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Delta's Frequent-Flier Rule Change May Be Sign Of Things To Come

The friendly skies no longer seem as inviting.

Delta Airlines announced that the miles frequent fliers earn on travel will be based more on how much they spend than how far they travel.

The changes to the SkyMiles program will, among other things, make virtually impossible the practice of "mileage running." What's that, you ask? Here's a definition from WebFlyer, a website dedicated to air travel:

"A series of flights taken in a very short amount of time, solely for the purpose of accumulating frequent flyer miles, with a blatant disregard for the destinations."

The changes are part of a larger trend across the industry to reward its highest spenders — those are the people like the character George Clooney played in Up In The Air (h/t NPR's Here & Now).

In an interview on NPR's Here & Now, Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, compares frequent-flier programs to Garrison Keillor's imaginary town Lake Wobegon, where "every child is above average."

"Well, in the real world if everybody's above average, then nobody is above average," Thompson says. "And that's actually precisely the problem with too many frequent-flier programs today.

"They are not elite anymore. And Delta feels like it's giving too many goodies to people who aren't actually spending the most money. And they're not preserving their best rewards for their highest-paying, most lucrative customers."

You can listen to that full interview below:

Indeed, The Associated Press notes in a recent story "that some of the most cherished new international first-class perks have nothing to do with meals, drinks or seats. Global airlines are increasingly rewarding wealthy fliers with something more intangible: physical distance between them and everyone else."

But, notes Boarding Area, a blog frequented by regular air travelers, the trend in airlines is not just rewarding passengers who pay more for their trips but away from first class and toward business class.

The move by Delta, the nation's third-biggest airline, follows similar decisions by Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Virgin America. But other airlines like United have already introduced rules that make it more difficult for frequent-flier members to earn free tickets.

The Wall Street Journal reported last year:

"Besides the lack of availability of awards, travelers complain that raising the price for awards essentially devalues the miles or points in their account. The currency no longer has the same buying power. Frequent fliers on forums such as FlyerTalk and MilePoint jokingly refer to Delta's SkyMiles as SkyPesos."

Many members of FlyerTalk say the changes affect them directly and they expect other airlines to make similar changes. That's a view echoed by The Atlantic's Thompson.

"I do expect other airlines to follow suit if we see a lack of belly-grumbling about this," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Krishnadev Calamur
Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
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