How many ways can a loyalty program devalue members' points? Among them:
- Raising award prices effectively erodes the value of miles by decreasing their purchasing power.
- Eliminating award partners devalues miles by reducing the range of options members have for redeeming their miles.
- By cutting back or eliminating perks associated with elite status.
- By changing the rules for attaining lifetime elite status.
- And so on.
All of the above are well recognized scenarios, discussed often and in depth by frequent travelers and those who serve them.
Delta has shown a light on yet another aspect of the programs where rule changes can have a significantly negative effect on the value of banked miles.
With no advance notice to members, Delta last week amended the terms and conditions of SkyMiles to prohibit members from willing their miles to friends or family when they die.
The new policy reads as follows:
Miles are not the property of any Member. Except as specifically authorized in the Membership Guide and Program Rules or otherwise in writing by an officer of Delta, miles may not be sold, attached, seized, levied upon, pledged, or transferred under any circumstances, including, without limitation, by operation of law, upon death, or in connection with any domestic relations dispute and/or legal proceeding.
That appears in the "Restrictions on Transfer" section, at the bottom of page 27 in Delta's 28-page SkyMiles Membership Guide.
The previous policy explicitly allowed for a deceased member's miles to be transferred, so this is a complete turnaround on Delta's part. But as all program operators do, Delta reserves for itself the right to make any changes it wants, whenever it wants. As is noted on page three of the Guide: "Please note that all program terms and conditions, including mileage credit amounts, Award levels and partner offers, are subject to change at any time without notice..."
Delta isn't breaking new ground here.
Among the larger airlines, Southwest and United also prohibit the transfer of miles to survivors. In United's words: "Neither accrued mileage nor certificates are transferable (i) upon death, (ii) as part of a domestic relations matter, or (iv) otherwise by operation of law."
As Delta's stealth move illustrates, the rules in this area are a moving target. And the programs aren't likely to expend much if any effort to bring changes to the attention of members. Vigilance is the watchword.
What's Allowed vs. What's Right
The best way to deal with the prospect of one's miles expiring with one's life is by using them as they're earned, rather than stockpiling them for future trips.
But that isn't always possible. And death isn't always foreseeable.
I don't generally recommend that travelers behave in ways that are contrary to their programs' rules (by, for example, engaging in the market for the sale or purchase of frequent-flyer awards). But it has to be pointed out that redeeming a deceased SkyMiles member's miles for free tickets only requires that someone have access to the member's log-in credentials. If I were a SkyMiles member with a substantial balance of unused miles, I would make it a point to ensure that a trusted friend had my membership number and password to use as he or she saw fit.
Even if the odds are against my dying any time soon, there's the proverbial hit-by-a-bus possibility to consider. And having my miles die with me would just add insult to, well, the greatest injury of all.
Reader Reality Check
Have you considered the disposition of your frequent flyer miles when you die?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.