Delta Air Lines airplanes on runway and tarmac in Seattle
Photograph ©2013 by Brian Cohen.

No More Free Travel Using SkyMiles From Delta Air Lines in the Future?

“‘We want people to be able to use those miles not to fly for free but to control your experience,’ says Glen Hauenstein, Delta’s incoming president and architect of the airline’s revenue plans. To do this, Delta plans to adjust the pricing of seats at the front of the plane so more are sold. While Delta currently sells just 57 percent of its first- and business-class cabins, the company said in December that it will boost the figure to 70 percent by 2018.”

The paragraph quoted above is from this article written by Justin Bachman of Bloomberg Business pertaining to the indication that Delta Air Lines — which is currently the second-largest carrier in the world — wants to end the mindset of using its SkyMiles for free flights and free upgrades; and get people to treat those SkyMiles as a form of currency.

I never viewed frequent flier loyalty program miles of any kind as a currency. That is one of the reasons why I use credit cards which allow me to earn a percentage of cash back instead of frequent travel loyalty program miles and points, which are typically subject to a number of rules and regulations which can potentially severely restrict how they are used — despite the bonuses on which I miss out pertaining to credit cards affiliated with frequent travel loyalty programs. I have significantly more options with cash — though I digress as usual.

The use of SkyMiles to “control your experience” is already happening. Consider the redemption of SkyMiles for the purchase of certain alcoholic beverages in Sky Club airport lounges, for example, where 100 SkyMiles is worth one dollar — or one penny per SkyMile.

“But this is the beginning of the end for the era of the free ride.” Actually, Justin Bachman — the free ride ended years ago when fees and taxes were added to the “cost” of award tickets. The introduction of fuel surcharges — correction: carrier-imposed fees where the cost of an award itinerary originating from a country can often rival that of a revenue ticket with the added bonus of wasting away your SkyMiles if that itinerary were possible due to limited availability — years ago further spelled the end of the “era of the free ride.”

Already, the fear and dread is already spreading throughout the world of miles and points. For example, Adam of Point Me To The Plane called the aforementioned article a “scary read” — but is it really?

No More Free Travel Using SkyMiles From Delta Air Lines in the Future?

If you have been following The Gate regularly, you saw this coming.

First, there was the news that the amount of SkyMiles you earned would be based on the amount of money you spent and not on how many miles you flew as a passenger on qualifying flights — and as much as I vehemently did not like or want that change, it was a sensible business decision. I do not believe that the model of the frequent flier loyalty program based on revenue has yet proven itself to be a successful one; but the advent of airlines reporting consecutive quarters of record revenues and profits certainly has not hurt in the least.

Next, there was the mysterious disappearance of the official award charts — followed by the implementation of dynamic pricing for SkyMiles award tickets, which are designed to keep you guessing while the revenue increases for Delta Air Lines.

Then I was told by no fewer than two employees of Delta Air Lines — think high-ranking representatives — prior to the start of the 2015 Freddie Awards ceremony at the Delta Flight Museum in Atlanta almost a year ago that if Delta Air Lines did win an award, then they were not doing their job correctly.

The SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program of Delta Air Lines did not win a single Freddie Award in 2015 — it was never even mentioned as a runner-up in any category — and employees were just fine with that. What really matters are such financial “awards” as revenue, cash flow and profit — and you can take that to the bank, which Delta Air Lines is literally doing almost nine years after the airline formally emerged from bankruptcy protection.

In the midst of all of that were what seemed to be a countless number of perceived devaluations to the SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program.

What Was Old is New Again?

Over time, the goal for Delta Air Lines is to narrow the gap between the price of tickets for seats in the premium class and economy class cabins to be just enticing enough to convince more travelers to spend their money for an upgraded experience — and Delta Air Lines has been experimenting with doing just that with a practice known as first-class monetization, as the first class cabin on domestic flights was historically a “loss leader” because most of its seats on domestic flights within the United States were assigned at the gate as free upgrades to frequent fliers instead of being sold with no real compensation to Delta Air Lines.

Then again, there was a point where a seat in the first class cabin on a domestic flight was not much of an upgrade over a seat in the economy class cabin, with few amenities to justify the significant extra cost. It is also important to note that the use of the term historically refers to the years since the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 was voted to become a law by members of the 95th Congress of the United States. Those advertisements of airlines displaying photographs of chateaubriand freshly carved by your seat by a member of the flight crew — a stewardess, as she was known back then — and served to you gave a glimpse of what premium travel was like prior to 1978.

The traditional airline upgrade system amounts to “winning a prize” and leaves many customers displeased, Hauenstein reportedly said in the aforementioned article. “We were really making nobody happy except the person who won the lottery at the gate.” He also said that “the changes have improved customer satisfaction scores among the top tiers of elite SkyMiles members.”

This is really not a new concept, as Delta Air Lines had a similar — albeit more generous — policy years ago.

I spoke with a person who used to be a frequent flier of Delta Air Lines — in the days when the top tier of elite level status was called Royal Medallion prior to the change in name of the frequent flier loyalty program to SkyMiles — and she told me of the days where she would pay to upgrade to the premium class cabin. “It cost a minimum of $15.00 on most domestic flights and $30.00 on some flights to fly first class — regardless of the cost of the flight itself,” she said. “It was great. I upgraded every time.”

A return to upgrading to the premium class cabin on domestic flights within the United States for only $15.00 would be delusional at best; but the concept itself is not new.

“Free” Flights Versus Monetization

While I am not exactly happy and jumping up and down for joy, I am not so sure this is all bad news. Hear me out on this one…

…people have been conditioned for years about earning frequent flier loyalty program miles to save up for “free” flights. There was indeed once upon a time where you did not have to pay a single penny for an award ticket — not even for taxes and fees. Unless you were earning miles on flights on which you would have already been a passenger anyway — which was the intended design of the original model of the frequent flier loyalty program — that did not mean that the flight was free. There were often opportunity costs involved — in the form of mileage runs and other activities in which people would otherwise not have engaged in order to earn enough miles for award flights and elite level status. That consumed time, effort — and, of course, money — and there were critics who mocked and ridiculed those people who embarked on those activities simply to earn enough miles and points for travel; as well as to retain elite level status for the next year.

Yes, there are times where it was all well worth it — even though I have never undertaken a pure mileage run, I have benefited handsomely from frequent travel loyalty programs — but to me, the concept of simply paying a nominal amount for a flight or upgrade versus going through all the trouble of earning enough miles for that “free” flight is analogous to taking connecting flights all over the world instead of just taking a nonstop flight to your final destination.

One person to whom I spoke while I was in Tampa last year — who has been a frequent flier for many years — told me that he enjoys the service and operations offered by Delta Air Lines so much that he really did not care what was done to the SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program. These days, he is primarily a leisure traveler; and he is more than happy and willing to pay extra for flights operated by Delta Air Lines.

There is one potential downside; and that is the advent of a premium economy class, which could act as a barrier of sorts between the traditional economy class cabin and the bonafide premium class cabin. As a result, airlines are returning to what may eventually be airplanes with three classes of seats — although those classes of service may seem diluted in some ways as compared to their ancestors of yore when there was a first class cabin; a business class cabin; and an economy class cabin.

Ideally, one goal to be achieved by Delta Air Lines by the year 2018 is to increase the sale of its Comfort Plus seats from currently 36 percent to approximately 50 percent — which will most likely mean fewer complimentary upgrades to that section of the aircraft while simultaneously offering a new option for passengers to upgrade should they not be able to upgrade into the first class cabin or business class cabin.

Still, I must admit that I cannot recall the last time I redeemed frequent flier loyalty program miles to pay for a trip, as it has been several years. That is because I have been able to travel at price points low enough in recent years that the redemption of miles would not have been worth it to me. I am getting to the point where I would rather not deal with them anymore, as illustrated by two ongoing issues which I hope to have resolved in the near future; and I intend to give details pertaining to those issues in future articles.


I do not necessarily believe that you will eventually no longer be able to redeem SkyMiles for the misnomer of “free” travel in the future; but I do believe that being able to do so will continue to be increasingly difficult.

Nothing is ever absolutely 100 percent beneficial or adverse; but at the risk of taking a different point of view and being overly optimistic, I personally see a potential benefit to being able to spend a reasonable — or, dare I say, at times a minimal — amount of money to be able to enjoy upgraded travel while airlines simultaneously attempt to earn profits on a consistent basis; and if that is indeed the case, this could potentially be a win-win solution for Delta Air Lines and its customers.

Photograph ©2013 by Brian Cohen.

    1. …switch to which airline, Ensor? Southwest Airlines? Alaska Airlines? Frontier Airlines? Spirit Airlines?

      There are many people who believe that United Airlines and American Airlines would follow the lead of Delta Air Lines — especially if they are successful — with the further “enhancing” of their respective frequent flier loyalty programs.

  1. American Express might have a problem with Delta… Its credit card business pretty much depends on consumers believing that they can earn free flights by spending big on mileage credit cards.

    1. That is arguably the main reason why the entire SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program has not been decimated even more significantly than it is now, Al — and yes, those American Express cards are still being marketed with what is becoming more and more the farce of earning free flights by using that card.

      You have an excellent point. Thank you.

  2. This article is overly generous to Delta in particular, and makes many assumptions about what is actually important to consumers. Consumers do still remain “loyal” to airlines to build up points for free flights. Whether the author wants to believe this or not, it’s actually happening and still very important. Also, mention should be made to airline consolidation and anti competitive behavior that reduces service and quality for the consumer. 80% of USA flights are now with 4 airlines, and it used to be 10 airlines. This is how Delta can get away with forcing negative change on consumers, and charging $300 to fly with a bicycle just because it is a bicycle and doesn’t weigh any more or take up any more volume than most suitcases. It’s policies like this and the anti competitive behavior that show how airlines are corrupt and highly opportunistic. I don’t have much empathy for them when it comes to increasing their profits when they bully the consumer public like this.

    1. I like when criticism of what I write is well reasoned and has a lot of thought put into it, David Gabrys — and that is exactly what you did.

      I do not disagree with much of what you wrote, actually; but I believe that there is usually a positive aspect to what can be perceived as something negative overall — and I chose to write this article from that point of view.

      Anti-competitive behavior by companies usually eventually encourages disruptive technologies and other potential competition from those who see opportunities and are willing to take risks. That may not be happening now; but I have also been writing articles from that point of view — and I believe that that will happen someday despite the difficulty of entry into the market of the global transportation industry.

      Remaining “loyal” to airlines to “build up points for ‘free’ flights” is still happening and may indeed be very important; but with the “anti-competitive behavior that reduces service and quality for the consumer”, that mindset needs to change, in my opinion — and has needed to start changing quite some time ago. More people are becoming “free agents” and either reducing or eliminating their loyalty to an airline altogether, basing their decisions on price or service or convenience instead of miles, points, or elite level status; and this article has those people in mind. Things are not going to get much better — at least in the foreseeable future — for the frequent flier in terms of the state of loyalty programs, in my opinion.

      Thank you for offering your point of view, David Gabrys.

  3. “I must admit that I cannot recall the last time I redeemed frequent flier loyalty program miles to pay for a trip, as it has been several years.” – While the Delta changes might make sense for you individually, you have to see that such changes are devastating to the majority of your readers who redeem miles for flights. I think this article is an indication that you’re straying away from what brings people to your blog in the first place and instead writing about you’re personal wants and needs.

    1. I never said that the changes Delta Air Lines is currently implementing makes sense to me, Jordan — nor do I understand where you get the idea that “this article is an indication that” I am “straying away from what brings people to” my “blog in the first place and instead writing about” my “personal wants and needs.”

      In fact, I wrote about what Delta Air Lines wants to do that “I am not exactly happy and jumping up and down for joy” — meaning that like many readers of The Gate, I prefer the way frequent flier loyalty programs used to be years ago as opposed to what they are today and what they eventually will become.

      However, remaining with the mindset of wanting free flights and generous upgrades is an unrealistic point of view; and I am simply trying to help readers look at at least one potentially positive aspect of what is otherwise the perception of the outright destruction of what was once a good frequent flier loyalty program.

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