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For some fliers, mileage programs come up short

Published: March 2, 2014

Travelers take note: The economics of earning free airline flights are changing.

Delta Air Lines Inc. said this week that starting Jan. 1, it will reward passengers for the amount they spend on tickets, not the number of miles they fly. The change to Delta’s SkyMiles program will be great for people who buy expensive tickets in first-class, but bad for vacationers who shop for the cheapest fare.

Delta’s decision has renewed the debate about whether airline frequent-flier programs are worthwhile for people who only fly a few times a year.

Non-elite members of SkyMiles will get five miles for every dollar they spend. Those are people who don’t travel enough to earn “status,” and many are extremely price-conscious. Meanwhile, elite frequent fliers will get up to 11 miles per dollar.

The changes will make SkyMiles more like loyalty programs at Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and Virgin America. The other behemoth loyalty programs — AAdvantage at American Airlines and MileagePlus at United Airlines — still base rewards on miles flown, for now.

The changes

Here’s how the Delta changes will work. Right now, all Delta members get 3,892 miles for a round trip between Los Angeles and Atlanta. But after Jan. 1:

•A non-elite member who buys a $486 economy fare (the price on for an upcoming flight on the route) will get 38 percent fewer miles, down to 2,430.

•The same traveler paying $1,726 (from for the same March flight) for a first-class seat will get 8,630 miles.

•A “Diamond Medallion” — the top elite level for SkyMiles — buying that first-class ticket will earn a whopping 18,986 miles, nearly eight times more than the vacationer back in seat 29B.

Delta won’t say exactly how many miles you’ll need for any given trip until late this year.

Staying loyal

Jere Jenkins was shocked by the changes.

“It cuts my miles. The best I can do is get half of what I’m getting now on most of those flights,” said the West Lafayette, Ind., man, who flies frequently on Delta for his job at a scientific-instruments company. The firm uses a travel agency that shops for low fares.

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To see if you’ll earn less toward a free trip on Delta, head over to the calculator on the airline’s website:

It cuts my miles. The best I can do is get half of what I’m getting now on most of those flights.”

Jere Jenkins,


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