ATLANTA (AP) — Delta Air Lines is changing its frequent-flier program to favor passengers who buy the priciest tickets instead of those who fly the most miles.
It’s a bid to lure higher-spending business travelers, who often book flights on short notice and pay more than bargain-hunting leisure travelers.
Beginning next year, Delta will base miles toward free flights on the amount that passengers spend on tickets. Currently, members of its SkyMiles program earn miles based on how far they fly — it doesn’t matter whether they bought an expensive first-class seat or the cheapest ticket in economy.
Delta will become the biggest U.S. airline yet to make such a change. American and United are likely to watch to see how travelers respond.
Wednesday’s announcement wasn’t a total surprise. Delta had already taken steps toward rewarding big spenders.
A year ago, it announced that starting in 2014 passengers would need to spend at least $2,500 with the airline to qualify for the lowest level of elite frequent-flier status, which carries perks such as free upgrades and a waiver from bag fees. Before that, they could qualify on miles alone. United quickly matched Delta’s change.
Virgin America and JetBlue Airways Corp.’s “True Blue” frequent-flier program award points based on dollars spent, not miles flown. Southwest Airlines Co., which carries more passengers within the U.S. than any other airline, overhauled its Rapid Rewards program in 2011 to award free tickets based on money spent, not trips taken. It seems to be paying off; a spokeswoman said the changes boosted Southwest revenue by $180 million in 2012 and an additional $100 million last year.
The move by an airline the size of Delta, with its international routes and important corporate customers, adds to a more fundamental trend in air travel — luring big-bucks travelers with better seats, fancier meals in first class, and VIP treatment at the airport.
Delta Air Lines Inc., based in Atlanta, said that beginning Jan. 1, SkyMiles members will earn between 5 and 11 miles for every dollar they spend on tickets — the low end for general customers, and the biggest bang for elite Diamond Medallion members. All of them will continue to get a bonus for buying tickets with a Delta-branded credit card.
Other changes, Delta said, include more availability of reward seats at the lowest mileage-requirement levels, one-way awards at half the miles needed for a round-trip reward — American does that now — and more options to combine miles and cash when buying tickets.
Jeff Robertson, a vice president who oversees the SkyMiles program, said that nearly all hotel and credit-card programs already base rewards on money spent, and Delta’s change was designed to better reward the airline’s most loyal customers.
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