ATLANTA -- Frequent business traveler Geoff Slater says he was a top-tier elite
member of Delta Air Lines' frequent-flier program but now tries to avoid
flying on Delta.
"I had accrued over 700,000 miles on Delta, but then found they wanted double or triple miles for most everything," Slater says.
a public transit consultant in Fayston, Vt., is one of many former and
current elite members of Delta Air Lines' SkyMiles program who say
they're disgruntled because they haven't been able to redeem miles at
the minimum mileage level for a free ticket.
Like several other
U.S. airlines' frequent-flier programs, the SkyMiles program offers a
free round-trip coach ticket within the continental U.S. for 25,000
Many seasoned fliers, though, say it's virtually impossible to cash
in that amount for a desired flight and one instead must cash in 40,000
miles, Delta's "medium" level award, or 60,000 miles, the "high" award.
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with competing airlines have raised similar complaints about finding a
free ticket at a minimum mileage level. But frequent fliers and other
business-travel experts say it's most difficult at Delta.
getting very hard on Delta to find a seat for minimum miles," says
Aik-Meng Tan, vice president of sales for OKT Travel, a corporate travel
management company in Plainview, N.Y. "Of all the mileage programs out
there, Delta is the most unfriendly in terms of the number of miles you
need to redeem an award ticket," Tan says.
Delta stands behind its
frequent-flier program, emphasizing that many components are beneficial
for members. Spokesman Paul Skrbec says an advantage of the program is
its three mileage redemption levels, unlike two at other airlines.
To examine the issue, USA TODAY chose 50 random flights on Delta's website; 42 of them had no free tickets available at the minimum mileage level.
Included were some flights to unpopular wintertime destinations for
the ordinarily slow travel season next January. But finding a single
free ticket at the minimum-award level was hard even in those instances.
instance, there were no minimum-level free tickets available for an
Atlanta to Fargo, N.D., itinerary, leaving Atlanta on Jan. 13, 2014, and
returning Jan. 17. That also was the case for a Reno to Fargo flight on
the same dates.
On those dates, a free New York to Los Angeles
round-trip ticket was available for 25,000 miles for someone who
wouldn't mind a flight arriving in Los Angeles at 12:20 a.m. on Jan.
14. For a flight arriving earlier, 32,500 miles were required.
TODAY found minimum-award availability better when it chose 50 random
international flights. But it still found no free coach tickets for the
minimum miles on 36 of them.
The minimum amount required for a
free round-trip coach ticket varies for international flights: 60,000
miles for Europe and more for many other countries.
international tickets available at the minimum level may be impractical.
For instance, a round-trip Charlotte to Paris itinerary in September
for 60,000 miles has stops in New York and Amsterdam, and a nine-hour
wait for outbound connecting flights.
Murray Cook, president of a
sports venue management company, says he couldn't get free seats at the
minimum level for a Delta flight to Munich in December, though he went
online when the flights went on sale - 331 days before departure.
Michael Sommer, a consultant and a Diamond Medallion elite member with more than 2.3 million SkyMiles, is frustrated.
should I have to spend twice as many miles for the same free ticket
after earning those miles by flying on so many paid flights?" Sommer
After being unable to cash in the minimum number of miles
for free business-class tickets for numerous flights departing over an
eight-month period, Sommer wrote a complaint letter to Delta CEO Richard
In a response letter that Sommer provided to USA TODAY,
Delta executive assistant Susanna Curtis apologized for "any
frustration" he encountered, pointed out the benefits of the SkyMiles
program and said the number of seats offered for free travel is limited.
I would also like point out that one of the reasons we award Medallion
members a mileage bonus (1.25 miles for every mile flown) is so the
additional miles make it easier to use the highest award option if the
other award levels are not available," Curtis wrote.
Hard to find
Brian Kelly, a frequent-flier expert who runs ThePointsGuy.com website, says "using SkyMiles can be an extremely frustrating and time-consuming experience -- even for the most advanced mileage expert."
Delta's Syrbec wouldn't say "yes" or "no" when USA TODAY asked
whether every flight when it first goes on sale has at least one free
seat available at the lowest mileage level.
"Delta offers every
seat as an award seat with redemption levels varying based on route,
date of travel and customer demand," the airline's statement reads. "As
the price of airfares increase, customer demand for award travel also
increases, which can result in availability at the lowest levels being
Jay Sorensen of IdeaWorks, a consulting company
specializing in airline revenue, says he suspects many Delta flights
have no free seats available at the minimum-mileage level. In a May 2012
survey, Sorensen ranked Delta last of 23 airlines in free seat
Delta says its frequent fliers last year redeemed
more than 262 billion miles for more than 11 million awards. "In 2012,"
the airline says, "8% of revenue miles flown on Delta were for award