|by Jason Steele|
Delta seems to have perfected a new technique for discouraging loyalty among its most frequent fliers. Two weeks ago, they made an announcement that fliers would forfeit miles redeemed for awards that were not flown. Previously, they could redeposit the award if they cancelled their plans. Some elites were allowed to have their miles returned without fees, while everyone else was stuck with a $150 change fee. While this change did not make anyone happy, Delta rationalized it by proclaiming there was a problem with people holding award seats that they were not flying. Frequent travelers were immediately skeptical of such claims as it does seem like finding, booking, and paying taxes for an award is not something people do if they don’t intend to fly, and I can only speculate how hard it is to get the tax refund upon cancellation.
The key to Delta’s strategy for upsetting its best customers was not just the first change, announced two weeks ago, but their most recent announcement that awards will actually be non-refundable and non-changeable 72 hours prior to travel. This has really upset people. Delta has long been known to release a deplorable number of “low” level award seats. They have reacted to this problem by releasing more of them closer to the day of flight. This, combined with their dropping of last minute booking fees makes Delta awards great for last minute trips that would otherwise cost an outrageous amount. Apparently, people have been booking medium and high level tickets on the hopes that they could change their flights to “low” level awards when Delta releases their inventory… 72 hours before the flight.
How Upset Are They?
On the discussion boards there are the usual threats to take business elsewhere, but there is a lot more ferocity this time. Particular hatred is reserved for the manner in which Delta has rolled out these changes. Two major announcements in two weeks is bad. Any PR person will tell you to always release all the bad news at once, not a little bit over a long time period. They also take great issue with the patronizing wording that Delta used to attempt to spin this downgrade as a feature. As Delta put it:
Over the past year, more than 1,000,000 Award Tickets were reissued or canceled within 72 hours of departure. As a result, a significant number of these Award Seats departed unused as other members did not have time to rebook them. Effective August 15, 2011, SkyMiles members must now request Award Ticket and mileage upgrade redeposits at least 72 hours before their original flight departure. This change will make unused seats available to other members and ultimately increase Award Ticket availability.
Travelers are extremely skeptical of Delta’s statistics, noting that they operated 2.1 million flights last year, so nearly half of them would have had one award ticket canceled or reissued. The other major issue people are having is that these changes appear to be retroactive to affect awards that have already been issued. Finally, Delta appears to be blaming their best customers, never mind the fact that not returning SkyMiles will not fix the “problem” of unused award seats.
As regular readers know, I have always had mixed feelings about the carrier based in Atlanta where I grew up. I am proud of their role in transforming Atlanta into a global hub, but I find them obtuse and customer un-friendly. These latest actions hurt much of the goodwill they earned by releasing more last minute “low” awards. I generally accept the fact that loyalty programs will always make their rules more restrictive as time goes on, but I think that they are crossing a big line by changing the terms on awards that have already been issued.