I am almost all talked out when it comes to Delta SkyMiles and the latest news about the program. I know some of you are happy to hear that. Admittedly, I did not see removal of the award charts coming right now. There’s also the apparent 3-week advance purchase requirement – a change (whether it is an advance purchase requirement in the truest sense of the word or not) that I think solidifies the idea that we are going to see revenue-based redemption at SkyMiles soon. Of course, I’ve opined before that SkyMiles became revenue-based the day they implemented the 3-tier award chart, and only became more so with 5 tiers or 12 or however many they have now.

You already know that I am not wholly opposed to revenue-based programs. Nor am I personally offended at what Delta has done. Maybe I’m jaded? That said, the reaction to the latest change has been swift and furious, which isn’t surprising given the program we’re talking about – SkyMiles. Just saying the name “SkyMiles” generates a reaction in most circles I run in. While Delta Air Lines is, on the whole, viewed positively in the aspect of running a solid and dependable airline operation, employing great people, etc., everyone tends to qualify any platitudes with a clarification that they are not talking about the loyalty program as they heap praise. All of which leads me to ask, just what the heck is it about SkyMiles? There are, of course, the years long known issues with availability at “saver” level, award calendars, etc. Granted, I know plenty of people who claim to have had no issues finding award availability. Beyond that, the program is less generous overall than most. I thought it a real development that we finally got usable confirmed upgrade certificates last year for Platinum and Diamond Medallions, something that Delta’s primary competitors have offered in one form or another for a long time. Being less generous overall doesn’t explain the aura surrounding SkyMiles though. I thought back to my own time in the airline industry, and while not that long ago in the scheme of things, it was an admittedly different era.

During my airline career, I was what airline people would refer to as an “ops guy,” both flight and technical, and an airport customer service guy. Marketing is notably missing from my resume. That said, my fellow employees and yes, even me, tended to be well versed in the AAdvantage program. Employee participation in the program was actively encouraged. While we couldn’t earn miles for our non-rev flights, the plethora of other things one earns miles for like hotels, phone bills, credit card charges, etc. were there for the earning. Even our company travel reimbursement system offered the option of paying our corporate travel reimbursements to the corporate Amex or….wait for it….the Citi AAdvantage card.

What was clear to me then, and as far as I can tell remains true today is this – AAdvantage was an integral part of American Airlines. It was important. It and everything about it mattered, and AAdvantage was an important part of the overall success of American Airlines. SkyMiles, on the other hand, strikes me as somewhat of an afterthought, not really part of the “team.” Something that was created because someone at HQ thought they had to have it even though they really didn’t want it. That’s not meant to be a slap at SkyMiles staff, most of whom I’m sure try very hard to make it a competitive program while facing what I suspect are a lot of competing internal forces who have vastly different ideas about loyalty and about us. It should be more difficult than it is to call a billion-dollar points enterprise an afterthought. However, it’s the way I feel, and I think this lies at the heart of why SkyMiles isn’t quite like any other loyalty program.

Now, what to do about it? More on that soon.

-MJ, February 10, 2015

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