Delta locks down award changes close to departure

I’ve written many times about my love for free award changes as a top-tier elite. It is one of the most valuable benefits of airline status to me and one that I use a ton. It is not uncommon to find that a better seat/route/time might open up with award inventory just a day or two prior to departure as the operating carrier realizes that they will not be able to sell the seats and they are willing to take some points off the books in exchange. In fact, my most recent Lufthansa first class experience was a direct result of one such change, with the seats becoming available about 48 hours prior to the flight and me making the change about 36 hours prior to travel.

Had I been using Delta SkyMiles that change would not have been possible.

In a new policy announced today and which takes effect on 15 August 2011, Delta has stated that all awards will be considered non-refundable and non-changeable at 72 hours prior to departure. This comes just two weeks after the announcement that the awards would expire at the time of departure. The change applies to all SkyMiles redemptions, including those of Diamond and Platinum elite members.

Customers who would book a mid or high tier award as a hedge against nothing being available would previously be able to change that award to a low tier seat – and save a lot of miles – if the award inventory opened up. And if those seats were to open up it was quite commonly 48-72 hours out. With this new policy making that change – from high/mid to low at 48-72 hours out – is now impossible. Sure, the passengers can take the chance that the low will open up anyways (Delta is spinning this change as something which will "make those seats available to other members and ultimately increase award availability."). But that’s a pretty stupid bet to make from a customer perspective.

There are a couple interesting things that the change shows. For starters, apparently there were 400,000 awards that were not flown (and presumably refunded) nor canceled prior to departure in the prior year according to the Delta representative announcing the change. There were 1,000,000 awards that were sitting booked at 72 hours out that were never flown. That’s a lot of award miles that would be forfeit should the customers not make appropriate changes. It is not hard to see where Delta got the idea to make this change.

Another interesting bit is that they made these two announcements only two weeks apart. That’s two adjustments to the same policy, a policy that had existed for a long time with no variation, announced so close together that it is hard to believe someone competent actually approved the timing of the decision. If you’re still considering changing it further, particularly when that further change is so similar to the initial one, why not just wait until you’ve made a final decision and announce the change then? Sure, the change sucks for customers. No doubt about that. But the fact that it was changed twice in such a short period is truly pathetic.

Finally, the announcement of the change and its retroactive impact on the validity of existing award reservations is questionable. The program terms includes conflicting information on that topic:

Delta and its program partners reserve the right to change program rules, benefits, regulations, Travel Awards, fees, mileage Award levels, and special offers at any time without notice. This means that Delta may initiate changes, for instance, impacting partner affiliations, rules for earning mileage credit, continued availability of Awards, or blackout dates. … Unless otherwise stated, the terms and conditions of the SkyMiles Membership Guide and Program Rules in effect at the time of your travel, request for a benefit, or other transaction will govern the transaction.

Those are the first and last bits of the same paragraph. It is not hard to believe that the last line says that the rules in effect when I conducted the transaction – issuing the award reservation – should apply to that reservation. Based on everything Delta has stated so far, however, they will be using the first line as their policy and applying this change to existing bookings as well.

Ultimately this is just another in the long line of changes made to the SkyMiles program that devalues the points for their members. At least in this case the folks in Atlanta know that the change is not going to be well received. Didn’t stop them from making it, though.

They’re not known as SkyPesos for nothing, folks.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Wow, I hope UA doesn’t follow suit. Changeability was a key feature. Especially at the high mileage level, these awards should function like a fully refundable ticket.

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