Delta Plots ‘Pay With Miles’ Redemptions. Beginning of the End?

by John Harper

Delta Air Lines President Glen Hauenstein said something in this week’s quarterly earnings call that could send chills up the spine of points and miles travel hackers, “Pay with Miles”.

Buried in a monologue about the airline’s increased premium seat revenue and expanded premium economy offerings, Hauenstein mentioned that SkyMiles members will have “the ability to pay with miles by the end of 2018.”

The ambiguity in Hauenstein’s statement is cause to fret.  Delta already gives frequent flyers the “ability” to pay with miles in certain circumstances, including Miles + Cash and pay with miles options for Delta Amex credit card holders. Delta has not said it will end its current fixed mileage awards, but Hauenstein appears to be alluding to an expansion of the pay-with-miles ethos.

Mileage award experts have long feared a transition from fixed-mileage awards to fixed-rate “Pay with Miles” redemption programs. When mileage award rates are fixed relative to fare prices, frequent flyers can get significantly higher per-mile values than they would if miles were fixed to the fare price.

Direct pay with miles frequent flyer programs have thus far been utilized exclusively by discount airlines, including Southwest and JetBlue. In this program there are no fixed mileage “awards”. Instead, frequent flyers convert their points to any available cash fare at a fixed rate.

Delta: We’re Better So SkyMiles Devaluations Are Justified

Delta already allows American Express Delta Gold, Platinum and Reserve cardholders to pay for fares with SkyMiles in increments at a rate of 1 cent per mile.

Pay-with-miles Makes Business Class Awards Painfully Expensive

To illustrate this potential devaluation, it makes sense to compare the cheapest fall awards to Europe in DeltaOne business class with similar cash prices.

Round-trip off-peak DeltaOne business class fares between Boston and Amsterdam, Nov. 3 returning Nov. 9. Fares by Google Flights.

If Delta SkyMiles members paid with miles to secure this flight, at the present 1 cent per mile rate, securing a round trip DeltaOne business class seat on this route would cost 524,400 miles.

Level 1 SkyMiles awards to Europe currently price at 70,000 miles one-way, 140,000 miles round-trip. I could not find a single Level 1 round-trip pairing between New York or Boston and Amsterdam for October and November, but partner Virgin Atlantic offered a connecting itinerary at 150,000 miles, plus some surcharges.

DeltaOne SkyMiles award redemption

It costs 150,000 miles at the lowest level to score a round-trip ticket in business class between Boston and Amsterdam, plus fuel surcharges.

Delta has already made infrastructure changes to its website that both obfuscates award levels and makes it possible for the airline to dynamically adjust SkyMiles award rates.

Previously: Points and Miles Devaluations Accelerated in 2017

A lot of DeltaOne SkyMiles redemption calendars show dystopian award rates, even in slow seasons. In this example, we see round-trip DeltaOne business class award rates New York City to Paris — two of Delta’s largest international hubs — in lowly mid-October.

DeltaOne SkyMiles award redemption calendar

What about Amex?

One complication that could impede Delta from implementing a complete shift to pay with miles redemptions is its revenue relationship with American Express. SkyMiles is a transfer partner with American Express Membership Rewards.

If Delta forgoes the high-value fixed mileage awards that do occasionally appear, it will all but forfeit these transfers. American Express offers higher pay with miles rates through its own travel portal.

Delta made $3 billion off its relationship with American Express last year, including revenues from co-branded cards. Delta executives didn’t address Thursday how much of that revenue is sale of miles through Membership Rewards points transfers.


Don’t take these words lightly. Delta has been on a warpath to minimize its liability by jacking up SkyMiles prices and gutting the structure of the award redemption process.

SkyMiles awards calendars are increasingly looking like fare calendars, and Hauenstein’s remark about giving SkyMiles members the “ability” to pay with miles is an omen.

Having Trouble Spending SkyMiles? Try These Options

Find a Level 1 SkyMiles award, book it fast. Those looking to maximize points and miles values will have to look to carriers other than Delta.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.


Related Articles


MSer July 14, 2018 - 12:22 pm

Baffled why anyone wants Skypesos at all? My Diamond SO flies them for work, but we’ve never once flown Delta using miles for personal use as their international biz rewards are beyond obscene. A joke of a program.

Jacob July 14, 2018 - 2:27 pm

I just checked online what a business class ticket would actually cost for the above date: $4,244.
The cost for miles is 370,000 + $137 = $3,873 (at 1C /mile).
At all the other mile levels it would be vastly cheaper to just pay for the ticket outright!
They are clearly trying to make it highly unlikely that someone would redeem their miles. Why not just eliminate skymiles all together? The reason is probably so that they can take advantage and milk people who don’t know better, which there are unfortunately a lot of.

Geoff July 14, 2018 - 4:33 pm

Delta now charges 82K SkyMIles in Delta One for TATL. If 70k still exists, grab it. I too await the day that Delta simply eliminates their SkyMiles program and tells AMEX to screw off. No more huge $$ from AMEX but no more liability for SkyMiles either. It’s coming.

John July 19, 2018 - 9:58 am

Airlines have to balance their frequent flyer liability with short term financial decisions. British Airways failed to do that and paid a hefty settlement.

AlohaDaveKennedy July 14, 2018 - 5:16 pm

Meh – anyone who thinks Skymiles have no value hasn’t heard of the Uniflame-C-4301-Newspaper-Log-Roller. The roller will accept sheets of Skymiles and turn them into logs you can burn in your fireplace this winter. Product of the Year for anyone stuck with Skymiles!

OldKingCole July 19, 2018 - 9:02 am

But if it increases availability then might as well let them do it. Everyone has to admit one nice thing about Southwest is that if there is an open seat, then its yours whether you use cash or points.


Leave a Comment

Point Me Awake


A morning jolt of travel-infused news & deals straight to your inbox. 


Success! Check your email for a welcome onboard message