My Elite Status Conundrum: American vs. Delta

Apr 17, 2013

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For some reason, I just can’t manage to stop flying Delta. For the past year I’ve been trying to shift my loyalty from Delta to American, which you would think would be easy with all of Delta’s negative changes – like an impending shift to a revenue-based elite program, hacked Same Day Confirmed Benefits, an inflexible 72-hour rule on award tickets, consumer-unfriendly expiration of miles when a member dies (not that I’m planning to anytime soon) and the list goes on. I kind of feel like Delta and I are in an dysfunctional relationship – I’m a train careening towards a brick wall, but I’m unable to put the brakes on.

Recent negative changes, including to Same Day Confirmed flight options have me wanting to fly Delta less.
Recent negative changes, including to Same Day Confirmed flight options have me wanting to fly Delta less.

My Year to Date Elite Qualification

I’m currently at 16,742 Delta Medallion Qualifying Miles to date and only 10,588 on American. A lot of my flying this year has been on miles (South Africa, Brazil and a couple Los Angeles trips to name a few) so I’m lagging in the elite qualification department. I’m not panicking because there are a bunch of tricks I can pull out of my sleeve by year’s end (ahem, mileage runs and credit card spend runs), but I still find it interesting that I just can’t seem to fully “quit” Delta.

The Case for American (Abridged)
There are a lot of reasons why I’ve tried to switch loyalty to American:

-Better route network between my main cities of Miami (home base), New York and Los Angeles

-More valuable miles (one-way awards, international first class awards and more flexible change policy)

-A better top-tier elite program.

Being Executive Platinum is great – I love my 8 systemwide upgrades that can be used on any fare with no co-pay vs. Delta’s stingy M+ requirement on international fares. I value those 8 upgrades conservatively at $4,000.

American Exec Plat Systemwide Upgrades like the one I used to get this business class seat on the new 777-300ER can be super valuable.
American Exec Plat Systemwide Upgrades like the one I used to get this business class seat on the new 777-300ER can be super valuable.

Elite upgrades are better for me on American because I usually get upgraded 72 hours in advance on transcontinental routes vs. having to wait until the very last second on Delta since they only process JFK-LAX/SFO elite upgrades at the gate. Knowing that I’m upgraded before I arrive at the airport allows me to plan better and travel with less stress – something I value a ton since I travel so much.

Being based in Miami and part-time in NYC with an employee in Los Angeles, I also can’t beat American’s route network, which gives me lots of options. Delta, for example, has only four weekly flights from Miami to Los Angeles. American also recently launched Choice Fares, which have saved me hundreds of dollars. I routinely change flights due to my frenetic schedule, so I can pay $88 in advance to essentially buy a fare that can be changed as many times as I want or applied to future airfare purchases – plus giving me the flexibility to Same Day flight changes for free and also earn 50% bonus miles.

American's Choice Fares enable my travel commitment-phobia.
American’s Choice Fares enable my travel commitment-phobia.

Why haven’t I been able to switch?
First, flying American out of Miami can be a zoo. Flying Delta is a breeze and no matter what gate you land at, you’re within walking distance to the curb.

American is also usually more expensive and often first class sells out in advance of Executive Platinum upgrades. As a hub, even as an Exec Plat you are one of many, whereas being a Miami-based Delta Platinum you are a big fish in a small pond.

The Delta SkyClub in MIA is great and I generally find the customer service on Delta to be excellent. I feel at home on Delta planes – more so than American. But I think the kicker is that Delta just makes it so darn easy to maintain elite status. With rollover MQMs and the ability to earn status just from credit card spend, I feel like I’m caught in Delta’s elite status hamster wheel and can’t stop spinning.

This is compared to American where there’s only one credit card, the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, that offers elite-qualifying miles (up to 10,000 EQMs with $40,000 in spend) as opposed to Delta’s co-branded Amex cards, two of which offer MQM spending bonuses. The Delta Reserve offers 10,000 MQMs to start plus up to 15,000 MQMs when you spend $30,000 in a calendar year, and 15,000 more MQMs when you spend $60,000 in a year. The Platinum Delta SkyMiles card offers 10,000 MQMs when you hit $25,000 in calendar year spending and 10,000 more MQMs when you hit $50,000. I just got a targeted offer for the Platinum Delta card that offers up to 35,000 Elite Miles.

That said, thanks to Delta’s new revenue-based rules for Medallion Qualification in addition to flying enough qualifying miles or segments, to maintain elite status you either need to spend either $25,000 outright on a Delta co-branded Amex credit card or $2,500 (Silver), $5,000 (Gold), $7,500 (Platinum) or $12,500 (Diamond) on the airline. I’m about to hop on a targeted Delta Amex offer and there’s no way I’ll spend $7,500-$12,500 to maintain high-tier elite status, so  if I decide to stay with Delta, I’ll probably have to hit the credit card $25,000 spending threshold, which I’d rather do on other cards that offer more valuable points. I suppose you can never have enough MQMs, though, so maybe it’ll make sense to put even more spending on this card. So many decisions to make!

On American premium fares don’t give bonus EQMs, only Elite Qualifying Points. With the EQP system, which is based on ticket class and hence spending) you need qualify either on premium fares or Elite Qualifying Miles (cheap fares). An occasional first class trip (like my upcoming cheap business class to Santiago, Chile) doesn’t really help if I end up qualifying on Elite Qualifying Miles anyway. On Delta you get a 50% bonus on your Medallion Qualifying Miles so first class flights really do help. I hope American ditches the complicated EQP system when they merge with US Airways.

Does It Actually Matter Which Airline You Fly?
I think the biggest factor is that I have so many credit card points and can redeem on the world’s best airlines using my miles/points so when it comes to flying domestically, I like choosing Delta, simply because I’m comfortable on Delta and am used to things like pre-departure beverages, consistent WiFi on every flight and generally friendly flight attendants. While seemingly trivial, I think the biggest thing is that Delta is the best in-flight domestic product and they know people like me will still fly them, even if they trim SkyMiles and Medallion benefits. I’ve railed pretty hard against these changes, but am I exactly the sucker I’ve written about? Is it bad I haven’t admonished Delta and actually taken my spend and loyalty to other airlines?

Is anyone else experiencing a similar dynamic with Delta or another frequent flyer program?

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