Delta Earns a Cranky Jackass Award for Its Increasingly Obnoxious Policies Around Third Party Tools

Cranky Jackass, Delta

If you subscribe to ExpertFlyer, then you know where this post is going and you are most certainly in full agreement. Delta seems to have decided that it doesn’t like third parties creating extremely helpful tools for Delta fliers, so it is shutting them off without providing any alternative. For this, Delta has earned what I believe is its first Cranky Jackass award.

For those not familiar with ExpertFlyer, it’s a useful service to have. In short, ExpertFlyer works with global distribution Cranky Jackass Awardsystems to extract various pieces of data from airlines, the stuff travel agents can see. It then lets users set up alerts to note when things change. The pieces that have been most useful for me are the seat alerts (telling you when certain seats or types of seats come available), availability alerts, and award availability alerts. But there is also raw fare data, flight status information, and more. It’s a paid service, but many frequent fliers find it worth the price for what it provides.

Some airlines embrace ExpertFlyer because it enhances the experience for people flying on the airline. In fact, ExpertFlyer will be announcing a new partner shortly. Delta doesn’t seem to get it.

Late last year, Delta told ExpertFlyer that it would no longer allow the service to display upgrade availability. Then, just last week, Delta told ExpertFlyer to stop showing anything related to Delta at all. Apparently Delta prefers to keep its customers in the dark, since it hasn’t provided any kind of alternative to them.

This all seems stupid and short-sighted, so I asked Delta for comment. My first question was about the “best fare guarantee” lawsuit I wrote about yesterday. I (and others) wondered if that lawsuit had anything to do with Delta not wanting to show its data publicly. Delta said no, and ExpertFlyer told me that it had been told to take down the information before the lawsuit was filed. So that’s not the issue.

My second question was around the action itself. Why? I got a half-baked and downright incorrect answer from Delta.

Some customers use other travel tools to view Delta booking class availability and flight content details. Delta does not allow the use of data from by unauthorized parties.

That’s great, but ExpertFlyer doesn’t touch It all comes through the reservation systems that ExpertFlyer pays to use. I asked for a follow-up response but I never heard back again. Thanks, Delta.

So what’s the real answer? Why would Delta want to block ExpertFlyer from giving this information to people?

We know that Delta wants to control its information as much as possible, but if you publish it in the global distribution systems, you’re making it all publicly available. That should be the trade-off if you want to play in that space, but maybe Delta thinks it can have its cake and eat it too. Legally, it may very well be right, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

We also know that Delta does want to direct as many people as possible to use its own website for everything. That would be fine if a) Delta had a half-decent website and b) Delta decided to offer these same features. There is nothing provided by ExpertFlyer that Delta offers on its website. If Delta wants to create its own tool and then shut down external ones, that’s one thing. But it’s not doing that.

In the end, this is just penalizing travelers who are trying to get better information. We are in a golden age of information where things that were previously difficult to find are now readily available on the internet. Companies that decide that less information is better will be on the wrong side of history.

What else could it be? I had one person raise a question about the desirability of the ExpertFlyer user base. Are these people trying to game the system? Nope. Most of the Delta alerts on ExpertFlyer come from people who identify as being primarily Delta fliers. ExpertFlyer tells me that of those who identified as primarily Delta fliers in its customer survey, 98 percent had elite status with over 40 percent being Diamond Medallion. In addition, more than 50 percent of the respondents said that having access to Delta’s information on ExpertFlyer made them more loyal to the airline. How about that, Delta?

It only makes sense that the people who are on ExpertFlyer would be more desirable frequent fliers because you have to pay for it to get most of the features. It wouldn’t be worth it for a casual traveler.

That brings us back to the same old question. Why is Delta doing this? I can’t think of a good answer. I can think of plenty of answers, but none of them are in any way good. The most sinister one is that Delta sees ExpertFlyer as hurting ancillary revenue opportunities. I can hear it now.

Consultant: If you let people set alerts for upgrade availability, then they’ll be less likely to just pay to fly in BusinessElite.
Widget: Ya’ll are right, that’d be horrible. Kill it.

That’s a pretty douchey (yes, that’s a real word now) scenario. I think more likely is that Delta is getting cocky. It think it knows what its customers want to see, and it’s going to make that decision for them. If true, that’s a pretty backwards view. Regardless of the reason, this move is most deservedly worthy of the Cranky Jackass award.

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27 comments on “Delta Earns a Cranky Jackass Award for Its Increasingly Obnoxious Policies Around Third Party Tools

  1. CF – just because data is published on a GDS does not mean that Delta wants the raw data to be available to the peasant masses. The more information out there, the more able consumers are to have clear information as to what products exist in the marketplace, making it harder for corporate marketing to be effective.

    Ultimately, it’s an issue around trying to control corporate data. There is a big difference between data being available based on manual keypresses (gets painful to do repeated searches) and data being available to automated web bots.

    Delta along with the other big 3 now have significant market power within the domestic US – there is now an opportunity to increasingly monetise their seat availability info by controlling data visibility based on who is looking at the data. It is not in Delta’s interest to be more transparent than absolutely necessary.

  2. Cranky….great post, but you do know that Delta is not alone in this position, right? United pulled its GDS raw data away from EF last year making the search for already VERY low upgrade inventory difficult – though not impossible – to find for those of us 1K’s trying to actually use global upgrade instruments at the time of booking.

    In my opinion this move, along with others like requiring minimum spend, etc. just further exposes the core fact that many airlines, especially those with the largest loyalty memberships, are doing anything they can to reduce the value proposition of being loyal

    1. Scott – True on award availability but everything else on United is still available in EF. Also, United allows you to at least see raw upgrade and award space if you flip your account into expert mode on the website. So while I don’t like what United has done either, Delta has gone to a much further extreme to not just avoid providing alerts but hide the data altogether.

  3. UA pulled their award inventory off EF, but they still have their revenue buckets up there. DL pulled *everything* off (though you can still see some info thanks to codeshares)

    I think tangible examples make the best case for why this data is so valuable.

    Let’s say your meeting ended early and you want to know if there’s room on earlier flights to make it worth going to the airport early to standby or SDC to an earlier flight. With EF in seconds you could get the data and make a judgment call. You can’t do this with the DL website. Now your only option is to call, which wastes your time (and can’t be done discreetly in a meeting, like an EF lookup) and also adds costs to DL by increasing call center volumes and wait times.

    But DL has an impressive history of arrogance that they’ve gotten away with, most notably the 3 day “use-it-or-lose-it, don’t-even-THINK-of-changing-it” policy on award flights. Just like their claims of “gaming the system” didn’t justify such harsh policy changes there, the same strikes me as the case here.

    And DL’s disingenuous explanations for these changes are insulting to consumers and IMO make things worse.

  4. I see this as one more step in Delta’s stated mission to make airlines “a normal industry.” You can’t easily set an alert to tell you when that new coffee maker you’ve had your eye on goes on sale at Target, which benefits Target because some people buy at full price because they don’t want to wait for a sale, and Delta doesn’t like (fairly enough) that people can take a shortcut to know when there will be sales on their flights. Some less-threatening features of EF, like seat alerts, are just collateral damage (and even there, seat alerts arguably discourage people from buying Economy Comfort seats).

    I don’t like it, but I get where they are coming from. One of the reasons the airline industry is so profitability-challenged is that there is so much price competition and transparency of pricing data. This is one small way to reduce that, and Delta is guessing that too few people will care about this change to affect their bottom line.

    They’re probably right — even if a lot of EF users are Diamond Medallions, a number of those may be mileage runners who were using EF specifically to find cheap fares to top up their elite status. The mainstream high-value customer for Delta probably does not use EF, and even high-value customers who used EF are probably not going to abandon Delta over this change, given they were presumably choosing Delta for other reasons (network, home hub, product preference, etc.).

    1. Your argument is that price checking isn’t normal? There are multiple apps/websites for checking prices across stores and multiple other apps/websites for tracking when prices change. Tracking price changes is certainly not specific to the airline industry.

  5. The ‘mileage runner’ argument isn’t really applicable given DL’s MQD requirement

    And the retail analogy is flawed in several ways. Retail goods don’t spoil like plane tickets and different people don’t pay different prices for the same good (sure, prices fluctuate over time, but not as dramatically as with plane tix)…. Also, several retailers already DO expose in-store inventory data on their websites, and I have a feeling the trend will be toward more of that as technology allows and not less of that. The gains of customers going to the store because they know the product will be there outweigh the costs of being transparent.

    It’s 2014 — can executives honestly believe that it’s a good business model and long term strategy to try to fight technological innovation and increased transparency?

  6. I too tried to guess why UA pulled the R (upgrade) inventory from EF. Because there was so little upgrade inventory available, and UA now (mostly) puts GPU’s at the bottom/last minute upgrades only after they figure they cannot get additional money (P-class, miles plus money, FF miles) there must have been some other reason. I am guessing that some travel agencies were running bots on the EF site to find the inventory as soon as it became available and then making available to their customers, who, in fact, might otherwise have paid more money.
    I think the bigger problem is that the domestic flags all adhere to the belief that “we are all equally bad”. That ultimately will not work internationally where, if your company has real money to spend on upgrades, you will not do it on your loyalty airline but the much better foreign carriers.

  7. I second the nomination for the Jackass award to Delta. I can think of numerous examples of Delta’s ‘cockiness’ and arrogance. Take their VP in Seattle for example. He was brash and arrogant with ‘talking points’ how they would be the ‘carrier of choice’ in Seattle. They are obviously ‘blind’ to the fact that Seattle has a well established highly regarded airline (Alaska Airlines) with a solid reputation for caring service, integrity, and community service. Alaska Airlines has had it’s corporate headquarters in Seattle for decades, unlike Delta’s home turf of Atlanta (Tea Party Ville). Alaska has an extremely loyal following that aren’t about to abandon the ‘home company’ to this southern invader.

  8. Ironic that a month ago, after much procrastination, I paid for an EF subscription, being that I am an ATL Delta captive and had had it with trying to do anything useful through their website.

    1. Nick – Historically, AA has been a supporter of this kind of thing. Though we haven’t seen any public announcement that would push this one way or the other at the “new” American, I don’t have any reason to think the airline’s thinking has changed.

      JetBlue, Frontier, and Spirit should all be accessible in here, and I haven’t heard about any other airline asking to be removed. If it’s in the GDS, it’s effectively public unless someone says otherwise.

  9. Airline pricing is a game, and in a game like this, you don’t want to show your opponents your cards. It would be like a supermarket announcing “we will discount milk by 30 cents on Friday if we don’t sell at least 5,000 gallons by Thursday night”. This type of information makes it easier for customers to save money, at the expense of corporate profits.

    Yes, DL has given this information to the GDS. But the purpose of that is so they can sell tickets, not so they can release it to customers.

    Your example of the consultant’s comments may have been sarcastic, but it is spot on.

    1. I’m virtually certain than travel agents and Delta’s competitors will retain access to these data as long as they’re in the GDS. It’s just the hoi polloi who get hosed.

  10. Sure, 40% of the users of ExpertFlyer are Diamond Medallion.

    But I’ll bet if you did a poll of active FlyerTalk posters it would yield a similar percentage.

    FlyerTalk is not representative of the high value customer population, and is disproportionately gamer.

    It’s a crummy move by Delta, but the Expert Flyer user is disproportionately gamer. Usually businesses can tolerate gamers because the effort involved keeps the population below a material threshold. Wonder what threshold was crossed, and what revenue they are trying to fence.

    1. except gamers are also the best evangelists for the brand. And with MQD requirements, there is only so much gaming that can be accomplished. It’s not easy making Diamond, so DL should be careful to upset that valuable group. Typically they are not “gaming” so much as helping to guide choices. This move is not customer friendly, but there is not enough competition to do much other than public shaming like this.

    1. Lorie – If Delta wants to try to make money off this, it has two options. First, it could build its own tool to do the same thing. Two, it could come to an agreement with ExpertFlyer around revenue sharing of some sort. But simply removing the information entirely is a very poor decision.

    2. Kinda like Google is making money by crawling Cranky’ website. Perhaps Cranky should tell Google to stop (can easily be done with a robots file). But wait, Crank, actually benefits from Google. I think Delta may also benefit from EF.

    1. Customer Satisfaction? I use AwardWallet and have rarely used Delta since they make it so difficult to sync my account with them. Not quite a boycott, but definitely a pissed off customer. It is amazing to me that people will take Delta over say Alaska. They are such different experiences. Why pay the same for an inferior experience. I’ll fly Alaska every time.

      1. You are 100% correct!! Alaska flies circles around Delta when it comes to the customer experience, ex. mileage plan, user friendly tools, pricing info. etc. (for all fliers, elite as well as the occasional flyer.

  11. I’m not surprised a business will shy away from letting consumers more easily see the data that would help them understand the market. They want that asymmetry of information.

  12. Personally, I view the situation as Delta shutting-out a bunch of “A-type personalities”; those seemingly with obsessive need to know of, and have control over the most minute details of its’ business.

    1. What? Just because we want to know information you call us A-types? This is 2014: an informed customer is a good customer. I recently had a cancelled flight and felt in the dark about my rebooking options because I could no longer use EF to see all the various options to get me home. (Delta’s rebooking tool is great, but not on iPhones).

  13. Has anyone noticed that when searching for a Delta award, the website no longer shows you how many miles are required for the award until the end? It’s completely ridiculous trying to use it, as you’d have to check every single flight to know which required the least mileage outlay. Double jackass to Delta! What kind of customer service is this?

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