Back when Delta first unveiled its unpopular plans to shake up how travelers earn elite status, Tim Koyonen had accepted that next year likely would be his last as a top-tier Diamond Medallion member. Like many loyal Delta flyers, he started thinking about what a post-Delta future would look like.
Yet earlier this month, Koyonen got home from a cross-country trip that would lock in his Diamond status … until early 2028. Even if he never sets foot on a Delta jet again.
“Let’s buy my status as far as I can out, and then see what changes,” Koyonen said of his mindset. “I'm locked in.”
It's an extreme example of how many Delta flyers are turning the airline's controversial changes to their advantage. And while Delta will join the rest of the big U.S. airlines in finally killing off the mileage run next year, one of the olive branches the airline offered to ultra-frequent flyers after this fall's uproar ensures the mileage run will go out with a bang in 2023.
How Delta is Fueling the Mileage Runs for 2023
Once a fixture among savvy (and sometimes crazed) frequent flyers, the mileage run – taking a flight just to earn miles, status, or both – has been fading away for more than a decade. But it's not dead just yet.
Airlines at home and abroad have steadily shifted away from rewarding travelers for how far they fly, focusing instead on how much they spend. Long gone are the days when a long, cheap flight could pad your balance of miles. Ditto for the usual end-of-year rush to book one last flight to get over the hump for status.
That shift away from measuring mileage was at the heart of Delta's botched overhaul of Medallion Status as the airline will instead focus only on the almighty Medallion Qualifying Dollar (MQD) for status. Come 2024, it's all about spending – and a lot of it.
Months after tweaking its initial proposal due to backlash, it's still tough to keep track of exactly what's changing. Let's take a step back:
- The airline is drastically increasing how much Delta flyers need to spend each year to earn status, up to $5,000 (5,000 MQDs) a year for low-level Silver status and as much as $28,000 (28,000 MQDs) for the top Diamond tier
- A tidy workaround to bypass those airline spending requirements by spending $25,000 or more a year on select Delta Amex credit cards (the MQD waiver) is disappearing
- Instead, travelers with the *delta skymiles platinum card* or *delta reserve card* (or their small business versions) will get a 2,500 MQD head start for each card, then earn more MQDs for their everyday spending
- The airline is doing away with Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) altogether – tracking your annual mileage no longer matters starting in 2024
- But travelers who have earned more MQMs than what they need for next year's status can roll over their excess mileage one last time, turning them into redeemable SkyMiles or MQDs … or, best of all, turn 100,000 of those rollover MQMs into an automatic year extension of their current status.
That final point inadvertently opened the door for some incredibly valuable mileage runs for Delta flyers across the country before the year ends and a whole new system takes hold. It's a one-time opportunity in 2023 only … but one that frequent flyers (or heavy spenders) can use to secure status for several additional years.
“We have heard from many members who had long-term plans for Rollover MQMs, and we are pleased to share more generous options for converting Rollover MQM balances beginning in early 2024,” Dwight James, Delta's senior vice president of customer engagement and loyalty, said in an October email to SkyMiles members.
In Minnesota, Koyonen saw that new rollover option and immediately started scheming how he could leverage it to extend his Diamond status as far as possible.
A Cross-Country Mileage Run for Status
Between once-a-month Delta flights for work and (more importantly) absurd amounts of corporate and personal spending on his Delta SkyMiles Amex cards, Koyonen hadn't just earned the 125,000 MQMs he needed to earn top Delta status for next year. He was just shy of 400,000 MQMs heading into the end of the year.
If he could push above 425,000 with a last-minute trip this fall, Koyonen could parlay the 300,000 difference into three additional years of Diamond status.
“I’m the kind of guy that plays the game: What can we maximize here?” Koyonen said.
So he pieced together a trip across the country: A flight to Boston (BOS) to catch a Celtics game followed by a quick hop down to New York City (JFK), then a cross-country flight in Delta One Suites over to Los Angeles (LAX) to visit friends before heading home. After that trip and his next credit card statement closed, he had all the MQMs he'd need for that three-year extension of Diamond status.
Some travelers are planning digital mileage runs instead, leaning even more heavily on credit card spending: select Delta SkyMiles cards currently give you bonus Medallion Qualifying Miles for spending in hefty increments. At Frequent Miler, Greg Davis-Kean wrote about his plan to lock up seven full years of Diamond status … by spending nearly $200,000 on Delta credit cards by the end of the year.
But for Koyonen, his second-ever mileage run was a no-brainer. In addition to securing his Diamond perks for years, he hit Delta's vaunted Million Miler status on his flight back to Minnesota. Plus, it was just a fun trip.
“I just made it a travel experience. I felt it was a big win,” he said. “I hit my max with Delta and now it’s just cruise control.”
For Keith Van, the prospect of heading off on a trip later this month to get another year's extension of his own Diamond status felt familiar. He “used to do a lot of mileage runs back when it made sense,” including a trip to earn American Airlines' top status many years ago through Europe, Singapore, and over to Sydney (SYD) – all in economy.
Van won't need to do something so outlandish this year. If he doesn't naturally fly the last few thousand miles he needs to secure that extra year extension for a work trip or to visit family, he'll book a quick Delta flight to cross that threshold before the year is over.
Van is more than happy to take advantage of the loophole Delta is creating, which he views as a necessity to appease the customers who rack up hundreds of thousands of miles a year with the airline. But that doesn't mean Delta won back his loyalty for life. It's a calculated decision.
“It wasn’t, for me, falling back in love with Delta. It was about: ‘Hey, how can I use this to my advantage?'” Van said. “Once you’ve changed the relationship, you can’t go back to the way it was.”
What Happens Next?
Koyonen, Van, and others like them with big plans for all their Delta mileage aren't on the clock just yet.
A Delta spokesperson told Thrifty Traveler that the airline plans to launch a dedicated page in early February, allowing Medallion members to decide how to roll over MQMs. There are a few options:
- Travelers with 100,000 MQMs or more can extend their current status by one year for every 100,000 MQMs.
- Medallion members can turn rollover MQMs into Medallion Qualifying Dollars (MQDs) for a head start on next year's status on a 10:1 basis, so 80,000 MQMs could become 8,000 MQDs.
- You can convert them into redeemable SkyMiles at a 2:1 rate – 80,000 MQMs would get you 40,000 SkyMiles.
- You can mix and match, so Koyonen could turn his 340,000-some rollover MQMs into a three-year extension of Diamond status, then turn the remaining 40,000 miles into 4,000 MQDs or 20,000 SkyMiles.
SkyMiles members will have until Dec. 31, 2024, to lock in their choices. But that selection is binding: Once it's made, it can't be undone.
Oh, and there's one other hitch. Travelers who extend their status can't double-dip by earning status again next year: A Delta spokesman confirmed there will not be “an extension of the extension.”
On one hand, precious few flyers will be in the position to take advantage of these potential status extensions with a mileage run to begin with: It requires flying hundreds of thousands of miles with Delta, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on an Amex card, or both. And it'll only be possible before 2023 comes to a close, after which Delta officially stops measuring travelers' mileage and kills off the mileage run for good.
On the other hand, there are likely more passengers than ever in that boat. Delta CEO Ed Bastian claimed this fall that the ranks of top-tier Diamond Medallions had doubled since the pandemic.
Throwing them a bone was critical. But was it enough?
As a hub captive in Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), Koyonen can't pretend like he'll start flying other carriers. But with four-plus years of Delta Diamond status in the bag, Koyonen said he's already thinking about how he might shift his spending away from the Delta credit cards that have been at the top of his wallet for years.
For Van, the chance to extend his Diamond status was nothing more than a financial decision: A cheap way to lock in another year of more upgrades, Delta Choice Benefits, and other perks. After that, he'll probably be a free agent, he said.
“They’ve made it a transactional relationship. For us, as passengers, we’re encouraged to do the same,” Van said. “The loyalty is no longer part of the equation anymore.”