Delta updates upgrades, but are they the best??

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.

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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. not really having the transcons on the regionals really stink

    AA is nice to give out free stickers to EXP on transcons, but their frequency to SFO leaves a lot to be desired. Heck, UA flies more from NYC-LAS than AA does NYC-SFO.

  2. This change in absolutely NOT good news for most Medallions. Taking away the transcon upgrades is yet another Delta screw over. Mark my word, they will be super-stingy with these supposed international upgrades, rendering them not very useful.

    1. I agree that the transcon thing is a downgrade. I disagree that it affects most Medallions. Those upgrades were ridiculously limited over the past couple of years, to the point that everyone knew they only cleared for top elites and only on day of travel. Plus, there is the question of how much one travels on those three routes versus the rest of the international route map.

      As for award inventory, even if it doesn’t change from today at least passengers no longer need to buy a Y/B/M fare and then not get upgraded so there is a cost savings there. That’s something of a win, right?

  3. I haven’t seen it posted, but maybe I just missed it. Has there been any mention if a delta flight booked that has a global upgrade cert applied would still earn MQM’s similar to United’s GPU’s?

  4. I’m a DL platinum Seth, and I don’t see this as a positive, even though I travel to Hawaii more than I do JFK transcons. It makes sense that DL has changed Hawaii upgrades–it’s a domestic product (many of the 757s are ex-ATA aircraft that lack even at seat air vents) while transcon is now an Int’l product. But the global upgrade benefit requires a level of travel and spending that only the most relentless road warriors will manage (AX card and mileage running work for those with lots of free time and few obligations).

    I won’t call loss of SWUs much of a negative, as their irrelevance has been well chronicled.

    I can’t blame DL for expanding upgrade benefits for Diamonds now that they are reasonably sure they are going to its highest value customers rather than mileage runners, but for most of us, even heavy AX users who fly the airline once or more each month, this is pretty marginal.

    1. I understand that it might not be especially great for you, Adam, but I’d hazard a guess that it also isn’t bad for you. And I think you agree there.

      At the end of the day I think that more people will do better with the new scheme than the old one. Obviously that won’t be the case for everyone, but I think it holds for more than not.

  5. If I don’t move away from a Delta Hub, this change will make me more likely to try to earn Diamond status as opposed to staying at Platinum and rolling over.

    I still think it’s comical that I am getting excited about Delta offering something that has been available to others for years.

  6. As I have maintained for the past few days, one with any experience dealing with them cannot trust the DL people to do the right thing with this sort of certificate. The availability will be restricted (it says so) and if past performance is any indication, it will be severely limited and only seats that they do not think that they will sell will be released, and those very close-in to the date of the flight. Advance confirmations of upgrades is something that is unlikely to happen with any frequency. So you buy your seat waving your global upgade coupon and it does you absolutely no good when the front cabin sells out, as it does so frequently nowadays.
    In the past month, DL has telegraphed its intentions to do exactly that by removing from the GDS (and by extension Expert Flyer) the ability to view any of their upgrade buckets. The problems caused by this lack of transparency should be detailed in any column such as this one about the new program.
    I know that the ability of the UA Premiers to see the “R” (upgrade seat) bucket is considered one of the crucial elements of that program to those who do not sit in coach on over-the-water flights. This DL Diamond business flyer is also not interested in sitting in the back of an airplane when traveling on vacations or other leisure trips and Delta will probably make sure that most of my Global upgrade certificates go into the trash at the end of each year much as many of the late, unlamented SWUs did.
    It appears to me that the main beneficiaries of this program are those leisure travelers who take multiple international flights and do not mind if they sit in coach. They are the ones who will use up these coupons since they are willing to buy the cheapest fare and then show up to take what is given at the gate. The sheer mathematics of it states that these will be good some of the time. Those that take multiple short domestic business trips year round and need to plan way ahead for vacations will most of the time, IMO be out of luck trying to use those certificates.

    1. There are already issues with award/upgrade availability. This didn’t change that.

      As for the EF issues, I’m pretty sure that data was never in the GDS to begin with.

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