Will The Last Delta Skymiles Member Please Turn Out the Lights on the Way Out?

Randy Petersen‘s opening remarks in the new Inside Flyer offers on hypothesis that members might be okay with announced changes to the Delta Skymiles program because the commotion that was set off when those changes were first announced has seemed to die down — as opposed to, you know, that we now know everything they’re willing to tell us (not as much speculation now), and the changes are 8 months away.

I’d even suggest it’s an equally plausible explanation that things have quieted down because the last Skymiles member left is just going to have to turn off the lights on the way out.

We’ve always known that Delta was terrible for award redemption. It costs a ton of miles to get anything out of Delta. The refrain of their defenders was always to admit that, but point out just how easy it was to earn miles in the program. Now even that is changing.

So the question now is, what value is even left in the Skymiles program?

  • The median member will earn fewer miles.
  • For all the talk about rewarding high spenders, they’ve set the break-even bar so high (20 cents a mile) that it’s literally double what’s required under the new revenue-based rules for earning elite status (10 cents a mile).
  • Elite members will have to spend more than general members to break even with the miles they used to earn.
  • And even benefiting the highest-spend members buying all international business class isn’t so clear when they cap the number of miles that can be earned on a ticket no matter how much the ticket costs.
  • We can’t really say what a five-tier redemption chart will mean — although I’d guess that the ‘low’ award level becomes less available rather than more available if such a thing is possible with Delta
  • Delta still won’t release any award charts for travel not beginning or ending in North America
  • Partner awards are so restricted with Delta that even when Air France is offering award space — to its own members, to members of other Skyteam frequent flyer programs, to members of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan — you frequently cannot book that space with Delta miles

Any deafening silence about the impending changes to the program may just be Delta Skymiles making itself irrelevant to consumer buying decisions.

People still fly Delta because they live in a Delta hub city, or because they live in a city with predominantly Delta service such as in the Upper Midwest. They may fly Delta because it’s a pretty decent airline.

But who is going to be choosing Delta because its frequent flyer program is better than competitor programs?

Delta has long had a corporate mantra of being “best in class” in everything they do. Their internal metrics told them that they weren’t meeting that standard with Skymiles, while they were at least coming close in most everything else they dd. There was always hope that their rethink of the Skymiles program would change that.

Instead it looks like they’ve gone ahead and given up that goal with Skymiles, although I suspect they’ve managed to convince themselves that they haven’t. The deafening silence says otherwise. One thing you don’t hear much of? Consumer excitement. And that’s the one thing you really want when you’re running a multi-billion dollar marketing program.

Will the last Skymiles member please turn out the lights when you leave?

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 »

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  1. Is it a coincidence, they just posted the following job on Friday “SENIOR PROJECT MANAGER – SKYMILES MEDALLION PROGRAM” on their website.

    Wonder if the old Director of the SkyMiles program was either let go or if he quit.

  2. I personally don’t mind if you bash Delta. However I just got 2 tix to South Africa for 160K each in business class from ATL(NON stop) Ill spend my last big block for next year travel. I insist that American will be making big changes as well. For many years most of my redemptions were American. Overall I thought they were fine, and I could have done better with the knowledge I have from milepoint meetups.

  3. I feel like writing this article is kicking the hornet’s nest. Just wait until Dougie P, drunk with power at the helm of his new behemoth, swings down the hammer of “improvements” and “updates” upon new AAdvantage. Coupled with all the printing of currency by way of multiple Citi 100k offers per person, U.S. 100% bonuses, etc., etc. And have you looked at AA domestic, international, or partner award space lately? It’s like there is no such thing as a SAAver award anymore. With all this expensive new hard product I doubt they plan to pay for it by giving it away. I love old AA and hope I’m wrong but I feel like our days are numbered.

  4. Yup. Midwest traveler, flying Delta because, for example, US Airways wants me to fly to Charlotte to continue any of their flights. United, who? American to Chicago or Dallas. International? Where’s that?

  5. In my opinion these changes may or may not be permanent. If Delta gets pushback over this, and or loses customers, they might think twice. Baggage fees for example may impact less frequent travelers. These changes per se affect the better customers. (IE Frequent fliers)

  6. So I take it you have quit earning Delta miles? I bet not. You still see value there. So give up the Delta bashing.

    I would love to see some objectivity here. Like an AA-related post that opens with “American Airlines is preparing to offer the WORST economy-class experience of any US-based carriers by leading the race to the bottom as they introduce 10-across economy.” Make that your title, don’t bury it. But objectivity relating to Delta or American Airlines is not to be found on this blog.

    You may have chosen AA because of their mileage program. But most people don’t have the choice of wasting 2+ hours because they had to connect in Dallas or Chicago if a nonstop was available instead.

  7. You ask “But who is going to be choosing Delta because its frequent flyer program is better than competitor programs?”

    My guess, given Delta’s profitability and consistently high satisfaction ratings, is that no one at Delta cares who. They seem to be able to run a highly successful airline with an unrewarding mileage program. But, since they’re an airline first and only incidentally a mileage program, I don’t see why they wouldn’t be happy that way.

    Are you thinking that perhaps they should aspire to be more like the airline with everyone’s favorite mileage program — United?

  8. As a business partner of Randy, I’d expect you to have better insight into why he says some of this stuff.

  9. Gary,

    I’m sure I’m not the only person who would love to see a comparison of programs to which I can credit Delta (and other Skyteam) miles. Delta’s non-stop reach (at least for my destinations) from NYC and pervasive wifi are hard to book away from for my business travel, but I am ready to give up on the decent low and mid tier elite benefits in favor of more useful points.

  10. Wow…Delta has really gotten under your skin!

    I am afraid the light is still on for a few of us Delta flyers. By comparison, on just about every metric, Delta performs better as an airline than it’s main competitors. Last week there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about how Delta cancels five times fewer flights than it’s competitors.

    To some of us a very good flying experience matters and Delta delivers.

    And I want to say thank you Gary [to you and other bloggers] because by reading your blog I can be a Delta flyer and still find ways to earn miles to fly all the aspirational products out there.

    I get the best domestic flying experience and my closet is getting full of airline pajamas. Nice!

    The airline business is dynamic. Right now you, Ben, and The Points Guy are all herding the frequent flyer crowd to American where all the gamers can now fight over the eight FIrst Class seats in the new A319.

    It is also American that is selling and giving away miles like crazy while, oddly, Delta miles are getting more scarce.

    There will be changes coming to American and Delta may have to change some of it’s policies as well as they may have gone too far.

    I would say this in agreement with you…if the miles you earn while flying are vitally important then Delta would not be a good choice.

    But if your miles from flying are less important and you want a great flying experience…I think Delta is still very much in the picture.

  11. Honestly, UA economy (*A)/biz (partner) award prices are very comparable to DL. And I compare flying partner to DL bc flying UA just isn’t great. They offer F awards but the prices are quite high its almost like DL not offering F.

    For me flying from the west coast, the ability to redeem on VS is actually pretty good. As is ability to generate miles/eqm through spend. Not that DL is my primary program but its got its place for collecting miles.

  12. We live in a very miles and points obsessed bubble. That being said, you were a bit dismissive of what might be the most important statement of yoir post: “They may fly Delta because it’s a pretty decent airline.” I don’t always get upgraded with Delta, but flying Delta isn’t that bad (I have status with Delta and AA). In fact, flying Delta can be decent to good. I’m not going to defend the Skymiles program, but Delta wants people to fly them for their service and their product. If they lose customers based on their frequent flyer program, I think that may be a calculated bet that seems to be paying off. Delta stock has been doing pretty well over the past few years and that cannot be ignored in the evaluation of Delta and the decision to go with the new Skymiles.

    We as a miles and points obsessed community might think DAL is throwing Skymiles under the bus, not rewarding their most loyal customers and making it difficult to redeem skymiles. This is probably right. But given the consolidation of airlines in the United States, Delta may have thought that they don’t need Skymiles to compete. Delta may just focus on getting passengers from Point A to Point B in a comfortable and timely manner, which is what most airline travelers care about.

  13. @Markj – we don’t disagree. I think I’m clear above that Delta is running a good airline operation, but their frequent flyer program isn’t up to the level of the rest of the airline and isn’t a reason to choose the airline.

  14. @AS – I am quite clear in the post, you choose Delta if you live in Atlanta or Minneapolis or Salt Lake, they run a good airline, you want a non-stop flight. But that’s not an argument over the frequent flyer program. My only source of Delta miles these days is the Skymiles debit card. It’s the only debit card earning a mile per dollar. I don’t credit anything else at all to Delta but transactions that only make sense via debit card.

  15. @robert,

    There is no way that these changes are temporary. They’ve already spent considerable sums on the new award program trying to educate consumers. They’ve also spent so much consumer goodwill that at this point they have no option but to keep it as is.

    I’ll happily be proven wrong though.

  16. But Deltapoints and MJ (know nothing on travel) tell us that we’re just over entitled and should be happy with the deplorable Skypesos program. Couldn’t help but laugh at the heaps of praise leaped upon Delta last week for offering eat plugs on long haul flights!

  17. I think this post got more people not reading it and making assumptions than typical. Must be a sore point for some.

  18. I would say that for the average traveller the mileage earning rates within a frequent flier program are a very minor consideration that falls well behind comfort, service quality, dependability, and a host of other customer experience focused factors (not to mention price). You have often mentioned the indisputable fact that the average person earns many more miles from credit card spend, shopping portals, and other non-flying sources than by actually flying. That is certainly true for me, a mid-level elite. And I’m sure it is true for most at my level of status or lower (which would be the overwhelming majority of travelers). That’s why there is so little outrage other than that contrived by a small band of bloggers — there are many fair criticisms of Skymiles, but at the end of the day, the recent changes have very little impact on my mileage earning or my overall view of the value of the program. And if you value quality of travel experience over the pros/cons of a mileage program (which I would suggest that the average person does), Delta is by many metrics the best of the domestic legacies.

  19. I’m a non-hub flyer and fly around 110k miles a year. The price of American and Delta are usually very close. The milage program was the selling point for me to go with American. After seeing what Delta had done the last three years, I’m glad I did!

  20. I have a 6,800+ mile trip coming up and if not for the free bags with my Delta Gold AMEX (there are 4 of us traveling to Jamaica) I would credit the miles to my Alaska Airlines account.

    Unrelated, or maybe not, I have yet to find award travel on Delta *from* Hawaii to Boise (and I searched 12 months). Makes it tough to book round-trip.

  21. I don’t know why there is all this bashing on the article. I thought it was pretty fair, noting Delta is a pretty solid airline from an actual operations perspective.

    As much as people want to pretend, the Skymiles 2015 changes are horrendous to all travelers. It took away all desire for me to travel on DL, and I’ve been a Diamond the past 3 years. If all legacy carriers copy DL, it will basically be the beginning of the end for FF programs.

  22. Gary,

    Your comments above didn’t include the Skypesos that can be earned by Amex credit cards. If indeed the ability to earn Skypesos becomes more difficult to earn by actually flying, it doesn’t seem to really affect the public’s ability to earn them by card spend (whether it be status or flight miles). And if less people are actually vying for award seats, it seems to make those CC pesos worth more.

    Your thoughts?

  23. The strongest message that you can send is not to not fly them but to cancel the credit card. However for the average American cancelling a credit card is heresy.

  24. I redeemed DL miles for 4@J to SYD over Christmas this past year, and 4@J to DXB/AUH last year over Christmas. All at low miles rates and on DL’s superior overseas partners.

    These are 7cpm to 10cpm redemptions – in business class, over Christmas holidays, for a family of four.

    DL presents some challenges on its miles program, but it remains the best US miles program for a family of four seeking long-haul J cabin travel with limited co-pay.

    Further, as a high-revenue pax, I look forward to earning more miles under the new 2015 plan.

    Access to international F would be nice, but overall, as a long term first- or second-tier elite on both AA and DL, DL deserves a meaningful place in nearly any miles and points strategy.

    If your travel needs are different (perhaps you only care on single F seats), then DL isn’t your match. DL is a better fit for points travel than most card-flogging bloggers appreciate.

  25. Agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts. But business and economy are cyclical. Delta will be greedy (well, greedIER) while they can get away with it. But it can’t last forever. Nothing does in this business. They are setting the stage for aggressive competition. Where will it come from? Who knows at this point. Middle East (my bet)? A new low cost start up? Many of us will keep shifting to AA and even UA in the meantime. But their greed and record profit can’t last forever… It never does. At some point they’ll run back to grab our loyalty again. In the meantime we just have to diversify.

  26. I hate Delta but living in MSP I have no other choice unless I want to connect every time I fly in the US. I just burned 500K Skypesos for family vacation and still have another 500K to burn. Once my business trips change from mainly domestic to more international I will probably dump Delta for good since unless my final destination is AMS, LHR or CDG I will have to connect anyway in Europe. In that case I prefer to connect in the US to a AA hub and fly AA non stop to an European destination.

  27. I too will be reevaluating travel on DL due to the recent changes. We had been DL AMEX Plat cardholders though even that at now $200/year, even as non elites which affords us checked bag benefits, is harder to swallow. We had been using it combined with miles to offset a ~$450 domestic nonstop RT though planning to use up the rest of our miles this year we’ll likely shop around more next time. We travel a few family trips per year though diversify our points currency so don’t have great loyalty to any one carrier.

    As has been stated by a few bloggers, a fixed value earning and redemption system makes sense for domestic programs though seemingly devalues redeeming for international travel especially in C/F. Here we have DL doing this except on the redemption side.

    I also second another commenters sentiment of many of the popular bloggers seemingly suddenly switching allegiance away from United over to AA. Gary, Ben, Rick (FTG), etc. Seems fairly confidential that such major players all did this in advance of UA’s recent changes.

  28. Here is one for you. As a charter Diamond member and flying over 175,000 a year, in February 2013 I received my Delta Diamond member benefits for 2013 and 2014. This included a good number of upgrade certificates for 2013 and 2014. Then, in February 2014 my 2 years upgrade certificates expired! So, despite my 123,500 miles and $24,000 spent in 2013, I have NO benefits for 2014. No certificates until I spend another $25,000. Many emails have passed between Delta and myself. To no avail.

  29. Delta Blows and everyone knows it. The planes are old and they don’t give a crap about the 500 tickets I have bought from them in the past. Delta “Cough” sucks

  30. In my case, 90% of my flights are on paid Delta fares for business travel. I know I’m taking a hit on award redemptions, but that 90% outweighs the 10% where I actually burn miles. And FF programs aside, I’ll say that I’m actually pretty happy with Delta operations.

  31. You’ve pretty much predicted/described, Gary, what I’ve done in response, just to provide one example. If another airline is competitive on price, quality/service, and schedule, I’ll take it instead of DL. If not, I’ll take DL and put miles in AS program. I used all my SkyMiles before deval last summer for a trip this spring, and no longer collect DL miles from flying or partners; I cancelled my SkyMiles AmEx. The program is, at least at the moment, dead to me. And that means when all other things are equal, I’ll also FLY on another airline. Because I can’t believe I’m alone in this reaction, I cannot conceive how DL’s management thinks this will benefit the airline or its stockholders or senior executives.

  32. If you are a credit card driven earning frequent flyer then Delta is not even in the discussion……if you “actually” fly on revenue tickets then I think Delta is probably a very formidable player in the sandbox………

  33. I think the answer to Gary’s question is that the changes are still nearly a year off and many of us who are loyal to DL are trying to figure out what our options are, if any. Besides DL’s operational and hard-product advantages there are other things to consider if contemplating abandoning it.

    –The “game,” as you pretentiously call it, is in a high degree of flux. AA’s frequent flyer program will be revamped within a year. UA’s just was and probably will be again because Smisek and Co look to DL for their cues. So why reorient all our flying only to find they devalue their product as severely a year later? You can’t tell me Parker or Smisek’s track record is confidence building in this regard.

    –DL lets one generate 3x the elite miles via credit card spend that AA/UA do. I can fly 20K fewer flight miles and maintain Platinum status. 20K extra air miles are pretty costly to generate from DL hubs. Maybe I’m better off maintaining my status on DL and taking advantage of AA/US’s miles fire sales and UA’s occasional P fare giveaways for my int’l premium cabin jaunts.

    One challenge I would make to Gary and the other P&M bloggers who so relentlessly (but legitimately) deride DL is to put your intellect and insight where your bitching is. Help those of us captive to DL hubs or without the surreal reservoirs of free time that allow you to travel so often and on such inefficient itineraries, to find a way to get value out of Skymiles 2015 through strategies that exploit its sweet spots while supplementing via DL partners or mileage accrual strategies that don’t involve flying.

    Unlike Randy’s Pollyanna act or repetitive DL bashing, that would be a true reader service.

  34. I think most frequent flyers have come to accept that Delta’s loyalty program is a “lost cause.” If you don’t have to fly Delta, you don’t. Logic would suggest that a “worst in class” frequent flyer program would be problematic to an airline’s profitability, but the financial results so far indicate that this is not the case.

    Of more concern to me is the future of American. US Airways runs a pretty darn stingy frequent flyer program. Since I don’t bother to look for Delta award availability any more, it’s hard for me to directly compare them. But US’s own award availability is pretty remarkably poor. American’s award availability has grown significantly worse in recent years, but is still better than US’s.

    There would seem to be a real possibility that AA’s new management — the US management team — will look at Delta’s experience and their own experience at US and align “the new AA” to be like the old US in award availability.

    If that becomes the case, the only “plausible” award availability will be on UA. Given that current UA management gives nobody the “warm and fuzzies,” it would be very optimistic to think that UA will offer a “generous” frequent flyer program when its competitors offer crumbs.

    So could we be looking at a future, say in a year or two, where all USA frequent flyer programs suck? I think we could be. Fingers crossed it doesn’t happen.

  35. @justSaying: I think the opposite is true — if you’re just earning on CC spend and getting involved in high levels of manufactured spend, then SkyMiles could be fairly easy to generate. If you are earning based on butt-in-seat miles, then you are likely earning fewer miles than before (especially if you’re in a market where you have options on multiple carriers where DL would require a connection.)

    The change doesn’t impact me much since I already avoided crediting DL flights to DL, the change to revenue earning just makes an even stronger case to continue crediting flights to Alaska.

  36. “The airline business is dynamic. Right now you, Ben, and The Points Guy are all herding the frequent flyer crowd to American where all the gamers can now fight over the eight FIrst Class seats in the new A319.”


  37. And… American just destroyed their Award Chart. With no notice. Welcome to the New American Airlines!

  38. I’ve been with Delta since the Western merger and have been very happy with its service and its very generous upgrade opportunities, especially for the past few years as a DM. Having accumulated millions of miles, I’m now burning through them quickly acquiring Buy With Miles premium class tickets. I’ve never cared much about SkyMiles or used them for my own travel; rather, it’s the MQMs and status (which leads to upgrades) I’ve most appreciated. That system is not changing (yet). So why am I reconsidering my loyalty to Delta?

    It’s the new policy on JFK to SEA/SFO/LAX upgrades. The product is outstanding, but I hate that I now have a choice between sitting in coach or taking a connecting flight to upgrade. There is still an opportunity to use Buy With Miles for first class connecting tickets (which are surprisingly reasonable) and attempt a transfer to a nonstop BE flight, but it takes considerable extra effort and cannot be confirmed until the day prior. The result is that I’m paying Delta less cash, earning 50% more MQMs, and avoiding the upgrade roulette at the gate. How can this be good for Delta? I’ll make DM again for 2015, but my long-term loyalty will vanish when my miles are depleted, the ability to do same-day changes diminishes, or Buy With Miles no longer earns MQMs for premium travel.

    My plan for 2015 and beyond is to burn through the rest of my SkyMiles, elite status be damned. I’ll still fly Delta because of the service and the people, which I believe are superior. But I don’t understand how these changes benefit Delta if someone who’s been flying the airline almost exclusively for 30 years is developing an exit strategy. I have no doubt that Delta tracks patterns, especially among its top elites. Whether it will do anything to retain people whose patterns veer off course remains to be seen.

  39. I believe this is directly the result of industry consolidation. The alternatives to SkyMiles have gotten relatively worse compared with where they were a couple years ago so while there may be a short term arbitrage opportunity I suspect that UA and AA are looking at ways to mimic what Delta has done. UA’s award chart has already mostly caught up to DL’s stinginess.

    History has shown that 3 is a not a very competitive number of players in a market and that they tend to start acting like an oligopoly. I suspect that’s what we’re witnessing now for international travelers.

    WN already has a revenue-based program for earning and redemption so it’s not like that offers great alternative for consumers either.

  40. @Glenn – they didn’t destroy their award chart. They kinda sorta matched how other airlines handle extra availability awards. And they eliminated distance-based oneworld awards, which other North American carriers didn’t offer. Both changes are sad. Neither change is all that unexpected, in fact I’ve written posts saying to expect it. Already baked into the cake IMHO, though I’m not at all happy with the lack of notice.

  41. @easy victor – Delta miles are still worth less than competitor miles, you wouldn’t want to earn Skymiles over another currency for your credit card spend. It’s one thing to fly Delta because little else makes sense, and credit those miles to Delta because elite status matters, and thus wind up with a stash of Skymiles. It’s another thing entirely to give up other miles you could earn via credit card and choose to earn Skymiles for your spend instead.

  42. I agree that many of us are developing an exit strategy. I have a couple of million skymiles which I will burn while I am still a DM. That will be the end of me and Delta. Fortunately, I recently moved to Dallas so now have alternatives. Typical corporate greed, I bet someone will get a big bonus for this brainwave then leave before the effects are felt.

  43. Gary
    Do you want to rewrite this post?
    maybe Randy should close BoardingArea, now that all 3 have devalued so much?
    are we earning so much from the referrals that it does not matter how bad they get?

  44. Recently received a shock when the Diamond level system wide upgrades given me in February 2013 for 2 years expired in February 2014 leaving me with no upgrade certificates for 2014 despite flying 123,000 miles with Delta in 2013. Many contacts with the Diamond desk failed to convince Delta that upgrade certificates issued for two years should not expire in one year. Their answer was that as soon as I travel another $25,000 they would issue my 2015 certificates.

  45. If you fly internationally often or you don’t utilize credit cards to earn miles/status, Delta stinks. But if you mostly fly within the 48 states can spend enough on DL Amex Reserve to waive the spending requirement, get an MQM boost, earn 1.5 RDM/$, and hit Platinum or Diamond through whatever means, Delta can be darn good. The recent changes haven’t changed that for someone (like me) meeting the above profile.

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