Another spin on the frequent flyer merry-go-round

A Delta 757-200 in St Maarten (Matt Hintsa / Flickr)

A Delta 757-200 in St Maarten (Matt Hintsa / Flickr)

Have you watched the brouhaha unfold in the wake of Delta’s announcement this week that it’s switching to a revenue-based frequent flyer program next year? Worried that United might have the same plan in mind?

I’ve watched Delta make “historic” or “major” changes to its SkyMiles program since long before it was called SkyMiles. It’s funny how the same scenario plays out time after time when Delta (or any other major airline) makes changes to loyalty programs.

Here’s the playbook:

For months, or even years, Delta tempts us with leaks and rumors about “upcoming changes” which keep its best customers on pins and needles, and an army of pundits pondering.

When it comes time to announce the change, Delta shares the news exclusively and under strict embargo with a handful of its friends in major media outlets. Those media typically don’t trash the changes, but only report on them.

For editorializing, Delta’s media friends go to a handful of pundits who come out either for or against the changes.  Many times these pundits or consultants are also in on the embargo, which makes you wonder who is buttering their bread?

Then, boom! At the anointed hour the embargo is lifted, the pre-arranged stories hit the web, TV or newspapers and hysteria mounts! Reactions to these stories in blogs and social media run along the lines of… “Oh my GAWD! Delta is gutting the program! This is historic! How can Delta do this to us! A massive devaluation! How dare Delta offend its very best customers? This spells the end of frequent flyer programs as we know them! Let’s launch a petition or a website to convince Delta to reverse its decision! I’ll never fly Delta again!”

On the other side of the story, you hear, “Delta is a business and can do whatever it wants with SkyMiles…What’s wrong with paying attention to the 20% of flyers who produce 80% of revenue? …This change will actually benefit frequent flyers in the long run. …You can always switch to another carrier until it makes the same moves.” Delta executives state, “Our best customers asked us to do this. We even conducted focus groups!”

Eventually, other airlines mimic Delta’s moves and their customers rise up in protest.

Then the hysteria dies down and we all get back to work. Of course, we still grumble about the changes with fellow travelers on blog comment trails, at cocktail parties or across airplane aisles, but we accept them as inevitable and move on.

After what appear to be such mammoth changes, we assume for a while that the airlines just can’t cut back or restructure the programs any more…until they do. And then the cycle repeats itself again. And again and again.

(Link here to Delta’s proposed changes which go into effect in 2015.)

What’s your take on Delta’s moves this week? Do you expect United to follow suit, as it has done with nearly every other Delta move this year? If you participate heavily in Virgin America’s or Southwest’s revenue-based programs…how’s that going for you?  Please leave your comments below. 

Chris McGinnis  

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  • Name

    That’s what I thought, James. I got lots of info on the 2015 plan at United already. Since the airlines have a gazabillion unredeemed miles out there, I can’t blame them for making an attempt to change things so the loyalty programs reflect what they’re supposed to be: fly alot on one airline and we’ll treat you better. Of course, if I travelled every week I’d probably get more excited about all this.

  • Blake Sobiloff

    What doesn’t make sense to me is that Delta sent me an email the day before this story broke saying there would be NO CHANGES to the 2015 program. And, 2014 rules already take into account how much I spend on tickets (and also factor in my spend on their cobranded AmEx card). In my mind, this is very old news!

  • Chris McGinnis

    I agree, Mike! Airlines are making these drastic changes now that the economy is on their side. But watch what they do when the economy goes back into the tank, as it always does in our cyclical economy. When times are tough, the airlines will use the programs to sweeten the pot and a lot of bennies could come back. –chris

  • Mike Lee

    Delta posted a 74% increase ($1.1 billion) earnings increase in 2013 compared to 2012. So financially, they are doing fine and really don’t care about the bargain leisure travelers like me. So what they are saying is that if you don’t like it, you can go fly on American or United (yes only 2 options now!) because DL is doing just fine.

    Pretty sad… thank you DOJ for allowing all these mergers to happen. I’ll bet the farm AA will follow their lead when they announce their “new” frequent flyer program, then United.

  • James

    United as sadly already done it.

  • Hugo Traeger

    The e-mail I received from Delta today said that this is in response to my feedback. Well they never asked and this would not have been my feedback. I do travel frequently for business but I must still look for the best fares as does everyone in our company. I certainly hope that United does not follow but they probably will. Delta has told me time and time again that they don’t care about my business and they are reaffirming it here.