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Delta's New Award Scheme Faces Reality Check

Today, Delta's new three-tier award chart takes effect, giving SkyMiles members a choice of three combinations of price and availability.

The low-price award (as it's called on Delta's award booking widget) requires the fewest miles but also offers the fewest available award seats; the medium-price award is more expensive and gives the program member expanded seat availability; and the high-price award requires the most miles but also guarantees access to any unsold seat. Award bookings can mix and match award types, combining more and less expensive awards for a round-trip as availability dictates.

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So, for example, the most popular award, a domestic coach ticket, is now priced at 12,500 miles each way at the lowest price level, 20,000 miles for medium, and 30,000 for high. Compared to the previous two-tiered award chart, the low price award is the same as the old restricted award; but the new high-price award costs 5,000 extra miles each way compared to the old unrestricted level.

This has been a long time coming. As long as a year ago, Delta signaled that the change was in the works. Then, late last year, Delta terminated last-seat availability for unrestricted awards, intimating that a new policy was in the pipeline that would restore unrestricted access.

Delta claims that the new scheme affords additional flexibility. It's hard to argue with that. The real issues are whether, on balance, SkyMiles members will now be able to find available award seats more often, and whether the average number of miles redeemed will increase or decrease.

We won't know until the new chart has been in place long enough for a meaningful before-and-after comparison. And, because we won't have access to detailed program data, that comparison will only be anecdotal.

The airline, however, will be able to precisely judge whether the change has had a positive or negative effect on consumers' ability to cash in their miles, and the price they pay for award tickets. I hereby challenge Delta to make that data available after, say, the change has been in place for a full six months. Marketing claims are one thing; real world results are another.

In the meantime, if you have an opinion on Delta's new award scheme—and in particular, if you're a SkyMiles member who can share your redemption experience—please use the comments field below to do so.

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