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Delta's New Sky Priority Is Much Ado About Little

On April 15, Delta launched a new benefit "suite" for top-tier elite members of its SkyMiles program, and for passengers traveling on business- or first-class tickets. Dubbed Sky Priority, it includes the following:

  • Priority check-in
  • Expedited security lines at select airports
  • Priority boarding
  • Expedited baggage handling
  • Dedicated reservation line

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That seems pretty clear. Where things get murky is in the overlap between Sky Priority perks and the existing benefits enjoyed by Delta elite members. Consider the following note from Lynne, a Silver elite in Delta's program, who had just received an email notice of Sky Priority's introduction:

"This year, I'm only Silver. When I read the double-speak in this email today, I interpreted it to mean that my Silver status (which they hope I am enjoying) no longer offers me benefits beginning April 15.

"Then I went to check in for my April 15 flight, and my suspicions were confirmed. Silver no longer gets priority seats, no longer gets breezeway boarding... in fact, effective tomorrow, I'm not sure what I do get until I hit Gold once again because the web site only features the old information as of tonight!"

It would appear, based on Lynne's experience, that some Silver elite benefits were being sacrificed on the altar of Sky Priority. But when I suggested as much to a Delta spokesman, he stated categorically that "Silvers are not losing anything."

In a follow-up email, he elaborated specifically on the issues of priority check-in and boarding for Silver elites: "For check-in, signage will be clearly marked for Silver Medallions—in hub cities, they will have dedicated Silver Medallion check-in; in non-hub cities check-in signage for Sky Priority lists Silver Medallion members. For the boarding process, zone 1 will be dedicated to Sky Priority customers and zone 2 will be used for Silver Medallion members. Zones 3 and 4 will continue to be used for general boarding."

When the dust settles, it may well turn out that Lynne was simply the victim of an operational hiccup in the initial days of a new procedure roll-out. It happens.

So, what's the verdict on Sky Priority?

None of the benefits is new. This is a case of bundling and branding a collection of travel perks under the Sky Priority name.

It's probably smart marketing, in theory. If you can repackage elements of an existing service, give them a catchy name, and generate some goodwill and positive press, you'll earn the gratitude of company stockholders and justify an executive pay package.

The net benefit to travelers, however, isn't so obvious.

In practice, even the cleverest ideas should be subjected to an acid test: Can the benefit be communicated simply and clearly, such that the intended beneficiaries "get it"?

In this case, because of the confusion inherent in offering elite members what they were already privy to, but with a glitzy label, the communications effort so far isn't scoring very well. For elite members, there isn't much "it" to get. And suggesting otherwise creates more confusion than clarity.

The confusion could have been easily avoided, by linking Sky Priority to high-priced tickets (first, business, full-fare coach) and not to elite status.

It's too late now, however. Having very publicly promised that elite members will henceforth receive Sky Priority benefits, reverting to the old package of perks would appear retrograde—even though nothing would be lost but the name.

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