ATLANTA — In a major change to its frequent flier program, Delta Air Lines Inc. will soon begin awarding free flights based on dollars spent, rather than miles flown.
The move by Atlanta-based Delta is aimed at rewarding its higher-spending customers, an acknowledgement of how valuable those deep-pocketed travelers are to the company. It’s also a competitive move to attract lucrative business travelers as Delta jockeys against other carriers, including United and American, for those customers.
“We’d like to provide more benefits to our premium customers,” said Jeff Robertson, vice president of the Delta SkyMiles program. “A lot of our customers fly us 10, 20 times a year, and we should reward them for that.”
Meanwhile, those most likely to not benefit from the new program, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2015, are bargain-hunting travelers who earn thousands of miles by flying long distances across the country on cheap fares.
It’s a historic change for frequent fliers, who for decades have earned flights based on miles flown.
Starting next year, the average Delta frequent flier will earn five miles for every dollar spent on a Delta flight. That means for a $300 fare, travelers will earn 1,500 miles.
But some other frequent fliers will earn more miles per dollar spent. Those who use the Delta SkyMiles American Express credit card will earn seven miles for every dollar spent. And elite-level frequent flier members can earn anywhere from seven to 13 miles per dollar spent, depending on whether they are at silver, gold, platinum or diamond levels and if they have the Delta credit card.
“There will be some people who will be unhappy. ... The folks who travel infrequently and buy the least expensive fares will not earn as many SkyMiles credits as they used to,” said Hudson Crossing travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt.
Delta’s move comes after Southwest Airlines made a similar shift to awarding points based on dollars spent, and after Delta this year started requiring a minimum level of spending annually to reach elite levels in its frequent flier program. Hotel loyalty programs and others have also already added a spending component, Robertson said.
But Delta is the first U.S. legacy carrier to make the change, and other airlines are likely to closely watch the move.