Topic of the Week: Delta’s Shrinking Upgrade Opportunities


Delta announced third quarter earnings this week, and one stat caught my eye. Compared to the third quarter of last year, Delta had 5 percent more First Class seats flying. Incredibly, it ended up selling 56 percent of those versus only 48 percent last year. The reason, of course, is that Delta has been pricing First Class more aggressively as an upsell from coach. That’s working, but it also means there are fewer seats available for upgrades.

If you’re an elite, how do you feel about this? Do you like the ability to pay a reasonable fare for First Class and not have to worry about an upgrade clearing? Or do you think having a better chance at an upgrade is more important?

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31 comments on “Topic of the Week: Delta’s Shrinking Upgrade Opportunities

  1. DL Plat here, and almost Diamond for 2016.

    The more I check the fares on the web, the more I see very small incremental charges for paying for First. Or Biz. Or Delta One. (So many names…) I’d much rather know I’m sitting upfront – when it matters to me (flight length, hub to hub when upgrades are scarce anyway, etc.) – than take my chances.

    I’ve also worked out a deal with my employer that I can pay the difference if they want to put me in a cheaper seat. Again, not always worth it to me, but once in a while it is.

    I know we all thrive on hating Skymiles but they run a clean op with friendly crews, and I’d rather know I’m going to get where I need to go without being yelled at onboard than fly with someone who has a slightly better loyalty scheme. (And let’s see what happens when AA goes revenue-based.)

  2. I’m a Plat Medallion and I don’t do a lot of 2+ hr flights so the upsell generally isn’t worth it. Last week was quoted, $199 for EWR-ATL, not worth it. Overall, my upgrades pretty much clear if not going through ATL from RDU so not that upset about the FCM, First Class Monetization. Only transcon was RDU-LAX-RDU and used a Regional Upgrade Cert for reassurance and it cleared instantly. Overall, super pleased with the operation of the airline and the people that make the flights great (GA’s, FA’s, and Pilots).

  3. I prefer to get the more reasonable priced first class/business seat rather than count on the upgrade. I really laugh when there are guys all hanging around the gate counter asking for upgrades. .then when they are told the entire cabin checked in they pull out their phone and say into then “this airline sucks, no upgrades” if it means that much buy it …

    1. Those with sense of entitlement would never “buy it.”

      Seems notion of “sometimes you win; other times, maybe not” seems to have by-passed a generation.

  4. I’m Plat on one of the FB airlines and do somtimes get cleared for an upgrade while travelling in the US. Always a nice surprise as I never counted on it : upgrades are not given on this side of tha Atlantic unless they need space in the lesser class of service… And it makes for a clearer deal : you want to fly upfront, you pay for it. And from time to time, you’ll get a very pleasant surprise (I had the luck to be upgraded on transatlantic flights).

  5. As a Delta Diamond, I favor the aggressive first class fare pricing, even though it means I miss out on a couple of upgrades in the year. When traveling for business or at the last-minute, it’s great to have a first class seat available for only about 10%+ over those higher fares. In some markets, even an early purchased ticket may have a very fair first class pricing, depending on the route of course. Never seem to get aggressive pricing on DTW-SJC/SFO routes that I often travel. Gary

    [cid:image001.png@01D107FB.B118BFF0] NOTICE: Information contained in this transmission to the named addressee is proprietary information and is subject to attorney-client privilege and work product confidentiality. If the recipient of this transmission is not the named addressee, the recipient should immediately notify the sender and destroy the information transmitted without making any copy or distribution thereof.

  6. I am a Delta Diamond and agree with much of the sentiment expressed above. I do wish that Delta would reach out more in advance to Diamonds to offer the discounted upgrade rather than waiting until check in.

  7. I’m a frequent flyer that does the hard miles where my flights are mostly less than two hours and often I get status on segments, not miles. Have friends that go to Thailand or Singapore 3-4 times/year and they get status well beyond me for a fraction of the flights. Living in a DL hub city and often connecting in ATL means even if I get to Gold status the odds of an upgrade are about as good as winning the lotto. It’s a joke when you see yourself as #42 on the upgrade list. So for me I like that Delta is selling the seats up front at a reasonable price. If I want it I’ll pay (or use miles). Honestly think the airlines did themselves no service by giving away those seats with FF status. For companies that live on ancillary income, get another $100+ for that seat up front. Most of the time someone will pay. Instead they have a culture where people feel entitled.

  8. I’ve been Diamond Elite on Delta and Platinum on Northwest at least 15 years straight. This year I have stopped trying to maximize my Delta flights since Diamond doesn’t seem to get me upgrades on the long haul flights at all any more. The program seems to have lost it’s value. About the only benefits one can count on is early boarding and the free checked luggage. I miss the days when loyalty had some tangible seating rewards – in the Northwest days being Platinum pretty well guaranteed an upgrade. And having 3 million miles and 6 bucks will get me a drink in coach.

  9. Wow an airline trying to sell first class seats instead of using them just for upgrades…..who would have thought!

  10. I am a DL Gold, and may hit PM this year. I have no problem with them selling First Class upgrade. If I want first, I can buy first. Sure, it sucks losing out on some upgrades, but they are a business first.

  11. This is a monster that cannot be fed. The airlines should go back to charging their own actual POSTED FARES for First or Business class. If you want F-class buy it (er, rather let your company buy it, because we all know that whoever is in those seats are not paying for any airfare — their company paid for it). They give the store away because a passenger used his/her credit card to buy a refrigerator in Sears? Then you have dozens lined up for a upgrade on a flight with 2-3 seats left in F-class. Laughable (at least from the gate agents’ perspective). Delta has the right idea here, they see the benefit of SELLING the seats for market rates.

    1. “If you want F-class buy it (er, rather let your company buy it, because we all know that whoever is in those seats are not paying for any airfare — their company paid for it).”

      I take exception to that comment. Me and 10 million others are self-employed and pay for our own plane tickets, hotel rooms ands car rentals.

  12. I was a top tier elite with NW for a couple of years, well before the proliferation of “ancillary revenue.” Intentional or not, they really seemed to a foster a “have vs have not” culture. Elites got to choose any seat in coach at time of booking (it’s actually a pretty big deal to me to book a bulkhead for a European flight at time of booking), short check in line, short security line, upgrades, etc.

    It drove me nuts that as a non-elite, I got none of that. “You idiots,” I used to think to myself, I’d actually *pay* extra cold hard cash to sit in that seat. At the time, however, if you weren’t elite there was no way to access that unless you were on a really high fare.

    Airlines really are devaluing their elite programs these days, giving away to credit card holders what they used to give their entry-level elites. As a now-occasional flyer, I’d just as soon pay a reasonable price for what I want.

  13. I’m one of Delta’s 4 MM and my wife a 2 MM. We have always been Diamond since they added that level. The amount we spend annually is not something I want to add up.

    Yet over the last couple of months, I have only made the Diamond upgrade once. Of course I live in Atlanta and that is a harder city to get one. I understand what some of the people said above and I agree with some, but setting business logic aside, it disappoints me that after being a loyal Delta couple for over 30 years it is now difficult to get a Diamond upgrade.

  14. I view the upgrade as a perk. What offends me is I get to “buy” the upgrade to front cabin at the same rate as the next Joe who travels maybe once per year. Where’s the loyalty there? The gate pitch DL makes for the offer to upgrade and then nobody wants to pay for it, the upgrade list begins to clear. Thanks DL. This hasn’t happened much, but on a flight not many weeks ago it happened.

    I’m not sure what DL’s Skyteam partner Virgin Australia does, but last week the forward cabin has 8 seats and only 2 people were in them from ADL to SYD. It’s clear they sell them at the point of ticket purchase and not upgrade elites for free.

    It used to be easy to upgrade with miles. Not so easy these days. I’m sure the airlines would be more than happy to get FF miles off their books.

    1. Steve,

      Yeah, your point is the corollary to mine — if you can just pay for what you want at reasonable prices, what’s the point of being elite? Frankly, I’m not sure the airline cares much any more. One miles blogger suggests that done right, a loyalty program should be incentiving spend “at the margin”, because that’s real money to go after. That is, giving your hub-captive travelers “perks” is just throwing money away, because what are those guys going to do, trade non-stop flights for a connection? If they’re going to fly you anyway because of your schedule, then don’t give away “incentives.”

      Frankly, if DL cared about getting FF miles off the books, they would not have switched to a “never expires” program.

    2. I think the reason for the empty forward cabin is because in Australia, the two major airlines (QF/VA) still include checked bags and some kind of meal in their economy fares on mainline flights (particularly on flights between capital cities like ADL – SYD, MEL – SYD, BNE – ADL etc.).

      Most people with the points to upgrade would use them on a longer sector (to PER or internationally).

      1. Lewis,

        No meals on the Virgin flights I had. I got a 4 cracker/cheese snack (What? no Biscottis?) and a free beer or wine. They offer this after 5PM flights. I will say that each of the three segments on Virgin the cabin staff was exceptional and the planes spotless. Lounge access for DL gold or plat is a nice perk too.

        I may start giving AA my biz since I’ll be doing ANZ business 3-4 times per year and there is more options on AA/QF to get to OZ. DL only has that one SYD flight a day on a tired 777 and the VA flight to MEL from LAX leaves me with a jump in terminals to Bradley.

  15. It’s funny that not very long ago DL was was running ads that loyalty was a 2-way street. It’s clear that they are now strictly transactional. You are worth the fare you paid for this flight. A kettle who will pay $50 for an upgrade will get it ahead of a Diamond. Of course that is DL’s right, but it certainly won’t generate loyalty or goodwill

    1. I’m sure Delta will push the tipping point to test when loyal customers are fed-up and defect after seeing Joe who travels maybe once per year take the only UG seat left. It annoys me that I’m often not even given a chance to buy-up.

  16. Airlines don’t need loyalty anymore. They have reduced the number of companies so much that there isn’t competition anymore. They don’t need you to be loyal to them because you might be the only one in town providing that direct flight and you will pick them no matter what.

    1. Bob –

      Does Delta provide direct flights? Unless you are in a hub or going to a MAJOR city, Delta routes you through a hub. I live in South Florida and Delta does not go non-stop to Washington DC, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Las Vegas, or Salt Lake (Salt lake hurts because for small Western airports I have to stop twice).

      ~ Jeff

  17. There are effectively just 3 major airlines which offer premium class seats in the USA – compared to 6 or maybe 8 just ten years ago. It’s time for AA, DL and UA to take advantage of market power – in normal circumstances if customers want a comfy seat they must pay – giving F class away without payment is just devaluing the whole idea of separate classes of cabin.

    With just 4 US based carriers the need to pander to elites just isn’t as strong anymore. Those elites just need to get used to the idea over time.

    1. I think David and Bob have it right. Just like no-status pax look at price and schedule, I think that frequent flyers look at schedules and they aren’t going to allow a lot of inconvenience just to obtain status with an airline. Plus there really is a market consisting of affluent big people and and affluent people in general wiling to pay a premium for a comfortable seat rather than an uncomfortable one.

  18. I don’t know about you folks but the last thing I want is to fly more for free tickets. Having the upgrade perk is nice. Let me toss in some miles to upgrade at the time of booking and maybe making it two tiers. Ultra low discount fares cost X miles more and other fares, including full fare coach (what is that?) pay slightly less. For the most part, I’m happy with the (Dis)Comfort Plus seats and can live with them on transcontinental flights, but give me the option at booking to do so without jumping through hoops to figure out how I can upgrade with miles if I book the ticket outside of DL’s website.

  19. Delta Platinum here for last 6 years.

    I have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of upgrades I have gotten recently compared to previous years. I am actually fine with that. Delta can price their seat however they want, it is their airline and we choose to fly on it. However, they make it far less appetizing to get to those precious metal levels. I used to go on mileage runs at the end of the year to make it to the next level. Now, I am less inclined to do so.

    Also, Delta has made it more difficult to make the upper levels due to the MQD spend. I am self employed and watch the dollars and cents. I fly a lot of miles, but generally for lower dollars. I will make 75K MQM miles this year but will not get to the MQD required. I do not spend $25K on Amex, so I will be downgraded to gold this year.

    Consider me bummed.

    ~ Jeff

  20. It doesn’t bother me that they’re offering more first class as a buy-up, but it does eliminate a lot of the incentive to shoot for higher status. I am Delta Gold this year and try to fly Delta in order to maintain that status. If I have Global Entry for security, and a Delta Amex for a free checked bag, I’m not getting much out of Delta Gold beyond an additional SkyMile per dollar spent, a friendlier customer service representative, and a lounge visit in the unlikely event I connect overseas on a coach ticket. Without the occasional free upgrade, that’s not enough to keep me married to Delta.

  21. As a silver medallion, I’ve had surprisingly good odds of getting upgraded in my travels.. I’d say about 30-40% of the time it works out for me. Admittedly, I do sometimes book flights where I know I’ll have a better chance of getting the upgrade.

    One HUGE difference maker for me is that I can pick an economy comfort seat within 24 hours of departure. On most flights I take, we get the same snacks you get in FC and the liquor is free just like FC. I think that’s an equalizer for the diminishing amount of FC upgrade availability.

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