As already noted by my fellow bloggers at The Gate and Delta Points, Delta Air Lines and the SkyMiles program were not so conspicuously absent from the winner’s list during last week’s Freddie Awards. I didn’t see United on any lists either, but since I tend to write more about Delta, I want to focus on them.

Rene at Delta Points says Delta did not win any awards because of the loss of stopovers, overcharging for award tickets, revenue-based earning, and the infamous disappearing award charts, all of which I’m sure are a factor. Brian at The Gate had some thoughts as well, which I concur with too, especially the positive Delta customer experience. The most interesting part of his piece to me was the remark from two Delta employees. “…….I was told by no fewer than two of them prior to the start of the awards ceremony that if Delta Air Lines did win an award that they were not doing their job correctly.” I attended the Freddies as well. Most of the SkyMiles people I spoke with weren’t quite as direct, but then again, I didn’t think they’d win any awards so I never bothered to broach the topic with them.

On winning awards – The Freddies are member-centric, member-voted loyalty awards. You don’t win them by taking away free stuff or being known as less than generous….unless you’re Marriott Rewards, but I digress. If the Freddies were airline operations focused, Delta would run the table with awards to take home. But they aren’t. SkyMiles has never been particularly generous, and it has become less so in general with a few exceptions like useful regional and global upgrade certificates. Delta Air Lines seems just fine with that, and if full flights and the fact that I can count on 4 fingers the number of complimentary Medallion upgrades I’ve received in 7 months are any indication, I don’t see things changing anytime soon. As far as I can tell, the impact of SkyMiles 2015 to date has been as many full airplanes and 50-person long upgrade lists as we had before.

On being a good airline – Delta does not see itself as just another airline. They see themselves as a transportation company, and one that should be earning the same returns as any other company. If you were wondering, I don’t have a problem with that. Whether they are arrogant or right on the money is an individual judgment call. So far, Wall Street, and more customers than any other airline see them as quite right. I happen to think they run the finest U.S. based large airline operation at the moment. An airline that does the right things well does not need to give as much away to attract and retain customers as one that isn’t quite as operationally sound and service oriented. The marketplace is rewarding Delta, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. If Delta has not succeeded at anything in recent memory, it’s at not being truly transparent with its SkyMiles members about the direction it intends to take the program.

On being real – I think Delta is that good. But then again, I’m writing this post from an American Airlines flight on Saturday morning. It was on-time, service has been friendly, and on this barely 2 hour flight that departed at 10am, I was offered a tastefully done choice of a fruit and cheese plate or hummus in the First Class cabin. I have cleared as many upgrades in 3 weeks on American as the last 7 months on Delta, yet somehow, American is highly profitable. A lot of people have seen 2015 as a defining year in loyalty. I think 2016 may be the year. A lot of what happens in loyalty depends on what American does this year and next. If my last 4 flights are any indication, I’d keep an eye on my 6 if I were Delta, even if the airline really is as good as they (and I) think they are. You’re never too good to be surprised…or challenged.

As a lifelong student of the airline industry, the contrasts in all this are interesting to observe. And I did not yet touch upon the number of Freddies Southwest won. Yes, that Southwest, with the revenue-based loyalty program. Also the airline that carries more domestic passengers than any other. Who has the best approach? Only time will tell.

-MJ, May 4, 2015

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