Michael Sommer and his friend Tom Mayo were on the ski slopes in Park City, Utah, on a sunny morning, passing a cellphone back and forth while they discussed with me how airline service for loyal fliers is going downhill fast.
“Now that Delta changed its frequent flier program, it’s going to be easier to buy a real diamond than to make Diamond elite status,” Sommer joked, referring to major changes Delta Air Lines made to its SkyMiles program.
Starting this year, elite status and award miles will be given under a new formula that takes into account how much money a traveler spends on tickets during the year, rather than just how many miles are flown.
Like many business travelers, Sommer, a technology consultant, flies lots of miles and earns high elite status — but usually buys the cheapest fare he can find. Based on his 2013 travels, he’s at Delta’s highest level this year, Diamond Medallion, achieved by flying 125,000 miles in a calendar year. But with the changes, hitting that status threshold for next year will require spending at least $12,500 to fly the 125,000 miles or more.
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“I’m loyal to Delta. Loyalty means free bags checked, free upgrades, and sometimes free changes of an itinerary. Loyalty means I stuck with Delta through the tough years, but now that they’re on their feet financially, they’re telling me, ‘Oh, we really don’t care that much about you as a loyal flier anymore. All we care about is your money,’” Sommer said.
Mayo, also a frequent business traveler, said he sometimes flies one of the big three network airlines like Delta, but prefers to take Southwest Airlines whenever he can. He talked about another annoyance travelers who buy basic coach fares encounter routinely when booking a flight these days: the unavailability of seat assignments at the basic fare. Instead, airline booking sites typically offer customers an upsell to seats that are available — for a fee.
“What I see when I book is a map showing no free seats available, or just a few middle seats way in the back, but lots of upgradable seats that you pay $39 or more for. These — they have plenty of available,” he said. “I think that’s the direction they’re all going in, trying to get everybody to book a flight and then pay extra for everything, which is kind of disappointing. I mean, you look at the price and then what you get is, well, you’ll also need to pay extra for this, for that.”
Mix and match airlines
Since I always book the cheapest fare and mix my airlines, I have no elite status. When I try to get an assigned seat on American, Delta or United, I almost always see a coach-cabin map with no seats available at the fare, though lots are available for a fee.
For example, I recently booked on American Airlines a one-way ticket on April 18 from Tucson, Ariz., to New York, connecting through Dallas, at the cheapest fare, $190. But on both connecting flights, the only seats listed as being available cost from $30 to $71 extra. I have had similar experiences with the other major carriers (excepting Southwest, which doesn’t play the pay for seat-assignment game).
One tactic most of us frequent fliers without elite status know is that if you book the cheap fare in advance but wait till a day before departure to choose your seat, chances are that the selection of no-fee seats might suddenly improve. But now, with airplanes flying totally full, that’s taking a chance that you might instead be consigned to a middle seat back by the toilets, if you get a seat at all. It’s not a chance I’m willing to take on a long flight in an air-travel system with little slack.
Cashing in on fees, fliers
Airlines around the world are serious about refining their auxiliary-revenue strategies to raise even more money through fees, which totaled about $27.1 billion worldwide in 2012, according to a study by IdeaWorksCompany, which consults with airlines on ancillary revenue and frequent flier programs. In January, United’s chief revenue officer, James E. Compton, told investors that the airline planned on “exceeding $3.5 billion in annual ancillary revenue by 2017,” up from $2.8 billion in 2013.
So is resistance futile to both the frequent flier changes and the extra charges to book a seat?
Probably. Like many of you, I pay the extra fees. And if you’re dissatisfied with changes in your frequent flier program you could, of course, take it to the Supreme Court. That’s what Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg of Minneapolis did. He filed suit complaining that he was thrown out of the frequent flier program run by Northwest Airlines, which was subsequently acquired by Delta, for complaining too much.
Ginsberg, who was by any account a world-class complainer, took it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — and lost. Last week, the court unanimously ruled that under federal law, an airline has the right to revoke frequent flier membership “at its sole discretion.”
Still, complaining about frequent flier programs is the new rage, said Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorksCompany, who said he expected more turbulence in airline frequent flier programs now that Delta has tightened the reins.
“For the last couple of months all of my attention has been focused on frequent flier programs because of the Delta changes that mean you can be rich with miles but poorer with status if you’re traveling on a cheap fare,” he said. “Those are very significant changes, and they simply cannot be ignored by American and United, and eventually other airlines as well. So it’s going to be a topsy-turvy time in these programs for 2014.”