The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
Buy-Ups, Downgrades and Rigged Games We Play
November 19, 2015 -- Look, folks, we can do this one of two ways.

We can make believe this week's devaluations of the American AAdvantage and Delta Sky Miles programs are disappointing, shocking, scandalous, outrageous and insulting. I can detail every minute downgrade, write a fist-shaking screed, stoke your righteous anger and urge you to fight back by switching to an alternative airline that we know really doesn't exist any longer.

Or we can tell ourselves the truth: We knew these were coming. We know what the men and women who run the programs think of us. And, most importantly, we can start a discussion about how it's time to stop believing airlines will ever again repay our loyalty in any substantive and genuine manner.

I choose the latter course.

I understand if you want the nitty-gritty details of the changes. Old habits are hard to break. But what do you need to know, really?

If you're tied to AAdvantage, the reality is simple: Your elite status will be worth less in 2016 and you'll get fewer upgrades for the same amount of flying. The prices American charges for its most attractive awards, international first and business class, will rise in 2016. Even at the increased rates, American will still make it nearly impossible to get a lower-cost nonstop Europe award. They'll continue to fob you off on British Airways or Iberia, make you connect in London or Madrid and charge you offensive surcharges, too. If you're headed to Asia, your prices will be higher than ever and your best options (say, Cathay Pacific in first class) will cost substantially more.

Then, sometime late next year, American will switch to a revenue-based mileage accrual system that is virtually identical to the one used by United and Delta. And, of course, it'll come with the same hidden devaluation that United and Delta built into their revenue models. When the American revenue-based accrual system starts, you'll earn, on average, about 20 percent fewer miles.

This is all you need to know: The new AAdvantage is less rewarding and more costly than ever. You can comb the new charts and FAQs all you wish. You can compare them to the current program and see the unpleasant reality immediately.

If you're tied to Sky Miles, my sympathy. Delta's decision to make what it now calls Comfort Plus bookable as a choice between coach and first on domestic flights is exactly what you know it is: another way for Delta to squeeze more revenue out of you, another way to devalue your benefits and, eventually, the end of the first class upgrade benefit on domestic flights.

Delta executives have publicly boasted in recent months how successful they have been convincing customers to buy up to first. Delta hopes to sell an even greater percentage of its first class inventory in the future. What better way to do that than to tell elite customers that their upgrade benefit is from coach to Comfort Plus and sitting in first will require a cash buy-up?

It's coming. You can see that even though it isn't yet listed in the babble Delta released this week here and here. Almost every existing Delta elite player does worse on upgrades now that Delta has begun insisting that Comfort Plus is now its own product. First class upgrades will soon be a distant memory unless you buy them.

Look, folks, I don't know what else you want me to say. I could add this, I suppose. When American began training its staff on AAdvantage changes a few weeks ago, the internal memo made no bones about the goal of the revisions. The purpose, American's bosses explained, was to "encourage customers to spend more (buy-up)."

And never, ever forget that Delta went before the Supreme Court several years ago and explained to the justices that there wasn't a power on earth that could "superimpose a duty of good faith and fair dealing" on how Delta managed Sky Miles. The justices adopted Delta's logic--unanimously.

So no matter what you've thought in the past about the programs, that's the current reality. The goal is to get you to pay more. And airlines don't think they have to be fair while they try to get you to pay more.

You want to keep playing rigged games where the game riggers are devoted to extracting more dollars from you?

The ugly reality, of course, is that we have to keep playing the game because the same guys who rigged the frequency programs have rigged the entire airline system to take advantage of us.

So this is what I propose: Forget this crap for the next few weeks. Enjoy the holidays. Spare a thought for our family in Paris. Think about how you plan to approach your frequent stay programs, which still deliver some real value and special treatment, at least until the lodging industry becomes as concentrated as airlines.

When we reconvene in the weeks ahead, we'll talk about how to fly better, cheaper and more productively without the frequent flyer programs controlling our every decision. There are strategies. There still will be ways to score a tactical victory here and there.

But frequent flyer programs as we knew them are over. It's time for a new playbook. New ideas. New approaches.

We'll figure it out.

This column is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. 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.