Drastic changes by Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines to how frequent fliers can qualify for elite status and use Sky Club airport lounges prompted immediate reactions from travelers on social media this week.
Starting next year, the airline will measure only how much customers spend on Delta flights and Delta-connected purchases to determine whether they qualify for so-called Medallion elite status, instead of also considering how many miles they fly.
It’s part of a broader transition in recent years to a greater focus on money than miles flown in the loyalty program, and is similar to a shift made by some Delta rivals including Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines. American last year started using a system called “Loyalty Points” instead of miles.
Delta will also impose Sky Club entry limits on those who use high-fee credit cards for access to the clubs, with restrictions on how many times they can use the lounges in a year unless they charge $75,000 to the credit card.
The changes triggered passionate reactions from Delta frequent fliers immediately after the news broke Wednesday evening.
“Imagine spending $35,000 in @Delta flights per year and them telling you ‘sorry this is your eleventh visit to SkyClub. No Chex mix in a plastic cup for you!’” said one user of the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Some Delta customers said they would switch to another airline.
The company apologized online to disappointed customers. Delta had been bracing for reactions from customers in the days leading up to the big announcement.
Delta responded to some frustrated customers by saying that the changes are to give SkyMiles members “a simpler and more streamlined path” to elite status, and that it is increasing the ways frequent fliers can earn that status.
With the shift to only measuring dollars spent, Delta is raising the threshold to reach elite status, designated as silver, gold, platinum and diamond levels. The lowest level of silver will require $6,000 in “Medallion Qualification Dollars” spent in 2024 to earn status for 2025. That includes money spent on Delta flights. The highest level of diamond will require $35,000 MQDs.
The airline is also incentivizing customers to spend more money through Delta for other expenditures, by adding the ability to earn MQDs through bookings on Delta’s website for car rentals and hotels, Delta Vacations packages and a fraction of dollars spent on Delta Platinum and Reserve credit cards.
Combined, the changes mean many travelers who have earned elite status on Delta in years past, through miles flown and lower thresholds of dollars spent, would need to pay more or shift their spending to meet the higher thresholds for MQDs.
Delta President Glen Hauenstein in comments during an investor presentation on Thursday said one priority of the change was “making sure we had the right people in the right category.”
“When you have too many in certain categories, you’re unable to fulfill the commitments that you make in terms of really being an upscale brand,” he said. “People saw that in lines waiting for the clubs.”
The aim is also “to get a higher share of wallet for the people who we know can spend,” Hauenstein said. “Our hypothesis is that people will find their way to get to those levels they want to.”
As Delta focuses more on rewarding frequent travelers paying high fares for their tickets and other big spenders, there are others who think it now makes less sense to try to reach elite status.
Some travelers said with the changes, it makes more sense to book premium seats rather than spend more to “chase status.” That is, in fact, a strategy Delta has also been pursuing through policies and prices meant to encourage travelers to pay extra for first class and premium seats.
Hauenstein said the airline last month, for example, had a record 74% of premium seats filled by customers paying for those seats.
Others joked of a link between Delta’s push for more spending by customers to the cost of Tom Brady’s paycheck as Delta’s recently announced “strategic adviser.”
This won’t be the last time Delta alters its frequent flier program rules. Hauenstein foreshadowed more changes to come.
“I think over the next several years, we’ll announce additional changes to not only the qualifications, but to how a mile is awarded,” he said. “I think there are additional steps we’ll take over the next years to make sure that our best customers... are receiving truly premium experiences.”