Delta Earns a Cranky Jackass Award for Requiring Several Week Advance Purchase to Book Low Level Domestic Awards and Not Telling Anyone

You may have seen elsewhere that Delta has decided to stop publishing all award charts. That’s bad, because it makes it easier for Delta to change mileage redemption levels without telling anyone. But there are other changes afoot, and I don’t remember seeing them announced anywhere. It appears that Delta is now implementing a three week (or more) advance purchase rule for low level domestic SkyMiles award travel. The news just gets worse over there.

Delta may have a fantastic operation and a good onboard experience, but it is quickly establishing itself as the airline that has an absolute disdain for transparency. While I like flying the airline, actions like these certainly make me think twice when I look to buy tickets. Delta has earned itself another Cranky Jackass Award with these latest moves.

Delta Icarus

Delta had already gone to a very complex five tier award chart, but now those redemption levels won’t even be published at all. This makes it more like a revenue ticket where you don’t know the fare until you search, but award travel is different. Award travel is aspirational so Delta should want its loyal customers to know what they need to earn in order to get their reward. Award charts set goals and encourage people to keep flying (or spending) to reach those goals.

Instead, Delta has decided that it doesn’t like people to know in advance how many miles it will take to do anything. I received this terse statement from the airline. “Delta’s expanded search capabilities and calendar at delta.com offer more flexible and accurate view of Award prices.” Uh huh. That means you have to go through the booking process and will only be told the mileage required during a search. Delta is notorious for not having awards price correctly. Now it won’t matter because you won’t know what it was supposed to be in the first place.

This strikes me as an act of hubris. Delta thinks it knows what you need to know, and redemption levels are clearly on the “you don’t need to know” list. This attitude isn’t new at all. Remember the ExpertFlyer issue? Delta has been trying to hide useful information for some time now.

With this new opaque system, Delta can sneak in any mileage redemption changes it wants and not have to tell anyone about it. The most interesting result so far is that Delta appears to have put in an advance purchase requirement on award tickets at the lowest level (though frankly, I’m not sure when this new policy started).

Take a look at this calendar showing coach availability from Atlanta to Savannah.

Delta SkyMiles Advance Purchase

I figured this would be a market without a ton of award demand, so it would have good availability. I pulled this on Saturday, and sure enough, you can see there appears to be a floor of 20,000 miles within two weeks of travel. In the third week, the floor is 17,500 miles. And only beyond that will you find availability at the low level rate of 12,500 miles one way. Coincidence? No. I looked again a day later (yesterday) and both February 22 (two weeks out) and March 1 (three weeks out) bumped up to the next level. (This is happening in First Class as well.)

Pick out any of your least-traveled short-haul favorites and you’ll see the exact same thing. For example, Seattle-Spokane, JFK-Syracuse, JFK-Buffalo, Salt Lake-Denver, and Detroit-State College all look identical. On longer haul domestic routes, things look worse. It appears that there’s an extra week buffer in there. Shorter term redemptions start at 25,000 miles one way for that. Keep in mind that these are floors. On longer and more popular routes, low level availability becomes more scarce anyway so it’s unlikely you’d see even these floor levels available. For now, this doesn’t impact international travel… yet. [Update: I take that back. It does appear to be impacting international as well.]

Now, I want to be very clear here. If Delta thinks that requiring an advance purchase for low level awards is a good idea then that’s Delta’s business. I personally think that’s stupid. (If low level availability is going to help an airline fill seats at the last minute, then it should have that tool instead of using the blunt advance purchase instrument. There are enough fences involved that Cranky Jackass Awardwill prevent abuse.) But hey, it’s Delta’s decision to make.

What I’m really here to criticize is Delta’s decision to be completely opaque with this and not tell anyone. That’s what earns the Cranky Jackass Award. It used to be that airlines would at least have to tell you if there was going to be a devaluation. What Delta is saying now is that it will do whatever it wants and it won’t bother to let you know.

I asked Delta for comment on this particular change and was told “There are multiple considerations going into award seat availability resulting in availability that will vary by time and market.” There’s that vagueness again.

I don’t earn miles in Delta’s program anymore. (I earn with Alaska when I fly Delta, though who knows how long that’ll still be allowed.) I know Delta was hoping to make SkyMiles more attractive when it allowed for one way redemptions among a host of other changes earlier this year. But so far, the changes are only pushing me further away. I can’t imagine I’m alone in this.

(Thanks to reader Cale for tipping me off to this.)

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