MINNEAPOLIS — Earning frequent flier miles with Delta Air Lines just got harder.
In a first for U.S. airlines, passengers who book Delta’s “basic economy” tickets will no longer earn frequent flier miles. They also will receive no credit toward status in its Medallion program. The change goes into effect for new purchases on travel starting next year.
The Atlanta-based airline, the dominant carrier at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, announced the change Thursday. To soften the blow, Delta also said that customers who change a basic economy flight will receive flight credit — minus a change fee for future travel — rather than getting nothing.
Delta’s basic economy fares pre-pandemic didn’t allow changes. Earlier in the pandemic, Delta introduced a more flexible change policytemporarily across fare classes to reduce the deluge of frustrated travelers facing hours-long waits on customer-service phone lines.
“Basic economy fares were designed for those who prioritize price, and we know that even our most price-conscious customers value flexibility,” Delta said in a statement.
Delta is the first airline to prevent passengers who purchase basic economy flights from earning miles, said Kyle Potter, editor at Thrifty Traveler, a flight deal and travel education website.
American Airlines doesn’t allow its basic economy fares to qualify for its status program. United Airlines limits what you earn toward status for its base fares. But both allow those fares to accumulate points.
Potter said there’s been an outcry on social media over the Delta change. “Outrage to this story is bigger than any other since Sun Country stranded people in Mexico [in 2018],” he said.
“This comes on the heels of billions of taxpayer-funded subsidies for Delta and other airlines and at a time when travelers at large are starting to think of travel again,” Potter said. “So, for Delta to make this change to their most budget-conscious travelers on these basic economy fares is a slap in the face to people.”
The model for accumulating frequent flier miles has evolved since their introduction. In the beginning, racking up miles was about the number of miles traveled. Now, mileage points often are related to the cost of the ticket and, more frequently, a credit card aimed at travel benefits, with airlines having their own credit card rewards programs.
“There are some airlines, American Airlines, in particular that would not be even close to profitable prepandemic, if not for their mileage programs and, most importantly, their relationship with credit card companies,” Potter said.
Around the same period that frequent flier programs were evolving five years ago, Delta and other airlines plunged into cabin segmentation. That’s industry parlance for dividing an aircraft into multiple fare levels that offer different perks and restrictions.
The goal of segmentation is to capture a wider swath of customers — and, more specifically, to win back price-sensitive travelers who had been lost to low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers, like Spirit, Frontier and Sun Country.
While airlines have long offered separate first-class and coach cabins, the segmentation trend was about selling experiences and the incremental differences between tiers were intended to add up to more revenue and profit.
Delta’s basic economy offers its lowest fare, but with the fewest perks: no assigned seating until after check-in and being last to board the plane. In addition, a group may not have assigned seats next to one another.
Prices can vary greatly depending on the destination and dates of travel. If booked Friday afternoon, a flight from MSP to San Diego on March 5 for a one-week vacation was $426 in basic economy compared to $447 in its main cabin, the next step up.
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