Delta Air Lines airplanes on runway and tarmac in Seattle
Photograph ©2013 by Brian Cohen.

Loyalty? What Loyalty? Let Us Be Real Here…

...there is no such thing as loyalty with airlines.

The significant changes to the SkyMiles membership program that were officially announced from Delta Air Lines on Wednesday, September 13, 2023 were met with an abundance of criticism and scorn from customers — many of whom vow to never be loyal to the airline again. Loyalty? What loyalty? Let us be real here…

Loyalty? What Loyalty? Let Us Be Real Here…

…loyalty programs are a vestige of what were wildly successful marketing campaigns decades ago that were designed to increase business, with the general message of how you can “fly for free!” Achieving elite status with valuable benefits for a small charge and minimal effort only exacerbated the business model for airlines back then.

The problem with that sentiment is that airlines were arguably too generous about the benefits that they offered with membership and elite status in their frequent flier loyalty programs back then. They were collectively losing billions of dollars. The bleeding had to stop — and it did with ancillary fees for everything from checked baggage to assigned seats.

They did not stop there. The loyalty programs had to be restricted in order to reduce crowding, give better customers more benefits, and to become profitable.

The airlines also know that if an unusual situation occurs that can hurt their business — such as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus pandemic as one of many examples — they will likely receive financial assistance from the federal government of the United States. Threatening an airline to no longer patronize it unless changes are implemented is virtually useless because they know they can survive for the most part — even when the economy suffers a significant downturn.

That statement — which first appeared in this article titled Don’t Cut Your Nose Off to Spite Your Face With Frequent Travel Loyalty Programs

“…even though the SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program is now substantially less valuable and useful to me than it was years ago before radical changes were implemented to it, the service provided by the front line employees of Delta Air Lines is still top notch, in my opinion. While I will no longer go out of my way to inconvenience myself to be a passenger aboard an airplane operated by Delta Air Lines for the sake of the SkyMiles program, I will still patronize Delta Air Lines with no hesitation whenever the opportunity arises.”

…still holds true to this day. I have no intention of boycotting Delta Air Lines as a result of their draconian measures in significantly changing how to earn Medallion elite status with the SkyMiles membership program.

Keep in mind that the personnel of an airline eventually changes for a variety of reasons. For example, three legendary champions of customer service at Delta Air Lines — Kevin Pinto, Lisabeth Kay, and Joe Maknauskas — have sadly passed away. They were proud of their work and of their commitment to the airline and its customers. While many employees — including flight attendants — at Delta Air Lines still feel similarly, they are not in charge of the airline.

The titles of the following past articles here at The Gate With Brian Cohen are among the many articles which have chronicled over the years the increasing frustration by members of what were once known as loyalty programs:

One has to wonder, though, as to how many people too way too much advantage of the benefits of frequent flier loyalty programs — to the point where they were breaking rules or taking unfair advantage of them? How many of those people were actually using the airline and not really being loyal to it? How can the executive of an airline continue to offer customers who pay as little as possible but reap as many of the benefits to the point where they practically suck them dry? Even if those customers are abiding by the rules that were set forth by the airline, that business model eventually becomes unsustainable.

Final Boarding Call

How many times must we be told that we “asked for these changes and that they “listened to us”? I find that insulting and condescending when they do that — along with describing unpopular policy changes as enhancements.

Loyalty has been a love-hate relationship for decades. We can be as upset as we want about how airlines are destroying their own frequent flier loyalty programs — and severing members and customers for whom they worked hard to acquire — but the literal bottom line is that they really do not need your business. They are firing customers. I know that first hand because I personally watched and listened to a former executive of one airline actually say that a customer was fired to an audience — and went into detail of how the process was done.

This is a brave new world of frequent travel — one which I do not like in general…

…but let us face the truth: if you owned an airline, would you try to be as profitable as possible if that included tightening your frequent flier loyalty program and possibly alienating at least one segment of your customer base — or would you be generous with your membership program to help promote loyalty?

Airlines are in business to profit. Although being based near a “hub” airport of an airline may seem limiting in terms of the choice of airline, we are all free to patronize any airline we like — especially if doing so fits our budgets and our schedules.

Loyalty is defined as a strong feeling of support or allegiance. You may have that for an airline — but chances are that the airline does not have that for you in return.

Photograph ©2013 by Brian Cohen.

  1. There is such thing as loyalty. I ended loyalty many years ago, replaced with loosely assigning value to perks. Delta became a secondary carrier for me in 2016.

    Not boarding last has some value. Free checked bags has little value to me except as a game to get the Delta 20 minute bag guarantee. Certain airports have a near 100% success rate and certain airports are so good, it’s not worth playing the game.

  2. I will continue to enjoy Delta and the new upgrade space that will become available when all the people who threatened to walk away (or fly away) do so. That having been said, I am certain that only a tiny fraction of the people who threatened to abandon Delta or use them less will actually do so. Why stop using an airline that actually has good service and instead use others that don’t, that may even have the same policies that made you abandon Delta?

    1. After 1.3M and being Platinum or Diamond the last decade and a half, I am most certainly walking away.

      I find the service and reliability to be abysmal for Delta in the post pandemic period compared to years before.

      If they were a premium airline, that was years ago, now service is declining while AA and United are improving.

      I think it’s kind of pathetic how some will defend Delta to the very end. The airline recently had the most profitable quarter ever after only 2 years ago taking a taxpayer handout. Some people stick around in an abusive relationship for unknown reasons to others. I guess the same goes with those medallions who stay dedicated to Delta. Sad.

    2. I walked away from Delta a few years ago. I was a diamond and used my miles to take my wife to Europe for vacation on biz class(I am not even silver now!). Now I can’t do that without blowing 500K+ miles. Delta gutted the value of skymiles to the bone to the point they are barely worth .01 cent.

      I used to buy delta business tix to Europe and Asia on a monthly basis. At the same time Delta’s aircraft are old – I didn’t mind when there was some value to skymiles program. Now I just enjoy flying other airlines on business and some of them are much nicer, specially flying to Asia. The service is just fine too. Delta’s service is not what it once was. Anyone tried getting a Delta rep on the phone lately?

  3. Add me to the list of folks who hate the Skymiles revamp, but love the employees. Good old American corporate greed is behind these changes. I just wonder how AMEX feels about this. I will move away from using that card back to my Capital One card that doesn’t lock me into just one airline plus gives me two miles per dollar spent. Will I fly Delta again? Absolutely, just not as much.

  4. As was noted elsewhere, Spirit wants to be profitable by filling as many seats as possible while minimizing expenses as much as possible.
    Delta wants to be profitable by maximizing revenue from their best customers rather than by minimizing expenses. They prioritize their customers by revenue:
    (1) rich people who purchase the best seats, want the best service and don’t care about price,
    (2) business frequent fliers who care more about good service and convenience than about price because their company pays for the seat,
    (3) upper-middle class people who use AmEx cards (with kickbacks to Delta) and who aspire to be rich someday, and
    (4) price-conscious people who are stuck with Delta due to geography, and everybody else.

    During covid, Delta tried to fill as many seats as possible and expanded profitable partnerships with AmEx, etc. in order to stay afloat. When things started getting back to normal, (1) and (2) customers started complaining that their experience was eroding because there were too many (3) customers taking up forward seats in planes and space in Sky Clubs. In response, Delta calculated that it would be better (more profitable in the long run) to risk some of their AmEx revenue and their lower-priority customers by kicking them out of Sky Clubs and making it harder for them to get good seats up front without paying for them like (1) & (2) customers.
    Also, mid-tenured flight crews are burned out because of scheduling; quicker turnarounds and shorter layovers, and it shows… driving more flight attendants to sign union cards.

  5. This is not a complaint about the recent changes but I will point out that for my upcoming return trip that involves flying from LAX to ATL in the middle of the day, almost all of the Delta Comfort seats were taking a month ago, I did get a nice one by the window in the exit row, with an empty middle seat but that is taken now. Having someone next to you is not an issue when they are average size. When you are both 6 ft tall it can be an issue. As of now there are three seats left in First Class, I am likely to be one of the highest in the list to get the upgrade but most my recent coast to coast flights, first class has been full by the time the flight happens, and nobody gets upgraded. I understand that Delta needs to make money, but there is also no point in being Diamond if you never get upgraded on the flights that matter most and if Delta Comfort is full weeks in advance. Also it would be nice if, when there are seats available as there are now, Delta were to allow you to upgrade for a price.

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