m an AA hub captive, I suppose, at least for now — even if “saver” space is getting much harder to come by than even a couple of years ago.

    I guess it’s nice to know Mark is back on his game, too?

  2. My only criticism of this blog post is that it’s a blog post about an article about your blog posts and articles regarding delta.

  3. IME with last-minute bookings so far, I have yet to encounter the 21-day AP requirement that you speak of. Lots of saver awards for me inside 7 days.

  4. @Presley I’m not even sure that’s a criticism other than to say it’s not of particular interest to you, I do share significant media exposure that the blog receives, something I’ve always done (for more than a decade) on my own blog 😉

  5. The whole Times piece read like a compilation of @Gary’s “greatest hits” on Delta… 🙂

  6. @Gary – Oh I wasn’t criticizing really. I was just disappointed with the post. I clicked on it when I read the title expecting more, that’s it.

  7. While I get the point some of you are trying to make regarding the coverage and such, the fact remains that Gary is pretty much the only one calling Delta out here on their outrageous behavior. People should be informed of what’s going on, whether they hold a lot SkyPesos (even more apt these days) or not. Would you guys prefer that Delta just continually gut their program and deceive their customers, and the blogosphere stay silent about it?

    IMHO, props to Gary for getting the NYT to cover this story. While I doubt it will make DL change their ways, maybe consumers (who don’t read this blog) can be just a little more informed about how Delta treats its customers and will think twice when faced with a a decision between DL and another carrier. Personally, based on all the coverage here and elsewhere, I avoid Delta wherever possible because their miles are almost worthless. I just think people should have the facts about who they’re doing business with, and for that I applaud Gary’s efforts.

  8. It’s as though the airline believes that an ignorant consumer is their best customer.

    … and as though the airline is happy having ignorant customers as its ONLY customers!

    I remain convinced that the best loyalty program structure would include BOTH a capacity-controlled award chart at fixed prices AND dynamically priced awards with much greater availability at higher prices. The latter, offered by JetBlue, Southwest, and a few others, works better for customers who don’t want to invest time learning how to optimize redemptions. The former works better for people like the readers of this blog, and it saves the airline money by restricting redemption to seats which would otherwise not be sold.

  9. Good job Gary. Public shaming of corporations behaving badly is a freedom we need to exercise as much as possible.

    Please use an image of the Shame nun from Game of Thrones in your next post on the subject.

  10. I hear all this gnashing of teeth about how bad redemption is now and in the 3 award tickets I have booked in the last 2 weeks, 2 are cheaper than I have ever booked that routing, and the other I felt to be very reasonable (275000 in b class atl>Guam.). Changes have been nothing but positive for me.

  11. United’s answer was predictable, they’re just trying to figure out how to program their computers to mimic the “dynamic” pricing that Delta is using. The answer of silence from Amex is most deafening, they aren’t idiots and they have to realize they’ve dumped billions into the biggest scumbag of the airline universe, Delta. Mr. Baldaza runs a more reputable and respectable operation than the fraud Delta has become.

  12. I was glad to see Gary get the dignified hearing and picture he has earned by the national newspaper of record. He is the only powerful advocate we have now to hold the line on these devaluations, and may yet with our help and vigilance keep American the competitive leader by not devaluing – something I realize would shock cynics and industry insiders to have them so brazenly act consumer friendly. But what about ten million consumers properly educated who won’t fly anyone except those who give them all the miles earned? A whole new meaning of the worn word loyalty. I will not fly any but AA and AK now unless I again get all my miles flown. This always was the standard, and it’s what we should demand clearly not be taken away.

  13. What really gets me is that you now sometimes see total BS on the Delta site, and there is nothing that can be done about it. Looking at 5/10/16, I see LAX-KEF availability at 30,000 miles, connecting in JFK. But if I only want the JFK-KEF segment, it’s 37,500. That’s just nuts. I can’t believe that people are going to have to start doing throwaway segments on Delta award tickets.

  14. As I have said many times, Gary’s public beat down of Delta is great. I love his points. I could pass on the constant patting himself on the back.

    As mentioned by Presley, this blog post wasn’t about Delta. It was one of Gary’s never-ending victory laps.

  15. Respectfully @mark I’m going to share a big New York Times piece highlighting my posts on my personal blog.

    MANY things appear to bother you about this blog, which are really just about my interests not matching yours, you frequently offer snarky complaints when I write about airline or lounge food, for instance, which I view as part of the overall passenger experience and is something that interests me.

    I’m not sure why it surprises or grates that I would write about my experiences, the things that I find interestig, or that I’d share on my blog various TV appearances or a New York Times feature on my criticisms of SkyMiles.

    But it does bother you, which I think is more your problem than mine, since I’ll keep writing my blog the way it interests me to do so as I always have. Just saying 🙂

  16. Gary – great job on highlighting Delta’s dishonesty, they’re about to become “Spirit #2” to a discernible flyer if they keep on dismantling their FF program.

  17. @Gary – sure, you can take a victory lap after a NYT piece. That’s fair.

    But, c’mon, no media outlet is too small for you to highlight a quote from you (usually within hours of its publication).


  18. @Mark earlier you were critical of sharing a piece in the NYT, now that’s fair. So instead your criticism is that I share media appearances in less influential outlets? I’m confused. Although I don’t share it all by any stretch, for instance I did a couple of radio appearances since Friday. Happy to send you email alerts though if you’d like.

  19. I LOVE it that the NYT has changed the title of the original article: as I post this comment, it now reads “Guesswork in Cashing In Delta’s Frequent-Flier Miles”.

  20. @Paul Great catch on the article title. Pressure from Delta maybe? I wonder if the NYT got a call from Delta’s lawyers? That would be pretty surprising given their historical editorial independence.

    @Gary Any insight on why the title change?

  21. I so envy you who have choices. Alas, as an ATL DL hub captive, my choices are limited. But you can bet your last dollar that I’m working harder than ever to find all the alternatives. AA is getting more ATL flights and I am starting to fly more SW.
    For the sake of everyone who flies, I am so pleased at the many people that are showing DL that they will not be treated this way. Thank you!

  22. I’m glad to see Gary continuing to help folks understand the crazy things DL has done over the last few years. I am in Memphis and DL has screwed us big time. Fares increased when they bought NWA, they made deals with Memphis based companies to induce them to effectively force their employees to use DL then over the last year have dropped their flights in and out of Memphis to almost nothing. I just burned the remainder of my DL miles on a great trip to Alaska in first class for just slightly more miles than were required for coach. AA, SW & Frontier are all expanding here now and overall fares are much better than when the almost monopoly DL had in Memphis is gone. AA has become my airline of choice.

  23. Great to see the NYT taking notice of your work Gary – congrats!
    Nice article and great post. Thanks for bringing your brand of “truthiness” to these issues and for not giving up.

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