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As longtime readers will know, the Delta Air Lines SkyMiles program has been tied to my whipping post for quite a while. However, I was cautiously optimistic about some of the changes announced last year. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele looks at the state of the program and the airline in general to see whether Delta has made good on its promises.
In the last year, Delta announced major revisions to the SkyMiles program that just took effect as the calendar flipped to 2015. The changes included:
- A new revenue-based earning program. Starting this year, you’ll earn miles based on the cost of your fare and your Medallion status, rather than how far you fly. However, earning Medallion status itself will still depend on the miles flown and the fare class or class of service.
- A revised award calendar. The old award calendar was very buggy and consistently returned inaccurate results. Often the awards priced out far too high, while other times the calendar showed low-level awards that wouldn’t materialize when you tried to book them.
- One-way awards. One of the biggest drawbacks of the SkyMiles program was that you could only book round-trip awards (or a one-way for the same price as a round-trip).
- A new award chart. Delta announced a switch from a three-tier award chart to a five-tier chart.
- Increased award availability at the lowest levels. By far the biggest problem faced by most award travel enthusiasts was that Delta published three award tiers, but rarely made awards available at the lowest level. Delta’s announcement appeared to be good news, but many people noticed that Delta promised more awards at the lowest mileage levels (plural)—which could be interpreted as the lowest two levels in Delta’s new five-tier chart, and not necessarily more seats at the very lowest mileage level.
Delta billed some of these changes as remedies to the (many) criticisms the airline has received about the SkyMiles program over the years. The promise of one-way awards, an improved award calendar, and better availability at low mileage levels was enough to pacify many SkyMiles members despite the potential drawbacks of the revenue-based program. So, now that 2015 has arrived, it’s time to hold Delta accountable and see how well the airline has kept its word.
The new revenue-based earning program
The new program offers miles per dollar spent using a multiplier based on your medallion status. General members earn five miles per dollar spent, Silver 7, Gold 8, Platinum 9, and Diamond 11. Predictably, this will work out great for those who buy last minute tickets at higher, walk-up prices (mostly business travelers), but will award fewer miles for those who make discounted, advance fare purchases.
This may turn out to be a smart business decision for Delta, which values its highest paying customers more than its bargain seekers. Unfortunately, the tool on their website that compares mileage earnings between the 2014 and 2015 programs isn’t very accurate. For some reason, it’s showing all destinations as being 1,000 miles round-trip, making the new program appear to be far superior.
Also, keep in mind that there’s a cap of 75,000 miles that can be earned per ticket. So if you have high enough Medallion status and you’re purchasing expensive tickets, then it will be smart to book your trip as two one-way flights so that you can earn more than 75,000 miles total round-trip. For example, if you’re a Diamond Medallion member purchasing a round-trip ticket with a base fare of over $6,818, you’ll earn more miles if you purchase two one-way tickets instead.
The revised award calendar
To the delight of travelers, Delta’s new award calendar was actually released a few weeks ago, and it has drawn positive reviews. Award availability can be searched on a calendar view in five week increments, and when you select a day with a particular mileage level, you actually see award flights that can be booked for that price. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you’ve had experience using their old search system, then you know that this development is a huge step forward. In addition, the calendar just started displaying partner award flights on China and China Southern, which is a welcome surprise.
Nevertheless, I did encounter several errors when searching the new award calendar, such as the following:
Some degree of bugginess is expected, and hopefully Delta will continue to tinker with and improve the new calendar so that it no longer returns errors (and perhaps even shows more partner availability). Regardless, this is one area where Delta has clearly made progress.
Like the revised award calendar, the existence of one-way awards (for half the price of a round-trip) doesn’t sound that special, but it’s a fantastic new development that SkyMiles members have been waiting for. Just note that this new functionality comes with two significant downsides.
First, Delta has done away with stopovers on awards, which means that any stop greater than 4 hours on a domestic trip, or 24 hours on an international itinerary, will cause the journey to be priced out with an additional segment. In addition, Delta imposes fees and fuel surcharges on itineraries originating outside of the United States. So while it might be tempting to book an international trip as two one-way tickets, or to book a one-way flight originating overseas, doing so will be much more expensive.
New award chart
Delta’s new award chart (which was previously announced) goes from a three tier system to five different tiers of mileage levels. You can still view both the old and new award charts here.
Earlier this year TPG voiced his optimism about the new award chart, but that positive outlook was contingent upon whether Delta actually improved its low-level award availability. It’s time to see whether that came to fruition.
Increased award availability at the lowest mileage levels
To evaluate Delta’s promise to make more seats available at the lowest mileage levels, I picked a few routes and performed award searches both before and after the new year for flights in May and June of 2015. Here’s what I found.
1. Atlanta to Paris non-stop in business class
As you can see, all non-stop flights were pricing out at the highest mileage level for a business class award, costing 325,000 miles round-trip.
Now, here are my results from January 2, 2015:
Thankfully, not everything is at the highest level as it was before. There are still no award seats available at the lowest level, but there are several days where tier 2 awards are available for 80,000 miles each way. So in this case, Delta has made more award space available at its lowest levels (plural), but nothing at its lowest level.
2. Denver to Atlanta non-stop in economy
You can see that prior to the new year there were only four days during this time period when you could have booked a non-stop Delta award flight between Denver and Atlanta in economy (25,000 miles round-trip).
After the new year, there seems to be a little more low-level award space on this route than there was previously (now on six of 35 days), and the awards are less expensive on most days even if they’re not at the lowest level.
3. New York to Los Angeles non-stop in business elite
Above you can see that nearly all days were offered in the mid-level tier, with two days in the lowest tier.
The new calendar returns significantly better results, as the mileage required is now lower on most days, and there are many days when awards are truly available at the lowest mileage level of 32,500 one-way.
4. Atlanta to Honolulu non-stop in economy class
Here you can see that this itinerary had mostly mid-level award availability, with high-level awards on 5 of 35 days. There were no low-level awards available during this time period.
The updated search shows three days of availability in tier 2, but nothing in the lowest tier. Most days offer availability in tier 3, with some days in tiers 4 and 5.
Delta seems to have fulfilled most of its promises, and even exceeded expectations by delivering its new award calendar early and including two new partners in its search results. However, the most important question was always going to be whether Delta began offering more award seats at its lowest levels. Based on my (admittedly limited) study of award availability before and after January 1st, Delta has indeed lowered the prices of most awards, and has made more awards available at the “lowest mileage levels” as promised. There even appear to be slightly more seats available at the very lowest mileage level.
So is Delta catching up to its competitors? With an award calendar that now (mostly) shows reliable results and the availability of one-way flights, Delta now appears to be offering at least some awards that are more competitive with other airlines. You still can’t expect to easily find awards at the lowest mileage level, but you’ll likely end up spending fewer miles then before, and low level award seats no longer feel like a fairy tale.
Delta is a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and the Starwood Preferred Guest program, but there was rarely any reason to transfer points to SkyMiles in the past. That’s no longer the case. Delta has re-established itself as a legitimate (if not great) transfer option, and has similarly boosted the usefulness of its co-branded credit cards, like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express.
If, like me, you had completely given up on the SkyMiles program in frustration, it’s now time to take another look, because you might be pleasantly surprised.