Everyone wants a free upgrade to sit in first class, and you won't get it by asking nice or dressing fancy. Those complimentary upgrades are one of the main draws of having elite airline status, like Delta Medallion Status. Or at least they were…
These days, even top frequent flyers with Platinum or Diamond Medallion Status are fighting it out – and sometimes losing – in their quest for a free upgrade to the front of the cabin. In an annual presentation to investors on Thursday, top Delta executives spelled out exactly why.
Competition for those complimentary upgrades isn't just fierce between flyers with status. Status holders are increasingly losing out on their upgrades to flyers who are willing to pay up for that first class seat in advance – and that's exactly what Delta wants.
Here's what Delta said – and what it means for your hopes for a seat at the front of the cabin.
Related reading: How Does Delta Determine its Upgrade Order?
Delta's Changing Mindset with Upgrades
The airline industry has changed drastically in the last decade. And that's especially true when it comes to getting a free upgrade on Delta.
Back in 2009, the vast majority of Delta flyers sitting in first class seats got there thanks to a complimentary upgrade from their status. Delta President Glen Hauenstein told investors Thursday that while 92% of domestic first class seats were occupied that year, only 13% of them were paid tickets.
So Delta set out to change that. And that's bad news if you're hoping for a free upgrade.
Fast forward to present day, and Delta is now selling more than 60% domestic first class seats. That is a massive increase in just over a decade, and Hauenstein said the airline hopes to get those figures into the “mid- to high 60s” in the coming years.
Hauenstein said the main problem a decade ago was that premium cabin fares were just “exorbitantly” expensive. By lowering the costs, they're able to sell more of those seats in advance and still come out increasingly far ahead.
Of course, that's a windfall for Delta: Premium cabin ticket sales have quickly become an outsized source of revenue for the airline, and that's only growing. But that also means far fewer seats are available in the lottery for upgrades, which makes your chances of scoring a free upgrade slimmer and slimmer.
“This has been a huge evolution for us,” Hauenstein said. “What we’ve found is that the same people who were entering what we call ‘the great lottery’ – the great lottery being ‘I bought my ticket and I hope to god I get upgraded before departure' – that those same people, with better price points and better availability to see what they’re buying, were happy to pay to confirm their seat at the time of purchase.”
Hauenstein didn't draw any distinctions between people who buy a first class or Delta Comfort Plus fare upfront or pay later on to upgrade into a premium cabin. Those rates can often be reasonable, too. Within the last few years, Delta has introduced the ability to snag a cabin upgrade using Delta SkyMiles – and that's proven to be incredibly popular, too.
To some frequent flyers who have climbed the ladders of Delta status, these moves might feel like a slap in the face. What's the point of staying loyal to Delta – or any airline – when the airline will turn around and sell the seats that you could once rely on getting as a perk of your status?
Hauenstein made clear that Delta is taking a broader look at customer loyalty, beyond just earning SkyMiles or earning Delta Medallion status. It all ties into Delta's end-goal, what Hauenstein called: “our journey to become America’s premium carrier.”
“Growing loyalty and our customer base was an objective, but it was really secondary to providing customers what they really value: an on-time airline, clean, safe, reliable, with the best people in the sky,” he said.
Translation: We can earn loyal customers by being a better airline than our competitors, not based on what we do with SkyMiles or Medallion status.
Adding and selling more premium cabin seats is core to that goal of being a premium carrier – and that's exactly what Delta has done. Hauenstein pointed out that as the airline has grown over the years, almost all of that has come by adding more premium cabin seats to its network – not back in economy.
“We essentially have not grown the main cabin. All the growth in the company since 2009 has occurred with premium seats,” Hauenstein explained.
That underscores Delta's entire strategy: Sell itself as a “premium” airline as many other competitors focus more on lowering costs as they try to corner the lucrative market of travelers willing to pay a bit more for a better seat.
And while that means more seats available for upgrades, it's safe to assume Delta will do everything it can to sell them instead.
More Competition for Free Upgrades, Too
For the first time ever, I earned Delta Silver Medallion Status this year. But I'm not counting on getting many upgrades in 2022 … because I know I'm not alone – far, far from it.
The upgrade queues may be miles long in 2022 thanks to a handful of pandemic-driven decisions that made it easier to earn and maintain status with Delta over the last two years:
- Delta has extended status for two years straight, meaning even some travelers who haven't flown a mile since 2019 will retain their pre-pandemic status all the way through January 2023.
- A Medallion Status Accelerator promotion means that all flights through 2021 earned 50% more Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) and MQDs – the two core building blocks of earning Delta status. Premium cabins (including first, Delta One, Delta Premium Select, and Delta Comfort Plus) will earn a 75% bonus.
- Even award tickets booked using SkyMiles earned toward status in 2021, and that will continue in 2022.
- For the second consecutive year, all MQMs will roll over into next year, making it easier to qualify for 2023 Medallion Status.
Read up on the basics of earning Delta Medallion status!
All those moves make it much, much easier to earn and keep status with Delta, and that's a recipe for some bloated Medallion lists in 2022 and beyond. That's certainly the case with lower-tier Silver and Gold members, though it could also help more travelers vault up into Platinum and Diamond status.
At the same time, there will be fewer planes in the skies as travel still recovers. That means more competition for fewer seats, whether it’s a complimentary upgrade to first class or a priority exit row seat assignment for free.
If there's one saving grace, it's that Delta is giving upgrade priority to those who earned their status for 2022 outright by flying over the last year – not those who had their status extended. That new policy takes effect in February 2022.
Still, the competition for upgrades will be tighter than ever before. Combined with the fact that Delta would much rather sell those seats than reward status holders with a free upgrade, your chances of getting a seat upfront for free are looking slimmer and slimmer in 2022.
Earning airline status is alluring, but it can be a mirage. The extra time, effort, and cost are rarely worth the benefits for the average traveler. Upgrades are no sure thing.
And the odds of scoring a complimentary upgrade flying Delta keep getting slimmer and slimmer as Delta does its best to sell those seats in advance – even as the ranks of Delta Medallion members grow to record levels.