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SkyMiles Takes the Stairway to Cleveland
February 12, 2015 -- Delta Air Lines has adopted a new theme song for SkyMiles: Stairway to Cleveland from Jefferson Starship's 1981 album Modern Times.

The song's full-throated, unapologetic, shout-it-loud message? "Fuck you! We do what we want!"

Look, I have to be honest. I don't actually know if Stairway to Cleveland is the new theme song of SkyMiles. But I don't know it's not the new theme song, either. The sentiment certainly fits and Delta does a whole lot of things with SkyMiles they don't tell us about anymore. So it's absolutely plausible that folks at SkyMiles headquarters in Atlanta are leaning against their cubicle walls, air guitaring a few Paul Kantner riffs and screaming in their best Grace Slick/Mickey Thomas voices, "Fuck you! We do what we want!"

Think I'm kidding? Last Friday, without informing a single SkyMiles member, Delta pulled the SkyMiles award charts. Poof! They just disappeared. Surf to where the charts used to be and all you get is a message telling you to use Delta's "all-new Award calendar."

You know, the award calendar that has been broken for years, routinely overprices awards and now can't be challenged because Delta made the award charts disappear.

Are the prices on the award charts, which only went into effect on January 1 when Delta switched to revenue-based mileage accrual, still valid? Do the charts (hastily archived by Flyertalk.com here) still accurately reflect what Delta charges for awards? Delta doesn't say.

Want more? Over the weekend, after the award charts vanished, Delta made many of its lowest-priced awards disappear, too. If you want to claim the cheapest seats--a Level 1 award as Delta called them on its extinct charts--you apparently have to book at least 21 days in advance. The lone notable exception: routes where Delta still cooperates with Alaska Airlines. If you want to claim a 25,000-mile award on Alaska Airlines planes, you can have one for as little as 25,000 miles in coach without booking 21 days in advance.

So does that mean SkyMiles has imposed a 21-day advance-purchase restriction on Level 1 awards using Delta Air Lines aircraft? Why are Alaska Airlines flights exempt? Delta isn't talking and makes no note of these de facto new restrictions on Delta.com.

So you see why I'm assuming Stairway to Cleveland is the new theme song of SkyMiles. "Fuck you! We do what we want!" is what SkyMiles is telling its customers.

You can't say we weren't warned. Delta said as much in no less a venue than the Supreme Court of the United States.

As you may recall, a couple of years ago Northwest Airlines decided one of its elite WorldPerks flyers, Rabbi Benyomin Ginsburg, complained too much. For the sin of kvetching, Northwest didn't just revoke Rabbi Ginsburg's elite status. It didn't just throw him out of the program. The airline also confiscated his miles even though Northwest never once claimed he'd done anything but earn those miles legitimately.

Ginsburg sued. While the case wended its way through the courts, Northwest was absorbed by Delta and WorldPerks was folded into SkyMiles. When Northwest v. Ginsburg reached the Supremes--the justices, not the singing group--late in 2013, it was Delta making the case that Ginsburg had no rights to his status or the miles that he had accrued.

Delta's position was the legal equivalent of "Fuck you! We do what we want!"

In oral arguments, Delta lawyer Paul Clement claimed that Delta had the absolute, unquestioned, unchallenged right to do what it pleased with SkyMiles. No flyer, no law and no authority could "superimpose a duty of good faith and fair dealing" on Delta's administration of SkyMiles.

The Supremes agreed with Clement and Delta. Unanimously. "Fuck you! We do what we want!" is the legally sanctioned way to do business when you are Delta Air Lines.

So here we are. Delta now says that you don't have the right to know what an award costs. It has decided that you will be subject to new redemption rules. You have the right to remain silent, do what you are told and, maybe, bob your head as chief executive Richard Anderson, chief revenue officer Glen Hauenstein and the nameless, faceless banker who now runs SkyMiles grab the mike, get their freak on and proclaim, "Fuck you! We do what we want!"

Much as I'd like to leave you with Delta's C-Suite Boys doing Jefferson Starship, logic dictates that this is not the end of the story. The C-Suite Boys may be "insane fuckers"--Paul Kantner's term, but I support the sentiment--but they aren't stupid. Something else is going on.

Why pull the award charts just a month after they went into effect? Why pull them at all? Why make them disappear after flyer pressure and public ridicule forced Delta to publish them last year? Why suddenly institute a 21-day advance purchase rule on cheap seats at the moment when paid travel is at its seasonal low and thus, for Delta, the most cost-effective time to permit redemptions?

Easiest conclusion? Delta is about to junk traditional mileage redemption levels and switch to a revenue model for claiming an award. In other words, miles will be assigned a cash value and flyers would claim awards based on the retail price of the seat. That's how Southwest Airlines does it, how the bank-based award programs do it and how a fully revenue-based plan would logically operate. In fact, that was one of the original ideas Delta floated several years ago when it began planning the new SkyMiles.

I've long been a supporter of revenue-based frequent flyer plans because, in concept, honest-to-goodness frequent flyers like us would be the biggest winners. After all, we pay the most for tickets, we should earn the most. But, naturally, when Delta remade SkyMiles last year, it included a toxic surprise inside: a massive devaluation that guaranteed everyone, including high-yield business travelers, had to fly much more and pay much more just to earn the same number of miles.

I expect the same if Delta unveils a revenue-based redemption scheme. The C-Suite Boys will assign a cash value to miles so low that everyone--bargain hunters, leisure travelers, program gamers and us frequent flyers--will pay a lot more than ever for an award.

We'll know soon enough. But remember that Delta has won the right to act in bad faith and deal with us unfairly. After throwing a cloak of invisibility over its existing program, it'll surely unveil a new scheme in the days ahead that will be awesome in its epic awfulness.

Stairway to Cleveland, fellow travelers. Fuck us! They do what they want!

This column is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.