For some fliers, mileage programs come up short

DALLAS (AP) — Travelers take note: The economics of earning free airline flights are changing.
Air Lines Inc. said this week that starting Jan. 1, it will reward
passengers for the amount they spend on tickets, not the number of miles
they fly. The change to Delta’s SkyMiles program will be great for
people who buy expensive tickets in first-class, but bad for vacationers
who shop for the cheapest fare.
Delta’s decision has renewed the
debate about whether airline frequent-flier programs are worthwhile for
people who only fly a few times a year.
Non-elite members of
SkyMiles will get five miles for every dollar they spend. Those are
people who don’t travel enough to earn "status," and many are extremely
price-conscious. Meanwhile, elite frequent fliers will get up to 11
miles per dollar.
The changes will make SkyMiles more like loyalty
programs at Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and Virgin America. The other
behemoth loyalty programs — AAdvantage at American Airlines and
MileagePlus at United Airlines — still base rewards on miles flown, for
Here’s how the Delta changes will work. Right now, all Delta
members get 3,892 miles for a round trip between Los Angeles and
Atlanta. But after Jan. 1:
— A non-elite member who buys a $486
economy fare (the price on for an upcoming flight on the
route) will get 38 percent fewer miles, down to 2,430.
— The same traveler paying $1,726 (from for the same March flight) for a first-class seat will
get 8,630 miles.

A "Diamond Medallion" — the top elite level for SkyMiles — buying that
first-class ticket will earn a whopping 18,986 miles, nearly eight times
more than the vacationer back in seat 29B.
Delta won’t say exactly how many miles you’ll need for any given trip until late this year.
see if you’ll earn less toward a free trip on Delta, head over to the
calculator on the airline’s website:
Jere Jenkins did and was shocked.
cuts my miles. The best I can do is get half of what I’m getting now on
most of those flights," said the West Lafayette, Ind., man, who flies
frequently on Delta for his job at a scientific-instruments company. The
firm uses a travel agency that shops for low fares.
Delta has
"treated me the best over the years," Jenkins said, but that doesn’t
mean he’ll remain loyal. He said that he’s also got elite status on
American and US Airways, and "United is going to get a call."
Kelly, founder of, a website dedicated to
travel-loyalty programs, said that if enough people like Jenkins switch,
it’ll make United and American less likely to copy Delta’s approach.
travelers are reluctant to switch, especially once they’ve achieved
elite status. Kelly suggested asking other airlines if they’ll match
your status. Take a screen shot of your account, email it to the other
airline and ask, "What can you do for me?"
Another approach, he
said, is to credit miles flown on Delta to an account at partner Alaska
Airlines, which still has a traditional miles program and lets you
redeem trips on Air France, Emirates and other carriers.
comparing programs, look at ease of redeeming awards, the number and
quality of partner airlines on which you can fly, and availability of
Some Delta customers have gone on Twitter and Facebook
to complain about the SkyMiles changes. Paul Skrbec, a spokesman for the
Atlanta-based airline, said it’s too early to gauge the response among
its 92 million members — the airline is still contacting them.
news accounts have portrayed the changes as a loss for most
economy-class passengers. Skrbec said that’s too simple. The changes
will benefit the coach passenger who pays $700 for a last-minute ticket
and sits next to someone who paid $200 far in advance.
"The person paying $700 has been asking us, ‘Why aren’t you giving me more?’" Skrbec said.
Of course, the airlines themselves created that complexity by constantly adjusting prices based on
David Koenig can be reached at
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