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Delta Weakens Frequent Flier Rewards

Delta’s frequent flier program will change significantly in 2015, and none of the changes are good for consumers.

Instead of earning miles based on distance traveled, SkyMiles members will earn miles based on ticket price.

The company says “the updated program will better reward the customers who spend more with Delta and give them improved mileage-earning opportunities.”

But, really, few travelers come out ahead here.

Other airlines, including Southwest, Jet Blue and Virgin America, already use a ticket price-based mileage award system, but Delta says it will be the first global carrier to do so.

Under Delta’s new program, the typical traveler will earn five miles per dollar spent. Those with Silver Medallion status will earn seven miles per dollar; Gold Medallion fliers will earn eight miles per dollar; Platinum Medallion members will earn nine; and Diamond Medallion members will earn 11.

To reach the lowest Medallion status level, Silver, customers need to fly 25,000 miles or 30 segments and spend $2,500 (or spend $25,000 on a Delta credit card), which means it’s mainly business travelers who will earn miles at the higher rates under the new program.

Delta has provided a calculator at its website to help frequent fliers see the differences in miles earned between the current program and the new one.

Looking at popular routes at various price points, it looks like what Delta has really done is found a way to give out lower rewards – even for the higher-paying business travelers it claims its new program will reward more.

Chart showing changes in Delta Airlines frequent flier awards

SkyMiles credit card holders will continue to earn an additional two miles per dollar spent on Delta airfares. They’ll also earn 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Delta says it will make more award seats available at the lowest mileage redemption level: 25,000 miles round-trip to fly coach within the United States and Canada (excluding Hawaii). Delta will also make one-way awards available starting at 12,500 miles.

In addition, the airline will give SkyMiles members the option to pay for award tickets with a combination of miles and cash. Right now, only Delta credit card holders can use a combination of miles and cash to purchase an award ticket. However, the tiered redemption structure based on ticket price is complex. It’s not as simple as redeeming, say, 12,500 miles for $125 in airfare.

We don’t yet know if the new option for all frequent fliers will have the same rules. Delta has only provided an example: “A member may be offered the option to purchase an Award Ticket for 35,000 miles or a Miles + Cash Award Ticket for 25,000 miles + $159.”

While the 2015 SkyMiles program looks like a worse deal for consumers overall, even under the current program flying isn’t the best way to earn a frequent flier ticket: credit card sign-up bonuses are.

So maybe Delta is trying to steer more fliers toward its credit card. Delta already sells $675 million worth of frequent flier miles annually to American Express, the issuer of the SkyMiles credit card. Cardholders pay a $95 annual fee after the first year for the privilege of earning those miles.

The good news is that Delta award tickets have no blackout dates, it is the only U.S. airline whose frequent flier miles never expire and fliers can also redeem SkyMiles on 28 partner airlines.

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