I am one of those travelers that Delta sort-of wants. Not the good $40k+ a year customer that is estimated to get invitation to the new Delta 360, but somewhere in the next tiers. In 2013 I had $30k MQDs and 308k MQMs (about 200k from flights, 40k from Amex co-brand credit card MQM boosts, and the rest a rollover from the prior year). Diamond for 2015 is a formality of meeting the credit card waiver, even if I don’t fly Delta again.
My business travel is primarily international business class, lots of trips to Asia on the upper deck of a Delta 747. Plenty of partner flights. Some US domestic coach class flights, generally planned in advance at fairly low fares.
Delta has been banging the drum about rewarding its high-value customers while alienating them with continued negative changes, capped by up-ending its SkyMiles program for 2015. Delta’s changes the past two years have been negative for most of their travelers, but they do not give the pretense of caring about anyone not ‘high-value.’ So let’s focus on the customers they purport to value, and the media spin that is potentially good for expense account business travelers.
Many commentators rightly note that the premium cabin business class traveler is also the family vacation traveler looking for a deal. Let’s go more in depth on what the modern business traveler is like as an airline consumer.
When the Road Warrior is on the Road:
Road warriors want what CEOs have been complaining since the financial crisis: ‘certainty.’ Operationally Delta is doing a good job. It was bumpy in the 1-2 years after the merger, then I can only assume Delta brought NWA people that knew how to run Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit to Atlanta and handed them the steering wheel. Too bad that never happened with SkyMiles or the website. As for SkyMiles and flying partner airlines, there is no certainty among constant changes. Many changes are not even communicated to members, such as the sneaky removal of third party lounge access for elite members with SkyTeam Elite Plus status traveling in coach. Delta did not even have the decency to email members.
They also want simplicity. Delta is doing a deliberately horrid job with its recent changes. Many business travelers want an experience where they can go on autopilot and assume they won’t get hosed.
A road warrior wants to be able to fly early or later as schedules change. Delta gutted its Same-Day Confirmed program in 2013, making it much more restrictive and introducing uncertainty and complexity. Whereas before an empty seat in same class of service meant an eligible seat for SDC, now everything depends on fare class and Delta makes it hard for non-experts to find available fare class. The result is lots of calls to Delta to find availability and make exceptions, and people waiting around at the airport for Same-Day Standby. Other airlines like United have fare class restriction but proactively open up fare classes ahead of departure.
Road warriors also would like seamless benefits and experience across Delta’s partner airlines. This has been pushed forward operationally under the SkyTeam Sky Priority initiative. However much has been undone by Delta’s efforts to alienate many of its partners and cut mileage earning on them. Operationally this plays out in, for instance, high difficulty in rebooking on partner airlines during irregular operations. In January I had a mechanical delay in Los Angeles where the only Delta option would get me to Shanghai 24 hours late. Korean Air had a flight departing with dozens of empty business class seats. From the Sky Club on up Delta insisted there were no seats. I finally got an ex-NWA agent in Chisholm, MN who pulled it up and booked it in moments. Others not so persistent spent the night in airport hotels.
In December 2013 Delta made significant changes its upgrade policies with respect to transcon and Hawaii flights. The announcement hid the information of the demise of complementary transcon upgrades where there is a BusinessElite cabin (as opposed to traditional domestic first class). The addition of new, potentially more user-friendly upgrade certificates for top elites made the changes a mixed bag for business travelers.
On the positive side, Delta introduced Crossover Rewards with Starwood Hotels, which provides reciprocal benefits and points earning.
Now Delta, already two months in to 2014 drops bombshell changes for 2015. Drastic changes to earning miles will take place and are detailed. Drastic changes to redeeming miles will take place and Delta, says, “We’ll get back to you in Q4.” In essence, Delta is saying, give us your expensive short-hauls and international business class, away with your economy fares and partner flights. And don’t expect to get decent value for the miles we deign to bestow on you.
Finally, business travelers want to feel special. For all my flying and spend in 2013 there were only two moments where Delta did something special for me. On a leisure coach ticket I was upgraded at the gate for Newark-Amsterdam and return. No other international upgrades. Connecting in Tokyo late due to mechanical issues out of Shanghai, a Delta agent met me at the plane door and escorted me to the waiting plane. Not all that special for a year of travel. Not even a Christmas e-card.
When the Road Warrior is Off Duty:
Despite the long list of changes above, this is where Delta really falls down. Nearly every business traveler has someone waiting at home. Spouse, partner, children, parents, pets, whoever it is, sacrifices when sharing life with the business traveler. Days away. Early morning wake-up calls and midnight returns. Family moments missed. Light bulbs waiting to be changed.
Business travelers see this pain and want to reward their families for this sacrifice. Even business travelers I meet that are totally unconcerned with SkyMiles details have some trip they want to give their family. A daughter’s honeymoon to Bali. A half dozen tickets for a family reunion. Anniversary to Paris.
Delta’s announced 2015 changes are the prologue to even worse-value award redemptions than are currently available. This is on top of 2 award devaluations in 2013 with no pre-warning. However Delta’s disregard for the business traveler as family person is long-standing.
How many of Delta’s high-value customers know that traveling with companions drags down upgrade chances to the lowest status among the group on the same reservation? The best best is it split the reservation, hope for one to get upgraded, then add the others on the companion upgrade list and hope they also clear. Complicated? I see lots of unhappy couples split with one up front and the other in the back. United treats companions as equal to the highest status among the group on the same reservation.
For those with Sky Club membership, either paid or complementary, now Delta wants you to pay up or your companion sits outside. That’s a great start to a romantic trip. ‘Honey, wait outside with the kids while I go for a drink.’
And back to those awards. Yes, there are ways to get value out of SkyMiles for those who really want to work. Getting that dream trip for the family at an award price even close to competitors is often a effort in futility, though with Delta’s astronomical pricing and deceptive website. How many customers feel ‘high value’ then?
And the sad thing?
This is all self-inflicted, unnecessary and arrogantly gambling with the bottom line.