Why I love Delta’s new loyalty program – and why you’ll probably hate it


Loyalty programs may be the single greatest scam pulled on the traveling public.

Want to segment customers into castes of “haves” and “have-nots”? Create legions of blindly brand-loyal passengers? Lift your profits to avaricious new heights?

Nothing does it like a clever frequent flier program.

Yet, as a consumer advocate, not a day goes by that I don’t receive a despondent email from a platinum cardmember who spent every travel dollar with a company, only to come up empty-handed, betrayed by a program’s vague promises.

Who wouldn’t be fatigued after hearing from thousands of unhappy passengers whose miles expired or were denied “elite” status or were banished to the back of the plane on a Transpacific flight? Who wouldn’t be furious at the travel companies whose adhesion contracts allow them to pull this barely legal bait-and-switch?

And that is why I love Delta Air Lines’ new loyalty program.

The nation’s number-three air carrier recently announced it would restructure its SkyMiles program in 2015 so that award travel would be earned based on ticket price instead of the number of miles flown. It’s the first legacy carrier to tie points earned directly to how much you’ve paid, and in doing so it’s incurred the wrath of many customers. But for the first time in decades, the cold reality of the SkyMiles program will send many of us into mileage-collecting rehab, where we can be weaned from our frequent flier addiction and finally make a more informed and rational booking decision.

It’s about time.

Let me be clear: SkyMiles remains patently unfair to most air travelers. According to its terms, Delta can change its program rules at any time without notice, confiscate your miles, or terminate your membership whenever it wants to. Don’t believe me? Read the fine print for yourself. Few air travelers actually do.

Delta, no doubt, is licking its chops at all the extra money you’re about to fork over in exchange for the possibility that you’ll be treated with just a little dignity on its flights. Studies suggest loyalty program members spend roughly 40 percent more than non-members. I suppose the hundreds of millions of dollars Delta earned from its loyalty program last year — $675 million alone from the sale of SkyMiles to American Express — just wasn’t enough.

Delta apparently believes it can move the goalposts on its program again, and get away with it. Granted, the experience in the back of the plane is beyond awful today, from seats squeezed closer together to “you-get-what-you-pay-for” attitude from the flight attendants. I can’t blame anyone for playing the points game and trying to score an upgrade to an Economy “Comfort” seat, which has roughly the same amount of legroom as a pre-deregulation coach class seat, and at the same time, in an unintentional moment of honesty, admits the other seats in steerage class are uncomfortable (which they are).

But something tells me a lot of Delta’s passengers aren’t going to fall for it this time.

As America’s number-one critic of travel industry loyalty programs, I’m truly grateful to Delta. The days of casual mileage collecting could disappear after 2015, at least if you’re a Delta frequent flier. The new SkyMiles effectively clamps down on many of the mileage-earning shenanigans, such as earning “free” flights by collecting the sides of pudding boxes or U.S. Mint coins. It could also curtail mileage runs, the foolish act of spending your employer’s money to fly nowhere at the end of the year, just in order to become a preferred customer and have access to scarce space-available upgrades. Also, and perhaps most importantly, it ensures the biggest spenders get the best perks — not the fanboys who learned to hack the system.

Maybe, just maybe, more customers will make a rational decision about their next flight itinerary, not one distorted by a pathological obsession with miles, but based on ticket price and convenience. A veil is slowly being lifted from the traveling public and, at last, they’re seeing loyalty programs for what they really are: as habit-forming schemes that impair your ability to make a clear-headed decision about travel and that almost always benefit the travel company more than you.

Programs like SkyMiles have deceived an entire generation of air travelers, and in its attempt to squeeze even more money from us, Delta has inadvertently confessed the truth about how companies feel about loyalty. It doesn’t matter how much you fly, but how much you spend.

And oh, by the way, the loyalty goes only one way. As a bonus, the airline has angered a small army of program apologists who lurked on blogs and message boards, quietly reaping six-figure referral fees by endorsing the loyalty lifestyle from their electronic perches. These unpaid airline employees once eagerly defended and rationalized even Delta’s most customer-hostile policies, but now they, too, see the folly of their misplaced allegiance.

Welcome to the club, guys.

So thank you, Delta. And here’s hoping American Airlines and United Airlines follow you down this flight path soon. You’ve done your best customers — the 99 percent who fill the economy class seats on every flight — a real favor.

  • BobChi

    I’m being scammed all the way to Scandinavia later this month, then to Australia and the South Pacific in July. Keep reading Elliott if you want to whine a lot and stay ignorant about the opportunities available. There are plenty of blogs (the ones Elliott disparages, of course) that will teach you how to take great trips to great places.

    Delta has long had the worst loyalty program of the major airlines, so the fact they devalued it further is no surprise and for many no big deal. It is possible to be a thinking consumer. Of course I fly based on price and schedule, not on loyalty program. But I’m also smart enough to collect the miles and see Norway and Fiji.

  • RomeoDriver

    I guess I’ve missed the point here, is it so incredibly crass as “Hey, I spend the big bucks so this is all great for me and tough luck for the rest of you because I’m tired of sharing perks with the “undeserving.” I will never again have to look at anyone in first class who truly can’t afford to be here.” And it will make other bloggers hate Delta more, but that’s better for me.

    Wow. Really? Wow. I had no idea you were so superior to the rest of the world.
    My bad.

  • charlieo

    United is doing the same thing, basing FF points on amount of money spent. I’ve been both a United and Continental EFF for more than 25 years. I’ve been treated like a values customer – — – in the past, many, many years ago. And, since this merger the only benefit I have is 1 bag free (on national flights) and boarding after the top tiers and before the carriage carrying crowd. The other day I was on hold with United and the message I kept hearing over and over was all about the improvements in Business and the increase in Premium seating (so more foolish people will pay above the price already paid). No more, I’m free – I feel like a fool, being loyal to a company who doesn’t care about customer loyalty. I’ve just booked a flight to Paris for the fall and paid $436 less than the least expensive United fare – – -

  • Marlin

    In the last two years I have discovered the benefit of credit card sign up bonuses. Used to be loyal Delta flyer and could hardly ever use my miles. I have now discovered how easy it is to use miles with other airlines, esp. Southwest.
    The thing I don’t I get about the whole “revenue” thing, why am I punished for getting the best deal on my flight? I may fly the same route as someone who paid more, but I still got to the same place.

  • Ron

    Freguent flier points have gradually become devalued and when you do have enough for a good flight, you find that there are no seats available. Choose the best route/airline for your trip and forget the “loyalty” gimmic. Take those credit card points, and buy something of value. Forget about using them for an airline ticket.

  • dcta

    I’m just tired of seeing words like “unfair” or phrases like “class warfare” in discussing things like air fares and loyalty programs. Its just too much like a political demagogue. Let us face facts here – there is nothing wrong with working hard, being smart and making money and then using it. Is it “unfair” that some people buy a ticket to a Broadway musical up in the highest tier and on the side rather than purchase the orchestra or box seats? Why is it “unfair” that that the actual vendor might change the rules on a loyalty program when you have not been forced into joining/participating in that program?

    Look, I’ve made decisions in my life that have got me to where I am: I have suffered the consequences of those decision and I have reaped the rewards. It’s all up to me. These arguments just seem like whining.

  • Whidbey Ferguson

    I must agree. It seems to me that people have the choice of flying, not flying, using rewards, not using rewards, paying more, not paying more, sitting in business/first class, sucking it up and squeezing into coach, etc. If people thought this system was so unfair, they’d speak with their wallets. So far, they’re telling the airlines that everything is A-OK.