In what was Delta Air Lines’ first public statement since a September 13 press release presented the Atlanta-based carrier’s revamped SkyMiles loyalty program and lounge access policy, Delta chief executive Ed Bastian this week said the airline plans to make “modifications” to the changes.
“I’ve received a lot of feedback,” Bastian said during a panel for the Rotary Club of Atlanta earlier this week. “We are reading the feedback. Our reservation agents are talking to customers that call in, and the feedback matters.”
The changes announced in mid-September include how fliers earn Delta frequent flier status. An annual spending requirement, what the airline calls “Medallion Qualifying Dollars” (MQDs), will become the sole elite metric in 2024. However, with increased spending conditions for status—in some cases doubling the amount customers have to spend in a year—Delta has witnessed a prolonged public outcry. The airline also said that it would restrict premium Amex cardholders from its popular Sky Clubs, limiting entries to up to 10 per year unless $75,000 is spent on the card.
The airline’s loyalists have been particularly vocal about the new status prerequisites and lounge restrictions. “People, particularly our loyal travelers, love our company,” Bastian noted. However, he also admitted that Delta hasn’t been able to keep up with customer needs. “We have so much demand for our premium product and services that are far in excess of our ability to serve it effectively.”
Bastian’s latest comments follow a barrage of complaints over the frequent flier and lounge access changes, changes the company described as “simplified.” A cursory look at social media comments and tweets shows that many travelers did not welcome the news with open arms, particularly when it comes to how the news was communicated. On X, the site formerly known as Twitter, there has been a notable fallout.
Metrics from Sprout Social, a platform that analyzes social messages and overall sentiment, show a 352 percent increase in the volume of “negative sentiment” tweets about the Delta loyalty program in the week following the SkyMiles changes (September 13 through September 20) as compared to the week prior (September 5 through September 12).
In addition, the percentage of tweets with a “positive sentiment,” specifically about airlines that were not Delta (United, American, Southwest, Spirit, and JetBlue), increased by 13 percent for the week starting September 13 compared to the week prior.
Carriers such as New York–based JetBlue and Seattle-based Alaska have been attempting to capitalize on the Delta backlash with generous status match opportunities that have launched in recent days. Neither company is requiring travelers to fly with the airline to earn status through the end of 2023; only proof of similar Delta status is required. JetBlue even branded its program as “Mosaic on the DL,” a cheeky reference to convert upset Delta supporters to its Mosaic elite tiers. For its part, Alaska is emphasizing how its Mileage Plan program is the sole loyalty scheme in the United States that earns based on how much you fly, not how much you spend.
Gary Leff, an industry analyst and creator of the View From the Wing site, says that while JetBlue and Alaska saw an opportunity to attract valuable customers who were unhappy, Delta’s sudden about-face isn’t merely because of competitive pressure.
“Delta saw [the status matches], but it was really just indicative of underlying customer frustration,” says Leff. “They’re hearing directly from customers. They’re seeing social media. They’re also presumably seeing an uptick in cobrand card cancellations, although neither American Express nor Delta has spoken about this.”
At the Rotary Club of Atlanta, Bastian said program “modifications” would be made, but he didn’t elaborate on further changes. Instead, more information is said to be disclosed “over the next few weeks.” A Delta spokesperson confirmed the CEO’s remarks but declined to provide additional comment to AFAR.
In explaining the rollout of the September 13 announcement, the Delta leader likened it to “[ripping] the Band-Aid off,” with the changes coming out too hot and too heavy.
Leff says that while Delta will likely reverse some of the earlier-publicized changes, the longer-term road map may already be in place. “They don’t actually think the changes were a mistake, just how those changes were rolled out,” says Leff.