Guesswork in Cashing In Delta’s Frequent-Flier Miles


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Gary Leff, who runs a service that helps people redeem their miles, has been critical of the changes Delta has made to its frequent-flier program.

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Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

For about a quarter-century, frequent-flier miles have represented a kind of magic for many consumers.

You’d take a bunch of trips that you would have taken anyway and earn miles along the way. After a while, you’d earn a free flight. If you earned enough miles, you could spin the globe and travel to whatever point it stopped at.

That feeling of possibility was priceless.

But that magic was a trick. All along, those free seats were probably ones that the airlines weren’t going to be able to fill with paying customers, so they were nearly free for the carriers to give away.

Over the last 18 months, Delta Air Lines has been engaged in some sleight of hand of its own. The airline no longer posts any award chart explaining how many miles your free tickets will require, the way that United and American Airlines still do. But Delta also hasn’t moved to a transparent miles redemption system that is based entirely on the cash price that the “free” ticket would otherwise cost, as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways do.

Instead, Delta issues proclamations like this one that came along a few weeks ago: “For travel on or after June 1, 2016, the number of miles needed will change based on destination, demand and other considerations. But most Award prices will remain unchanged.”

Which destinations? How much demand? What other considerations? Which prices? The airline won’t say. You’re just supposed to cross your fingers and hope that you have enough miles come vacation time or if you have to get to a funeral quickly. Or hope for some magic.

If you fly Delta or any other airline more than a few times each year, you probably collect miles. Most redemptions that people make are for free tickets in the United States. As a result, even the most casual participants have long anchored their expectations according to the following calculation: If you have 25,000 miles, you ought to be able to get that free round-trip ticket reasonably easily.

But in recent years, a couple of things have changed. For one, airlines like JetBlue have moved away from rewarding people for distance traveled and toward giving out points based on what those customers paid.

When it comes to redeeming those miles and points, it became clear that even the airlines that still encouraged that 25,000 mental redemption anchor weren’t necessarily abiding by it. Perhaps that price would be available for a trip to El Paso in August at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday, but the round-trip flights most people really wanted would often require more miles.

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Delta does not post a chart showing how many miles a free ticket will require

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George Frey/Getty Images

Delta customers have long complained about reward availability at the 25,000-mile level, and its executives freely acknowledge that airline consumers in general should abandon any sense of expectations around this fixed price. “The 25,000-mile round-trip award fare that historically has been a standard for the airlines, I think you’re going to see that completely change,” Karen Zachary, who runs Delta’s SkyMiles program, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May.

Ideally, you’d replace magic with math in the frequent-flier equation. But figuring out what a mile is worth requires knowing what flights will actually cost. And the only way to figure that out with Delta now is to try to actually book one in real time.

Aside from the frequent travelers on the website FlyerTalk, which remains must-reading for consumers who want to do the math and decode the moves of Delta and other airlines, one of the carrier’s biggest critics in recent months has been Gary Leff. Mr. Leff has a day job working as a chief financial officer at a university research center, but he spends his spare time running a service that helps people redeem their miles and blogging about loyalty programs. He has posted about Delta repeatedly.

Delta does offer some free flights for less than 25,000 miles round-trip now. But Mr. Leff has done the math and has pointed out that the value you get per mile (when compared with the cash cost of the ticket) seems to rarely exceed two cents, an important figure that we’ll come back to shortly. Also, free flights in business class to Australia on Delta (long one of the magic redemption destinations for mile hoarders industrywide) now sometimes cost 830,000 miles per ticket, multiples of the former price.

The lack of clear predictable pricing irks Mr. Leff, even as it may help drive more people to his award-booking service. “I think Delta is not telling the truth, at a macro level, about the direction they’re taking the program,” he said. “And they’re making it harder for members to understand what their miles are worth.”

I tried to get a Delta spokesman, Anthony Black, to address Mr. Leff’s truthiness point squarely, but I failed to get much that was new other than a link to a list of low-cost redemption opportunities. Delta seems to think that no award chart should be necessary given that so many people redeem their miles for domestic tickets that only have a few different prices anyway. But if that’s the case, why not offer a permanent list of the range of possibilities for each market and explain what the rough odds are of actually getting the cheaper rates? Yes, consumers are used to unpredictable cash prices when they pay with their own money. But mileage programs were built on a different system of expectations, and people have saved those miles, often for years, accordingly.

United and American customers who are aware of Delta’s moves are worried that those carriers will follow suit. “We won’t comment on any such changes, planned or otherwise,” said Rahsaan Johnson, a United spokesman. That’s not exactly encouraging. At least American’s representative, Laura Nedbal, said that the carrier planned no changes to its award chart, albeit with the now-standard “at this time” disclaimer. “We are always watching the competitive environment, and we’ll make sure AAdvantage is positioned as an industry-leading loyalty program,” she added.

Many of you are more or less stuck with your airline. With just a handful of big carriers left, there may be only one reasonable alternative for decent flight times where you live, or perhaps your employer forces you to fly one airline.

Plenty of people, however, earn many of their miles off the plane, by putting all of their spending on credit cards that earn miles. If you’re disgusted with Delta or worried about other carriers, then it’s probably time to switch to a credit card that offers cash back or its own proprietary reward points worth a guaranteed 2 cents for every dollar you spend. Delta miles probably won’t be worth that much if you’re redeeming them for domestic plane tickets. I wrote a column in May that describes all of these cards in detail.

There are some exceptions here. For now, you can still redeem Delta miles with its international partners for reasonable sums. That could change, but until it does, those redemptions offer good value if you can earn enough miles and have the flexibility to fly when the free seats are available. And all of the credit card issuers that have partnerships with airlines, knowing that the value of the mile is almost certainly in decline, have started offering other goodies in recent years that may be attractive to some customers. Those goodies include free bag checking or the ability to board the plane in the fourth group instead of the seventh and actually find room in the overhead bins for your bag.

American Express issues the Delta credit cards, and when I asked the card company whether it thought the value of Delta miles had increased, decreased or stayed the same over the last two years, it refused to answer. That tells you all you need to know, doesn’t it?

In Mr. Leff’s eyes, Delta and the other carriers have made a point to slowly change redemptions so that people are no longer getting outsize value from their miles when they want or need it most. The magic, in other words, is seeping out of the system. “Most people are no longer getting the leverage out of the programs that made them special,” he said. “They’ve turned them into rebate programs, almost like a punch card.”

You probably would make changes like this, too, if you were an airline executive. Many of them rue the day in 1981 when American Airlines introduced its frequent-flier program and they resent the consumer entitlement that resulted, even if airlines did take for granted the loyalty that the programs fostered for so long. Shareholders have no problem with stinginess and opacity either, as long as it doesn’t drive customers away and the planes stay as full as they have been of late.

As for all of the people who no longer get anywhere near the value they once did from their miles, at least there’s this bit of magic left: It is still amazing that you can close your eyes in a metal tube in Los Angeles and wake up close to Sydney, even if it takes many hundreds of thousands of frequent-flier miles to get there for free.



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