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Delta flies out of bankruptcy; destination unknown

On Monday, after more than 19 months, Delta put Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection behind it, reentering the ongoing airline fray as a slimmed-down and reinvented competitor.

Delta frequent flyers are breathing a collective sigh of relief, not only because their miles were spared, but also that the airline eluded the clutches of would-be acquirer, US Airways. Had US Airways succeeded in forcibly merging with Delta, the consensus view was that Delta's mileage program would have been subjected to a slash-and-burn makeover, leaving little of the once-generous program intact.

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Now, with Delta firmly in control of its own destiny, the question is, which destiny can consumers expect to be confronted with?

United, for example, was noticeably more proactive in using its mileage program in the wake of its bankruptcy, resulting in a net gain for Mileage Plus members in terms of more opportunities to earn and redeem their miles.

The signals emanating from Delta's Atlanta headquarters are mixed. On the one hand, Delta recently reduced, from three years to two, the period during which members must be active in order to maintain the life of their miles.

On the positive side, Delta's newly released online award-booking tool, discussed here, is a winner, suggesting the airline is willing to make significant investments in its program.

It's too soon to tell whether Delta's primary focus will be on cutting costs or on enhancing consumer benefits. They can do both, of course. But beyond a certain point, they're mutually exclusive. SkyMiles members can only hope that Delta will follow United's example.

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