That Time When Frequent Flyers Mattered to Delta

Delta launched its Frequent Flyer program in 1981. It wasn’t re-named SkyMiles until 1995.

The 1995 change to SkyMiles brought with it expiring miles after 3 years of account inactivity — despite a promise in a Super Bowl ad that their miles would never expire.

In 2007 expiration was shorted to the end of the calendar year following two years of inactivity. In 2009 this was changed to 24 months. Delta led the other major airlines in shortening the life of airline miles.

In 2011 Delta eliminated expiration of miles again. The SkyMiles chief at the time Jeff Robertson described it as ‘the right thing to do’ (he also described it as a business decision) although of course Delta had already recognized plenty of revenue from shifting unredeemed mileage liability off of its books. And though expiring miles were suddenly ‘wrong’ not a single member whose miles had been expired by Delta were given back those miles as a result of this change. (And of course Delta miles do expire… when you do.)

Delta’s frequent flyer inferiority has been an issue for many years. It only feels like a new issue, because of how badly Delta program members have been kicked in the gut lately.

If you were designing a fictional airline that treated its customers with the most contempt possible, a caricature that couldn’t possibly be real, you would sketch out the past several months of the SkyMiles program.

This is a program which argued in front of the Supreme Court that they must not “superimpose a duty of good faith and fair dealing” on SkyMiles.

Delta’s frequent flyer program is less rewarding, but the biggest problem is they’re dishonest about it.

Just three years ago Delta ran this ad:

It’s hard to believe it’s been a dozen years since members paid for this one:

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. Under current accounting practices frequent flyer programs are accounted for as costs- so the expiration of miles would result in an increase in profit through a decrease in costs, not an increase in revenue.

    That will likely change under the new revenue recognition standard to be rolled out in 2017.

  2. OK, OK, we get it. I’m with you, but I don’t need to read this every week. And I say that as someone who appreciates you, which is why I just gave you a successful Ink application.

  3. While I know this is a points blog and not a travel blog and you are 100% about the Sky Miles program, I will say, being a weekly traveller who switched from UA to DL last year, I’ve been nothing short of impressed with their service for the following reasons:

    1) employees are genuinely friendly and want to help you on a daily basis. I have only run in to a small handful of “bad eggs” vs. UA where no one want to be there and the passenger is the enemy. This goes a long way when you have taken 95 flights so far this year (as I have)

    2) Comfort Plus blows away Economy plus. While not as many seats, the free food and drinks is a significant differentiator. I know AA has one free drink, but this is unlimited. It is truly a different class of service.

    3) They are reliable. Again, flown 95 flights this year so far and not one has been cancelled. I had a few weather delays, but DL goes out of their way, even putting you on a different airline if need be to ensure you get to your destination in a timely manner. This absolutely cannot be said for UA.

    4) Diamond is truly the top tier. I don’t have to compete with GS anymore and that’s a breath of fresh air. Also, rollovers make a big difference, as there are some years I fly 200K+ miles but others I may only fly 75K, so having rollovers will help me to make Diamond most years.

    5) The small things go a long way. I’ve been picked up in a Porsche twice this year. They have held a plane in SLC until right before departure time for me. The food in the Sky Club is edible and substantial. Gift for hitting 75K and 125K are a nice touch (would love a 150-200K bonus too though). Partnerships with SPG and others are a nice little perk in miles. Live TV (while not as many channels) is free and on most planes so I can watch many sporting events. Power at almost every seat and many now have standard and USB outlets.

    Overall, spending many hours in a plane, I prefer Delta over any other domestic carrier and makes up for the fact that their points are worthless. The way I see it, though, is that there are so many other opportunities to earn valuable miles, I can save my DL miles for domestic travel or random family trips and bank up other currencies for more extravagant trips once every 1-2 years. I don’t like the Sky Miles program, but taking their airline over others has significantly improved my weekly life and for that, I can’t see myself changing, even if they go to a purely revenue model.

  4. @Gary not saying you haven’t, just saying for me, and many frequent fliers the operation seemingly makes up for the lack of good FF program, especially given the multitude of other great earning options for high end travel redemption.

    just trying to give another perspective, that’s all.

  5. Spot on Gary – frank and factual. There certainly are some positive aspects to Delta as compared to UA and AA, but the SkyMiles program and their dishonesty surrounding it certainly gives them a well earned black eye.

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