20151119_084052-Delta 5 MM luggage tag

For forty-five years I have been loyal to Delta, and I assumed it was more or less reciprocated.  I was stupid to think they’d uphold their end of the bargain.  It’s clear now that Delta never saw it as a promise, as their new policies (see here and here) for 2016 make clear.

But I digress.  The quo I expected for my quid was that Delta would continue the few perks that meant the most to me:

  • Complimentary upgrades to first class on domestic flights.
  • Complimentary access to their version of premium economy, which Delta first called Economy Comfort and has recently renamed Comfort+.
  • Complimentary premium economy upgrades for friends and family when on flying with me on the same record (up to eight travelers).
  • Complimentary checked luggage.
  • Early boarding after first class.
  • Club lounge privileges.

Used to be that I would routinely get upgraded to first, but in recent years, even as a Lifetime Platinum with five million miles, I get in the very back of the upgrade queue.  There are so many Diamonds that even they don’t routinely get an upgrade. Add in ever more stringent upgrade rules about which economy fares are eligible, and my chances narrow even more. Heck, my friend Bill McW here in Raleigh has amassed an astonishing seven million miles on Delta, and he never gets upgraded, either.  So that perk, while still technically on the books, has been watered down to nothing for me:

  • Complimentary upgrades to first class on domestic flights.

The free club privileges I used to enjoy are long gone.  As a Flying Colonel on Delta, I always had access to the exclusive Flying Colonel rooms before the Crown Room was invented. That free access continued for very frequent flyers until SkyClub replaced Crown Rooms at Delta and the Northwest WorldClub lounges.  Now even my Amex Platinum Card only allows one person in (me), so I cannot take friends or family into the club without paying:

  • Club lounge privileges.

For 2016 Delta has totally rejiggered its economy class fare structure by parsing it into three broad categories (see the comparison chart here):

  1. Basic Economy – the cheapest fare. Meant to compete with LCCs like Southwest.  No frills except for elite flyers, and no upgrades even for them.
  2. Main Cabin – a range of economy fares like we’ve always been used to, but bumped up considerably in many markets. Can only “upgrade” (Delta’s new verb, replacing “access”) to Comfort+ after buying a ticket, and the actual time when the “upgrade” is made is vague.
  3. Comfort+ – Delta now sells its premium economy as an entirely different fare class and claims it’s an upgrade even though on domestic airplanes they have reduced the seat pitch from 4” more than the rest of the cabin to just 3” better than the back of the plane.

Testing fares in one market (RDU/BIL) for all three summer months of 2016, I was unable find any Main Cabin fares at delta.com for under $526 round trip, and Comfort+ was $707 every single day on all flights, a $181 premium over what is already a very high fare, especially up to nine months out.  For my family of four to fly Raleigh to Billings, it would now cost over $2800 in C+ whereas this past summer the total cost was a thousand dollars less than that for four people. Therefore my takeaway from the changes is that the parsing of the cabin both diminishes my ability to “upgrade” to Comfort+ and pushes up the average fare:

  • Complimentary access to their version of premium economy, which Delta first called Economy Comfort and has recently renamed Comfort+.

Oh, and I cannot “upgrade” my family to Comfort+ any more, either, eliminating another important perk:

  • Complimentary premium economy upgrades for friends and family when on flying with me on the same record (up to eight travelers).

I’m tired of being pushed again and again farther back on the plane. I am stripped now of every decent perk save early boarding and free checked bags.

I could tolerate coach when the seating was right behind first class, and I could get an aisle seat. That way I could be less cramped and get off the plane reasonably fast. Since, as I said, Platinums rarely get upgraded to first anymore. I learned to tolerate sitting in the back. But now they push me way back.

The way I see it, I flew over five million miles on Delta, and all I got was the stupid luggage tag.

Of course my complaints fall into the category of primal scream therapy because loyalty doesn’t matter.  You want to fly first?  Pay for it.  You want premium economy?  Pay for it.  As Joe Brancatelli reminds us, airlines care less and less about loyalty on a year-to-year basis now because they don’t have to cater to their most frequent flyers in a market where people are paying what they are asking and every seat is full on every flight.

And it’s sure obvious that they care almost nothing about lifetime loyalty now.  My disgruntlement with Delta, including the feeling of utter powerlessness that accompanies a lifetime of loyalty being unrewarded, is met with a shrug of indifference from the airline, not even a reply email.

Since there’s no way to fight back, I conclude that it’s all about airfare guerilla tactics now.  Just like what I did switching from Delta to Cathay to go to Asia (see previous post).  That cost Delta $10,000 in fares on one itinerary.  More importantly, it gave me peace of mind, and I am now actually looking forward to the trip on Cathay to experience their Premium Economy cabin, which by all accounts is far superior to Delta’s.

It’s all about attitude adjustment.  Better to pay for a service you want on the schedule you want than to keeping chasing ephemeral perks and ever-devalued frequent flyer miles (an entirely different topic).

Gotta wonder, though, how Delta will respond when (not if) the air travel market collapses again, as it inevitably does periodically in the economic cycle.  Will they come offering a basket of goodies to lure back my business?  Probably.

But by then maybe I will have found satisfaction in independence.

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