Delta Ditches Expiring Miles

For this story, let's just go directly to the airline's own press release:

ATLANTA, Feb. 15, 2011 /PRNewswire/—Delta Air Lines today announced it has eliminated the SkyMiles mileage expiration, creating a new industry-leading benefit for all members. This program change is effective for all accounts as of Jan. 1, 2011, and makes Delta the only major U.S. carrier without mileage expiration.

And this, from an email sent out today to SkyMiles members:

You now can earn miles without worrying if and when they will expire as we have eliminated our mileage expiration policy—no asterisk, no fine print, no ifs, ands or buts.

To me, frankly, this came as a complete surprise. The current standard among legacy carriers—miles expiring after 18 months or two years—seemed a settled matter. The outcry following the 2007 change from the previous standard—miles expiring after three years—had long since subsided. And travelers had mostly accommodated themselves to the new reality.

Mileage expiration just wasn't a top-of-mind issue. Except that it was, for Delta.

Why Change Now?

So the question raised by Delta's move is why? And, why now?

Delta suffered a resounding PR hit in 2010 when evidence suggested that the SkyMiles program's highly touted three-tier awards structure had resulted in a significant decrease in the availability of lower-priced awards, forcing program members to pay higher average prices for Delta awards—the opposite of the advertised effect.

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Undoubtedly exacerbating Delta's discomfort at being called out for its stingy award practices, United has been vigorously promoting itself as "the airline that wants you to use your miles," a not-so-subtle dig at Delta.

From my standpoint, the current Delta narrative has been a story of love lost and redemption sought, a company trying to regain the flagging trust and loyalty of its customers.

A more consumer-friendly expiration policy is the latest chapter in that story.

One Step Forward for SkyMiles Members

Whatever the history, and whatever Delta's goals and motives, the net effect of the new policy is positive.

All things being equal, a mile that isn't in danger of disappearing has more value than an expiring mile. And a program based on a more valuable loyalty currency trumps a program based on a lesser currency.

Of course, all things aren't equal.

But as Delta's news release takes pains to show, the airline is taking steps to level the playing field. In addition to the liberalized expiration policy, the airline has eliminated frequent flyer redemption fees and implemented rollover elite miles, two other significant benefits for SkyMiles members.

Industry Implications

The policy change potentially reverberates far beyond the SkyMiles program.

Should the members of the programs of American, United, US Airways, and so on expect to see comparable changes to the status of their miles?

Could Delta's initiative signal the beginning of an industry-wide shift, ushering in an era of eternal miles?

As the world's second largest airline, with one of the world's largest loyalty programs, Delta has the market mass to force a competitive response, which could gain sufficient momentum to effect a new industry standard.

Today, airline marketing executives are huddling in conference rooms in Dallas and Chicago and Phoenix to mull their reactions to Delta's newly liberated miles. As they do, frequent flyers whose miles still expire can only hope that these execs see SkyMiles as a force to be reckoned with.

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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