Is What Delta Did Really That Evil?

Gary over at View From The Wing has staked out the position that Delta’s decision to remove their award charts may be the single worst thing to occur in frequent flyer-dom.  Ever.

I mean, it’s not like he compares them to the lady that drowned the dog in an airport recently when she wasn’t allowed to board her flight with it.  But, it’s a very stark position.  And, I’m not 100% sure he’s right.

Now, some of this is tongue-in-cheek.  I’m not a Delta fan by any stretch.  And, I did think it would be fun to play devil’s advocate on this issue.  I’m just not sure how long I’ll get hate mail.

But, before we get to the counter-argument, we need to cover Gary’s position:

When the new year came their pricing engine was charging more for some awards than the award chart indicated. So they changed the award chart to reflect the higher prices they had intended.

Still, their IT systems were broken and would sometimes charge for flights additively (e.g. Cleveland – Detroit – Grand Rapids could price as two awards instead of being treated as a connection). That’s been true for years.

I was promised an answer about what was going on here a month ago. They haven’t fixed the technology to charge what the award chart promised. They’ve taken away the charts.

The page that used to show the award charts now just says,

Once you’ve selected your itinerary and logged into your SkyMiles account, you’ll be asked to pay for the flights you selected.

Within and between the Continental U.S., Alaska and Canada, round-trip Award Tickets will continue to start at 25,000 miles (plus taxes and fees).

They got rid of award charts.  And, the outcry is that by removing the charts, Delta is being disingenuous.  Gary theorizes some ideas why they might be doing this, and I’ll throw out some thoughts as to why the sky may not quite have fallen.

  • If Delta’s award booking engine wasn’t accurately pricing things before, then the award charts didn’t really hold much value.
  • There is/was no explicit promise by a program to publish an award chart.  Given the advent of multiple price tiers for award flights, knowing that there are 5 different “prices” for an award is helpful, I guess.  But, it’s more likely that the average Joe wants to know how much it is to fly on X date (when they can get time off from work, and maybe when their kids are out of school).  And, reading a chart with umpteen categories doesn’t actually give him/her that info.
  • Gary argues that Delta hasn’t been forthcoming in the past, and there’s certainly evidence to support this.  But, there’s no evidence to support that they’ll be any more or less forthcoming without an award chart.
  • He also notes that this might be a transition to revenue-based redemption, where Delta would price each award based on the current retail cost of the ticket.  I just don’t see them making that move right now.

Breaking down Gary’s summary:

Regardless of the motivation, they’re undercutting the goal-oriented nature of the program (the number of miles needed for an award),

I don’t think they’re overtly doing that.  As I said above, a member can use the award calendar to find out how much an award costs.  See, I did it (one good price, one really bad price):

Delta

Delta

Even thought I got one really bad price, having an award chart to refer to wouldn’t have necessarily gotten me a better one in this example (I did find IAD-MIA flights that priced at the 25,000 level).  Anyway, back to his big finish:

removing its transparency (what an award should cost),

There’s definitely less transparency, but the old charts didn’t show what an award should cost.  It just gave you a very broad range that the price of the award would fall into.

and eliminating any external document that lets us point out when an award price is just wrong (the IT is broken).

Well, yeah.  No way to know it’s broken.  I’ll give him that. Delta, I can think of no way to defend you on this point.  Okay, wait.  If the booking engine is broken such that they can’t honor something on the award chart, then isn’t Delta doing you a service by not wasting your time and making you frustrated about an award you’ll never actually be able to book?  Just sayin’…..

If I look at this with a broad brush, transparency is better than no transparency.  Ask someone if they want more or less information about the price of something they want to buy, few will say they want less information.

But, it’s not clear today’s changes actually mean awards will cost more miles on Delta tomorrow.

 


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42 Comments

  1. Really? So the solution is to simply accept whatever shit rate is presented to, regardless of what it should be? I bet every company on the planet would love such a thing. Promise X and sell it at X+ whatever the market will bear. And laugh and spit in their customers faces, because the miles belong to Delta, don’t they?

    That’s called bait and switch = Fraud.

    Gary was right, and too timid in his accusations.

    1. Paul, I didn’t say you should accept whatever rate they display. But, how valuable is a chart that’s not actually accurate? It can’t be bait and switch. There is no implicit or explicit guarantee from Delta that they will offer you an award in category 1 (or 2 or 3). The only true downside I see to this move is that we can no longer tell when Delta raises the price it *thinks* it should charge you for an award. The charts weren’t accurate before.

      1. Except is has been a bait a switch, because certain awards have not been handling transfers properly and pricing as A-B + B-C when it’s a simple A-C ticket with level 1 seats available on both flights. With a published chart you could phone and get them to correct it, without a published chart they can now charge whatever they want to whoever they want without consequence.

        1. Well, technically, you could still call them now to book something where tier 1 prices were available on both segments, published chart or not.

          1. Except now there reply will be, “That price quoted in the price”. They were doing manual adjustments before and I don’t expect them to continue, because now there isn’t a standard they aren’t following. There is just a quoted price. So now nothing is wrong.

            It’s like trying to argue about price in a store that doesn’t put prices on items. If the checkout guy says the milk costs $10, how do you argue he’s wrong?

          2. Apples and oranges. In your example before where a level 1 seat is available on both segments of a 2-segment flight but not available for the entire trip, having a chart doesn’t help you win that argument. Being able to show the availability on both segments is your ammunition, which doesn’t change absent a chart. I’m not saying you’re more or less likely to get the right answer now, but a chart doesn’t help you there.

            Now, for things that are more opaque, we’re in agreement. With no chart to set a price, DL will have more freedom to set the market.

          3. To argue that the chart is unreliable in various odd cases is a red herring to me. I have never personally run into those cases.

            Publishing a chart is really the only way to help estimate the value of miles. Using it I decide what maximum price to accept for an award. The chart helps put an estimated value on miles and helps decide whether to accrue miles in different situations.

            If you have no chart, there’s another variable in the equation. Not only is it work to find a low-priced award, but know you don’t even know what the low-price is.

    1. Jake, no doubt the post is a bit tongue-in-cheek. But, anyone who took Delta’s charts as gospel when they were never accurate before isn’t really being realistic.

  2. Normally I think Gary is just a credit card shill. But today you’ve convinced me to continue reading him and reinforced why your blog is second rate at best.

  3. Actually I agree with you! It’s amazing to me how insane people get over these programs. I am a pilot (ex airline) and when airlines lose more money than the GDP of some countries to transport people in relative style and comfort for dirt cheap, no one gives a damn. Change a minor benefit (or major) people are spitting blood and threatening suicide. Well…maybe not, but close to it, it seems. A certain Delta blogger rants with such desperation and venom its mind boggling. It’s a frequent flyer program that rewards people, nothing else, it’s not your health or your livelihood. I like free flights, caviar, lobster and plush beds, showers in the stratosphere, with sky butlers more than most believe me…but where is the perspective??

    1. Andy, given where Delta’s reputation was before this change, how much more faith could you actually lose when an inaccurate chart is eliminated?

  4. You’re defending the indefensible, dude….
    I’m sorry, but you are looking like a rebel teenager who needs to automatically defy the other “grown ups”, who see the true nature of this move.

    1. Dude26, I’d be thrilled to be a teenager again with what I know now. But, the reality is that the charts weren’t accurate before and DL priced awards inaccurately. Getting rid of an inaccurate chart doesn’t amount to a criminal act.

  5. While I agree to a very limited extent with you that their systems are broken and this doesn’t make that any more or less true, I think the real damage is to the casual frequent flier collector. You and I and the average reader of this blog can look at an inflated price and say “Well, that doesn’t look right.” and keep digging. The average user, however, is far more likely to just accept whatever they’re handed. Without an award chart to even refer to, how would they ever even know any better?

    I’m with you that, ok, it isn’t the end of the world and anyway it’s Delta so many of us have already distanced ourselves from their program. But I see it as inarguably a negative change and even sort of insulting to SkyMiles members.

    1. Stephen, I agree that the casual traveler is hurt most *by the way Delta inaccurately prices awards*. But, the casual traveler was probably never looking at the charts. And, if they did look at a chart with 5 categories, they probably quickly closed the window. The vast majority of questions I get from folks who aren’t “part of the hobby” revolve around, “how many miles to fly to x?” or “how do I redeem?”. Not, “I was on DL’s website and couldn’t figure out how to get a category 2 award to price”.

      Heck, you’d be surprised how many people tell me how proud they are that they redeemed their hundreds of thousands of Ultimate Rewards points by having Chase buy an airline ticket for them. They had no idea that was the worst value Chase offered, as opposed to transferring the points to a program.

      Of course this change isn’t positive. But, making this out to be a catastrophe just seems way too out-sized to me.

  6. Air France & KLM’s Flying Blue haven’t had a published award chart in ages. Life goes on. If Delta actually STOPPED offering award flights, then I’d be really really nervous. 😉

    1. Nic, so you’re saying you relied completely on Delta to have award availability in all 5 categories (and especially category 1 and 2), exactly as illustrated on their charts?

  7. I think you’re missing a key point. By providing no chart, DL will no longer announce price increases. How can they if there’s no published price?

    1. Nun, this is absolutely a downside for mainstream award pricing. We still don’t know if Delta’s website was really broken on awards where they priced the flights cumulatively. That may be how they wanted it to price. I don’t collect SkyMiles. Never have. I don’t trust that I’ll be able to redeem them for value (as an aside, I actually think they have a nice in-flight product). Nor do many in the frequent traveler community. But, you’re really telling me that because Delta used to publish an inaccurate chart that you couldn’t actually rely on for the pricing of awards, that the elimination of that chart is the most egregious thing in the world?

      1. I always want transparency and hiding prices is obviously the opposite.

        Even if you feel the old chart was unreliable, it was reliable enough for me and for partner awards it was 100% reliable. The very least they could do is publish a partner award chart.

          1. It’s DL, so there’s always further bloodletting to come. Still I bet partner awards are less likely to have multilevel pricing, so it’s easier to publish a chart than for DL flights themselves.

            (Having said all that I begrudgingly accumulate DL miles. Like you I trust DL least of the major carriers and only take SkyMiles when it happens to be easy to do.)

          2. I don’t think it’s likely multi-level pricing, either. But, I expect to see earning changes for partners. And, I wouldnt’t be surprised to see them tweak how partner awards are booked (or see partners “retaliate” with less availability). I wouldn’t want to be in a position where I had to collect DL miles.

  8. I think they are starting to see their mileage program as more of a marketing tool than a rewards/loyalty program. Having it be opaque and different for different users makes it impossible to game and much more useful as a targeted marketing tool
    But they still need the perception that they are a loyalty program.

    1. Nick, interesting thought. My guess is that they haven’t seen it as a loyalty program for a while and see it as something akin to a marketing tool/anchor.

  9. I believe the removal of the award chart will not be a big impact for those in the Delta frequent flyer/mileage point game community–as these few are the ones who paid attention to the ranges of miles required for Delta award bookings. But the vast majority of Delta flyers or those wanting to use points for Delta flights from another source (Amex MRs, for example) will not be aware of the ranges that are supposed to be available for award flights now. This vast majority will have no idea how good or bad a deal the award offers might be from here on out, and that is the problem with Delta’s move. It is disingenuous at best, and very bad transparency on award flight policy at worst. Everyone who flies Delta should be concerned about what Delta might do next to further preclude “bargain” award flights that further dilute the already near-worthless value of Delta SkyPesos. Some were trying to argue that SkyPesos had increased in value, but I still hold that SkyPesos and the entire Delta frequent flyer program is the worst award currency in the USA…and among the worst in the world. Delta is incredibly profitably right now, so they are shifting away from offering better award options and this removal allows them to easily require more SkyPesos for flights for the overwhelming majority of the flying public. Stick with Delta if you must, especially those living near a Delta hub city. But I’m thrilled to live in SoCal where SNA/LAX are my airports and where all of the major airlines permit me choice…and I almost never use Delta. I vastly prefer United and American over Delta, and when necessary I still find it far more useful to use Alaska miles to get award tickets on Delta–having just booked on Alaska using 120k AS miles for 2 rdtrip business class tix for LAX-PVR on Delta flights, which would have cost 280k Delta SkyPesos had I booked with Delta! To be fair, the comparable United flights would have cost 240k United miles, so still a bit better than the Delta SkyPesos cost. But Alaska offered a FAR better deal, which is incredible–and shows how farfetched the Delta award policies have become.

  10. A valiant attempt, Horatius. I’d argue a few points, though. For starters, I check the price on the award chart for any potential trip. That way, I can see if I have enough miles. With no chart, it becomes much tougher. I always try for 60k seats to Europe. But what if I don’t know how many miles it takes for the cheap seats? Then maybe I think 90k is a steal, rather than hunting for the best rate.
    Another point is stealth devaluations. How do you hold a company responsible if they can change the price being charged at will? You can’t say “find me a 60k seat” to a Delta red agent if Delta can deny they exist.
    The purpose of an award chart is to show what’s possible. It’s a valuable point of reference to begin planning. As to the system is pricing wrong, the chart gives you some solid ground to argue your point.
    Delta has screwed over the Skymiles membership a great deal lately. They have just gone out of their way to make customer unfriendly moves, often with no notice. For many, myself included, each of these changes has sown more distrust and unhappiness, to the point where I pretty much view any change with major suspicion.

  11. One key flaw in the argument “since the award chart does not reflect the actual mileage cost, so it is useless anyway” is that the existence of an award chart sets a MINIMAL value of the mileage (with the highest tier pricing), at least in theory. So if delta.com displays an award requesting MORE mile than the MAXIMUM amount indicated on the award chart, something is clearly wrong and even the DL agents need to scratch their heads (and hopefully issue the ticket manually to honor the chart).
    The arguments based on that “the early award chart didn’t faithfully reflect the MINIMUM mileage required and thus was obsolete anyway” are incomplete: without the chart, there is no MAXIMUM amount published, and ANY amount shown by the award calendar is correct. Delta can make every single flight 20 billion miles, except one award seat for 25k, in their entire system over the entire calendar–and still technically not breaking their promise “Within and between the Continental U.S., Alaska and Canada, round-trip Award Tickets will continue to start at 25,000 miles (plus taxes and fees).”
    Without an calendar, there is NO guarantee of the MAXIMUM price of an award ticket, and thus NO guarantee of the MINIMUM value of the mileage, in particular the large amount OUTSTANDING mileage people are ALREADY holding. Delta can de facto write off their entire outstanding skymiles balance immediately, by always showing astronomical numbers on the award calendar–which reflects the correct, and the only, price of any award tickets.

  12. Hey Pizza Guy – your column was quite amusing. First you bring up the dog at the airport. As bad as that was, it doesn’t affect the flying public, just the dog. There is no way to play devil’s advocate on this atrocity at all for a number of reasons. Would you go into a nice restaurant and order dinner without seeing the menu? You find out how much your meal was when you get the check and accept whatever it is? If you do any kind of goal-planning, who do you have any idea what your flight is going to cost? Now DL said when they decimated skypesos that more LOW level awards would be available. If you blow up the award chart, you can secretly increase the mileage redemption and still keep the promise of more lower awards because you jacked up the redemption rates. It’s like the horse and the carrot on a stick. No matter how fast the horse runs, the horse never catches the carrot. Don’t be that horse.

    1. Surprise!

      Delta now only offers the low saver price on awards if you book several weeks out. By getting rid of the chart, they can do all kinds of crap without telling anyone. How would they? There’s no chart to update.

      1. Look. Not trying to defend DL, that would be a losing game. But, they could make that decision with the charts they had up before and just not offer saver awards. BTW, is this an official announcement or observations from their website?

        1. Yes, they could make the change even with the chart, but then they might be more compelled to add a footnote “* Low level US domestic awards require 21 days advance booking.” My point is they can much more easily mess with prices and rules when there’s no transparency.

          1. Maybe they could. But, it just doesn’t strike me as a likely thing they would do. Thanks for alerting me to the 3 week thing in the first place.

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