Delta plays favorites with their partners; customers lose

Man do I hate being right on this one. I’ve been saying for nearly a year now that the three major global alliances are losing their cachet in various ways, mostly do to the big three Middle-Eastern carriers shaking things up in the market. This time around, however, it isn’t one of those carriers making a splash; it is Delta.

Starting on 1 September 2013 flights on many Delta partners will no longer earn full credit towards Medallion (elite) status in the SkyMiles program. The partners are being split in to four tiers, with the differences between the tiers basically the bonus earning as an Medallion member, bonus earning for premium cabins and whether the miles flown will count towards Medallion status. Quite frankly, it is ridiculously complicated, way more than it should be for any program.


Most surprising in the changes is that flights on Korean Airlines – also a member of SkyTeam – will no longer earn any credit towards elite status. This is on top of the changes which went into effect in March where many fares suddenly earned reduced Medallion credit. It is also, to the best of my knowledge, the only bilateral alliance partnership where no credit can be earnt towards elite status. That’s pretty crappy. To be fair, some KE flights carry a DL code and booking under the DL code can earn MQMs, but that is a very limited subset.

Last October, in discussing the Middle Eastern carriers and alliances I wrote this:

The real value for the airlines likely lies in the anti-trust immune operations. These tend to follow alliance lines but they aren’t exclusively so. And just being part of an alliance doesn’t guarantee participation. In other words, the real money comes not from the alliance but from having the right partners and government approvals.

Delta is putting this to work in a big way. Their joint venture partners (plus Alaska Airlines) are where the best earning happens. Other partners earn at lower rates. Delta isn’t the first to take such an approach. United changed the earning rates on premium cabin fares earlier this year, with non-JV partners earning no bonus while JV partner flights can net significantly more points. Similarly, United doesn’t offer elite bonus mileage earning on non-JV partners.

UPDATE (18:49 EDT 5 June 2013): It turns out that Delta and Korean do have an ATI in place for their trans-Pacific operations and they have for more than a decade now. Based on that this change makes less sense, but such is life.

The global alliances promise benefits like interline agreements for ticketing and bags, reciprocity for elite status benefits and some joint marketing efforts. But that’s all. They do not promise seamless award redemption or earning rules and they never have. Yes, they are good for customers but only when it comes to actual travel, not necessarily where the loyalty programs get involved. And it has always been that way. Delta is stretching the boundaries here, but it is nothing all that new.

This change is bad news for members of the SkyMiles program, to be certain. It also moves the line in terms of what competitors can change while remaining “better” than the other options. But Delta is not the first to pursue this approach to the programs and they won’t be the last. Ultimately it comes to this: If you want your business to be rewarded by a partner then you need to do business with them in a way which lets them also benefit. The more they benefit, the better they will reward you.

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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. This is the smartest “take” on this I’ve yet read in the enthusiast press. Alliances have always been pitched for their seamless travel benefits (not all of which actually appear). The difficulty now, though, is that to the extent that these alliances extended the home carrier’s reach, if mileage earning is a priority, that reach has, on a practical level, disappeared. Award redemption seems unaffected, no better or worse than it was the day before.

    Now, DL really has no Asian partner of any breadth and repute, if earning is a goal. The upside is when the VS JV is approved, I’m sure their earning rates will be like AF/KL.

  2. More reasons to AVOID flying Delta. Dont like the airline, dont like the mileage program, dont like the hubs, and thank God AA is the big dog where I live.

  3. This can’t be remotely compared to the UA change. UA merely went from giving bonus back to 100%, but DL is actually reducing MQM below 100% for many alliance partners and freaking 0% for KE …. That’s extreme

    Basically handing the entire TPAC market dominance to Star.

  4. Yes and no, Jessica. Both have made cuts to partner earning and both are playing fast and loose with the details on what partnerships really mean. In one instance Delta has gone quite a bit further than what United did but they are similar.

    I should also note that I missed a detail in the original post. Delta and Korean do have ATI approval for their operations; it was granted so long ago (2002) that I was unaware. Based on that I’m not quite as convinced that the change makes sense at any level. Still, there it is.

  5. @Jessica and @Seth – the benefit is, though, that DL is following marketing carrier as the mileage earner. So, if you’re flying KE on DL codeshare, you will actually earn as if you were flying on DL. While many options are off the table, it’s promoting using DL codeshare flights.

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