Delta Customers Angered By Changes To Frequent-Flier Program

Delta is making radical changes to its Sky Miles frequent-flier program. It is rewarding the customers who buy the most expensive tickets instead of giving miles equally based on miles flown.

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If you like to fly for free, you're going to have to start throwing some more money around soon, at least on one major airline. Delta is making big changes to the way it awards frequent flier miles, which can be cashed in for free flights. Starting next year, Delta will give the biggest rewards to those who pay the highest ticket prices, not necessarily to those who fly the most miles. Some of Delta's frequent flyers are not taking this change well.

NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Michael Capo travels a ton for his job.

MICHAEL CAPO: I mean I'm away from my family quite often, like I said, about 40 weeks a year.

SCHAPER: And all of that time he spends getting on and off of airplanes isn't always pleasant.

CAPO: You know, you don't want to sit in long lines. You don't want to wait to be the last one who boarded and run out of overhead space, you know. It's just a pain when you do this all the time.

SCHAPER: But while printing his boarding pass at a Delta kiosk at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, Capo says one of the few perks of being away from his Southwest Ohio home so much is that he's earned gold frequent flier status on Delta, amassing hundreds of thousands of SkyMiles.

CAPO: I use those points miles for, you know, my family vacations and things like that. And so it's incredibly important for me.

SCHAPER: But Capo is less than thrilled with the sweeping changes Delta is making to its SkyMiles program, saying even though he is a frequent business traveler, it may be more difficult for him to earn miles.

Beginning in 2015, Delta will no longer award miles based on the distance a frequent flier travels. Instead, miles will be awarded based on how much money he or she spends on the ticket; so the higher the fare paid the more miles earned.

BRIAN KELLY: Delta's announcement is a huge blow to those earning miles, especially to those who like get good air fares.

SCHAPER: Brian Kelly is founder of the PointsGuy.com, a website that helps people maximize frequent flier miles.

KELLY: Essentially, it's moving away from a frequent flier program and more onto a frequent spender program. Which may benefit some people who buy those $10,000 last-minute tickets but, for the average consumer, I suspect they will see a large drop in the number of miles earned.

SCHAPER: Kelly says even those who fly often, but whose companies require them to buy only the lowest fares available, may end up earning fewer miles. And he says there's a double whammy, as the airline is also increasing the number of miles it will take to book an award flight. And back at O'Hare, that's disappointing to several Delta frequent fliers.

CHRISTINA PAGANELLI: I'm a miles builder.

SCHAPER: Christina Paganelli is a small business owner from Los Angeles, who says she even has a credit card to help her pile up Delta miles. But she says she now might not be so loyal.

PAGANELLI: It seems like, as it is, you have to fly forever in order to be able to do anything. And now, if you're telling me that that's even going to get worse, there's not a lot attractive features for me to get to Delta other than the miles.

SCHAPER: That some customers might leave Delta over these frequent flier program changes is a real risk to the airline, says former United Airlines executive Joe Schwieterman, now transportation professor at Chicago's DePaul University. But Schwieterman says the changes are designed to reward the really big spenders, who buy business class and first class tickets - those elite who truly help boost the airline's bottom line.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: Now they're going to have a clearer statement; your frequent flier balance is exactly what you're worth to the airline.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHWIETERMAN: So they can target those benefits accordingly.

SCHAPER: JetBlue and Southwest Airlines have already moved to awards programs based on money spent instead of miles flown; Delta will become the first of the so-called legacy carriers to make the change. The others - United and American - will be watching. And if Delta is successful, they can be expected to make similar frequent flier changes.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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