TV Food Host Asks a Fundamental Question About Airline Elite Status

TV food personality Alton Brown tweets his unhappiness with Delta SkyMiles Platinum status. (HT: Reid F.)

This from someone who also tweets, “I’m so loyal I have a delta tattoo.”

Most customers don’t pay close attention to their mileage programs. Four months into SkyMiles going revenue-based I saw survey data suggesting fewer than 1 in 4 SkyMiles members knew that had happened. So Mr. Brown is just now figuring out SkyMiles is playing dirty pool.

Though in fact what’s going on with upgrades is that Delta now monetizes 57% of its domestic first class seats and projects getting to 70% in 2018. When there are no more ‘leftover’ first class seats, that’s the end of first class upgrades. It’s a far cry from a decade ago when only 10% of forward cabin seats were purchased directly.

Delta’s President says, “What we would like people to do in the next few years is to pick the airline and the product that works best for them.”

American’s President Scott Kirby has the same view.

Instead of rewarding loyalty — a portfolio of purchases over the course of the year — for better or worse they want to drive towards a future where customers get exactly what they pay for on each trip. That removes any incentivize to choose an airline when they do not have the product a customer wants at the best price or schedule, of course.

If you’re a Platinum of course you earn more miles for your travel, which Delta wants you to use to buy extra legroom seats and overpriced drinks in their clubs.

You get waived checked bag fees and priority boarding of course, but you can get an airline co-brand credit card for that (and not put any spending on that card because it tends to be less rewarding than cards which earn points that can be transferred to a variety of miles currencies). And you get better positioning on waitlists which matters especially during irregular operations.

  • If you’re going to fly enough for elite status, having it is better than not having it by a wide margin — not just for access to extra legroom coach seats (something Delta is even now limiting).

  • American’s changes mean that the differences in elite programs are now sufficiently diminished that the programs themselves may no longer be the determinant of whom you ought to fly and thus earn status with.

  • Airlines want a future where customers buy the product they want for a given trip, which means loyalty is less rewarded and thus less of a reason to choose an airline when it is less convenient or more costly — especially for someone like me who travels more than is required to earn the status I hold. I now give fewer of my incremental trips to American.

  • This could all change when the economy turns, there are more empty seats on planes (versus over 80% load factors now), and airlines need to incentivize travel through their primary marketing programs.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. LOL- over 200 flights as a top tier SQ elite, not one upgrade, ever.

    I’d agree on all the other points- need to treat you elites the same, regardless of what fare they bought, etc. But giving away first class seats means that no one will pay for it- and premium cabin sales generate an oversized return that effectively subsidises lower Y fares.

    Alton’s a multi-millionaire from his TV shows- if he wants first class, why doesn’t he just buy it?

  2. There are very few perks left these days for brand loyalty. You’re better off just buying FC when you want to sit upfront and choosing the airline which offers the better service and the better price. There is nothing fun about getting stuck in AA economy with 10 across seating! All domestic carriers are in a race to the bottom to compete with Spirit, Norwegian and other low fare airlines. The planes of the future will have less or no FC, fewer business class and new premium economy seats for international travel. The only people that will sit in front will be the people that paid for it and that is exactly what the airlines want. If you’re counting on upgrades or saver awards you can kiss them goodbye. I just hope the government stops these airlines from falsely advertising that 25,000 miles will get you a round trip saver award when they are barely or rarely available. I have no doubt during the next recession or downturn the legacy carriers are going to regret throwing some of their best and most loyal customers under the bus or cargo hold! They won’t be getting any sympathy for any future bailouts or any other needs they may encounter.

  3. “Instead of rewarding loyalty — a portfolio of purchases over the course of the year — for better or worse they want to drive towards a future where customers get exactly what they pay for on each trip. That removes any incentivize to choose an airline when they do not have the product a customer wants at the best price or schedule, of course.”

    Of course, it does incentivize airlines to compete on product, which is good for the customer, right?

  4. Yes, domestic upgrades and RDMs are the end all be all of FFPs.


    Basically the last two things on my list of things I care about in benefits of elite status. And I fly all low fare Y.

    The more I read the blogs and FT on on these FFP changes, the more I am struck by a gulf in perspective between those that fly primarily for leisure/fun (nothing wrong with that!) and my perspective as nearly 100% of my travel is for work.

  5. Giving away premium product for free on an almost guaranteed basis to even the lowest profitable customers (college kids mileage running) was the dumbest move an industry could have done. It’s like Marriott giving out free upgrades to the Ritz for elites staying at a Courtyard.

    It took DL’s leadership to undo that. Bravo. And yes, loyalty still means a respite from the abysmally long airport check-in lines, a respite from the ridiculous bag fee, a respite from abysmal phone support, the ability to board first, etc. plus — still — the odd once in a blue moon upgrade from the Courtyard to the Ritz.

  6. One problem I see with Delta’s plan is what happens when people by First but because of irrops, Delta is only able to offer them coach seats. With such small percentage of seats in F cabins, irrops can be a challenge to make room for displaced passengers in F. It really sucks to pay more for a first class seat and end up flying coach. Less painful when it was just a free upgrade.

  7. You bet Delta is selling more first class. And they are lowering the price to do it. I just bought a FC one way to JFK for $463 from the west coast for 6 days over the July 4th weekend. Of course, that requires a change of plane in Salt Lake. No big deal. Sure beats trying to upgrade on AA as a Gold Elite and having to pay an additional $240 (6 upgrade certificates at $40 each) over and above the somewhat pricey economy ticket. And getting upgraded as an AA Gold is no sure thing, especially on the DFW to JFK or LGA leg. For the return, I could not resist the one-way, one stop economy ticket on United from LGA through Denver for only $266 with just about a perfect 50 minute layover. Sorry AA, you lost the return cause United beat you on that too!

  8. Why can’t Delta offer FC on the next available flight that has them? They should at least offer that before they just give a FC paying customer a coach seat due to irrops.

    As for upgrades and all, these “entitlements” are no longer necessary as airlines have the upper hand here, not us passengers. The fact that they continue to “manage” available seats with limited flights is a farce.

    If there is anyone to blame on why things have just gotten worse over the years, it’s us as a whole to blame as we want the “cheapest” seats and could care less about the product.

  9. Hey, Gare… Just a novice still, but I would love a reference to all the acronyms used in your blog. They are Greek to me!

    Also, In the past, I did request that you give me an email or some reference to your company that gives travel assistance to individuals wishing to use international travel using their accumulated miles, and I did not receive a response – at least as far as I could discern.

  10. Gary,

    Delta has led the race to the bottom; United and American have copied them, so those two arilines are not better. While I don’t like the up selling of F, I can live with it as long as I regularly get in economy comfort non-middle seat. (no issues yet; we will see long term; like the free drinks)

    Now, consider writing an article on despite Delta wanting a revenue based Skypesos, the Skymile value has actually gone up. Greg did a nice piece showing that today. I know it is painful, but you need to admit some things have gotten better with Delta even if not their original plan.

  11. This is but one reason why I rarely if ever fly the legacy carriers. (Flew United last March because it was the only conveniently timed non-stop, SFO-MSY, and it made me miss Southwest!) I never have a problem getting a free seat on Virgin America or Southwest. Flying to Europe is more problematic, but with enough effort, I always have found an Upper Class seat on Virgin Atlantic. Once in the UK, I can fly anywhere in Europe easily.

  12. We are in the situation we are in because the government allowed too many mergers. There really is not competition. Three major players in a market are real competition when they all follow each other. If we still had 6 major carriers, we would not see this.

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