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Why Didn’t I Get Mileage Credit for My Connecting Flight?

Dear Tim,

I just read your column about the shrinking airline mile, and thought I might pass along this recent example of how Delta tried to shave more than 300 SkyMiles off a recent trip.

Last week, I flew from Orlando (MCO) to San Francisco (SFO) via Salt Lake City (SLC). While in Salt Lake, I had an hour layover, switched planes, and continued on my way.

On the return trip, I flew from Los Angeles (LAX) to Orlando, again with a stop in Salt Lake. While I didn’t have to switch planes this time, I still had a one-hour layover. I took my boarding card, got off the plane, and stretched for a bit. The flight home was uneventful, but when I double-checked my SkyMiles account, I noticed that Delta considered the second flight to be a direct flight and only gave me the miles between Los Angeles and Orlando (2217), not the ones from Los Angeles to Salt Lake (590) and Salt Lake to Orlando (1929)—a difference of 302 miles.

I called up Delta SkyMiles and got nowhere. They said that because I didn’t switch planes in Salt Lake that they considered it a direct flight, and that I wasn’t entitled to the extra miles. I even pointed out that their argument for this case was inconsistent: According to the taxes and fees I paid, I had two segments, but Delta still considered it a direct flight for SkyMiles purposes.

I wound up speaking to a supervisor who did adjust the mileage, but wasn’t happy to do so. I wonder, how many other flights does Delta calculate this way?

Stephen C.

Dear Stephen,

In answer to your question, Delta calculates miles for all its flights based on the very distinction it cited.

A basic terminology primer is in order here for those who may not be familiar with the relevant definitions. A nonstop flight is just that—a flight with no stops between the origin and destination airports. A direct flight (also called a through-flight) is one with one or more stopovers, but no change of plane. And a connecting flight is one that requires a stopover and a plane change.

Nonstops and direct flights earn point-to-point miles; connecting flights earn the sum of the miles from the individual segments. The latter, according to the laws of geometry, will always be greater than the former.

In your case, Delta credited MCO-SLC and SLC-SFO miles for your outbound travel, rather than the nonstop MCO-SFO miles, because you changed planes. In effect, I always think of the extra miles accruing to connecting flights as a bonus to compensate me for the hassle and inconvenience of changing planes, gates, and sometimes even terminals.

But on the return, you earned nonstop LAX-MCO miles because you didn’t change planes during the stopover in Salt Lake, even if you went into the terminal for a few minutes

In Delta’s defense, they were duly following their own rules—which are pretty standard industry-wide, it should be said—when they awarded you nonstop miles for your return flight.

What makes the distinction counterintuitive, in my opinion, is that direct flights and connecting flights very often stop over at the same intermediate point, typically a hub airport like Atlanta, Chicago, or Dallas. And the time on the ground at the stopover point may be comparable as well. This means that both the actual number of flown miles, and the total point-to-point travel time, may be the same in both cases. Indeed, that was the circumstance for the flights in question. But the number of miles earned may be quite different, depending on a single factor: whether there was a plane change or not.

Like it or not, that’s the rule as it’s published in Delta’s member guide. Delta was simply enforcing it.

The real highlight of this saga is the fact that you were able to cajole the Delta supervisor into overturning the airline’s own policy. Whatever you said or did obviously served you well.

For others, the take-away message is that rules and policies, even if they’re clearly printed in the user’s guide, can be challenged and overturned. So be persistent and present a clear argument, but don’t be too disappointed if you don’t get the outcome you feel you deserve.

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