Fliers Fear Losing SkyMiles amid Delta's Troubles

As jet-fuel prices soar and Delta battles to lift itself from bankruptcy protection, members who cherish their SkyMiles have a lot of worries.

Last year was the third year in a row Delta led other carriers. What's more, the gap between SkyMiles and other programs seems to have increased during 2005, according to IdeaWorks. Robertson says that's because Delta has expanded into new domestic and international markets. It's the only airline serving all 50 states, and it has expanded aggressively into Europe and Latin America.

With so many people flying on rewards tickets and literally dozens of ways for customers to rack up miles far faster than they can redeem them, concerns are growing that it's getting harder use SkyMiles. But Petersen doesn't think Delta, which filed for bankruptcy in September, is doing anything to limit frequent-flier seats.

"I absolutely don't believe there's any proof . . . that they've cut back on the availability of awards," Petersen said.

Instead, the frustrations of travelers result from full flights, fueled by strong demand at the same time Delta is reducing its fleet size. To become profitable, the airline has cut the seats in and out of Salt Lake City International Airport by 10 percent since last summer, according to Back Aviation Solutions, an industry research firm in Virginia. Delta has taken almost 8 million seats out of its domestic network during the same time, a 25 percent decline.

Add in consumer demand that hasn't slacked off, even though airlines have boosted fares; Delta's decision to ax its Dallas hub last year and route more flights through Salt Lake; credit card programs that make it easy to rack up miles without flying; and partnerships with Alaska, Continental and Northwest that permit their customers to use their frequent-flier redemptions on Delta, and it's not surprising some SkyMiles members are grumbling.

Unused miles continue to flow onto Delta's books. In 2005, the airline's "reward liability" -- the value of unredeemed miles -- reached $291 million, according to the IdeaWorks study. The 38 percent increase from the previous year, greater than any other airline except US Airways, underscores perceptions that SkyMiles are hard to redeem.

Even so, Quarnberg doesn't believe it's harder to use his SkyMiles today than in the past.

"You don't always get exactly what you want. But if you're willing to be flexible, they'll work with you," Quarnberg said. "I think it's great."

Bruce Bingham, a Salt Lake City real estate developer who redeems his SkyMiles for vacation and family trips, also has no problems with the program.

"It doesn't strike me as difficult to use at all. I belong to several [frequent-flier] programs, and theirs is as clear and understandable as any I've used," he said. "I haven't felt I've been baited and switched by not having enough seats available on any particular flights."

Major airlines provided a record 15.6 million frequent-flier tickets to members in 2005, a 6.8 percent increase over 2004. Three percent of passengers carried on the airlines flew free. Here are tips to get the most out of frequent-flier programs:

--Consolidate your frequent-flier programs into one account.

--Join the program of the airline that flies most often to the destinations you visit.

--Research different programs. Profiles of most major airline programs are at FrequentFlier.com.

--Consult surveys that rank programs. InsideFlyer.com is one place to check.

--For popular destinations at peak times, consider using more points. Carriers such as Delta offer unrestricted tickets if you use double the mileage of limited-seat awards. In other words, redeeming 25,000 miles may not get you a ticket, but 50,000 will.

--Travel during the offseason.

--To secure an unrestricted frequent-flier seat, book at least 331 days in advance.

--Switch to a credit card that earns miles in a bank program instead of an airline program. When you redeem your miles, the bank buys your ticket. Such programs usually are not restricted by airline limits on frequent-flier seats.

--Redeem miles for trips that would otherwise be expensive or for upgrades, rather than buying first-class tickets.

--Mileage expiration policies vary among airlines. Delta SkyMiles don't expire if a member receives credit for at least one flight every 36 months.

--Publications such as OAG Frequent Flyer, InsideFlyer magazine and WebFlyer publish customer feedback.

--The federal government does not regulate frequent-flier programs. Contact the airline to discuss complaints.

We Recommend