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See the math of whether you win or lose with new SkyMiles earning

by on Wed February 26, 2014 • 3 Comments

Delta is announcing a major overhaul of the SkyMiles program in 2015. The biggest change is that for flights you will earn miles based on how much you pay in airfare, rather than the miles you fly. The mile per dollar earning amounts are listed in the charts below, and start at 5 miles per dollar of airfare for entry level SkyMiles members. When you buy tickets with a Delta American Express you’ll get a 2 mile per dollar bonus.

This earning rate is a fundamental change, and a negative one for many flyers.

We have crunched the numbers in charts below to show what this means for your mile earning based on your typical airfare levels. You can see the cold hard numbers and find out if this is a good or bad change for you on the earning side, because it’s not meant to impact everyone the same way, and in many cases it is a big reduction in the number of miles you’ll bank in your account.

On the mile award redemption side, a traditional award chart will remain, but instead of 3 levels of prices (Saver, Standard, Peak) it will have 5 yet to be determined levels. Few details on what that will look like have been released, and the new award chart will be unveiled in the fall, but Delta does promise the core 25,000 mile roundtrip entry level domestic coach award will remain and that availability at the entry mileage levels should improve (they are explicit about it on their website – and a consultant who seems close to the situation is making it appear the increases to international business class award prices have already happened thanks to previously announced changes that take effect this summer). is hopeful these reductions in miles earned will lead to better availability of awards at the lowest advertised prices, a key concern of Delta SkyMiles members, but Delta’s track record in this regard is not good.. One-way awards and cash plus miles options are customer friendly features that will be added for SkyMiles members.

One note – if you primarily earn miles via a credit card there is no expected change to how you earn miles. You’ll still be able to earn miles for all of your spending like you used to.  With the ability to earn miles for flights falling for a lot of flyers under the new program, credit card spending will be a bigger part of mileage earning than before.

The biggest losers

Overall anyone who primarily flies the lowest available fare generally earns less with this system, and those who fly the furthest tend to lose the most. Examples include:

  • Business flyers who pay anything but the highest coach fares on flights of 1,500 – 2,500 miles in length each way (basically flights to and from the Midwest and East to the West Coast) – you’ll earn about half as many miles as before. For example, a $500 flight from Atlanta to San Francisco will earn a General member 4,500 miles with the new program versus 8,556 miles under the current program.
  • International flyers who average flights of 5,000 miles each way or longer using typical coach fares – you’ll earn about one third less than before – even less if you fly further. A $1,200 San Francisco to Tokyo flight will earn 10,800 miles versus 20,496 miles today
  • Some first class flyers – They are not all immune as those who fly on sub-$800 first class fares on medium to long flights within the U.S. could earn about one third less. For example a $800 Sacramento to Atlanta flight will earn 7,200 miles versus 12,558 miles prior as Delta no longer offers an extra bonus on first class fares.
  • Mileage runners – this is a dead proposition as there’s no reason to fly longer distances to earn more miles unless you’re trying to earn Medallion status and the perks it offers.
  • Partner airline flyers – there won’t be a revenue based earn, but you will earn less than before. It’s possible this could be more generous than flying Delta on some long, cheap flights, but don’t know because the earning details won’t be released by Delta until the fall.

The biggest winners

Basically, if your airfare divided by miles flown is greater than 0.2, you’ll generally earn more miles under the new system. Examples of this include:

  • Flyers who fly short distances for both leisure and business – Flights under 1,000 miles tend to earn the same or more than before at typical $300-$400 fares, and you could earn almost twice as much as before on short sub-500 mile flights with typical airfares. For example a New York to Washington Shuttle flyer will earn 1,750 miles for a $350 roundtrip versus 1,000 miles today.
  • Flyers who buy unrestricted fares or tend to fly on nearly sold out flights at the last minute
  • Coast to coast and international business class flyers. You’ll earn 35,000 miles for a $3,500 business class ticket from New York to London versus 10,500 miles today as a general member.

In the middle

  • Those who earn miles primarily via credit card spend. The number of miles you earn based on your card spending won’t change, and it appears the new 5-tier award chart will have some of the old awards like 25,000 miles for an entry level coach ticket intact, with a promise of better award availability, though we’re always skeptical of such promises. So the number of miles for some awards on average may not change much, but the fear is the most valuable awards like international business class will move up a lot in price.

Find your break-even coach airfare

We’ve run the numbers and these are the coach airfares you’ll have to pay under the new SkyMiles program to earn as many miles from flying as you did under the old program. Note for the Amex purchased tickets we assumed you pay $350 per ticket which gives 700 extra miles under the old program. When running the numbers with larger airfare amounts for the old program the trends are similar. Numbers without the Amex bonus will give you a cleaner read of the situation.

An example of reading this chart is for a General member on a flight of 1,000 miles each way (2,000 roundtrip), the airfare needs to be $400 roundtrip to earn the same 2,000 miles in the new program that he earns under the current program.

The airfares are round-trip and the distances are each way for all calculations.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 7.48.26 AM

Some things that stand out…

For flights under 1,000 miles you’ll earn about the same number of miles as today even on the lowest coach airfares of $300-$400, so there’s on real change in earning there. The big hurt comes around 2,000 – 2,500 miles where you’re going to need to spend about $1,000 on airfare to get the same mileage earning that you enjoy today. Most tickets of this distance, which are flights across the U.S., cost under $500 today, so the biggest losers are SkyMiles members who do most of their flying on coast to coast flights.

Longer flights of 3,500 miles or more each way, which are about the distance of a trip from New York to Europe, will require an airfare of about $1,200 – $1,500 to break-even to current earning, but that doesn’t include taxes, so add a couple hundred dollars to that depending on your destination. If you’re flying on a bargain fare of $900 you’ll earn much less than before, but the break-evens here aren’t as shocking as for coast to coast flyers and fuel surcharges are included in your favor in the fare calculation.

If you travel on long international flights (5,000 miles or more each way) on typical $1,500 fares frequently you’ll have a tough time earning at the same rate as before.

Here’s how the break-even chart looks like for paid first class / high end coach fares which currently earn a 50% mileage bonus. These look reasonable compared to typical premium fares for each distance, especially for longer routes. If you’re flying paid international business class you’re going to make out much better in miles earned for your tickets than under today’s program.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 7.43.10 AM

See your break-even Medallion annual airfare

If you’re a Medallion level flyer, this chart shows how much you’ll have to spend in airfare in 2015 to earn as many miles as you would under today’s program which is based on flight miles. The big assumption is that you hit your Medallion mileage level on the nose for the purpose of simplicity.

To earn as many miles as before you’ll need to spend about $25,000 at the Diamond level, $17,000 at the Platinum level, $12,500 at the Gold level, and $5,000 at the Silver level, depending on what mix of fares you’re able to pay for with a Delta SkyMiles Amex card, which earns 2 extra miles per dollar.

These aren’t outrageous amounts. Many Medallions are spending this much on airfare each year, and if you’re a big spender who spends over $50,000 a year you’ll earn significantly more. But many other current top tier flyers will see a big reduction in miles earned. It’s not hard to earn top Diamond Medallion status on $15,000 in airfare. Those flyers, who are still quite profitable to Delta, will keep their elite level perks, but see their mileage earning drop about 50% to 165,000 miles per year from nearly 300,000 which is enough to think about switching loyalty.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 8.03.15 AM

All in all, these are big changes that will mean many people earn fewer miles than before, and depending on how the award chart shakes out need more miles to redeem.

As a flyer you still have choices. American and United don’t yet appear to be in a position to launch a program like this, so they remain alternatives for now. But within a few years it’s very possible both will move to a similar model and flyers won’t have much choice but to live under these new earning scenarios. Our sense is United is most at risk of following Delta, while American has a big merger to contend with first, though all major airlines have explored this option. They haven’t rolled them out for lack of desire, but cumbersome IT systems and merger priorities can hold up rolling out these changes, so it is a matter of getting the infrastructure and organization in place that has held up implementation until now. Delta, as the first of the big 3 remaining airlines to merge, has put its merger issues behind it, making it natural that it is the first to implement this type of scheme.

In the mean time if these changes are negative for you, vote with your feet and tell both Delta and the new airline of your choice how you prefer to be rewarded. Delta says this will help its most frequent flyers, and the math says some will be helped, but overall this feels like a net loss for most Delta flyers. We won’t know how it really shakes out for American Express credit card holders until Delta releases its updated award chart in the fall. Delta’s lack of transparency in not releasing the chart now is a disservice to its members, as it’s impossible to make a full judgement on the new value of the program without the new award prices and a sense of award availability.

For reference, here are comparison charts of how many miles you’ll earn under the new and old SkyMiles programs based on airfare:

$300 airfare

$300 airfare skymiles comp


$400 airfare

$400 airfare comp


$500 airfare

$500 airfare


 $1,000 airfare

1000 airfare comp


$1,500 airfare

1500 airfare


$2,000 airfare

2000 airfare


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3 thoughts on See the math of whether you win or lose with new SkyMiles earning

  1. John

    I qualify as the biggest loser: long-haul international flights on the lowest possible fare. Looks like the good times are over! Can’t say I blame the airlines – just sad to see that my mileage account has lost a big chunk of its earning potential.

  2. Points With a Crew

    I don’t think it’s that bad. I’m in your category of “Those who earn miles primarily via credit card spend. ” I never have done a mileage run, and it seems clear that the era of mileage running (At least on Delta) is pretty much over, but then again, we’ve pretty much known that was coming for awhile now, it was just a matter of time.

    It will be interesting to see some of the concrete details on the redemption side. Anything they can do to fix their crappy website is a plus in my book! 😀


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