Last week, Delta Air Lines (DL) made some lasting changes to their international use of Systemwide Upgrades (SWU). These are upgrade certificates that their Platinum and Diamond Medallion elites may use for most flights. They are elected as an annual Choice Benefit – four as a Platinum, six more for a Diamond.
Generally, each SWU is good for one-way travel. Delta requires at least a K-level fare for most domestic travel and a more expensive M fare for international to earn the right to apply for SWU usage. However, a couple things changed last week.
First, the somewhat expensive M fares no longer earn a 50% bonus towards elite status. For those who travel internationally and frequently purchase M fares, this is a stinging bite. It will easily cost those frequent travelers to Europe 5,000 elite miles or more for each trip while those heading to Asia will now see perhaps 10,000 miles less in their accounts, maybe more. Hitting their elite status levels just got quite a bit tougher.
Difficult as this may be for some to accept, the greater problem is upgradeable inventory to business class (what Delta calls BE) for international flights. Here’s an example: I was looking at a trip to Hong Kong in October. Inexpensive U fare economy seats are available for $1379 round-trip. DL Plats and Diamonds also receive Economy Comfort for free, meaning they can sit in one of the first few rows that enjoy extra legroom and seat pitch. Upgrading to BE requires an M fare which will cost at least $4391 (no miles, co-pays, or additional taxes required). By comparison, the least expensive discounted BE fare for those dates is $6286, though some BE fares on these dates are over $9,000.
Now it is decision time and you have three primary options:
- Purchase the inexpensive economy ticket and sit in the most comfortable seats there, hoping for an oversold flight where the gate agent feels some mercy and moves you up to a seat in BE.
- Purchase the M fare, hopefully with upgradeable seats available immediately but if not, hoping there will be upgrade inventory available before flight time.
- Purchase the discounted BE fare and feel relief that you don’t have to worry about whether you will be upgraded or not.
Delta does offer a couple other options. The first is to upgrade with miles, generally requiring 25,000 miles each way for international travel but again, requiring at least an M fare. Another choice is to pay a portion (or all) of the fare with miles. If this is selected, however, then you receive no miles toward elite status.
Now it gets ugly. For the dates I looked at, there were no seats available for upgrade. Delta, like the other legacies, releases seats for domestic and international upgrade and award travel pretty much whenever they feel like it. Of course, some carriers are more generous than others. At least for now, Delta is only offering a definite maybe.
I like to fly up front on a long-haul as much as anyone but it causes quite a pause when realizing that even paying three times as much for airfare – plus an earned upgrade cert or miles, earned from flying 75-125,000 miles a year – is not enough to insure an upgraded seat up front. In other words, it is very possible to spend $4391 on an M fare only to receive the same $1379 economy seat you could have had for one-third the cost. To paraphrase Dirty Harry, “Are you feeling lucky today?”
This explains the title. Most readers are too young to remember the 1963 song – sung first by Dionne Warwick and made popular by Dusty Springfield – but I got a feeling many Delta elites will be memorizing the lyrics. The song starts off with….
“Wishin’ and hopin’
And thinkin’ and prayin’
Plannin’ and dreamin’ each night… “
Is this fair to frequent fliers to sit on pins and needles day after day just “wishin and hopin”? After all, they fly frequently and contribute mightily to the airline’s bottom line. Would it be fairer to charge these top tier elites only $1379 at the time of booking and later charge the additional $3012 once the upgrade cleared? Excuse me, that’s IF the upgrade clears. You tell me.
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