Delta: Keep falling.

With Delta just announcing a raft of very negative changes for its most frequent flyers, one might wonder how this company, long considered the best of the American majors, managed to sink to the bottom of this ranking. Here are some (non-exhaustive) answers.

The Delta-NWA merger destroyed the healthy foundations built up between KLM and NWA

Well before the other two majors, Delta was the first to consider a merger with Northwest Airlines.

Delta and Air France, partners since 1999

The relationship between Delta Air Lines and Air France, the forerunner of the SkyTeam Alliance of which these two airlines are the founders, was already established in 1999. Beyond their frequent flyer programs, the complementary nature of the two airlines’ networks was obvious.

A television report on France 2 already outlined the partnership:

We weren’t yet talking about a transatlantic joint venture, but about code-sharing. And at the time, it was an unprecedented feat.

Northwest Airlines and KLM, a much stronger commercial partnership

Shortly before Delta and Air France, it was the turn of Northwest Airlines and KLM to forge a strong commercial partnership, around code-sharing of course, but above all around the NWA WorldPerks frequent flyer program on the one hand, and KLM Flying Dutchman on the other.

Indeed, the two loyalty programs were fully reciprocal in terms of benefits. Better still, they almost merged: NWA WorldPerks members residing in Europe had their accounts converted to Flying Dutchman accounts, and vice versa for KLM Flying Dutchman members residing in North America.

And on-board upgrades, especially in North America, applied to members of both programs without distinction of priority.

After the merger, a return to separate frequent flyer programs despite the NWA-KLM relationship

Meanwhile, Air France and KLM merged and created Flying Blue, their joint frequent flyer program which continued the excellent relationship created with Northwest.

But when in 2008, Delta and Northwest Airlines merged, and Delta’s SkyMiles program swallowed up Northwest’s, the near-homogeneity of the frequent flyer programs between NWA and AFKL fell away, and even if benefit equivalences remain, they are now mainly driven by status equivalences within the SkyTeam alliance, and its shared SkyTeam Elite and Elite Plus statuses.

Delta, architect or killer of SkyTeam?

As I said earlier, Delta, along with Air France, is one of the founding members of the SkyTeam alliance, along with Korean Air and Aeromexico.

Created in 2000, the alliance brings together some fifteen airlines offering facilitated connections and benefits for members of frequent flyer programs.

The alliance has continued to build and expand over the years.

But at the same time, on Delta’s initiative, a transatlantic joint venture was formed between certain members of the SkyTeam alliance in 2009 with Air-France KLM, later extended to include Alitalia.

In addition, Delta has taken significant stakes in airlines outside the SkyTeam alliance, such as Virgin Atlantic (since integrated) and LATAM.

Delta has long blocked the integration of Virgin Atlantic into SkyTeam, and is still blocking that of LATAM, which is now outside the alliance, having left oneworld following the purchase of a majority stake by Delta.

Passengers’ ordeal to access SkyClubs

Access to Delta’s SkyClubs is not easy, and is becoming increasingly difficult.

Delta is the only U.S. airline to prevent Elite Plus partners from accessing its clubs on domestic routes.

SkyTeam is the only alliance with a clear rule on lounge access: it is only guaranteed on international routes. This means that, in theory, Air France could refuse access to the Business lounge on a Paris-Toulouse flight for a Flying Blue Gold or Platinum member. This, of course, is not the case.

One of the only airlines in SkyTeam applying this rule isDelta… And for a good reason : lounge access in the US is a true Business. For a very long time, and still today, airlines sell annual lounge access to passengers: United Club, American Admirals Club and Delta SkyClub, at prices ranging from $600 to $800 per year for individual or family access.

Aeromexico and Air Europa also apply this rule, as one of our dear readers just mentioned to us.

This means that lounge access for domestic routes is not automatic with status. So be it.

But in the other two alliances, Oneworld and Star Alliance, Sapphire/Emerald and Star Gold members of foreign frequent flyer programs respectively have access to the lounge on purely domestic itineraries.

So, as a US resident and member of the British Airways Executive Club program (with Gold Guest List status) and the SAS Eurobonus program (with Gold status), I have access to the American and United lounges.

But as a Flying Blue Platinum lifetime member, no access to the Delta lounge.

Delta has restricted lounge access even on international routes for its own Elite members!

In early 2023, faced with chronic lounge overcrowding, Delta decided to further restrict access: from now on, Basic Economy fares (the lowest) are no longer eligible for lounge access, nor are Elite passengers from its own program traveling in Economy class (even flexible). Since February 2023, only Premium (loyalty) and Business (loyalty and non-loyalty) passengers have been eligible.

Fortunately, SkyTeam Elite plus passengers on international routes could still access it (well, unless they were in Basic Economy).

U.S. credit card shenanigans to gain access to lounges

But why were Delta’s lounges so overcrowded as to impose such measures? The answer can be summed up in two words: American Express.

This financial institution is a major partner for Delta. And for good reason: in exchange for almost $6 billion a year, half a dozen co-branded cards generate miles for their holders, miles which are “purchased” in bulk by American Express.

But in exchange for this bulk purchase, Delta has conceded a huge benefit, this time for “classic” American Express Platinum cardholders: access to SkyClubs without itinerary restrictions.

And there you have the difference with the other American airlines: the latter only have the co-branded cards that drain passengers into their lounges, as well as their elites and foreign elites. Not the huge flow of Amex Platinum passengers.

Not Premium enough lounges

While Delta had made real efforts with its lounges, notably with the opening of the renovated T4 at JFK, the company has not really improved its concept from year to year.

Worse still, United and American have maintained and renovated their Premium lounge concepts: the former has created Polaris lounges, present in its hubs and accessible to passengers traveling in international or transcontinental Business class, and the latter has created its Flagship lounges with similar access conditions.

Delta’s reaction has been slow in coming, although the company has announced the opening of such Premium lounges in Boston and Newark in the coming months.

Bottom line

Make no mistake: at Delta, passengers are the joke. The only customer who brings cash to shareholders is American Express!

Olivier Delestre-Levai
Olivier Delestre-Levai
Olivier has been into airline blogging since 2010. First a major contributor to the FlyerTalk forum, he created the FlyerPlan website in July 2012, and writes articles with a major echo among airline specialists. He now co-runs the TravelGuys blog with Bertrand, focusing on travel experience and loyalty programs.
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