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

Cranky Jackass, Delta, Frequent Flier Programs

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

  1. Frankly I’m surprised that you could find ANY low-level award availability on Delta. Unless you’re searching for flights out of a major hub, I’ve found SkyMiles to be all but worthless. It’s too bad – used to be a great program. As you said, having defined award charts would seem to motivate people to continue flying to save up for that aspirational trip. Now you have no idea if that trip will be 12,500 or 37,500 per leg of a r/t flight. As a Chicago flyer, I’ve all but given up on Delta unless it is a trip to LGA on the shuttle. Now the challenge is trying to figure out what to do with the remaining miles in my account. Although awards to Europe start at 60,000, I’ve not seen anything available for less than 85,000. As a comparison, AA off-season flights to Europe begin at 40,000 and are readily available.

    1. Good luck with shuttle! As a PM and co-brand CC holder, I have flown a few award trips on DL between LGA and ORD and have a very hard time getting Sunday shuttle flights at low level (unless its the 6 am). Amazing since the flights are empty, but sure enough, they want me to connect in MSP to get the cheap awards.

      Cranky hit it on the head “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.” I’m afraid DL is becoming much like legacy UA and AA by not appreciating their customers.

      And its a real shame for us FFs since DL is good in so many areas, but the SkyPesos scheme makes me so angry/disappointed. I get that economics of flying are changing, and maybe rewards were “undervalued” but removing transparency doesn’t solve the economics question. It simply frustrates the heck out of us who have been most loyal to Delta. And even worse when they try to pass it off as an enhancement. At least be honest with us since we know what the changes mean. Tell me reward costs must go up and earning down in order to keep it viable. Tell me awards are more complex but you are trying to make it easier. But don’t lie and say I somehow prefer not to know what my award will cost in advance and that moving to Skymiles2015 is the best thing to happen since the creation of the frequent flier program. It’s a cash grab, plain and simple.

      Shame on you, Delta!

      1. Noah,

        The problem is Delta, American & United assume that no matter how they screw with the customer, they will return because they always do. It’s not an overt statement – rather it’s the way things are done as a corporate enterprise.

      2. Sadly, I think now that there are only 3 major airlines, Delta doesn’t think it needs to treat passengers well. Sure, it will always cater to the business travelers who rack up diamond status, but they have shown that customers like me who went out of their way to fly Delta in the past are as worthless as the bargain hunters who only buy the cheapest fare. I’d bet United will follow suit within six months, because UA management seems to think running an airline involves copying whatever Delta does. Until the big three fall on hard times again, I think this is the way things will go.

        I wonder if this strategy will keep the business travelers who use Alaska from jumping ship? Alaska’s Mileage Plan is a great program, and Alaska’s customer service is a cut above the rest. If I were them, I’d point out the growing number of flaws with SkyPesos in advertising in the Seattle area

        1. Even if Alaska “wins” Seattle (which I think they already have) it’s just one market. For most people you can’t replace DL with AS. That includes everyone east of the rockies. A combination of WN, B6, etc. might offer enough destinations and schedules but again, it’s going to be tough unless you’re only flying to larger cities.

          Point is Delta knows I can’t leave them unless I go out of my way flying absurd connections and losing a ton of time. That doesn’t work for business, and my SkyPesos – those are for leisure. Cranky is right to give them the JackAss award for this but I get why they did it…bottom line.

          I know a lot of people hoard miles like having a huge balance is some sort of bragging right. Me…I spend them EVERY OPPORTUNITY I HAVE. Why? Because the airlines keep doing this sort of crap.

        2. I fly Alaska exclusively from Seattle even if it costs a little more. Service excellent and it’s easy to use my FF miles for tickets.

  2. Delta is also using married-segment logic with award tickets now.
    I recently booked an award flight JFK-SFO-LAX-OAK for 20., but JFK-SFO alone with the same JFK-SFO flight was 25k. Not the end of the world if you know to expect it and are willing to look around a bit, but rather unexpected to say the least.

    1. Yes, that was my first thought too. Hopefully they are willing to notice both good and bad reactions from the press/blogosphere but it doesn’t seem like we should count on it.

    1. Seattle could be the exception rather than the rule. DL is absolutely duking it out there with AS and offering better availability there could be seen as a necessary evil for the time being.

      It’s also being reported that dynamic pricing may be here on Delta (which may not be legal) reports of a trip pricing out at 52.5k miles for a Diamond Member and only 40k miles for a non status member at the same time.

      I see it playing out like this:

      Passenger: how many miles does this trip cost?

      Delta: Well how many do you have???

    2. Delta Points – We ran into this yesterday in LA – Salt Lake. If you look
      at the days with low level availability in Seattle-New York, you’ll see
      that it’s only on AS flights from Seattle to Newark. No Delta flights are
      at a lower level.

      1. This is brilliant! A few months ago my wife used Alaska miles to book a domestic trip going out on American and returning on Delta, thereby avoiding American’s close-in surcharge and Delta’s round-trip requirement. Now Delta doesn’t collect a close-in cash surcharge like American, but rather raises the redemption levels for close-in awards. But do they make close-in awards available to partners? If so, then you should use Delta miles for Alaska flights, and Alaska miles for Delta flights…

        1. Ron – No, I don’t believe you can use Alaska miles on Delta flights for the
          low level. It’s just the other way around.

          1. Looks like you’re right — a quick search on Alaska for SLC–BIL shows flights on Delta available starting exactly 3 weeks out. Perhaps that’s why Delta went with limiting availability, rather than a cash surcharge like American.

            Also, while Delta now allows one-way awards, Alska still charges round-trip prices for a one-way redemption on Delta.

  3. So while airlines can say it cost more mileage to redeem ‘anytime’ miles and lower mileage if you redeem with a certain advance time, DL is now just not telling you at all what miles you need until as you said you go through the process to book the travel. You might as well forget using their mileage program and just buy a regualr ticket since it’s the same procedure of not knowing how much it will cost until you select the actural flight you want. Good thing grocery stores don’t work that way or you would never know how much that cart full of food costed until after they rang it all up.

    I take it the plus $5.00 is for having the privilege to book the space in the first place and each leg of your trip will cost $5.00?

    Maybe DL’s new slogan should be “Fly Delta, we hide everything from you”

  4. …”the airline that has an absolute disdain for transparency.” I won’t go into the details of Delta’s complete mismanagement of twice-cancelled, rebooked, cancelled again flights for me today–I have yet to leave. Was given LAX as an alternative to PHX, which actually would work for me since I am going in between. Then, unable to check in online, I actually phoned the Skym desk–was called back 1:35 later–told that since LAX is not coterminus or whatever the f, the seats were changed back to PHX, a very inconvenient connection, rental cars changed etc–“your tickets to LAX were not confirmed”–Me: but it says “CONF #ABC123, with ticket numbers to LAX, on my Delta app…. anyway, a nightmare– and in addition, the website is not synced with the app. Lousy operation. They’re all like this, of course.

  5. I just booked a trip on Delta this weekend using my miles. I want to burn through everything I have left so I can be done with Delta completely. That may not be the kind of customer loyalty they’re going for!

  6. “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.” Great statement Brett, but you should add loyalty to that as well.

  7. If I flew for the best FF program, I would have ditched DL years ago. But, they are still the best of the network carriers in terms of product and service even though their new 737-900’s are god awful sardine cans.

    But, I really don’t like the arrogant attitude of leaving their customers in the dark on whether a redemption is a good value or not. We all know that it’s 25,000 for a domestic round trip ticket in Y. But, I’m somoene who goes for international J when I redeem. I really don’t have the chart memorized. I guess I’ll just use the AA or UA chart as a guide to determine if the redemption rate is good or not.

  8. This move is as punitive and customer-unfriendly as the inability to change an award itin within 72 hours of departure. It’s downright impressive that DL has been able to get away for so long with having such a miserly Loyalty program relative to their competition.

    My question is, why didn’t they just go to the B6 model of tying award redemptions to the retail cost of the ticket? At least that model is more directly tied to supply and demand and other market forces. Did their alliance or FF partner agreements keep them from doing that?

  9. DL’s actions seem duplicitous and their comments full of doublespeak

    To really send DL a message, folks need to cancel their credit cards and book away from DL whenever possible.

    1. Carl- You’re absolutely right: the Amex affiliation adds $5 billion+ a year to DL’s bottom line. Too bad for arrogant Delta that as miserly as they’ve become with award tickets, they still have to hand out something.

  10. Suggestion
    How about a blog post on the Cranky Jackass Awards?
    -When/why did you start awarding them
    -How many have been given
    -Airlines with the most awards
    -Award counts by category (airline policy, bad service, management decision, etc.)
    -Fun facts or stories on them

  11. Delta offers a “good onboard experience?” As a frequent coach/economy passenger, I have not found that to be the case since at least 1991. I fly on Alaska, Jet Blue or European/Asian carriers whenever I can, and in “onboard experience” Delta compares very unfavorably with any of them.

  12. Sorry for going down a totally different tangent, but if the airline is this willing to drop even the pretense of transparency with their customers, then nobody should be in the least bit surprised that the flight attendants have decided that they no longer trust the company to be transparent in their dealings and need a collective bargaining agreement.

  13. Wrong: There’s no three-week advance purchase rule (at least not today). There are a dates available for 25K round trips in two weeks for ATL-Chicago, Orlando and Miami.

    1. Ron – Well this is interesting. I see the Chicago flights, but note that
      they’re only into Midway. If you search only for O’Hare, you get nothing
      low until March. Orlando and Miami are a couple weeks out, but still less
      than 3. This tells me that they’re carving out some markets from the
      rule. Whether it’s competitive issues or simply distressed markets,
      there’s some reason these were carved out.

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