Elite status devalued? What Delta's second elite status extension, MQM rollover means for elites

July 31, 2021
10 min read
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Earlier this week, I reported on Delta being the first U.S. airline to extend elite status through 2022. Now all members who earned status in 2019, 2020 or 2021 will have Delta elite status through Jan. 31, 2023 — even if they don't fly a single mile this year. This is excellent news for those who are still traveling less due to the pandemic, but it could have some unforeseen consequences for new elites and Delta elites who are back on the road.

Of course, Delta did try and make concessions with elites who organically requalified for status this year by offering higher upgrade priority in 2022. Frankly, I don't think this is enough to make up for the fact that the skies will be filled with elites as travel resumes.

Let's take a closer look at why Delta's decision to extend elite status through 2022 could hurt Delta's most loyal elites who are continuing to fly through the pandemic. I'll also discuss a few changes Delta can make to make this extension burn less for requalified elites.

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Why Delta's second round of COVID response could hurt elites

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

To recap, Delta extended elite status for all current elites through Jan. 31, 2023. This means those who earned elite status in 2019, 2020 or 2021 now have status through that date, regardless of how much they've flown this year.

The airline also announced that it would continue to award status on award tickets through Dec. 31, 2022, and roll over all MQMs earned in 2021 to 2022, including ones from the 2020 to 2021 rollover. In turn, this could leave some members with massive MQM balances in the new year.

In other news: it's easier than ever to earn, maintain or upgrade your elite status. This could have some major impacts on Delta elites flying enough to earn status this year and next. Some of these flyers may not have flown since 2019 but will still be getting preferred treatment by the airline when they do.

It goes beyond status extensions too. Delta choosing to roll over MQMs from 2020 to 2021 made sense when travel was at a standstill, but continuing to roll over all 2021 MQMs to 2022 means there will be a ton of new elites next year. This creates issues for high-level Delta elites, including a possible dilution of benefits.

Let's take a closer look.

Lounges will be crowded when international travel returns

(Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

Those with Delta Gold elite status and higher get free SkyTeam lounge access when flying on international itineraries. Plus, Delta Medallion members can select Sky Club memberships as a Choice Benefit, so they can access the Sky Club when flying on any itinerary. International lounge access will essentially be extended through next year for Gold and higher elites. Plus, those who upgrade their status to Diamond with the MQM rollover may opt to select a Sky Club membership as a Choice Benefit.

Depending on how international travel recovers, this could mean extremely overcrowded lounges at airports with lots of international service, like Detroit (DTW), Los Angeles (LAX) and New York-JFK. This is on top of record numbers of new applicants for The Platinum Card® from American Express and possible new Diamond Medallion members who may choose Sky Club access as their Choice Benefit.

To make matters worse, Delta doesn't have lounges that are exclusive to business class passengers. Think something akin to United Polaris or American Flagship lounges. This means that travelers paying for expensive business class tickets will also have to deal with these crowded lounges (while adding to the crowd themselves).

We could see long wait times for lounges that will affect Delta One passengers, those with access through a credit card and requalified elites. In a worst-case scenario, we could see this overcrowded lead to long queues for entry, similar to what we've seen in some Centurion Lounges over the years.

Upgrades will be harder to score for lower-tier elites

This is a bit complicated. On the one hand, Delta announced that elites who requalify for status in 2021 will have upgrade priority over those flying on extended status. This was a nice added benefit and is a clear effort to make those who have continued to fly the airline feel appreciated. This benefit even goes so far as prioritizing requalified elites even if an extended elite is booked in a higher fare class.

But the issue comes for lower-tier elites, like Silver and Gold Medallions.

These members will have a significantly harder time clearing upgrades, given a potential influx of new and upgraded elites. Those who just qualified for Gold status could see themselves at the bottom of the upgrade list, given the fact that there are so many new Platinum and Diamond elites from two years of MQM rollovers.

SkyPriority could become nearly worthless

On a similar note, we could see massive crowding at SkyPriority lanes at major Delta hubs. Anyone with SkyTeam Elite Plus status — Delta Gold Medallion or higher — is eligible for priority check-in, security, baggage and boarding at supported airports. Those booked in premium cabins on SkyTeam airlines can also qualify.

If there's a sudden influx of new members at the Gold and higher levels, we could see queues at priority security grow substantially. The same goes for priority baggage — what difference does it make to have this benefit if your bag is stuck behind a slew of other new elites? This could devalue the speed Delta's most frequent flyers are used to.

Delta's certificate extensions are months too late

Delta also extended the validity of Regional and Global Upgrade Certificates (RGUs) when it extended elite status. This comes months too late for many elites, who used Global upgrades on domestic flights due to concerns around the (unfortunately named) delta variant creating travel obstacles.

Realistically, these should have been extended through the end of next year, much earlier in the year. It's unfair to the elites who have already burned their upgrade certificates on lower value flights that this extension comes mid-way through the year.

Related: What happens to your airline companion fare or hotel free night certificate now?

How Delta can take care of requalifying elites in 2022

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Each airline has its own take on the pandemic and elite status. American and United reduced elite status qualifications, while Delta instead chose to roll over all MQM. We can talk all day about whose approach is better, but we're here now. While this second round of extensions and promotions may not be great for all elites, Delta has time to make it up to those who will earn or requalify for status this year. Here are a few things I'd like to see Delta do for these elites this year.

Upgrade priority is a great start, but it needs some tweaks

Before diving into my wish list, I have to hand it to Delta: giving requalified elites upgrade priority in 2022 is a great start. This will be particularly useful for Diamond and Platinum Medallions, who will not only be competing with extended elites but those with higher status due to the MQM rollover.

I would like to see Delta take this one step further and give top upgrade priority to elites who earned status without the MQM rollover. For example, if someone upgrades from Platinum to Diamond Medallion largely because of an MQM rollover, they would have lesser priority than someone who earned the full 125,000 MQMs to earn Diamond in 2021. This would help those who are on the road frequently get the upgrades they deserve.

Award bonus Choice Benefits for those who requalify

Another way Delta could show appreciation to requalified elites is by offering a one-time Choice Benefit bonus to Platinum and Diamond Medallions who requalify. This could be a choice of available benefits or simply a couple of extra Regional or Global Upgrade Certificates.

It's worth noting that Choice Benefits won't be awarded to those who have their status extended. But awarding a bonus Choice Benefit upon qualification would show added appreciation and help make up for the huge influx of new and upgraded elites. It might even drum up some travel demand too.

Reinstate Global Upgrade Certificates for some members

This may be a big ask, but it would be nice to see Delta reinstate Global Upgrade Certificates for Diamond Medallions who spend them on domestic trips. We could see them either fully reinstate these tickets or award a Regional Upgrade Certificate as compensation for not extending certificates earlier. Either would soften the burn for those who used a Global upgrade for a short domestic hop.

Add tier bonuses for hitting certain MQM thresholds

It would also be nice to see Delta add SkyMiles bonuses for hitting certain MQM tiers. For example, Delta could award 50,000 SkyMiles for every 100,000 MQM you earn in a given year. Again, this would show appreciation to elites flying through the pandemic and gives elites a boost toward a future vacation.

Think of it like Hyatt's Milestone Rewards that give upgrades, free nights and other perks to Hyatt elites after meeting certain stay thresholds.

Related: How and why I’m going to earn higher elite status in 2021 than in recent years

Bottom line

There's no doubt that Delta's decision to extend elite status through 2022 comes from good intentions. After all, coronavirus variants are on the rise and we could see this negatively impact travel in the near future. Likewise, business travel has not completely rebounded and many countries have continued to keep their borders shut through the pandemic.

On the other hand, those traveling through the pandemic may see their elite status benefits devalued with such a huge influx of new, upgraded and extended elites. The airline has addressed this in some regard, but it will need to do more to keep its most loyal customers happy.

Feature photo by Philip Pilosian/Shutterstock.com

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Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.