Delta introduced a significant change to their SkyMiles Medallion program on Tuesday, announcing that as of March 2014 they’ll be getting rid of their existing System-wide Upgrades and replacing them with a mix of Regional and Global upgrades. The Regional upgrades will be valid on any routes where Medallion members receive complimentary upgrades; Global upgrades will be valid on all routes the carrier operates and the previously strict fare requirements are no longer in play. All fares other than the absolute lowest bucket (“E”) will be eligible. The Global upgrades will also have limited validity on partners Air France and KLM, though only on higher fares similar to the legacy SWUs. This is a major improvement in the Delta program for and nearly all SkyMiles members should benefit from the change, though not all the changes are 100% in favor of the customers.
Delta’s premium transcon flights between JFK and SEA/SFO/LAX will no longer be eligible for complimentary upgrades; this policy is similar to that of United Airlines on the similar routes with premium seating. American Airlines still offers complimentary upgrades on the route to their Executive Platinum elites (100k level). This also means that Delta Medallions cannot use the Regional upgrades on the premium transcons; United Premier members can use their Regional upgrades on those routes. Also, Platinum Medallion members are getting a downgrade in that they can no longer choose upgrades valid globally; they only get the Regional instruments now. Finally, some Diamond Medallion members may be disappointed to find that they can only get a maximum of 4 Global Upgrades going forward while previously the maximum was 10 SWUs. Fewer instruments in the new plan but also fewer restrictions on using them. Finally, the upgrades apparently can only be applied to a reservation on which the Medallion member is traveling, including up to one companion. That further limits the value of the upgrade instruments.
So, now that Delta has made a bunch of changes, how do their upgrade earning options stack up against the others? This table shows some of the numbers:
Both Delta and United will require a minimum spend or co-branded credit card activity to get to the status levels so that is part of the consideration, especially as United does not have the CC exemption for 1K status and the GPUs. And United continues to exclude their lowest fares from GPU redemption, something American and Delta no longer have. At the same time, United does offer more instruments than Delta at all tiers other than 75k. American still offers, by far, the most instruments, assuming you choose to take them all. Both Delta and American make customers choose the upgrades over other options. In the case of Delta the choices include extra miles, SkyClub passes, travel credits or gifting elite status to another member. The American options are similar but vary at each choice tier. Plus, there is no guarantee that AA continues the Elite Rewards program; that would obviously reduce the number accrued in the AA scheme, though they would still be atop the global upgrade earnings (8 issued at 100k) through 150k miles.
Assuming that international upgrades are your everything it is hard to argue against the American Airlines offering, other than to note that their global footprint is the most limited of the three which does limit redemption opportunities. Even if you don’t always choose the upgrade instruments the earning potential with AAdvantage is still likely the best option available. After that, it becomes much more a question of spending patterns and travel frequency. For the customer on lower fares or who travels less the new Delta option is rather compelling. For someone buying mid-range fares (both to meet the W fare requirement and the $10k spend minimums) or who wants/needs more instruments United still isn’t an awful choice.
This change is absolutely good news for most Delta Medallions. And it is arguably good for passengers throughout the industry as it could pressure the other carriers to maintain or improve their offering. But it still doesn’t launch Delta to the front of the pack. If anything it just catches them up to second place.