It was with some trepidation that I opened yesterday's email from Delta. The subject line, "Delta Announces 2009 SkyMiles and WorldPerks Benefits," suggested that there were changes ahead for the Delta and Northwest mileage programs. And the overwhelming trend lately has been to degrade the programs, not enhance them.
Members of the Delta and Northwest programs will be relieved to find that the changes in store for them are generally positive, a welcome respite from the torrent of bad news that has left many travelers numbed or outraged.
Here's what Delta and Northwest members can expect:
- Beginning in "early 2009," members of both SkyMiles and WorldPerks will be able to transfer miles back and forth between the two programs. Ultimately, by the end of 2009, SkyMiles and WorldPerks accounts will be combined into single SkyMiles accounts. But in the meantime, the ability to combine miles in one or the other program to reach award thresholds is a real benefit.
- SkyMiles members will be able to qualify for elite status based not just on elite-qualifying miles, as they do currently, but also on the basis of flown segments. That's good news for travelers who routinely fly on shorter routes. (It also makes economic sense, since shorter flights tend to be disproportionately more profitable than longer flights.)
- Delta confirmed that members of both programs will continue to earn a minimum of 500 miles—both base and elite-qualifying miles—per flight. That makes Delta the only major airline to maintain the 500-mile minimum for all customers. (The latest trend is to award a minimum of 500 miles to elite members, but only the actual flown mileage to non-elite members.)
- And finally, at some point early next year, the three-tiered award chart currently in place at SkyMiles will be imposed on the WorldPerks program. We still don't know whether Delta's award scheme is better or worse for consumers than the traditional two-tiered chart used by Northwest and most other airlines.
While none of the changes is revolutionary, their overall effect is positive. And that is itself heartening.
Merging SkyMiles and WorldPerks gives Delta a rare opportunity to take a step back from day-to-day operational issues, rethink its approach to loyalty marketing, and make meaningful improvements to a solid but unremarkable program.
When the two programs are merged, the resulting SkyMiles program will displace American's AAdvantage as the world's largest mileage program. In its press release, Delta refers to SkyMiles as "the world's premier loyalty program." That's a title it has yet to earn. But as goals go, it's a worthy one. If they succeed, Delta will get bragging rights and more business; and Delta flyers will get a loyalty program worthy of the name.