It's the End of the Frequent Flyer World As We Know It
THURSDAY, APRIL 11, 2019 -- It's the end of the frequent flyer world as we know it -- and you shouldn't feel fine.

United Airlines announced last Friday that it would abandon MileagePlus award charts, essentially duplicating the move Delta Air Lines made with SkyMiles four years ago. American Airlines won't be far behind because airline bosses all wear little plastic wristbands emblazoned with W.W.D.D. (What would Delta do?)

United went to great lengths to bury its dispatch of charts with anodyne verbiage and promises of offsetting perks: faster posting of flight credits; elimination of close-in award booking fees; no immediate change in the published structure for partner awards; and the specious lure of cheaper award prices on short-haul, low-interest, low-value coach flights.

But United's move to supposedly revenue-based, supply-and-demand award pricing means only one thing: A brutal, opaque devaluation of the premium class international awards that frequent flyers value the most.

    SKYMILES GROUNDED

NEW YORK/JFK-ROME (DL 444/445)

 

Cash

Miles*

Value**

2015 Low

 

125,000

 

2015 High

 

295,000

 

May 1-8

$8,733

640,000

1.36 cents

June 4-11

$8,733

640,000

1.36 cents

July 16-23

$4,610

500,000

0.92 cents

Aug. 21-28

$3,499

500,000

0.70 cents

Sept. 18-25

$7,922

515,000

1.53 cents

Oct. 22-29

$4,610

625,000

0.74 cents

Nov. 21-28

$4,610

425,000

1.08 cents

Dec. 24-31

$4,610

450,000

1.02 cents

SEATTLE-BEIJING (DL 128/129)

 

Cash

Miles*

Value**

2015 Low

 

140,000

 

2015 High

 

325,000

 

May 1-8

$3,589

350,000

1.02 cents

June 4-11

$3,189

350,000

0.91 cents

July 16-23

$3,189

200,000

1.59 cents

Aug. 21-28

$3,189

200,000

1.59 cents

Sept. 18-25

$3,189

240,000

1.33 cents

Oct. 22-29

$3,189

240,000

1.33 cents

Nov. 21-28

$3,189

240,000

1.33 cents

Dec. 24-31

$3,189

300,000

1.06 cents

ATLANTA-JOHANNESBURG (DL 200/201)

 

Cash

Miles*

Value**

2015 Low

 

160,000

 

2015 High

 

350,000

 

May 1-8

$13,084

930,000

1.40 cents

June 4-11

$10,884

930,000

1.17 cents

July 16-23

$10,284

930,000

1.10 cents

Aug. 21-28

$9,134

930,000

0.98 cents

Sept. 18-25

$10,284

930,000

1.10 cents

Oct. 22-29

$9,884

930,000

1.06 cents

Nov. 21-28

$10,534

930,000

1.13 cents

Dec. 24-31

$10,084

930,000

1.08 cents


KEY:
Roundtrip business class cost in cash and miles
for one-week trips using nonstop flights listed. Prices
searched Tuesday, April 9, on Delta.com. "2015 Low"
represents lowest published price for a business class
award on February 6, 2015, the day Delta eliminated
charts. "2015 High" is the highest price. * Award fees:
$69 on JFK-FCO; $35 on SEA-PEK; $56 on ATL-JNB.
** Value represents cash buying power of one mile.

When United's chartless, free-floating prices kick in on November 15, the die is cast: U.S. airlines will officially end the frequent flyer world as we have known it for a generation. The thrill will be gone, the last bit of value will be gone--and the incentive to stay loyal will be gone.

All that will be left is what I've called the smash-and-grab strategy: Take a big credit card acquisition bonus when it appears, then move on the next card. Yet even that approach is suspect now. What good is a 50,000 or 100,000-mile card bonus when airlines charge nearly a million miles for a business class award to Africa?

For nearly two decades, I've called frequent flyer plans unregulated lotteries. They're not even that honest now. With airlines hiding the cost of awards, too, they've become unregulated lotteries with prizes you may not be able to claim at prices you would never pay.

Think I'm overreacting? Let's go to the charts. Not the airline charts, of course, because those are being hidden. But some real-life, right-now award prices compared to what it costs to buy a ticket for cash.

When Delta ghosted award charts in February, 2015, a low-season business class award to Europe cost 125,000 miles roundtrip. Tip-top high-season pricing reached the then-unthinkable 295,000-mile level. As recently as mid-April, 2016, Delta ran a "sale" on Europe redemptions and I scored 105,000-mile business class roundtrips between New York/Kennedy and Rome/Fiumicino using Delta Flights 444 and 445.

But look at the pricing of Delta 444/445 for the rest of this year. The cheapest roundtrip I found was for a November 21-28 itinerary and that's no surprise because the return from Rome is on Thanksgiving Day. Cheap is relative, however. It costs 425,000 miles, nearly three times the price of a lowball roundtrip when Delta published charts and a 44 percent increase over 2015 high season pricing. A pair of roundtrips each cost 640,000 miles, more than double 2015's high-season price and more than four times the low-season price.

More to the point, though, is the relationship of 2019 award pricing to 2019 cash prices. There is none. Airlines claiming they eliminate award charts to "fairly" price awards to balance supply and demand are lying.

The cheapest cash price using Delta Flights 444/445 ($3,499) is for an August 21-28 roundtrip. That's logical. It is when peak summer demand ebbs. But Delta's award price is 500,000 miles, a miles-to-cash value of just 7/10th of a penny. In fact, 500,000 miles is also the price of an award for a July 16-23 roundtrip, which has a cash price of $4,610. How's that supply and demand pricing? Why is the flyer in August on miles paying the same price as the flyer booking the more costly July itinerary?

The supply-and-demand lie is most starkly illustrated by award prices on Delta Flights 200 and 201, the airline's Atlanta-Johannesburg run. In 2015, before it eliminated its charts, Delta posted business class award prices of 160,000 roundtrip (lowest season) to 350,000 miles (highest of the high).

Know what a roundtrip business class award on Delta Flights 200 and 201 costs in 2019? Take a breath 'cause this'll sting. It's 930,000 miles. Doesn't seem to matter when. Claim an award next month and Delta wants 930,000 miles. Next season? It's 930,000 miles. October? It's 930,000 miles. Thanksgiving or Christmas? It's 930,000 miles. Got that? You want Delta in business class to Jo'burg, fork over 930,000 SkyMiles, er, SkyPesos, er, SkyRand.

Yet the cash cost varies wildly on ATL-JNB. In August's summer travel trough, it's $9,134 roundtrip. Book a roundtrip next month, however, and it's $13,084. That's a 40 percent dollar difference, but Delta's award pricing doesn't vary. Cash prices can drop by 40 percent, but Delta is still charging the same inflated mileage price. There is no supply-and-demand pricing on Delta's chartless awards. Only unbelievable high award prices when the cash cost is low and the same astounding price when the cash cost is high.

Which brings me to the outlier of this exercise: Delta Flights 128 and 129 between Seattle and Beijing. Flights price out in cash about how you'd expect given the ferocious competition between the United States and China. With the exception of a roundtrip in early May, flying Delta between Seattle and Beijing will cost just $3,189 in business class. Yet even here Delta offers few award bargains. All eight itineraries I checked cost at least 43 percent more in miles than cheapest 2015 business class award. Six of the eight do cost less than the highest 2015 award price, but this is a route where Delta discounts heavily for cash. Award bookers in this chartless world get no such break.

And let's not lose the flying forest for the award trees. Remember when smart frequent flyers expected four or five cents of value for each mile spent on premium class international awards? Remember when we reluctantly began settling for three? Remember when we scoffed at newbies who thought they were "winners" if they got two cents of value by spending 25,000 miles for a $500 transcontinental coach roundtrip?

Lots of luck smelling two cents a mile of value in Delta's chartless reality. The best Delta offers over the 24 trips I checked is 1.59 cents. Five runs offer less than a penny of value for each mile claimed.

No matter what United currently claims to the contrary, its chartless future invariably will look a lot like Delta's present. Why wouldn't it? Delta is getting away with it. American will surely follow, too, because W.W.D.D. And when American eliminates it charts, it will make the repugnant claim that the airline is merely making a "competitive" response.

Welcome to the end of the world, fellow travelers. Think about it the next time your elite status gets you upgraded to a not-quite-plush-as-it-used-to-be first class seat on a flight between Des Moines and Denver.

Oh, wait, we elites don't get many upgrades anymore, either, do we? I forgot. The end of that world as we knew it happened long ago.