Why Would Delta Rather Fly Empty Business Class Cabins Than Upgrade Elites?

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Along with many of the other negative changes Delta has announced over the past year including award chart devaluations, revenue-based elite requirements, and a new revenue-based mileage-earning system that will go into place in December, the airline also changed up how it hands out upgrades to elites back in December – and I’ve been hearing from many Delta Medallions lately that this new system seems to be broken.

Delta lie-flat BusinessElite product on the 767
Has your Delta BusinessElite cabin looked like this lately?

As a reminder, per Delta, starting March 1, 2014, complimentary upgrades for the transcontinental BusinessElite routes (which used to be assigned at the gate based on availability) are no longer a Medallion benefit. Instead, Diamond Medallions must select to upgrade those routes (and other international routes) using Global upgrades or miles.

These Global Upgrades are part of the new Choice Benefits options Diamond Medallions now have. Diamonds receive Regional and Global upgrade certificates; while Platinum Medallions can select Regional Upgrades.

New Delta Upgrade Chart
New Delta Upgrade Chart

So based on these new rules, pretty much only Diamond’s are getting transcontinental upgrades, and even to do so, they must use a Global Upgrade. The good news is that Global upgrades are eligible on pretty much all paid fare classes for international and domestic BusinessElite routes): Y, B, M, S, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V classes. They may be redeemed for the named Medallion member and up to one travel companion in the same reservation. The named member and the companion will each require a separate certificate.

On the plus side, upgrades to Hawaii from LAX/SEA/SFO and SLC are now eligible for complimentary Medallion upgrades – so leisure travelers are in luck, but the high-revenue transcon business travelers are going to have to pay a premium to get into BusinessElite – whether that’s a higher airfare or forking over one of those Global Upgrades. It also means that if you want to be able to upgrade transcontinentally, you’re going to have to be a Delta Diamond, which changes the whole rollover strategy. A lot of people stop just short of the 125,000 MQMs required and opt to instead rollover a ton of MQMs and stick with Platinum – but based on this they might want to go for Diamond for the 4 Global Upgrades.

Empty Cabins

So what has this all meant? The new policy has been in place just about 3 weeks now…and I’ve been hearing all about it from readers and my fellow Delta Medallions. I think my Twitter follower Joe summed it up best in this tweet:

Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 4.38.08 PMI can imagine their frustration! There’s just something painful about flying 75,000+ miles a year on an airline to earn that elite status and to have to sit for 6 hours looking at an empty business class cabin where your elite status would have had you sitting the month before.

Now I know a bunch of commenters are probably going to say that elites are too entitled anyway, but quite frankly, upgrades are a major reason many people go for elite status in the first place and make sure to give their loyalty to an airline. After all, if you have a lot of flying to do, why wouldn’t you give your business to an airline where you’re likely to get an upgrade on your most frequent routes?

This is a different matter from prioritizing elites over other customers who might pay for an upgrade, which many airlines – most notably United – have stopped doing and that got their elites up in arms about a year ago. Hey, if a passenger is going to pay for that business class seat, I think an airline is entitled to sell it to them, but to fly an empty business class cabin as a way of strong-arming some of your most loyal flyers seems like just plain old bad business for me. I am curious to know whether it will boost actual BusinessElite sales as Delta Medallions try to convince their companies to spring for business class on work trips, or whether it just means coach tickets are going to get more expensive as even elites have to compete for more limited space.

I haven’t flown Delta transcontinentally in a while now – preferring to give American my business, especially with all the recent SkyMiles changes – so I haven’t had this issue…yet. But how about all of you? What’s the situation like on Delta planes these days for you elites out there?

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