The latest shake-up to send shockwaves through the travel industry is Delta Air Lines’ revisions to its popular SkyMiles rewards program.
Delta’s changes don’t alter the way members earn or redeem miles, aside from the fact that the airline can change the mileage required at will. But to attain the coveted elite status for easier upgrades, travelers have to spend a certain amount of money: $6,000 per year for “silver” and $35,000 per year for “diamond.”
Delta has framed the changes as “simpler and more rewarding.” But Anchorage’s Chris Ross, a Diamond Medallion flyer, sees it differently. “They just made it twice as hard. This is nuts. They will lose a lot of members,” he wrote.
Airlines routinely change the rules for their popular loyalty programs. For example, Alaska Airlines recently reduced the amount of miles travelers earn with their “Saver” fares to 30% of the actual miles flown.
“The entire loyalty ecosystem is out of control,” claims travel consumer advocate Christopher Elliott.
“These aren’t airline companies anymore,” claims Elliott. “They are loyalty organizations who happen to fly planes.”
To underscore how important loyalty programs are to airlines, consider that Alaska Airlines reported $245 million in net income during the second quarter of 2023. Those healthy results would be impossible were it not for the $435 million in credit card commissions the airline received from Bank of America.
Do you wonder why flight attendants are constantly pushing credit cards? Are you curious why you receive a nonstop barrage of emails offering miles-for-sale? It’s because Bank of America is Alaska Air’s largest customer. By far.
“I think it could be a bubble,” said Elliott, of the frequent flyer game.
I asked him what elite level he claims, since he and his family travel all the time.
“I’m a nothing,” he said.
Even though Elliott remains a skeptic of various airline loyalty schemes funded by banks and credit card companies, he’s still an advocate for travel in general and “slow travel” in particular.
The last time I saw Elliott was over breakfast at Snow City Cafe in downtown Anchorage. That was in 2017 when, with his kids in tow, he spent much of his time traveling around the U.S.
Today, as the world continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, Elliott is making his way around the globe, spending a month or two in each destination. Mostly, he and his kids set up shop in vacation rentals.
I caught up with him in Nikko, Japan. It’s about 100 miles north of Tokyo. “We plan to spend about two months in Japan,” he said.
“Every place I go yields a surprise moment,” said Elliott. “Here in Japan, the surprise is that everything runs so efficiently. Everyone uses cash and many businesses won’t accept credit cards.”
Elliott’s journey to Japan has been a circuitous one. I asked him about his visit to the Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s beautiful. Most people think their corner of the world is the most beautiful — including those of you in Alaska,” he said. “And Alaska is beautiful. But in the Azores, I was impressed with how nice the people were — as well as the sheer natural beauty of the place.”
From the Azores, Elliott went to Lisbon for about a month. “I like to stay longer than the normal tourist,” said Elliott. “The first few days after a long flight are a blur. Staying longer definitely gives you a chance to live like a local.”
From Portugal, Elliott traveled to Qatar and Dubai. “The (Persian) Gulf states really set the gold standard for customer service both in their hotels and airlines. Qatar Air, for example, is wonderful.”
Elliott spent two months in Cape Town, South Africa. “I was impressed with the rugged beauty of the place,” he said. “We toured the shanty towns throughout Cape Town. People are trying really hard, but apartheid still is in the fabric of the culture.”
Elliott had no problem recounting the destinations and durations of his month-long stays: in Australia, Spain, Paris, London and Greece, among others.
Two unique experiences stood out: the first was a cruise from Bergen north to the Arctic Circle, on the Norwegian Coastal Express, operated by Hurtigruten Cruises. “The fjords along the Norwegian Coast are like nothing else in the world. You must see them,” said Elliott.
Another remarkable moment was a cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina south to Antarctica. “The ice castles of Antarctica are shockingly beautiful,” said Elliott. “We stood on the bow of the ship on a warm January day and just breathed in the cleanest air on earth.”
Although traveling does give him “a front-row seat” when problems happen, Elliott doesn’t regret traveling.
“Never waste an opportunity to travel. No one has ever regretted taking a trip,” he said.
Elliott thinks that people still are afraid to travel, either because of security issues or the cost. “Go anyway!” he said.
“Traveling changes your perspective. You’ll always learn something. Traveling makes you a better person,” said Elliott.
Elliott is never bashful about calling out the fuzzy math of airline loyalty plans. Even so, I’m excited that I just received my new Chase credit card, which promises a bonus of 100,000 points after I spend $8,000.
Elliott chuckled a little at my obvious glee. But he and I both know that those points are worth more today than they will be tomorrow.