You Can Now Use Delta Miles to Purchase Seat Upgrades Any Time After Ticketing

During American’s third quarter earnings call they emphasized that they would begin aggressively upselling customers after purchase. The model here is Delta. After you buy a ticket they still have the opportunity to market seats to you and upgrades, and even sell miles. Why stop after you’ve made your purchase, or wait until you check in?

During Delta’s earnings call they charted their path to more upsells: allowing customers to pay with miles wherever they are trying to sell something for cash.

No other airline does more to treat their miles as a hyperinflated currency, where a lot of miles buy exactly what you’d get for cash (like basic economy).

Delta’s CEO told analysts to expect miles to be worth a penny, “if your company buys you a coach ticket and you want to sit in the Premium Select cabin, we’ll have an offer for you that would be 17,000 miles for you or it’s a $170 in cash.”

Now this has launched. You can use miles to pay for seat upgrades after ticket purchase whether extra legroom coach or an actual premium cabin.

Just like with their explanation for basic economy awards, the reason they’re doing this is because “you asked” for miles to be worth so little. And miles are actually more valuable even as the value per mile falls because you can use those miles in more ways. According to Delta’s Senior Vice President who oversees SkyMiles,

Whether you’re just starting to build your SkyMiles account, or you’ve been collecting miles for years, Delta is making all of our Members’ miles more valuable by offering more ways to use them for Delta purchases, big and small..Our ultimate goal is for SkyMiles Members to have the choice to use miles anywhere they can use cash with Delta, and to be able to make those transactions available in digital channels.

There are two major implications to this. First, Delta will sell incrementally more upgrades. That will make complimentary elite upgrades and confirmed upgrades more difficult to get, as some of the seats that would have gone to those will be sold to other customers spending miles instead.

Second Delta’s mileage upgrade awards are already crazy expensive. We’ll see whether post-purchase mileage upgrades will ultimately replace Delta’s hidden mileage upgrade award chart — whether mileage upgrades will always be simply priced based on fare.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. @Gary, If they can sell you an upgrade with miles, will customers be able to apply one of their regional upgrade certificates or global upgrade certificates to get that upgrade without using miles – just the certificate. If an immediate upgrade is available using miles, shouldn’t that immediate upgrade be available using the certificate too?

  2. “That will make complimentary elite upgrades and confirmed upgrades more difficult to get, as some of the seats that would have gone to those will be sold to other customers spending miles instead.” So Delta just devaluated all the elite statuses ?

  3. The biggest problem in the past hasn’t been where upgrades using miles are available but it’s the value plus the cash co-pay that usually kills it for me under any conditions.
    I think we are starting to wonder where the bottom is for airline loyalty programs and awards. I have a feeling we have a ways to go before the airlines realize their mistakes and long term effects. It’s like killing the golden goose and then figuring out that people didn’t give you money because they like you or had to but wanted to have a shot at seeing the golden goose.

  4. The golden age of outsize redemption benefits is over, killed by better customer utilization, better cost oversight from the accounting departments, and increased earning opportunities (on a macro level).

    On the other hand, less value also leads to increased usage opportunities. An award seat on Delta (or pretty much anyone, at this point) may not be as “free”, but it is more likely to be “available”. I’ve never had a recent award search come up wholly empty for a city pair, as it often once did. There might not be premium cabin availability or the exact partner flights I want, and “saver” type awards are still hit or miss, but straight up “no award flights available” is just something I’ve not seen in a couple years.

  5. One additional problem that is not stated is that if miles begin to have a fixed value (of say, $.01 each), then the IRS can easily determine that these represent income and easily calculate the basis, and not treat them as an non-taxable loyalty rebate program.

    I think the airlines are very, very close to killing off their golden goose. As miles become worth less and less, and if they ever do become taxed, goodbye to people chasing miles. And then goodbye to over 100% of the airlines’ profits.

  6. It’s very simple: with just three remaining legacy/network carriers left, each of which with multiple fortress hubs, and each of which “owning” not just those fortress cities’ lucrative O & D high yielding business/corporate travelers’ bank accounts, but also predominant, if not outright “owning” vast swaths of the country’s regions where they offer vastly superior options to smaller and mid-sized cities (e.g., Delta/Delta Connection in Cincinnati/CVG; and/or “focus cities” in key markets, again, e.g., Delta/Delta Connection in Raleigh/Durham and soon, Austin, TX; or American/American Eagle at Washington/Reagan National, etc.) that have limited, if any, competition from any low cost carriers, and/or token/nominal “competition” from the other members of the cozy cartel’s club, on routes serving smaller to medium sized markets where fares tend to be higher, each of the three nominally different, barely “competing” airlines, American, Delta and United, all know they can get away with pretty much anything they want to get away with – including the neverending schemes to devalue frequent flyer miles in how they’re calculated and awarded/earned, while simultaneously increasing the cost of what these badly debased and devalued miles “buy” ever higher!

    Sure does seem like our oligopolist airlines and their greedy C-Suite occupants and Board Room members run their fiefdoms as if bankrupt countries (or in our airlines’ case, bankrupt in terms of fairness and morality, that is) crackpot dictatorships with worthless currencies and hyperinflation all at once, and the rest of us are just their tenant farmers whom they can “tax” at will without any checks and balances that used to exist back when most of us actually believed in the virtues of COMPETITION – and we actually had airlines that COMPETED for our business.

    But here’s the thing: if these frequent flyer miles are so worthless, why does one major airline (who shall remain nameless in this readers’ comment post) make it an epically long (as in three months), and torturous, process to get miles that clearly were flown credited to ones’ account?

    And trust me, this process was epicallly long, and torturous.

    Not only that, we discovered that said airline also had what certainly appears to us as a clear pattern of “forgetting” to post miles on several other international long haul trips in paid premium classes (taken together and separately) over the past few years that (shame on us for not being more diligent checking our mileage statements until now) when the glaring omission for our trip earlier this year forced us to review our accounts as if forensic accountants to determine why the amounts we expected to post to our accounts fell far short of expectations long after we returned.

    So, again, if these miles and this house “currency” is so worthless, then why was the process to get our accounts properly credited such an ordeal?

    And why is it that when including the total of four long haul flight segments in PE earlier this year (one way, or two segments each intercontinental from Africa to USA with a stopover at major EU city in between); plus four four international flights (roundtrip for two, or a total of four flights to be credited with miles) in biz class; AND one very long haul itinerary with a connection via a major hub (for two flights) flown solo by my partner for work in PE – or a total of TEN, yes, T-E-N, 10 flights, NONE OF WHICH were ever credited to either of our frequent flyer accounts orginally, and only the four flights taken this calendar year FINALLY being credited after months of excuses such as the partner airline flown saying it’s the USA-based carrier’s fault, so take it up with them; the domestic airline saying the same thing in reverse; and BOTH airlines claiming they could not find either of our eticket numbers in either of their records (something I found a bit strange in the digital era and more like the excuses commonly used back in the day when we wrote tickets by hand using Maraschino Cherry Red carbon copy ticket stock)!

    Anyhow, that airline sure did make it exceptionally hard to finally get our miles properly credited even with enough receipts proving payment, and a blizzard of emails, DMs and online chat transcripts when our credit card was overcharged not just once, but twice, that took three (similarly torturous and excuse laden) weeks to finally get resolved.

    EXCEPTIONALLY. HARD.

    So, again, if these miles are THAT worthless, the airline we dealth with sure did make it seem as if we were begging them for something of very high value that they were loathe to provide – even after it was abundantly clear we were only seeking what we had every reason to believe was actually earned by the fares paid, and the class flown!

    And also, again, I view how miles are being both at once badly devalued and degraded (just like everything else in recent years in our Cartelized skies), while the cost to “buy” things with this “currency” ever escalatating faster and faster like a bankrupt country with hyperinflation, as the EXACT OUTCOME one would expect to see in industries that no longer have any kind of meaningful/properly functioning competition.

    Just as our airlines have indeed become – a cozy cartel, that in lacking any kind of meaningful competition, or the threat of REAL competition emerging anytime soon, simply does whatever it wants.

    This is just another example (among many) of that.

    GREED, in the form of limited, if any, real competition in our oligopolist controlled/skyjacked skies is so NOT good for most of us.

    When enough of us realize that and stop buying the bs lies that “WE’RE to blame” for how we’re being abused and exploited and the we “DESERVE” to be abused and punished for “wanting” what we’re being given by our greedy airline overlords, then perhaps things will improve where either new entrants are deemed as necessary to keep the oligopolists on their toes, or we impose better regulations and oversight over those that are abusing their fortresses and overall impenetrable market dominance.

    But, as long as enough people suck up to the myths and lies that “we’re to blame” for the abuses and humiliations so many of us routinely face when we fly in an era where the virtues of competition are unknown and little understood, I guess those that know that in decades past that “bad” airlines that yet still are better than our best network ones today are long gone because there were better options that passengers flocked to, and we’d have better customer service and get more value for our fares paid if only we had more competitors vying or our hearts – and more importantly, our wallets.

    Want better service?

    Demand a return to having COMPETITION in our skies (my preferred policy option/solution).

    Otherwise, we’ll need to make regulation “great again” – and who really wants that? 😉

  7. These changes are one of many by legacy carriers that have totally eliminated any desire of mine to be loyal. I have to pay more and more beyond what I would normally to have fewer and fewer upgrades to a crappier product. It just doesn’t incentivize me one bit.

    Oh wow, for $3000 a year I can get the benefits of a $95 AF CC PLUS last minute slightly less cramped seats! For $6000, you get access to mediocre lounges, a second bag and be less than dead last for upgrades.

    Oooh, but if I pour all my spending into one carrier and drop $15k in I’ll get a nice tier! And I’ll be top of the upgrade list on domestic routes with not great first product… behind all the other people who are secret tier status or who have spent even more than me to compete for the few seats that haven’t gone to awards or upgrades.

    So basically the person who gets the highest tier for upgrades is almost certainly the one who was paying for F/J in the first place all the time. Is that person really going to even bother trying booking economy in the hopes of getting a discount on the flight at the risk of sitting in coach? If not, the person best posed to realize the benefits is the least likely to use them.

    So my question is this: for whom do frequent flyer programs encourage to travel more frequently with a carrier? Aside from “places where the flyer doesn’t foot the bill and no one else cares what it is.” I don’t have much. Even then I’d imagine the quality of the first product would be a bigger motivator than the loyalty program.

    I pay whatever is cheapest for my schedule now. Yeah I’ll bank whatever horsepoop miles they give me. But the programs aren’t inspiring loyalty.

  8. What Chuck said, especially this: “I pay whatever is cheapest for my schedule now. Yeah I’ll bank whatever horsepoop miles they give me. But the programs aren’t inspiring loyalty.”

  9. Yep, what @Chucks says probably is the best way to approach things going forward.

    So well said – and spot on, too!

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