New Low Value Mileage ‘Upsells’ Will Make Delta Elite Upgrades a Rarity

When I became a frequent flyer the first class cabin was mostly upgrades. Airlines sold 10% – 15% of the seats for a lot of money, and made the rest available to frequent flyers. Over the past several years US airlines have monetized the cabin much more aggressively — at United sometimes just for ‘tens of dollars’.

Three years ago Delta said their goal was to sell 70% of first class seats in 2018, leaving very little left for upgrades. That includes upsells for any amount, which they’re trying to do instead of offering the seats to their elite frequent flyers.

During the airline’s earnings call on Thursday CEO Ed Bastian says Delta is now up to monetizing “about 60%” of their first class seats. So they’re behind goal (though they’re apparently ahead of their peers who are likely still in the 40’s).

One way they plan to increase the number of seats they’re upselling to customers, rather than offering as complimentary upgrades, is to offer payment by miles as an alternative to cash. Delta’s President Glen Hauenstein, in his prepared remarks, said to expect Delta to introduce mileage upgrade upsells later this year.

We want all of our customers to be able to purchase Delta product how they want, when they want, and where they want. Premium product revenues grew 19% on a 3% increase in premium seats as upsell revenue continues to be a source of strength. We are excited to rollout additional functionality to allow post purchase mileage upgrades later this year.

These upsells aren’t going to be ‘good deals’. Instead CEO Ed Bastian thinks of miles as worth one cent apiece.

That’s what we’re excited about in the future is the ability to control your travel and upgrade however you want to with whatever currency you want to use. So you want to – if your company buys you a coach ticket and you want to sit in the Premium Select cabin, we’ll have an offer for you that would be 17,000 miles for you or it’s a $170 in cash.

That matches what I said to expect several months ago, “you can expect miles to be worth no more than a penny or so” for mileage upgrades.

Certainly some customers will take them up on the offer, and there will be even fewer premium seats left for complimentary upgrades or confirmed upgrades.

Delta mileage upgrade awards are already crazy expensive. The question is whether post-purchase mileage upgrades will replace Delta’s hidden mileage upgrade award chart — whether mileage upgrades will always be simply priced based on fare.

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. I bought an slc->fll main cabin flight in November for 9,000 miles yesterday. I believe it’s upgrade eligible so I should get comfort+ with gold status. Seems like a pretty good deal to me. I use it over JetBlues flight Bc of skyclub and 2 checked bags. First class just isn’t worth it.

  2. No worries. The simple solution is to fly on Delta PARTNER airlines. Fly up front by booking business class seats at the right price and then laugh all the way to the Sky Miles bank.

  3. It’s been many years now that Delta has been known as a rip off with regards to their program
    I love reading about them for the shock value
    They did what now?The sad thing is that Delta is responsible for ruining almost every program as a number of airlines have tried to take on their extortion tactics in. A monkey see monkey do business.
    Yet Delta almost always stands out as the worst
    I don’t care if their ancient planes run on time and they might be more friendly or the pillow a bit better
    No sympathy to those who stuck with this airline and gotten screwed year after year
    You have to laugh at their customers who are willing to spend 500k Delta sky pesos and up to fly one way to Sydney on a sub par delta plane in business class
    Of course it always fun to fly 100k in miles in coaching way to Detroit lol
    For delta it’s all about shooting at fish in a barrel
    Everyone has options
    When they are at a million miles one way no doubt some folks will still stick with them for me that’s entertainment
    I’ve avoided them like the plague
    Glad I got out long ago

  4. So it goes. As Skypesos remain poorly valued (barring perfectly executed Double Dutch 720 back flips with a twist on alternating Sundays in April and September, in which you can get 2cpp) and elites get hosed, there’s less reason to choose a flight you wouldn’t have absent the existence of Skymiles.

  5. I agree with Dwondermeant. Delta single handedly ruined the mileage programs of Delta, and copy cat UA and AA. Not to mention, that foreign airlines are following the lead of the USA airlines. I want to curse, but this is a family friendly blog.

  6. DL never really had a loyalty program and has chosen to compete on the actual product – with great success, assisted by some dreadful decisions among its competitors, first Smisek and now Parker trashing their respective products while removing the edge (over DL) that was once given by their loyalty programs. UA is slowly picking itself off the floor but there’s no reason to fly AA these days.

    Really Delta’s on-departure miles-upgrades are good news, be grateful that there’s a new way to get rid of those pesky worthless SkyPesos.

  7. I sincerely wish Delta would stop upgrading people based on “status.” These upgrades have ruined the first class experience, creating a class of entitled wannabe’s. If they can convince people to use their miles to upgrade, so much the better since eventually those miles will be used up. Go back to charging for first class and it will make it a better experience.

  8. So I don’t know why I see all this dumping on Delta. I am the lowest member (Silver) of their Medallion system and almost always get upgraded, mostly to Comfort+. As for “Skypesos, I recently did a JFK-SFO-MIA for 16,000 miles. A good deal? YUP!! No complaints from this flyer.

  9. @Dianne-not sure how upgrading a customer loyal to Delta has ” ruined the first class experience, creating a class of entitled wannabe’s”. I am a Gold Medallion, earned on my own dime, on my choice to fly Delta because I prefer them over other choices. When upgraded, I appreciate Delta’s recognition of my business, but never expect or feel entitled to it. If you have had ” entitled wannabe’s ” on your flights, I would hope that you have confirmed with them that they are indeed upgraded passengers to make that statement.

  10. @Dianne —> Or, following up in John’s comment above, perhaps you could lose your own snobbish, “let them eat cake” attitude…

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