Wow: Delta Eliminates Mileage-Earning On Its Cheapest Tickets

Delta devalued SkyMiles awards twice during the pandemic and now calls it a sale when they offer 350,000 and even 400,000 mile-plus business class roundtrips to Europe. They’ve also gutted international upgrades with top elites getting confirmed from coach to premium economy only and no longer business class.

The other shoe has dropped at the reverse end of the spectrum, mileage-earning on the cheapest fares. For new tickets purchased (as of December 9, 2021) and travel starting January 1, 2022, Delta’s basic economy fares will no longer earn miles or elite status credit. Period. In some sense this is the culmination of a 20 year quest by Delta to deny benefits to the cheapest fares, and frequent flyers successfully pushed back on Delta changes two decades ago.

Delta was the first airline to introduce basic economy, and they even force members redeeming their lowest-priced awards into basic economy restrictions much of the time – no advance seat assignments or upgrades.

American Airlines, after introducing upgrades and other elite benefits to basic economy fares, even starting counting them towards elite status again. So Delta is much worse than American here.

Neither American nor Delta goes the United/JetBlue route, however, of refusing to le customers on basic economy fares bring on a carry on bag (JetBlue doesn’t even let cobrand cardmembers bring one on when booking basic economy).

Delta will let basic economy passengers pay them more money for ticket changes, rather than make tickets entirely non-changeable and non-refundable:

  • Domestic and close-in international (Canada, Caribbean, Mexico and Central America): $99
  • U.S. to other markets: $199

Yes Delta employees are friendlier, and historically the airline has delivered better operational performance. But there are many dimensions along which they offer an inferior product and value proposition.

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. The airlines are only going to get more strict and offer less in 2022. My feeling is they think they are in the driver’s seat as demand is greater than supply. I think penalties for change will be coming soon.

  2. A year or a year and a half ago, when planes were mostly empty and there was no real inflight service, buying basic economy on Delta was a bargain since at the time the seats were also blocked. This was especially true for aircraft with a 2×2 configuration. But, Delta has went from the best US-flagged legacy airline pre-pandemic to vying with American for the worst. 80% of my tickets are paid first-class or paid business-class. Delta is serving $3-$4 wine when it used to serve $20-$25 bottles. Food is inedible. Pillows and blankets are gone. Gate agents regularly don’t process upgrade lists.

  3. All carriers, especially UA are only nice and seem to do “what customers want” during the pandemic. It is over, and the table has turned. Fasten your seatbell everyone as you all will experience “more changes”. Don’t believe me, you don’t have to, but time will tell.

  4. Frienflier, yes. But my last Delta flight felt eerily like the typical occasional dumpster fire on American.
    1) posted boarding home on a delay was obviously incorrect when I got up the gate. There were two flights boarding out of ygat gate before us.

    2)after that hour delay, another hour because the refueling truck ran out of gas.

    3) Wi-Fi broken on the plane.

    Delta club much better than Admirals club however.

  5. Prostitutes take money during the good times and leave you during the bad times.

    Delta takes your money when you fly paid business class during the good times and doesn’t want you to have any loyalty during the bad times when you buy basic economy fares.

    Hey Delta, basic economy fares aren’t that cheap.

  6. Do “frequent fliers” even buy basic economy tickets? Miles are essentially a rebate, so it’s not surprising when the tickets sold to the segment of customers who are most price sensitive does not include that rebate.

    Big meh.

  7. @ Justin — Exactly, when buying Delta tickets, I turn off the search for Basic Economy. I would never buy one of these tickets. Then again, the lowest fare class I would ever book is Main Cabin and then ONLY if the ticket is immediately upgradeable using certificates. Not sitting in coach unless it is an emergency…

  8. Apparently a few people in the comment section don’t realize that some Fortune 500 companies have “cheapest fare” restrictions on travel. It’s not just Maw and Paw Kettle deciding whether to fly Spirit or Delta to Disneyland.

    Huh, do I buy Alaska and get 100% RDM/EQM on this route or Delta and get bupkiss for the exact same fare?

  9. I’ve been working at F500s since before most of y’all’s balls dropped. They allow regular economy for the most part. I’ve never booked economy basic. If your company is established and yet requires basic economy you are getting shafted longer and harder than the “talent” on BLACKED.

  10. I can get no elite credit for BE tickets. I don’t really get no redeemable miles on BE. Doesn’t delta want average folks engaged?

  11. I’m not surprised that Delta removed mileage-earning from the cheapest fares. The public seems to have a never-ending quest for cheap, cheap, cheap and don’t seem to care about the actual product as long as they’re convinced they got the cheapest deal. What does concern me about genuine frequent flyers, who consider a flight up front an integral part of a pleasurable trip, is that our miles/points games might just be going down the tubes. Booking anything in first/biz is now horrendously expensive, whether cash or an award. If you have an airline credit of $1500 from a cancelled flight, the replacement flight is priced at $2,800. Europe is going for 300K+. Upscale hotels’ room rates are out of sight. I can only hope that I’m just depressed about the virus restrictions so thinking negatively … and things will swing back towards normal one of these days.

  12. The headline for this report should read ***IRONY ALERT***. Depriving flyers of worthless miles. Oh, the pain, the pain . . . .

  13. Some people here clearly have a chip on their shoulder…

    you never buy BE fares, @ Gene? I only buy BE. I don’t see any reason to pay Delta, or any other airline, even an extra $1 for getting to the same place, at the same time, in the same crappy seat, with no food. The only disadvantage of the BE fare is inability to pick the seats ahead of time. Big deal! My status w/DL gets me good seats 24 hrs before the flight.

  14. @huey “The public seems to have a never-ending quest for cheap, cheap, cheap and don’t seem to care about the actual product….”
    So tell me, what is the difference b/w the “actual” product for which you’re willing to pay, Economy, vs the Basic Economy, on Delta? And for what exactly do I want to pay extra $50-$60-$80, each way, by buying Economy ticket? Is my seat any bigger? Is my food better? Do I get better choices of drinks, entertainment, service? Nope. Nada. No.
    Don’t fool yourself, your miles ARE going down the tubes, whether you consider “…a flight up front an integral part of a pleasurable trip”, or not.

  15. @ Gennady — I think you missed my main point — I don’t fly in economy. There are far too many ways to get up front without paying full price. If I flew primarily in economy, I would agree that BE fares could be worth consideration in certain circumstances.

  16. I love how everyone is surprised. Or shocked. Or angered. Of course this is the next stage. Let’s face it, unless someone comes in with a giant fleet for an airline, and a wildly wonderful FF program, the end is near. Been saying this for the past few years. They hooked us all like the heroin addicts we are and then decided to become doctors that treat the addiction with some good old fashioned rehab of hard love.

    Delta is the future. We are witnessing the dystopian end to loyalty programs. The final scene will be thousands of elite travelers looking up at the upgrade list on the screen like sheep waiting for slaughter. And Gary will be outside the departure area wearing a tunic and holding a giant cardboard sign declaring, ‘The End is Near.”

  17. Among the US legacy major airlines, Delta leads in the frequent flyer program race to the bottom. Just another day in the day of Delta being Delta when it comes to the FFP members.

  18. Don’t forget the phrase “Sky Pesos” invented here. Increasingly worthless currency debased by intention. I moved Delta to the back of the pack long ago, and haven’t looked back.

  19. A couple points worth noting
    1. The Delta Skmiles program is the most valuable airline loyalty program in the world. Delta clearly understands how to give away just the right amount of free stuff
    2. Delta has lost less market share in its major markets and hubs during the pandemic to ultra low cost carriers, which is who the basic economy fares target than either American or United. Delta has been competitive w/ Spirits and Frontiers and believes they will still get those super price sensitive passengers but without Skymiles.

  20. @Tim Dunn –

    1. Actually the AAdvantage program is more valuable than SkyMiles, because there’s more spend on AAdvantage co-brands than SkyMiles co-brands (United is 3rd)

    2. Delta started using basic economy fares originally against ultra low cost carriers but that’s no longer how they primarily deploy these fares today.

  21. @gene – I probably did. For 27 yrs, I was the traveler like you, I rarely flew economy, my clients or my employers paid for me to sit upfront, domestic or international. This was, of course, in prehistoric times, when we had TA on-site, printing tickets used to get on the plane.
    Since I retired, I pay for my own tickets, and here I don’t see any reason to pay Delta above BE.

    Glad we straitened it out.

  22. Rank Program Airline Valuation (USD million)

    1 SkyMiles Delta Air Lines 25,931

    2 AAdvantage American Airlines 23,440

    3 MileagePlus United Airlines 20,172

    4 Rapid Rewards Southwest Airlines 8,013

    5 Miles and More Lufthansa Group 7,418

    6 Flying Blue Air France-KLM, Kenya Airways, Tarom 6,675

    7 Aeroplan Air Canada 6,331

    8 Avios International Airlines Group 5,138

    9 KrisFlyer Singapore Airlines Group 5,032

    10 Asia Miles Cathay Pacific 4,701

    when I can find multiple analyses on line that ALL show that Skymiles is the most valuable with differing rankings for the others, I am going w/ the consensus.
    Remember that U.S. airlines all opened the books for their loyalty programs in order to use them for loans; this isn’t a personal preference contest but based on a business-driven analysis

    Your second point doesn’t change that Delta does not see a need to incentivize sales of its most deeply discounted seats w/ loyalty program rewards. Given the endless drivel we hear from some airlines that some passengers only buy based on price, then FF program doesn’t matter any more than whether there is seatback audio or airlines charge for liquor in longhaul economy. Delta does give free liquor in longhaul economy and has seatback AVOD across its fleet but it sees no value in chasing with loyalty benefits those passengers that are willing to buy the lowest fares.

  23. Not an expert on this at all. I am thinking it might be better to have my Barclay’s card that I got many years ago – I am not promoting any specific bank and maybe there are similar ones like mine. I earn points on purchases, and later on I can reimburse myself for travel-related expenses. I am not locked into any airline, hotel, or car rental program. I am not forced to use a travel portal of a bank (I heard that the Expedia engine is behind many bank portals). I can just pay for any travel expense anywhere with the card and later apply my points to reimbuse myself for it. Does’t this model make more sense for the average person? Maybe I miss some perks like earlier boarding or a free checked bag, but at least I’m not a “captive” and subject to these periodic devaluations (Delta) and “dynamic” pricing where one day a flight costs 40k Skymiles and days later the same flight costs 65k Skymiles.
    I do have a Skymiles Amex card, but this latest news has more than convinced me to not use it and close it before I have to pay the next annual fee. Sad, because I would like to be a valued customer.

  24. Delta is just saying if you are the passenger that just wants price and is going to jump on a LCC for two dollars less, they can’t be concerned about SkyMiles. So we are not going to give them any SkyMiles, BUT, BUT you will get IFE, drinks, and snacks. American can’t even supply the IFE.

  25. @Tim Dunn – there’s 10% more spend on AA cards than DL cards. there’s more value in aadvantage *today* even if analysts are betting on a brighter future for delta.

  26. Gary,
    you are arguing with the BUSINESS experts that value companies on a regular basis.
    They, not me, have decided that Delta operates the most valuable loyalty program.
    You do realize that Delta’s market cap as a company is over 2X more than American’s and yet Southwest’s market cap is higher than both (and United’s) even though Southwest doesn’t generate near as much revenue as any of the big 3.
    There are factors that go into business valuation that you either don’t understand or ignore

    You might check out the loyalty plan disclosures for each of the big 3.

  27. @Stuart

    I think you are totally correct. The days of earning thousands of miles for a trip are over. Just as first class is ending. The top class on almost airlines will be business. Premium economy will take over as the upgrade to chase because unless you want to pay for J, it will be almost impossible for lower level flyers to ever have enough miles to get J awards. System wide upgrade instruments won’t work for getting J either. This was always the plan! The bloggers don’t want to admit that but this is what is happening. Plain and simple!

  28. @Tim Dunn – I have written extensively on this, debated it at industry conferences, and was one of the first to be writing years ago about how much programs were worth versus the underlying airline. I have consulted regularly on valuations for hedge funds and other investment firms. I am familiar with the issues here.

  29. @Gary
    when you cite the value of card spend as significant to why YOU think that the AAdvantage program is worth more than Skymiles, then you don’t understand all that is involved in company valuations.
    I enjoy your blog but you are often accused of trying to be an expert on subjects that are outside of your wheelhouse or in areas where others set the standards. Arguing against what everyone else sees doesn’t make you smarter.

    When you explain why LUV is the highest market cap airline even though it doesn’t and has never generated as much revenue as the big 3, then you might understand why the factor you cited is only a small part of valuation.

    psst. a big part of the reason Skymiles is so much more valuable than any other plan is because of the much more valuable revenue that Delta gets from Amex which neither American or United are anywhere close to duplicating. If you are the expert that you say you are, you should know that.

    Just like the passenger revenue premium that Delta gets, the real question should be why other credit cards won’t or can’t duplicate the terms between Amex and Delta.

  30. @Tim Dunn – I’m very familiar with Delta’s Amex deal. American’s deal with Citi and Barclays – 5 years old – isn’t as good as the recent Amex re-up. United’s deal didn’t match American’s, which is why Scott Kirby (who came to United from American) figured out how to leverage Chase into an early renewal for more money. By the way I was the only one that identified how Kirby did that I know more about these deals than most, have you ever actually read an airline-bank cobrand contract?

    In any case marginal differences in valuation across loyalty programs doesn’t mean Delta walks on water. On the contrary, SkyMiles benefits from the Delta brand not the other way around. And from limited competition in key markets from Atlanta to the Upper Midwest. They’re the only ones that have been consistently able to devalue their miles without material impact to the loyalty program’s bottome line as a result. (United’s devaluations hurt cobrand usage each time, and before their re-up with Chase right before the pandemic the growth in MileagePlus revenue was accounted for entirely by Ultimate Rewards transfers).

    You’ve got to model what future revenue looks like to value the program – and many of the models are overly optimistic about member growth, card conversion, and margins that stem from interchange. You’ve got to have a bet on competition from fintechs that may compete down interchange as well as regulatory and other risks. Projected revenue growth – not just today’s revenue – is crucial and frequently in all likelihood overestimated.

  31. @Gary,
    thank you for getting to the core issues.
    Delta doesn’t walk on water but it has consistently generated the most passenger revenue per seat mile, has the most captive hubs, but also became the largest airline by passengers carried in NYC, and also overtook AA as the largest airline by revenue in LAX according to the latest public data from the DOT. They remain in a strong position in SEA with about 70% of local market revenue compared to AS. They are also set to gain revenue parity on a regular basis with B6 in BOS, something they did briefly pre-covid. Delta not only has strong core hubs which it dominates but also has a strong and growing position in top, highly competitive positions on both coasts. Neither AA or UA is doing the same thing. AA’s attempts to dethrone WN in AUS isn’t even close to being on the same scale, esp. as it loses share in major markets such as LAX, PHL and MIA. United’s market share in its top markets has been falling since the pandemic started and will continue esp. with UA’s growth.

    Yes, the value of an FFP follows the strength of an airline’s network but also recognizes the revenue growth of both the FFPs and the airline. Throughout the pandemic, Delta has been carrying a higher percentage of business traffic than any other airline. Being reliable and blocking seats for the first year of the pandemic mattered to business people.

    At the end of the day, the rankings still show that Skymiles is the most valuable FFP in the world. We can all like or dislike facts but we don’t get to restate them w/o showing all of the components that business analysts used to rank every one of the FFPs. Their work, not yours, is what stands.

    And the value of Skymiles is very much tied to the discussion about mileage earning on economy basic tickets. Delta clearly wants to be competitive w/ ULCCs and those that seek ULCC-type fares but it isn’t willing to offer them mileage on tickets that are not inline with the premium revenue Delta wants to carry.

    I get that the majority of your readers as well as those of other consumer airline industry blogs are end-stage consumers and want the most they can get but airlines are far-profit businesses that should give away only as much as they have to in order to maximize their profits.
    If Delta’s decision to cut off EB tickets from SM credit doesn’t work, there will be alarms going off in Atlanta. But I strongly bet they know full well that as travel recovers, they are happy to cut off some of the deeply discounted leisure passengers that are starting to accrue status and replace them w/ higher paying passengers that are loyal for more than just the lowest fares.

    Time will tell who was right, and more importantly in a very competitive industry, if other carriers follow DL.

  32. @Tim Dunn – Delta is the stronger airline than American. Absolutely. Before the pandemic, in more quarters than not, American was losing money flying planes – CASM > RASM and indeed greater than RASM + cargo revenue. Their profits were driven by selling miles to banks.

    Delta has a better operation. They have a better brand. But pretty much all the upside is already baked in.

    Even with Delta’s stronger brand and airline AAdvantage co-brand charge volume exceeds Delta co-brand charge volume, and there’s likely greater upside on the AAdvantage co-brand. That’s because, as you point out, American hasn’t been competitive in New York. They also haven’t been competitive in the Bay Area or Pacific Northwest. Their JetBlue and Alaska partnerships help with that a lot. Indeed those have been driving program growth.

    I believe that program valuations are generally overstated. I explain some of the reasons here, recapping a debate at an industry co-brand conference between me and Joe DeNardi when Joe was covering airlines for Stifel

  33. @Gary,
    thanks for referencing the article with which I largely agree with you.
    The only major disagreement is w/ the notion that the best way to acquire new FFP members is to annoy an entire planeload of people, most of which SHOULD ALREADY be in your program.
    Kirby is right that a larger airline will attract a larger card portfolio.
    The difference is that Delta has spent the last ten years transitioning from a volume focused airline to one focused on the best revenue, even as they have managed to grow into other carriers’ strength markets better than any other airline… which ultimately is why Skymiles is the largest based on actual analysis of the entire plan on an apples to apples basis. American is still focused on volume and trying to compete with low cost carriers which is a failing strategy for the US airline with the highest unit costs in the industry – and which will stay that way until AA fixes its labor inefficiencies.
    Delta is in the rare position of being better able to pick and choose the customers it wants which is a very different position than just comparing aggregate card spend.

    And yes US FFPs are overvalued but so are a whole lot of other companies including TSLA and a whole lot of tech stocks.

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