Have I finally convinced a client to leave Delta?

Let me say upfront that I don’t think there’s any one airline that works for everyone. I think Delta is a phenomenal airline for domestic flyers — they have the most Wi-Fi of any airline, a great domestic upgrade program, and decent lounges, which top tier elites (Diamond Medallions) get complimentary access to. But then Delta is also one of the weakest airlines out there for international travelers, given that they don’t have useful systemwide upgrades for their top tier elites, not to mention their miles are among the least valuable out there.

Which brings me to my client — let’s call him Bob — who lives in Salt Lake City and is a Diamond Medallion. He loves to fly and loves Delta, and despite being in what I’d consider to be an abusive relationship, has refused to even consider leaving Delta… up until now.

I help him book upgradable and award tickets a few times a year, and in a twisted way I enjoy his travel requests the most. You see, while booking awards through American and United can be quick and (financially) rewarding, it’s not really all that much of a challenge for me. Booking an award ticket through Delta is like pulling teeth, though I have a sense of accomplishment when it’s all done, especially on those nights where I have to argue with a SkyMiles agent for ten minutes about whether Air France is a Delta partner or not.

Anyway, this brings us back to Bob. Most of his travel is international, to both Europe and Asia. Like I said, despite my best efforts to the contrary, he has remained loyal to Delta up until this point. Ever since I first started working with him, he paid a huge premium for being loyal to Delta. He would use his systemwide upgrades on Air France by booking premium economy, and pay maybe $2,000-2,200 for an upgraded seat in business class. Funny enough using a Delta systemwide upgrade on Air France has long been cheaper than using one on Delta, given that they require higher fare classes to upgrade.

I was always quick to remind him of how much cheaper his business class seat would have been if he were loyal to American or United, where he’d pay at most $1,000 for an upgradable business class ticket. Unfortunately last June Delta changed the requirements for upgrades on Air France, no longer allowing the cheapest premium economy fares to be upgraded. Now the cheapest upgradable fare went from ~$2,000 to $2,500+. At that point Bob decided he would fly Economy Comfort instead, and just book the cheapest coach fares. I mean, $2,500 is awfully close to the cost of paid business class.

Asia is much of the same. Most of the time I convinced Bob to just book a SkyMiles award to Asia, given how high the upgradable fares were. Still, in those instances where he wanted to book an upgradable ticket, the fares weren’t that bad. An “M” fare was maybe $2,000-2,500, which, while expensive, is still not that bad.

Just yesterday Bob emailed me because he needed to go to Manila in a couple of months, and wanted the cheapest upgradable ticket on Delta. You see, with Delta constantly raising their upgradable fares, he no longer addresses me as “Ben,” but rather as “The Grinch” or “Bearer of Bad News.” The word “unfortunately” has become the word I use most frequently in our conversations.

So yesterday I was looking at fares for him from Salt Lake City to Manila, and was looking for the lowest “M” fare (the lowest fare that can be upgraded). Delta.com kept returning paid business class fares, and for a few minutes I couldn’t figure out why.

And after digging a bit deeper, it made sense — Delta’s cheapest “M” fare is more expensive than their cheapest business class fare, by about $300. So yes, Delta lures their top tier elites with systemwide upgrades, only to make the fares on which they’re more eligible more expensive than the paid business class fares.

I’m proud of Bob, because he took his first step towards correcting the problem — calling American and seeing if they’ll offer him some sort of challenge. Unfortunately they won’t till February, though I’m proud of him for taking the first step. Delta, I can understand you might not want to “give away” your business class to frequent flyers, but at the same time there’s a point at which something goes from being a semi-useful benefit to entirely useless, and there’s a certain point at which your frequent flyers won’t take it anymore.

Bob, here’s to never paying over $1,200 for a business class ticket again!

On a somewhat unrelated note, ladies, Bob is single. Could you possibly ask for any more loyalty from a guy than he has shown to Delta?

Filed Under: Advice, Delta
  1. “On a somewhat unrelated note, ladies, Bob is single. Could you possibly ask for any more loyalty from a guy than he has shown to Delta?”

    Single in Salt Lake City……does he have a show on TLC?!?! As a single female you have to wonder……..

    (All in good fun of course.)

  2. @ nancy, maybe he can join the sisterwives….with 6 wives and 1 husband they could use a brother-husband lol jk!

    But in reality, I’ve been a frequent flyer of NWA and then DL now for 6 years, flown about 400,000 miles in this time (Not a lot, but also not bad for only being 25 and none of this being for business travel) and I will say of ALL programs, the systemwide upgrades at DL have ALWAYS been the biggest pitfall to the system!

  3. Doesn’t the M fare have fewer restrictions, better availability, and less expensive change/cancel/refund fees than the cheapest business fare?

  4. As in any abusive relationship, Delta SkyMiles members can come up with a thousand excuses for staying in the relationship. I have over 700K lifetime miles in the program (mostly legacy miles brought over from PanAm) but I learned to “Just Say No” five years ago and haven’t looked back.

  5. Ben, I can’t argue with anything you (or Gary) say about DL/Skymiles. Your analysis is valid and accurate. And for Bob, if the bulk of his flying is int’l and requires connections anyway, I understand why he would leave DL. I would as well.

    That said, many of us who fly predominantly domestic and live in DL hub cities would incur massive penalties in time and productivity to switch to UA/AA. I was a loyal UA flyer out of MSP for 20 years after moving from Chicago, but after 9/11, with cutbacks in early/late flights and the heavy utilization of RJs, not to mention the horrible delays that afflict ORD, I could no longer shortchange my family or employer (or myself) of the wasted hours, and switched to NW.

    As a mid-20s, self-employed, single, footloose guy who can live anywhere he chooses and seems to love flying and airports more than anything else, I’m not always sure you are quite able to walk a mile in our Skymiles shoes. Your life isn’t much like most of ours.

    Doubling the travel time of every business trip I take and spending half of it in tin-can RJs while paying for upgrades is not worth getting a trip in LH first class each year, at least not to me.

    Keep up the good work. Love the blog and your insights!

  6. DL Plat Medallion here …. my last paid trip to Europe on DL came in October … here is what I flew:

    TPA – ATL – MAN
    DUB – ATL – TPA (took the train from MAN to Liverpool, then got to try Ryanair from LIV to DUB)

    I was on a T fare (deeply discounted coach, bottom of the list for upgrades) ….

    Here is the funny thing, I was only 50% on the TPA-ATL and ATL-TPA upgrades … but I was 100% on both over water legs. Got comp upgrades to Business as an Op Up. Even with the old seats on the 767, it was a hell of a good deal.

  7. It would really be nice if Delta would identify the SWU issue as an issue and do something about it, but it’s pretty clear their thinking on the matter differs from ours. They really, really want people to pay more to sit up front.

    On the domestic front, as you say, they do a nice job. Their frontline people are generally pretty darn good. Also, if you’re flying less than 100k a year, barring changes to their elite program (which could come at any time) they’re a bit ahead of UA and especially AA (and that goes double for largely domestic travel). On the occasions I have been in coach over the last year or two, I’ve enjoyed Delta’s product more than the others. Don’t have a point of comparison up front. Once they finish up their international fleet interior refresh, they’ll be in great shape in that regard as well. Their route network is solid domestically and internationally. International policies and customer communication are where they fall down hard. We still don’t have official details of the 2012 program, and regularly deal with “minor” no-notice devaluations.

    Skypesos are what they are – somewhat less valuable (but with others joining the race to the bottom) than alternatives, but usable. As a bonus you get that perverse sense of accomplishment! The lack of F access is a downer, but for Biz class travel they’re OK.

    As Adam says, many of us DL fliers have little real choice, especially out of MSP and similar. Available options on DL are just that much better than those on any alternatives domestically, and for domestic travel DL does well anyway.

    The lack of international upgrades hurts, although schedule-wise I typically can’t manage too many international flights anyway, so tend to redeem for premium travel. It’d be nice to upgrade an occasional fare-mistake MR, but we all know that DL is certainly not going to go to unrestricted SWUs like AA has (and AA may well ditch soon) so that wouldn’t help much.

    If I was primarily international (and really it would have to be very heavily weighted in that direction, or at least to east-coast domestic and international given route networks out of MSP), AA’s international route network worked for me, and I was going to make EXP, they’d garner strong consideration.

    To some extent Delta gathers a reputation among bloggers obsessing over extracting the last bit of value from their elite program that exaggerates the bad and trivializes the good.

  8. “calling American and seeing if they’ll offer him some sort of challenge. Unfortunately they won’t till February…”

    I haven’t heard before of date limitations on AA’s challenges. Usually you can start them right away. Did Bob say what the issue was? If not, maybe he should call back and ask again.

  9. “He took his first step towards correcting the problem — calling American and seeing if they’ll offer him some sort of challenge. Unfortunately they won’t till February”

    What did you mean by “not until February”? Does AA not offer challenge at any time? Can you please elaborate?

  10. Yesterday there was a ranking of US airlines in WSJ. Delta ranked second last year behind AS. Both UA and AA are at the bottom third while US is in the middle. There is no denying that DL is best of the top three for US travel which works for a majority of us. If most of my travel is international AA/UA probably is the way to go.

  11. Same here!!!! Based in MSP tried for year keep my AA Executive Platinum status and 1.5MM miles (Gold status for life) that I brought from NJ. Having to fly to Asia and Europe for business very often, adding another stop in ORD, BOS or JFK and running the risk to get stuck in a snowstorm in one of these locations was not a choice for me. Delta sucks but it takes me non-stop from MSP to Tokyo, Amsterdam, London or Paris and thus I have no choice but fly Delta.

  12. I think it’s hard to say anything about United as the airline really is changing.

    As a United 1K I’m amazed at their decision to extend elite benefits (which bloats the ranks of FF) and then at the same time making the decision not to send new FF cards out until after the migration (even though the old cards clearly state they expire at the end of January.

    For anybody who has flown other Star Alliance airlines in Europe this basically amounts to United taking away Star Gold benefits for two months (February/March) for lounge access and things like being able to use Star Gold/First Class ticket counters. The LH lounge matrons in almost all cases can’t be reasoned with.

    So for the first time I will make that phone call to American Airlines to find out about a challenge and take advantage of double EQM. Way to go United!

  13. Lucky Ben! You just wrote about why I am AA EXP and never fly on Delta… Call me selfish, or call me a smart frugal flyer. 😉

  14. @ Swag @ Brad — Sorry, I should have clarified. He had asked for an Executive Platinum challenge, and apparently the agent said it would be back in February.

  15. As much as I don’t like many of Delta’s policies, I am tired of wasting my time connecting through IAD to go from SFO-ATL. I stuck with the old United for the generous compensation and the huge number of confirmable upgrades doled out in 2011, but looking forward, UA/CO is going to be much more like Delta when it comes to these things. I also suspect that in 2-3 years post-bankruptcy AA won’t be much different that DL and UA.

    Yes, the AA/UA international systemwide upgrades are nice, but with all of the huge credit card bonuses, who cares? I’ll take my six international F-trips each year with those miles. What’s business class? 🙂

  16. I am a delta diamond. At the admirals club at ord completing my exec plat challenge right now……..

  17. I’m a DL Silver and I think Delta really does right by me. They make it incredibly easy to earn miles and since I live near DC it was a cinch to redeem 100k for IAD-CDG-FCO/VCE-CDG-IAD this summer. I recognize they have flaws, but all airlines do, and they serve me well

  18. @Matt: “They really, really want people to pay more to sit up front.”

    Quite a profound business model, isn’t it? 🙂

  19. I am a Continental Platinum and United 1K because of the merger but I have never seen any way to pay at most $1,000 for an upgradable business class ticket. I would do international mileage runs this way if I could.
    Could you elaborate?

  20. I think he means cheap economy fare upgradable TO biz class with a VIP/SWU.
    Not a Biz class ticket that is upgradable to F

  21. @ Dan — With United you just need a “W” class ticket to upgrade to business class, and to Europe those are often under $1,000.

    @ ffi — Well he wanted to earn EQMs and it was a work trip.

  22. Can I use my continental swu on a united w class ticket? Or what is the cheapest class ticket to use continental swu on continental?

  23. @ Dsn — Yes, absolutely. You’d need to make the request through the “integration desk,” though you can apply a Continental systemwide upgrade towards a United “W” class ticket.

  24. The general abusive behavior that ALL of the big carriers have toward their frequent fliers is the primary reason that I’m no longer an elite on any of the majors. I was with Delta for awhile as they had the only service to the Southern city I was in and habit kept me with them when I came to Denver. I tried United, but when I tried to book award flights to Europe I gave up. If you (UA) block awards then I have no use for you. Of course DL isn’t fun, but I got something out of them. Now I’m mildly miles agnostic. I’ve got a Alaska Airlines account to credit Delta and AA miles to and a UA one with a slowly growing balance I’ll probably never be able to cash out since I am not inclined to play the block game… seems I need to make a call to Lucky to get rid of some of those UA miles. 🙂

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