Delta Shakes Up SkyMiles but Fails to Give The Details Needed to Evaluate the Change Properly

Last week, Delta announced a major overhaul of the SkyMiles program that changes points-earning from a mileage-based scheme to a revenue-based one. Even though I’m not a big miles and points guy, I’ve had a lot of people ask me what I think about the change. Considering how many details Delta has left out, my response can only be, “I have no idea.” But I don’t mind the revenue-based idea in theory.

Delta, like most airlines, has two different kinds of miles. Those used for elite status qualification (called Medallion Qualifying Miles, or MQMs at Delta) aren’t changing at all. The elite status earning method announced last year will stay the same.

What’s changing is how you can earn redeemable miles; those which can be used to get award tickets. Starting in 2015, you will earn redeemable miles based on the fare you pay instead of the miles you fly.

Now, I don’t earn Delta miles. When I fly Delta, they all go into my Alaska Mileage Plan account (because I’m smart like that). But if I did earn SkyMiles, we can use last week’s Savannah trip to illustrate an extreme example of why Delta is doing this.

In the existing program, I earn the number of miles I fly. Last week, that was 1,946 miles to Atlanta, 215 to Savannah, and then the same on the return. That means I’d get 4,322 miles for that trip. Had it been booked in a much higher fare class, then I could have earned a 50 percent bonus to reward me for buying a higher fare. But this one was super cheap. And because of that fact, I would earn far less in the new program. Here’s how earning will work.

New Delta SkyMiles Earning Chart

As a general member, I get 5 points per dollar spent. But it’s not total dollars spent. It’s just on the base fare and any airline surcharge. For my absurdly cheap ticket, the base fare was $5.70. So I’d get 30 miles… if they round up.

Of course, this is an extreme example, but it shows why they do this. I paid virtually nothing for my flight so Delta wants to give me virtually no points. Had I paid $1,000 for my flight, then I’d be getting 5,000 points. And if I’m elite member, I get even more. Silver gets 7 points per dollar, Gold gets 8, Platinum gets 9, and Diamond gets 11. Oh, and if you pay with your Delta American Express card, you get 2 extra points per dollar.

What about partners? Glad you asked. This is where things get complicated… I mean, more complicated. This new accrual method only applies for flights booked under the “DL” code or for tickets issued by Delta (or by a travel agent on Delta’s behalf). So in short.

  • A Delta flight operated by Delta or a Delta Connection partner sold under a Delta flight number (like Delta 80) will earn points per dollar spent.
  • A partner flight sold under a Delta flight number (like Delta 9147 operated by Alaska, for however long they remain partners) will earn points per dollar spent.
  • A partner flight sold under a partner flight number (like that same previous example but sold as Alaska 407) on a ticket issued by Delta or by a travel agent on Delta’s behalf will earn points per dollar spent.
  • A Delta flight operated by Delta or a Delta Connection partner sold under a partner flight number (like Alaska 5768 operated by Delta) on a ticket not issued by Delta or on Delta’s behalf will earn some form of points per mile flown.
  • A partner flight sold under a partner flight number (yep, Alaska 407) on a ticket not issued by Delta or on Delta’s behalf will earn some form of points per mile flown.

Get it? Great. You must have your doctorate. But those last two bullets are a little vague. How will they award for partner flights? All we know is that points will be awarded “based on a percentage of distance flown and fare class paid.” That sounds similar to what they do today, but the way Delta is talking about it makes it sound like changes are indeed coming. What those changes are remains a mystery until sometime later this year.

So what’s the bottom line here? Is it good or bad? We have absolutely no idea. What we do know is that on the whole, it seems people are going to be more likely to earn fewer points when they fly unless they’re super elites buying very expensive tickets. That may seem bad, but there’s one big piece missing. How much will it cost to redeem those points?

Delta has failed to tell us what the award chart will look like, but they have confirmed there will be a new award chart. All we know is the general direction, and that is somewhat maddening. There will finally be one way awards at half the price of a roundtrip (whatever that may be). That’s good. There will be a points + cash option. That’s nice for flexibility but we still don’t know how many points or how much cash. There will be more award availability in the lowest redemption category but there will now be a mind-numbing 5 levels for redemption.

That’s all well and good, but how many miles will we need for that “low” category? The only thing we know is that domestic awards will “continue to start at 25,000 miles, and One-Way Award Tickets will be available starting at 12,500 miles.” If that’s true, then this looks like a devaluation, because you’ll earn fewer points but still need the same number of points to get an award ticket. But even that’s murky, because if Delta makes more seats available at the low level, then it could end up being a good thing for a lot of people.

If this is confusing to you, then you’re completely normal. There are so many changes with so many questions unanswered that it’s impossible to really evaluate this fully right now as a traveler. But what about if you’re Delta?

We still don’t know enough, but in general, this move makes sense. Delta wants to make it easier to get free flights for those who buy expensive tickets than for those who buy cheapies, and this will accomplish that goal. But because of the complexity of the partnering system, it can’t go to something like Southwest or JetBlue where redemption is also based on the dollars of the available fare. So it’s a hybrid that will serve its purpose.

Usually when it serves the airline well, the people who get into the mileage game won’t be happy. If that’s the case, then Delta has probably accomplished its goal.

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