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Delta plans cutback on award availability

In an ominous sign for the future direction of its mileage program, Delta has confirmed an upcoming change to its policy on award seat availability.

Beginning in December, SkyMiles members redeeming twice as many miles for SkyChoice awards will no longer have access to each and every seat that remains unsold at the time of booking. (Currently, a member redeeming miles at the SkyChoice level has the same right to any unsold seat as a revenue passenger, what's known in the industry as last seat availability.)

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According to Delta, the change will affect the availability of approximately 5 percent of the airline's seats. And, they assure us, if SkyChoice seats are blocked for a particular flight, there should be seats available within a day or two before or after the desired departure date.

Maybe. But isn't the whole point of SkyChoice awards (and American's AAnytime and United's Standard awards) that they are truly and unequivocally unrestricted? Isn't that the implicit pact Delta made with SkyMiles members, and a significant part of the basis upon which they joined and participate in the program ? Didn't SkyMiles members earn those miles by contributing to Delta's bottom line, either by flying on Delta or earning miles for partner activity (which also translates into revenue for the airline)?

Whether it reduces award seats by 5 percent or 50 percent, Delta is crossing a line here that should be sacrosanct. Both practically and as a matter of principle, it's a slap to the face of SkyMiles members. And it doesn't bode well for the future of SkyMiles or for other mileage programs that might choose to follow suit.

Delta's move is not an isolated one. It's another example of a bean-counter mentality trumping considerations of consumers' needs and rights, very much of a piece with airlines' other recent anti-consumer moves such as harsher expiration policies, new and increased service fees, and so on.

From the consumer standpoint, it's yet another reason to think twice about bothering with mileage programs.

And from the travel supplier standpoint, it's another slash in the programs' self-inflicted death by a thousand cuts.

Note to Delta: There's still time to do the right thing and rescind this change before it takes effect.

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