Delta, United frequent-flier changes go unnoticed

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Delta, United frequent-flier changes go unnoticed

by: Hugo Martin | .
Los Angeles Times | .
published: March 11, 2015

LOS ANGELES — Two of the nation’s largest airlines, United and Delta, have adopted major changes to their loyalty reward programs that experts say will benefit the airlines at the expense of passengers. But most reward program members are unaware of the changes, a survey found.

Of the reward club members who are aware of the changes, the new rules may be chasing off more travelers than it attracts, according to an online survey of more than 1,000 reward club members who have flown in the last year.

“They have upset more people than they have pleased with these changes,” said Brian Karimzad, director of the website that sponsored the survey, MileCards.com, which monitors and rates reward programs.

Starting Jan. 1, Delta’s SkyMiles program was overhauled to offer members reward miles based on how much money they spend instead of the number of miles flown. United’s MileagePlus program switched to a similar system March 1.

The changes mean that high-paying fliers in the front of the plane earn more points than passengers in the economy section of the same flight.

But Karimzad’s survey found that 67 percent of United fliers and 69 percent of Delta fliers were unaware of the changes.

“People have some real choices here,” he said. “If people sit down and look at what they earn, they might twice think about booking United or Delta on their next flight.”

According to the survey, 26 percent of United fliers who knew about the changes said they were less likely to book with the carrier, 11 percent said they were more likely, and 63 percent said the changes to the program made no difference.

For Delta fliers, 23 percent said they were less likely to book on the carrier because of the changes, and 16 percent said they were more likely to book, with the balance saying it made no difference, according to the survey.

In response to the survey, Delta said the airline had increased award seat availability and improved the online shopping experience. United said the carrier made a serious effort to notify MileagePlus members about the changes, adding that “these changes provide additional value to our most loyal members.”

FASTER, SATELLITE-BASED INTERNET

Starting next year, passengers on Delta Air Lines’ long-haul domestic flights and routes to Latin America and the Caribbean will get to log on to a faster satellite-based wireless Internet.

The new system replaces an older air-to-ground system, giving passengers 20 times the bandwidth to stream movies, music and other entertainment.

The new system, built by GoGo Inc., of Itasca, Ill., is expected to deliver peak speeds of 70 megabits per second, faster than some home cable Internet connections, according to GoGo.

Delta said some of the funding for the Wi-Fi upgrade comes from the record profits the airline has reported over the last several months, thanks to lower fuel prices.

Boosting Wi-Fi speeds makes good business sense. About 66 percent of travelers say the availability of Wi-Fi on a plane influences their choice of airline, according to a 2014 survey of more than 1,000 adults by Honeywell Aerospace.

NO US HELP OVER CHEAP-FARE MISTAKE

Bad news for travelers who booked ridiculously cheap flights with United Airlines: The federal government won’t force United to honor the fares.

The problem started when United’s website for Denmark travelers offered first-class trans-Atlantic tickets, from England, for as little as $51, among other super-cheap fares. United said the mistake was due to a miscalculation in the conversion of the Danish krone. The airline said it would not honor those tickets.

Thousands of travelers who booked the cheap tickets contacted the U.S. Department of Transportation, pointing out that federal rules forbid airlines to raise fares after they have been booked.

In a memo issued last week, the department’s enforcement office said the erroneous fares appeared on the United website for travelers from Denmark. The agency said it enforces only rules regarding fares that are marketed to U.S. consumers.

As for those U.S. travelers who booked the super-low fares by logging onto the website and identifying themselves as from Denmark, the federal agency said it wouldn’t get involved because such manipulation and misrepresentation demonstrated bad faith.