Starting Today, Delta Has Completely Mucked Up Upgrades

Delta sees the end of first class upgrades in 2018. That’s because they’re going to be upselling coach passengers into nearly all of their first class seats instead.

First class upsells have been on the upswing. When Delta began upselling into first class, only 11% of premium cabin passengers had paid something to be there. Since then:

  • In 2011, 31% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
  • In 2012, 36% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
  • In 2013, 40% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
  • In 2014, 45% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
  • In 2015, 57% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there

In 2018 Delta expects to be up to 70%. And they expect to go from selling 36% of extra legroom coach seats to over 50% by that time.

    Delta Investor Day Presentation

Even ‘Comfort+’ seats as Delta’s extra legroom coach seats are called are going to be tougher to get as they push to upsell coach passengers into half of those seats in two years.

Delta also bundles priority boarding, complimentary drinks, and also snacks on flights that meet required length which of course elites (and in the case of drinks and snacks, top elites) on United and American get these benefits already.

Starting with today’s flights new rules that make even extra legroom seats tougher for elites are in effect.

  • Delta has made their extra legroom seats a separate booking class which will help them to sell the seats.

  • Delta will only offer their economy plus style-seats to an elite member plus one companion instead of up to 8 companions

  • Eligibility for the seats will be based on the lowest status in the reservation.

    • Diamonds and Platinums still get to confirm at time of booking.
    • Golds get these seats 72 hours in advance and Silvers 24 hours in advance if available.
    • So a Diamond and a Silver traveling together can only get access to these seats 24 hours out from travel.
    • If there’s a non-elite in the reservation, access is also at 24 hours out. Instead of a Diamond or Platinum members being able to confirm 8 non-elite companions into extra legroom seats at time of booking, Diamonds and Platinums are able to get into extra legroom seats with just 1 companion only 24 hours prior to departure when traveling on the same reservation.

With first class seats mostly upsold, Delta wants their extra legroom seats to be the upgrade. And they want elites to even buy those. As Delta’s new CEO says,

What we would like people to do in the next few years is to pick the airline and the product that works best for them.

In the process of rolling this out, though, they’re going even further to stick it to elite members than it would seem at first blush. That’s because a middle seat is now an upgrade.

An elite in an exit row seat may be ‘upgraded’ to a middle seat in Comfort+.

If you’re seated in an exit row, or even an aisle seat without extra legroom, you may want to proactively select not to have an upgrade to extra legroom seats because middle seats are not legitimate upgrades no matter what Delta tells you.

What Delta could have done is offered an option to be upgraded if an aisle, or an aisle or window, becomes available — but not into a middle seat. They chose not to do this. It’s not just an oversight. I and others flagged this issue six months ago. Delta was absolutely aware of it, and chose to do nothing about it. That tells me that from their perspective it’s a feature, not a bug.

So much for Delta telling its members that loyalty programs should be loyal.

The irony is that Delta thinks its product is good enough that it should earn a revenue premium for it. Changes to SkyMiles weren’t designed to drive a revenue premium and indeed whatever premium the airline’s best customers might give as a result of loyalty, Delta changes are likely to re-commodify the product.

The only reason to fly Delta becomes schedule and price for the product (whether basic economy, economy, extra legroom, or first class) you want to buy. They’re going to be ahead of the pack with fast inflight internet soon, and that’s a reason some will choose from. But there’s absolutely no reason why the frequency program should play a role, in fact it’s a negative even for high revenue customers.

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. @Gary –

    Another aspect to Delta’s doggedly determined mindset for increased revenues is their previous announcement (today confirmed) that they will be taken seats away from inventory, even delaying delivery of aircraft to reduce capacity and raise fares.

    Their level of confidence has crossed the line into the arena of arrogance.

  2. DL leads and the pack will follow. Ever seen those t-shirts they sell in BKK, “same same but different?”

  3. Now that’s what I call value for your shareholders. Customer satisfaction isn’t part of the conversation.

  4. You are lucky Delta doesn’t anesthetize you on the plane and take one of your kidneys.

  5. It won’t be long before Delta figures out a way to anesthetize you on the plane and take one of your kidneys.

  6. I am so over Delta airlines and their old planes. Wait until the next recession hits and these airlines will be begging for business. Until then I will give my business to the airline which earns it. Thank god I don’t live in Atlanta at the mercy of their greedy management. Maybe they should focus more on updating their planes instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on stock buy backs. Sure seems short sided to me.

    Delta Air Lines fleet details
    Aircraft Number Age
    Boeing 767 93 19.5 years
    Boeing 777 18 11 years
    McDonnell Douglas MD-80/90 182 23.2 years
    TOTAL 812 17.1 years

  7. call me a victim of DL’s pay to upgrade. despite being a Platidunm, a commute in/out of a hub and upgrades so rare, i started buying discounted first 2+ yrs ago. so i’m guilty. but recalling having been AA Platinum for yrs, with those old skool upgrade stickers, i pay about the same fate+upgrade albeit it confirmed on DL as i ended up paying on AA hoping for a confirmed upgrade. i’m not defending DL’s move, but…well, maybe my actions are.

  8. I’ve been pretty tolerant of the changes thus far (4th year Platinum), but it’s that change with the C+ upgrade window that takes the cake. It’s really a damn shame, because on the whole I really do like the airline. They have effectively shooed away a customer who spends between $15,000-$22,000 a year with them. I’m not even close to their highest spenders, but it’s not nothing…

  9. Am I correct, that starting from today, there is NO more comp upgrades from coach to first? Only from coach to comfort+?

  10. Loyal flyers are essentially subscribers. Are they not?

    They may not be the most profitable, just the most consistent.

    Keep the subscribers and optimize revenue from non loyalists would seem to be the best option for revenue.

  11. @Sergey-

    Incorrect with today’s (current) policy. They are separate upgrades and it’s possible to get upgraded from Main Cabin (non-W fare class) right into First Class.

    However as Delta begins to gather purchasing behavior data going forward you can be sure they’ll manage it accordingly in the future.

    So, that may ultimately lead to a ‘one class onky’ upgrade on the horizon.

    I have spent a lot of time speaking on this and writing warnings of what is to come.

  12. It has been a while since I flew DL, but I never thought their service was any better than the others. I main memory of DL is delayed flights out of DCA due to mechanical and missing or near missing international connection in ATL. There is no reason to fly DL over others, unless you live in a DL hub. I think the result will just be more business to WN, as non-hub elites look elsewhere.

  13. Thankfully I am not stuck at a Delta hub because I hate Skymiles. Some day it will give me great pleasure to burn my stash on a costly partner award, assuming that option still exists.

  14. @sergey – see MJ On Travel’s helpful post here:

    Basically, it seems like you are automatically opted in for the F upgrade, but must explicitly check the box for the Comfort + “upgrade.” Presumably, if you do not check the box, you will not be on the C+ list, only the F list. He also suggests, though, that some Diamond/Plat are getting auto-upgraded at booking to C+, oftentimes to a middle seat. I suspect you could then switch to an aisle/window, if available, and still remain on the F upgrade list.

  15. I am a diamond on delta and have been for years. I have seen a dramatic decrease in not only upgrades but also in seat availability. If I spend 20K a year with #deltaairlines I should not be in row 44 in a middle seat no matter when I book. How about @deltaairlines gives elite members first offer to pay for upgrades? As I diamond I am rarely given the option in which I would choose everytime.

  16. It’s apparently clear some people don’t read the news…….new planes currently on order…
    Bombardier C100s
    Boeing 737-900 still being delievered

  17. Certainly interesting that Delta has decided they don’t need a loyalty program. Recently had to go from BWI to IAH. AA was $450 in Y, $750 in F, while DL was $350 in Y, $550 in F. As an exp, I checked seats/ availability through expertflyer and decided chance of upgrades for both me and my husband (non-status) was pretty good, and in any event the eqm and rdm were worth it even if we were “stuck” in our Y+ seats. However, the math would have been completely different if AA’s program looked more like DL’s. I guess my point is that, for now, AA’s program still rewards loyalty — and incentivised me to send revenue their way. Absent such factors, I would have chosen option C: direct in UA F for $650.

  18. @andy – what was UA direct in Y? For a 3.5 hour flight not sure I would have paid for first at 650.00

  19. I’m new here.
    I’m using 360,000 Skymiles to fly one way from Atlanta-Birmingham. Does that sound fair?

  20. Never flying Delta with this kind of BS. Understand their desire to make a profit and to appease shareholders, don’t tolerate the taking away of earned benefits from loyal customers.

  21. @gobluetwo –

    One thing to remember is that if you are placed into a Comfort+ seat, you can then only choose another Comfort+ seat (if available) online (or in the Fly Delta mobile app.) Otherwise, say you auto-assigned a middle seat in Comfort+ and then there are no other non-middle seats left, you have to CALL Delta on the telephone to “downgrade” your seat from a Comfort+ to ANY seat in the Main cabin.

    Makes for a hassle, for sure…and hopefully your previously preferred (exit row, window or aisle) seat has not been taken.

  22. Got upgraded from my exit row seat to a middle seat in C+. No, thank you, delta. A middle seat is no way, no how an “upgrade.” I tried to put myself back into the exit row seat but got the error message that I could only select a seat that was in my fare category. Wth? I had already had that exit row seat and it was still showing as available when I went to change it back. Hahahahahahaha, delta, you got to waste an agents’ time with my phone call getting back my exit row seat. This just means that there will be plenty of platinums just like me who will check that, “don’t move me to a C+ seat” and, thus, delta will have more C+ seats to up sell. Not happy, delta, not happy with another one of your lousy “loyalty” policies.

  23. They are being penny wise and pound foolish; due to changes in their loyalty program when with the same number of international flights I became Gold from Diamond ; I have switched to another airline and moreover I now rather sticking to Delta takes the cheapest flight of another reputed airline. I am enjoying the new experience. Let them drive away their loyal customers.

  24. I booked a flight last week, and selected my coach seat. I was then “upgraded” to economy comfort but it’s showing as no seats left so it will be assigned at the gate. I know they hold back a couple for handicap passengers so there may actually be a couple available.

    As others have mentioned I can no longer select a coach seat because it’s not in my class. As of now I don’t have a seat.

    So what happens if things fill up and I don’t get upgraded to first? Am I going to be the first one bumped on the flight because I’m a loyal Diamond member who was trying to get an upgrade?

  25. I prefer the old system of upgrades. I do not like that non – status companions have priority over other Diamonds who may have a lower fare. Is Delta even going to have Platinum, Gold, or Silver anymore considering they will no longer be upgraded? Delta has so many planes with only 12 seats in first , upgrades are difficult as it is to get on certain routes ,now we have to compete with companions. It is my understanding Delta implemented the new changes to please the Diamonds who complained that when they bring their wives on trips two times a year that she gets stuck in coach . Really ? So the majority of us who travel by ourselves should miss out on upgrades because the complainers don’t want to pay for , use miles, or regional upgrade certificates to upgrade their wives! I have also been told that a certain few were sent a survey about upgrades, I did not receive one, not sure how accurate the survey is if Delta only sent it to the complainers. I do not understand why Delta would want to alienate the majority of their most loyal customers. The only worthwhile benefit is the upgrades to first class, if they are eliminated there will be no incentive to fly exclusively on Delta. I guess the new way to fly will be shop for the lowest airfares. Has anyone noticed the rediciously low air fares that the other airlines offer that Delta does not match?

  26. Smart move by Delta. It keeps a lot of extra freeloaders out of the first class cabin.

  27. Mark:
    I guess you do not understand the new policy, the unsold first class seats will be given away free to non -status companions who are flying with a Diamond. .

  28. Like so many others it’s time to question my loyalty to Delta. I’ve been Diamond or Platinum for the past 15 years along with Million plus flyer and I can’t get an upgrade to FC to save my life. Currently sitting in my upgraded center seat. Thankfully I can fly out of Orlando so I have many other options
    It’s a shame as I’d go out of my way to fly Delta as I like their product and they use to treat us well. Now I might as well go with the most cost effective shortest flight as I don’t consider this a loyalty program worth pursuing.

  29. FYI Delta…If your going to implement this policy you have to account for the fact that some of us don’t see moving to a center seat as an upgrade.

    Regardless, it’s a poor policy either way and I can’t believe one policy change has taken delta from one of the best airlines for frequent travelers to one of the worst! #diamonddoesntmatter

    I’ve never considered other airlines but now am going to have to. Who’s better American or United? I fly out of Boston and Minneapolis. Mostly east coast based destinations.

  30. I agree that a middle seat is not an upgrade. I am now taking a proactive stance and the next time American Airlines calls and makes me an offer to recognize my status and miles if I switch, I am going to seriously consider it.

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