The Data Behind Why Delta Pivoted To Damage Control After Devaluing SkyMiles

Delta made an aggressive move against its top customers earlier this month. They dropped miles and flight segments as a way to earn elite status, focusing only on qualifying dollars spent, and raising the required spend from $20,000 to $35,000 for top status.

They stripped away benefits from their premium co-brand credit card that comes with lounge access, limiting visits to their lounges to 10 times per year (a roundtrip connecting itinerary could use up four of those) unless cardmembers spent at least $75,000 per year on the card. And to further incentivize card spend, members could earn qualifying dollars by spending on their Platinum and Reserve cards.

  • Members received no new benefits while being asked to give Delta more, just to stay even and a lot of Delta elites decided they’d just had enough.
  • They were going to have lower status under the new system, so why bother at all? Even if they could spend $350,000 on a credit card to earn Diamond (everyone can do that, right?) they’d be earning a currency that’s worth far less than other rewards points while doing so.

There was blood in the water with Alaska Airlines and JetBlue aggressively courting lucrative Delta elites (JetBlue even termed their Mosaic status match, “Mosaic on the DL”). Knowing that many of these are disaffected premium co-brand credit card customers, too, they offered sweeteners to those who took up the new airline’s card – status through 2024 without even flying.

Delta CEO came out this week saying that they plan to introduce modifications to the changes in the coming weeks. He didn’t say the changes were a mistake. And he didn’t say they won’t still get there. He said they moved too quickly, pulling the band-aid off with their changes. That was the mistake he acknowledges, so he sees it as a PR problem not as a strategy problem.

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.

Why did he move so quickly with that statement, a mere week after the announcement? That’s remarkably fast since changes to the card product also involve American Express another large company.

Chris Dong shares some intriguing social listening data about consumer sentiment expressed online,

Metrics from Sprout Social, a platform that analyzes social messages and overall sentiment, show a 352 percent increase in the volume of “negative sentiment” tweets about the Delta loyalty program in the week following the SkyMiles changes (September 13 through September 20) as compared to the week prior (September 5 through September 12).

In addition, the percentage of tweets with a “positive sentiment,” specifically about airlines that were not Delta (United, American, Southwest, Spirit, and JetBlue), increased by 13 percent for the week starting September 13 compared to the week prior.

And the 352% increase in negative commentary about Delta on Twitter likely understates the reaction as Dong relays to me, “the week of Sept. 5 still had a lot of chatter” about Delta’s diarrhea flight which went viral all over the world. Compared to a normal week, the difference would likely be even more stark.

They saw not just the coverage of the changes, they saw the online response from their customers. They thought they could push customers to spend more through their Amex products, which they already claim runs about 1% of U.S. GDP and will earn them nearly $7 billion in revenue this year. But customers told them they couldn’t be pushed to do more under threats of receiving less.

Hinting that things won’t be as bad as announced (for now) may be enough to get customers to stop jumping ship – stop cancelling credit cards, stop status matching to competitors – and take a wait and see approach. And, no doubt, Delta hopes that in the interim the uproar dies down. Attention spans are short. Meanwhile Delta has said the changes they announced actually haven’t yet gone far enough, to expect more like this in the future.

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 agree with some of the posters here who say what they may have noticed was a lack of spend on the card since the announcement. While I will keep the Reserve till its renewal next Sept., I can GUARRANTEE you there will be no spend placed on that card. I’ve already changed any of the auto-pays to my Hilton Amex.

  2. Delta has just committed its Bud light moment. It too is too tone deaf to realize it yet.

    This at the end will hurt its bottom line. Reliability is down. It has an older fleet. It will lose its ability to charge a premium as medallions and cardholders pivet.

    Delta is insanely profitable. There was no need for this move. Simple investment in its lounges could have avoided this and resulted in building additional and future long term revenue. It will take several years but it wlll end up showing the true mistakes that it has made.

    Heads need to roll. This is going to be taught in business classes for years to come.

  3. “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..” Pretty much saying even though they may slow down/backtrack, it will get to those levels soon enough.

  4. Word has it, one of the Diamond flyers got wind of these changes ahead of time, and it caused him to have that DL diarrhea episode . . . . . .

  5. They’ve already lost a flight from me and my family to another airline for our New York trip. As an AMEX Plat holder, we are *guaranteed revenue* for Delta and I also hold a Delta Gold just for the free checked bags. It will be SO easy for me to cancel in pivot if they keep playing with me and I doubt I’m the only one who feels that way! Shame because I’d actually started flying Delta more than any other airline (they gave me free Silver Status for a year right when I switched to them which sweetened the deal).

  6. I just flew Delta for the first time in Sept…booked 4 Delta One seats to Barcelona. I was excited to try Delta and get started with sky miles. While my experience was good, it was not over the top to similar airlines, and these changes that were just enacted will definitely have me looking at the other airlines again. So much for my start with Delta…

  7. I am a Delta platinum medallion member and already qualified for platinum in CY24. I guess I owe Delta a big thanks, I am now the highest tier at several other airlines, thanks to the status matching. I don’t have to fly Delta to get the same perks….. and the flights are cheaper. Win for me, loss for Delta.

  8. Partner & I are both Diamond & 1K, along with a kid who has low level status on both. I’ve now intentionally booked multiple flights on United. Delta has spurned all goodwill they built into the brand. Tone deaf and arrogant— I’d have way more respect if they were honest and didn’t behave as if customers are ignorant.

    One additional observation from recent DL flying: lots of AFA pins on FAs. I’m curious if these harsh moves against customers will push FAs to vote the union in.

  9. My 3% cash back card got activated yesterday. I’ll be using it for many of my non-Delta purchases from now on, since there is zero value in reaching a “spend waiver” and the 10K mqm boost. Come card fee renewal time, I’ll downgrade my co-branded Amex to Gold since the only useful thing remaining will be the bag fee savings.
    Delta may now slow-walk some of the most drastic changes, but we know they’re coming in a year or two at most. And while Delta is somewhat better than the competition in terms of reliability and hard product, they’re not enough better to justify the fare difference they often ask.
    I’ll use the few remaining Platinum Medallion benefits next year on flights that make sense in terms of schedule/route/price, but after almost a decade of Delta “enhancements” (aka devaluations) and this coup de grace, I am done. No backsies.

  10. I was hoping someone had got hold of the number of AMEX card cancellations and/or status matches people had done in the last couple of weeks. Those numbers would be a bit more telling than sentiment on Twitter / X

  11. I would love an email contact at Amex to say “Hey! By now you should already see that my spend has plummeted to almost zero (I still need to switch out all of my recurring accounts grrrrrr) and it’s going to stay that way.”

    I know that some people will still plow charges onto their Reserve cards but no way that it is worth it to me to keep Club access. I might as well just buy a membership and get more value from CSR. I think the Chase people are very happy right now.

  12. We won! Stopped all spending on the Delta branded Amex cards. Planning to freeze them prior to paying the fees again. Just received our gold and platinum Amex cards that earn 4 and 5x the points that can be used in any airline and more! As much as we fly, the purple reserve will not be worth it. We will now have access to even better lounges including the Centurian so it’s a WIN-WIN!

  13. Great timing! The announcement was made just before I was set to renew my Delta Amex Platinum. Cancelled that bugger instead. The CSR had not one decent reason to convince me to renew since it’s now worthless to me. Keeping the Delta Amex Gold card for now but switching recurring payments to cards with benefits. We’re not high volume travellers so contemplating if the free bag is even worth locking my AMEX with DAL…
    Have been loyal to DAL for about 20 years but feeling like the door has been slammed in all of our faces.

  14. Delta’s arrogance was/is unreal, but not surprising. Their CEO, Bastian, is clearly consumed with himself. Right as they announced their changes, Ed hired Tom Brady as a Delta spokesperson. I respect Brady’s greatness, but he hasn’t flown commercial in years. So Delta spends millions on Brady while taking things away from their most loyal customers. Ed must have missed Marketing 101 on college.

  15. I have been a Delta member for a couple of years, but have had little if any benefit form the relationship. The miles are close to worthless, the clubs have only been accessible through non-Delta credit cards. Their latest changes have further devalued the relationship to the point where I’ll probably cancel my no fee credit cards as they just don’t have any value to me.

  16. And those of us flying from ATL get a double whack since DL’s fares have always been–at least internationally- 20-40% higher that flying from any other USA hub such as ORD, BOS, JFK, MIA, IAD, etc.

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