There’s been some shade thrown at Delta SkyMiles over the past few years and I am finally ready to respond in defense of SkyMiles. I realize there have been a number of changes to the program that could be perceived as negative to some customers, but SkyMiles is not alone in making these changes. The entire industry is changing and I will argue in this post that, in light of the industry changes, SkyMiles still provides significant value to consumers.
Award inventory has always been an interesting topic. The struggle to find award seats can be a challenge. Part of this is due to the circular loop that flights with more paid demand also tend to be the flights where people would like to use their miles for an award (i.e., peak demand periods, peak leisure destinations, etc.). The fact of the matter is there were cases in the past with US airlines and cases today with some airlines in parts of the world where there is only one level of award and if there is no inventory, then there is no way to use miles for that itinerary. At least the standard awards, or higher-level awards, provide an outlet to still use miles for a particular itinerary even if it is at a higher mileage amount. This provides more choice for consumers, and the most recent award charts that were published have suggested that Delta SkyMiles actually has segmented award pricing into 5 levels, much better than only having 2 redemption levels.
Elite flyers in the past that have been comfortable getting complimentary elite upgrades to domestic first class have watched in shock as first class paid load factors increase due to a rationalization of the pricing of the domestic first class cabin within the US, which ultimately leads to fewer complimentary upgrades. This rationalization made economic sense as the domestic first class cabin could be viewed as a reasonable buy-up from the economy fare for those that value at or above the buy-up value what domestic first class offers.
For the frustrated elite flyer who flies on company business and is required to only expense an economy fare, if domestic first class is really that important then pay the buy-up value from personal funds. However, the elite traveler will say that long-term loyalty should matter more than a one-time buy-up. My response to that is that it seems to me many elites are still sitting in domestic first class based on my observations of the luggage tags on nearly everyone’s bag, so I’m guessing quite a few of them paid for it. I have no concrete data for this just my personal observation on flights, but perhaps some elites actually like having the opportunity to buy it in advance, even out of their own pocket, rather than face the stress of the upgrade list and waiting at the gate for their name to be called. I myself sometimes purchase these discounted first class fares dependent on the fare differential and distance/time. I also get more MQDs, MQMs, and RDMs when I buy these fares.
As these changes have propagated over the past few years, articles, blog posts and popular bulletin boards have had their share of enraged elite flyers who claim that they are done and are leaving to fly with another airline. Is this a rational response? Some business travelers may not be able to switch due to corporate travel policies. Others might be able to switch, but quite a few airlines have started to make similar program changes. Are regular, frequent travelers going to potentially spend more time and effort for their travel? There might be some opportunities to credit Delta flights to other SkyTeam frequent flyer programs to earn more miles, but I believe the opportunities are limited if purchasing discounted economy class fares.
Delta offers a very strong global network with a frequent schedule and a vast array of flight choices, especially if one lives in one of their hubs, with a top focus on providing safe and reliable transportation. The SkyMiles program has evolved and will continue to evolve, just as the industry and other loyalty programs are changing. Ultimately, the program still offers significant value to customers and some of the changes have actually increased customer choice and provided more economic efficiencies.