Delta waffles on transcon upgrade policy

Rendering of Delta's new lie flat seating on transcon 757s. Been on one yet?

Rendering of Delta’s new lie flat seating on transcon 757s. Been on one yet?

Delta has quietly begun offering complimentary upgrades to its high-level Medallion members on transcontinental flights to/from New York-JFK after yanking them away last March. Pulling those cherished upgrades on these five-hour flights resulted a prolonged rash of bitter complaints from Delta’s best customers on its most lucrative routes.

This is not an “official” policy change, but Delta is now offering occasional comp upgrades to its specially outfitted and serviced Business Elite cabins flying between New York JFK and Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

“Delta is handling this on a case by base basis,” Delta spokesperson Anthony Black told TravelSkills. “While the policy has not changed, we have now begun to award our top medallion customers upgrades on those flights during slower travel periods or as the operation permits.” Which means the horror and frustration of being seated in coach when there are empty seats up front is now less likely. But not completely UN-likely. 

Recent: The 6 most irritating actions of infrequent flyers

Why is Delta backing down from it’s tough stance? My guess is that JetBlue’s well-publicized entry into the premium transcontinental airline market with its new MINT class is raising the bar for everyone as other airlines react in hopes of protecting market share.

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What do you think? Have you been turned down for an upgrade that you felt you deserved? Have you been lucky enough to get a comp upgrade on a transcon yet? Tell us about it below! 

TravelSkills readers are our eyes and ears out there, so please, when you see something like GS saw, email us, and we’ll do our best to get to the bottom of it!

–Chris McGinnis


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  • SM

    How did the process work since the ticket is not technically upgrade eligible? Was it at the gate? Did you have to ask?

  • Ed Moore

    I am a Platinum, and flew lax-jfk last weekend, and I was upgraded. Im very happy the are back stepping on their bad policy change.

  • Jeff

    I totally get your point and definitely think that hard-working airline employees should have an opportunity to sit in Business Elite, but based on a recent Atlanta-Munich experience (yes, I know this was a trans-con post, but the concept is the same), I have to question Delta’s employee eligibility policy. On this particular occasion, I was sitting in Bus. Elite (paid, not upgraded) and a young woman (~23 years old) was sitting in the seat next to me. During the course of the flight we started talking and she told me that she was a Delta employee. I thought that was great until she told me that she was: a) a part-time gate agent who only worked about 20 hours/week; and b) had been with Delta for less than 18 months. I didn’t say anything to her, but in my mind I was thinking, wow – that just doesn’t seem right. Business Elite for ATL-MUC-ATL goes for $5000 – $8500 unless you catch a sale, and here they are letting a part-time employee with no seniority fly business class for free? I’m sure that there were some Platinum/Diamond Medallions sitting back in coach whose system-wide upgrade certificate requests didn’t get approved by Delta’s revenue desk (I’ve been there), while this girl got to fly for free. In this case, I wouldn’t say that she qualifies as the “hard-working, deserving employee” you mention above. So at the risk of it sounding like it’s “all about me”, as a Diamond 2M Miler, I would hope that my loyalty to Delta over the past 20 years is worth more than that of a junior, part-time employee. So my question to the airline employees out there – is there any distinction made between employees, or are you all treated the same when it comes to free stand-by flights?

  • Kirk

    The money Delta makes on selling those seats more than makes up for the hurt feelings of a few entitled flyers. Delta has been named the airline of the year (first US based carrier to win in a decade) and is making tons more money than UA.

  • Jim M

    While this is a recent change to Delta policy, it was a long long long time coming – as in TEN years to the day. Meanwhile, this FORMER Hawaii-based DL PM/MM moved on to AA and have had EXP status for 8 years . . . while enjoying over the water upgrades all the while. Got the “we’ve been listening” email from DL a few months ago – what a total joke!

  • Mr. G

    Do you think DL will also resume doing comp upgrades on international flights?

  • Flygirl519

    So do all those who feel they are entitled to sit in first class or Business Elite for free also expect free groceries at the store & free gas at the gas stations just because you’ve paid money for them over the years? It is a downright shame that some people feel that airline employees don’t deserve to sit in the premium cabin. Nothing is this world is ever free, so if you want to be in first class or Business Elite so bad & so much—PAY FOR THE TICKET. Employees are not second class citizens like some of the traveling public would like to treat them. They work long & hard have every right to enjoy the benefits their employer gives them. This is the society that we now live in—“It’s all about me, me, me & what I want or think I deserve”. Get over yourselves.

  • Ryan

    I personally liked the tongue in cheek nature of your writing style. It makes reading about the travel industry very enjoyable. Keep it up!

    BTW, I generally fly coach (big SWA fan, so every seat is coach), but would be upset if I flew on Delta and had upgrades yanked away.

  • Aaron

    This is called “protecting the product.” Transatlantic premium class is a whole different ball game than domestic US premium class. Transatlantic premium class seats in general are far more expensive than economy seats. They are how the airlines make money. If they give those away to paying customers who buy economy tickets then no one will pay the transatlantic premium fare. It would be like if you went into Best Buy, bought the cheapest TV, and they gave you the most expensive TV. Then no one is going to pay for that expensive TV.

    The non-revs who presumably were sitting in those seats were not paying customers so no harm no foul.
    The number of customers who pay for an economy ticket and expect premium class for that price and so are disappointed when they don’t get it has to be tiny when compared with the revenue that would be lost by the airline if it gave those seats away at a loss.

  • Dana Wells

    JRSF – this is incorrect. You should check the Delta website. They have been offering complimentary medallion upgrades to and from Hawaii (excluding the ATL/HNL and HNL/ATL nonstops) for several months now.

  • NYflyer

    A colleague and I are NY based platinums and have been for years. We both will make Diamond this year if we choose to remain Delta customers. We both have experienced the “joy” of sitting in coach on SFO-JFK nonstops while there are empty seats in BusinessElite. Delta’s policy makes absolutely no sense when there are empty seats on the flight. Honestly – the experience in BusinessElite isn’t that special compared to other carriers, but it beats the uncomfortable and old 757 seats in coach. We both applied for and received status match on UA from our employer with the intention of changing loyalty due to this no upgrade policy alone – which is the latest in Delta’s steady devaluation of benefits for high revenue frequent flyers. We work for a SF based company and fly the route monthly. I just returned from my latest trip and flew from LGA through Detroit. Connection was easy and I was upgraded on all 4 legs. And the weather was good, so no issues. But I would not continue that route when I could start to buy JetBlue’s Mint fares or switch to UA if this issue isn’t addressed.

    It’s not a question of elitism, or expecting upgrades every flight. This change reflects Delta’s arrogance in cutting back too far on their highest revenue generating passengers, and they have a history of cutting back too far and then retreating from those policies. While UA has it’s flaws as well, MileagePlus is a far better program and they continue to improve and treat their best customers far better in exchange for tier loyalty. Delta better wise up fast.

  • kryptoniummedallion

    Hate to burst your bubble Kris, you don’t pay delta employees salary, cargo does. If you want to travel in first or business ask your bosses to stop being cheep and pay for it, because 98% of medallions don’t even pay for their own tickets. And it is deltas policy not to upgrade people on certain flights because if they did then no one would buy up those seats since they’ll get an upgrade every time, so why not give it to those who have worked for it by putting their blood, sweat ,and tears, into making sure you get to where you are going safely.

  • Dan

    Free ticket? You mean the employee benefit that is part of the pay package. It’s really simple if you want first class seat, either get a job with an airline or pay the first class fare.

  • Dan

    Wow, reading these comments, what a bunch of whining. If one wants a first class seat, then buy it. I travel for work all the time on Delta. And I’ll tell you I don’t pay for my seat, my company does. So all these people saying how much they spent over the last year, I would be curious as to how much they actual paid out and not a company. Also these are premium seats, and why should an airline hand those seats and services over for free. Delta has too many medallions. Only a very select, top of the top should recieve complimentary upgrades and those should even be limited.
    And the Delta transcon economy product is very nice, way better then most other carriers.

  • Nate V

    As someone that’s both covered by interline travel benefits and ALSO a high-tier frequent flyer with club membership, I wholeheartedly disagree. I have no problem with non-revs up front after all of those who are eligible for an upgrade or offer to pay for it are accommodated. As a non-rev, its a challenge getting “up front” anyway, so the few times you get it – its like you won the lottery. And of course the employee will brag and talk about it for a VERY long time, including to potential customers.

    As an Alaska MVP Gold (and 75K in another month), if I want First Class, I’ll BUY it. Just as I did 2 hours ago using an H fare on Alaska and instant UPGRADE based on my status and fare.

  • Amol

    If all elites have been taken care of, then I see no harm in non-revs. But because of Delta’s draconian upgrade rules, B/E was turning into a non-rev party.

  • Darth Chocolate

    I think you might find that the upgrades (if they actually give them out) will be based on Medallion level and fare class. I agree that non-revs should be the last to be upgraded, even though as a lowly Platinum, I received 4 of 4 upgrades when I went home for Memorial day on an award ticket.

    It may also be that at the time I had over $20K MQD for the year. I would hope that would be some sort of tiebreaker as a true reward for actually flying rather than CC churn.

  • Chris McGinnis

    thanks MJ– you would be right about that! Tongue in cheek is actually a better description than sarcastic, which I said in another reply…. –chris

  • mj

    I get the feeling that this was tongue-in-cheek! :)

  • Chris McGinnis

    Thanks for reading and loving TravelSkills! And sorry if “horror” sounds condescending… not meant to be at all. It’s actually little old me here at the laptop trying to insert sarcasm into the post to keep y’all entertained! If you knew me, you’d know condescending is not the way most folks would describe me. Nonetheless, keep in mind that this is a business travel blog, so I write from that perspective. -chris

  • transpacific regular

    While cabin crew from Delta (and all US-based carriers, actually) could learn
    quite a lot about customer service from Asia-based carriers, it is commendable to know that a company values its employees.
    If you have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars flying Delta, then fine. Airlines are still a form of public transport. If you want privacy, book a private jet.

  • ATLHistoryGeek

    How is that entitled? At my company, I don’t take the comp’ed rooms or tickets or upgrades that could go to my clients – ie the people who in one way or the other pay my salary. I’m paying for the DL employees salaries through my tickets and years of loyalty. If I and enough of my fellow FF’ers leave, so do their jobs. Keeping clients/customers happy is just good business sense.

  • The 99%

    Chris — “the horror and frustration of being seated in coach when there are empty seats up front”? I get the frustration part, but the “horror” part seems a little condescending. Chris, coach is what most people fly. Sorry to burst your bubble on that one. LOVE this blog and all the good info it provides and have been reading it for years, but a little fed up with the elitist vibe that sometimes (not all the time, but on occasion) comes through.

  • wmdb

    Non revs never deserve to be in front of plane. I’m sorry. I have spent $hundred thousand dollars over the years of flying DL. If anyone is going to get upgraded it should be paying pax not employees or nonrevs.

  • JRSF

    I flew back from HNL to SFO on a business trip and watched an entire first class cabin sit empty (other than flight attendants) because Delta doesn’t upgrade Medallion fliers into first on Hawaii flights. I never thought I’d see a day where United treated its fliers better than another airline, but I stood corrected that day

  • Kris

    Non revs get the highest cabin available after all eligible upgrades from revenue passengers have been processed. It isn’t poor form from Delta, it is contractual obligation from Delta. The sense of entitlement from many frequent fliers is sickening (at least the ones commenting on blogs).

  • heather @ pass the dressing

    I have to ask…did you write to DL? I would have been so pissed. Not that you are entitled to it, but it seems like really poor form!

  • Karen

    In April we flew to Milan on Delta. There were 23 seats available in first/business & 16 open seats in economy on our transatlantic flight. There were 24 people on the standby list. We are platinum and thought we had a chance at an upgrade because of the number of standby passengers. Prior to the start of boarding, 23 of the 24 on the standby list got seats in first/business. While we were in Milan, we ran into a couple from our flight who were on the standby list. He worked for Delta in the lost luggage department. Seems all the ones on the standby list were Delta employees flying on free tickets.

  • Louie

    I recently flew from LAX-JFK and saw the above. This man sat next to me in seat 12G, then another passenger showed up, also w/ the same seat. Both showed their BP to the F/A. After a few minutes, the F/A plucked the man and moved him to 1A. The gate agent then entered and took another EC passenger and put him in row 5.

    As a PM member, I’m crossing my fingers this will happen again come July when I fly JFK-LAX. But then, again, I’m not holding my breath…but there’s free Luvo fro-yo in EC!

  • Garrett

    I’m kind of wanting to book a flight just to see if they’ll upgrade me. I’m a PM, who last year spent between $12k-$13k with Delta (a large chunk of that on KLM). It’s not a lot relative to someone who would be considered a high-value customer, so I would really be interested to see if they feel I should be upgraded. If they did, I really wouldn’t have many gripes left about them. AND to be clear, I wouldn’t actually expect the upgrade to go through. The last few flights there were anywhere between 12 and 20 DM on the flight, so…yeah. Just be nice if there was a SHOT again.