Airlines are Freeing Up More Reward Seats? Give Me a Break

irlines are freeing up more reward seats on which passengers may use their frequent flier loyalty program miles, according to the overall reward availability results for 2015 of the annual Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey, which was released from IdeaWorksCompany.

That may initially sound like great news; but when it comes to certain airlines, I say give me a break.

Let us take a look at both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — of which their frequent flier loyalty programs have recently switched from being based on distance to being based on revenue. Unless you happen to spend enough money on airline tickets — which is of course what the airlines want; and understandably so, as they are in business to profit — the majority of frequent fliers have to either spend more money, use credit cards more, or fly more often in order to earn the amount of miles they used to earn.

As per the chart shown below, members of the SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program can earn anywhere from five to as many as thirteen SkyMiles per United States dollar paid for the base airfare and surcharges imposed by the airline, depending on your Medallion elite status level:

SkyMiles Program Medallion Elite Status Level
SkyMiles Per United States Dollar Earned
SkyMiles Earned Per Dollar With Credit Card on Delta Spend
Total SkyMiles Per United States Dollar Earned
General Five SkyMiles Plus Two SkyMiles
Seven SkyMiles
Silver Seven SkyMiles Plus Two SkyMiles Nine SkyMiles
Gold Eight SkyMiles Plus Two SkyMiles
Ten SkyMiles
Platinum Nine SkyMiles Plus Two SkyMiles Eleven SkyMiles
Diamond Eleven SkyMiles Plus Two SkyMiles
Thirteen SkyMiles

Using a flight operated by Delta Air Lines between New York and Los Angeles on an upcoming random date in September as an example, you would have earned a total of 4,936 SkyMiles for the round-trip itinerary in 2013 because your earnings of SkyMiles were based on distance traveled — regardless of whether or not you earned Medallion elite level status. Not counting any bonuses, it was the flat rate earned by all members of the SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program for that round-trip itinerary.

Source: Delta Air Lines.

Source: Delta Air Lines.

The cost of the flight I randomly chose is $386.20; but you can only earn SkyMiles on the base airfare and not on the $53.18 in taxes, fees and charges, meaning that you will only earn SkyMiles based on $333.02.

These would be your earnings today, depending on your Medallion elite level status:

  • 1,665 SkyMiles General member — a loss of 3,271 SkyMiles, or only 33.73 percent of what you would have earned based on distance flown
  • 2,331 SkyMiles Silver Medallion member — a loss of 2,605 SkyMiles, or 47.22 percent of what you would have earned based on distance flown
  • 2,664 SkyMiles Gold Medallion member — a loss of 2,272 SkyMiles, or 53.97 percent of what you would have earned based on distance flown
  • 2,997 SkyMiles Platinum Medallion member — a loss of 1,939 SkyMiles, or 60.72 percent of what you would have earned based on distance flown
  • 3,663 SkyMiles Diamond Medallion member — a loss of 1,273 SkyMiles, or 74.21 percent of what you would have earned based on distance flown

 

I am not counting earnings using a credit card affiliated with the SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program with earnings currently based on revenue; nor am I counting up to 125 percent bonus SkyMiles which used to be awarded based on which Medallion elite level status you earned when earning SkyMiles used to be based on distance traveled…

…and the above example is based on only one random round-trip itinerary. Although there are exceptions — as well as frequent fliers who actually do better with the current SkyMiles program primarily because they spend more money on airfares — chances are that those figures multiply over the course of a year.

Ten round-trip itineraries between New York and Los Angeles could add up to a loss of as much as 32,709 SkyMiles earned, according to the figures shown above…

Source: Delta Air Lines.

Source: Delta Air Lines.

…which is greater than the 25,000 SkyMiles it would cost to take those exact same flights.

Remember that United Airlines basically mimicked the changes implemented for the SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program to the MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program…

…which means that — for the majority of members of both of those frequent flier loyalty programs — the loss of redeemable miles earned translates to fewer miles to be redeemed; which would therefore theoretically translate to more seats available for awards…

…and when miles are actually redeemed for award travel, it will typically take longer to replenish them than it did in the past in frequent flier loyalty programs whose earnings for redeemable miles are based on dollars spent by members.

Of course, those conclusions are not based on absolute reasoning, as other factors weigh in as well — capacity changes and affiliate credit card spend as two of many examples — plus, airlines which still offer frequent flier loyalty programs based on distance flown have also opened up more seats to be used for award travel, as shown in the chart below:

Source: IdeaWorksCompany. Click on the chart for a larger version.

Source: IdeaWorksCompany. Click on the chart for the actual source document.

Still, the idea of increasing availability of award seats is of little comfort to many of those members of frequent flier loyalty programs where earning redeemable miles is based on spend and not distance flown — and devaluations and other negative impacts foisted upon frequent flier loyalty programs over recent years have not even been factored into this article…

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

5 thoughts on “Airlines are Freeing Up More Reward Seats? Give Me a Break”

  1. Christian says:

    Another consideration is saver availability. If Delta, which already has pretty bad availability, provides primarily 100k availability in coach to Europe, then they can crow about “more seats available”, while making the award prohibitively expensive.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      That is indeed a consideration, Christian

      …and if you look at one of the screen shots in the article, you will see that the award price between New York and Los Angeles is still 25,000 SkyMiles plus a nominal fee of $11.20 — although that fee used to be approximately half that price; but that was because of the United States government and not Delta Air Lines.

      I personally have found domestic award tickets for 25,000 SkyMiles remain plentiful on some routes; but the international award tickets seem to be more costly when using SkyMiles…

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