Last-Minute Awards

Last-Minute Awards

Delta SkyMiles recently ruffled the feathers of quite a few of their members by announcing a policy adjustment for last-minute awards. With only five days’ notice, SkyMiles members were told of the new policy to take effect on August 15. Now, whenever a member books an award flight, they have up until 72 hours before departure to make a change to the flight. Within 72 hours, no changes can be made and members will forfeit all of their miles if they don’t fly on the award ticket as booked. The taxes and fees for award travel cancelled within 72 hours will only be refunded if the member requests the refund. If you book a new award ticket within 72 hours of departure, the miles are nonrefundable and cannot be redeposited or changed.

On the surface, this might seem like a mundane policy change, but because of the structure of the SkyMiles frequent flyer program, it’s really a rather far-reaching change for members of the program. This drastic move by Delta was brought about by SkyMiles members who noticed that if they waited until the last minute to change award tickets, the cost in miles was often lower than when they originally booked the flight, and the routings were often more direct.

Delta has a three-tiered award chart and the amount of miles needed for a flight can fluctuate. Customers would book a mid- or high-tier award seat and then watch to see if the price dropped to a low-tier seat, which it often did, 48-72 hours before departure and then change their flight to use fewer miles.

This pattern of waiting until the last minute to catch a deal, according to Delta, caused a major problem for the airline. In an email to members, program executives stated, “Over the past year, more than 1,000,000 award tickets were cancelled or changed within 72 hours of departure. As a result, almost all of these seats departed empty as other members did not have enough time to book them.” In addition, airline officials reported that there were also 400,000 no-shows.

Before this policy change was officially announced, FlyerTalk member NHFL9 had this to say, “I think that Delta will say the reason for this change is so that unused award seats don’t fly empty; however, I think the real reason for this change is to lock passengers into using more miles since the low level seats tend to drop at the last minute.”

Delta will take into account members who must make changes to their award ticket because of emergencies on a case-by-case basis, but as Michelle, a Delta Social Ambassador, mentioned on milepoint and FlyerTalk, “We understand that extenuating circumstances do happen and our agents are equipped to review those situations on a case-by-case basis to determine if any exception is warranted. (Just do us a favor and try to make sure it’s not the eighth time your great uncle has passed away.)”

Delta also pointed out in their email, “Please note that we are not modifying any other award policies for changes made more than 72 hours before your flight–Diamond and Platinum Medallion members will continue to receive complimentary fee waivers while a fee of $150 will continue to apply to other members. In addition, Delta remains the only U.S. carrier with fee-free award booking within 21 days of your departure.” But several upper-level elite members see this change as a devaluation of the program and a broken promise of free award redeposits.

As with all changes to programs, you will generally find that members will have varying points of view, often depending on their status in the program. Frequent flyer GYEWorldTraveler [flyertalk] has this to say, “I don’t think it is a bad move at all though. It has always ticked me off that people buy mileage tickets they never intend on using. It takes away the space that others would love to book.” He continued, “This new policy should hopefully make lower level award seats easier to find and also allow for more SDC [Same Day Confirmed] options since people will have to cancel ahead of time.” As a Premier Medallion member, he says that the change won’t affect him but he realizes that it will affect many, and he expects they’ll moan about it. “I’m sure DL will still redeposit awards if you have a valid reason or emergency but for those [who] abuse the system and screw the rest … they will now be out of luck.”

Another aspect of this recent change that baffled SkyMiles members is that this policy was announced just two weeks after another policy change regarding the same issue. In that policy, SkyMiles announced that members must request a mileage redeposit before their original flight departure time in order to have the miles go back into their account. A redeposit fee of $150 applied to all members except for Diamond and Platinum members, who received a fee waiver.

Earlier, in June 2010, Delta discontinued its redemption fees for SkyMiles awards booked at the last minute. Before that, members paid a fee up to $150 when booking an award ticket within 20 days of departure. At the time of doing away with the close-in award fee, Jeff Robertson, Delta’s vice president — SkyMiles said in a press release announcing the change, “We are actively listening to customers’ concerns about the SkyMiles program and are responding.” At the same time that Delta eliminated close-in fees, they raised the redepositing and reissuing fee from $100 to $150 (waiving the fee for Diamond and Platinum members).

So with this recent change from Delta in mind, we decided to take a look at the close-in award ticketing policies of frequent flyer programs. Delta is not the only airline that is on a merry-go-round with last-minute awards.

Asking a fee for close-in award ticketing is nothing new. For those of you old enough to remember paper tickets, you’ll be familiar with “expedited award fees”–which were basically the cost to have the tickets sent by overnight courier to the member. American AAdvantage had a “Quick Claim” award fee of $50 to receive the ticket overnight and $40 to receive the ticket within four days. These new fees, most often referred to as award travel fees, have those fees as their predecessor.

There is no fee for booking within 21 days of the award flight. There is a $90 CAD fee for making changes to a booking up to two hours before departure; waived for elite members.

AirTran A+ Rewards:
A+ Rewards is set up where a free flight is automatically deposited into members’ accounts when they’ve taken the required number of flights so members can take the free flight as soon as it shows up in their account. There is a $75 fee if you change your award booking more than once.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan:
There are no fees for close-in award tickets except for a same-day fee for both paid and award tickets. There is a Same Day Confirmed Flight Change program, subject to availability at the time of request, for $25 for all available flights within six hours. The fee is waived for MVP Gold members and those traveling in the same reservation and those traveling on full-fare and first class tickets. If you change your award booking before the day of flight, it will cost you $75 or $100 if you’re not elite or paying full-fare or for first class.

American AAdvantage:
When booking award tickets 20 days or fewer before departure, members will have to pay a $75 fee. This is a recent change from $50 for booking between seven and 20 days before departure, and $100 within six days. And in the past, when two or more award tickets were booked at the same time, the fee was $25 for each additional booking, now it’s $75. These fees are waived for AAdvantage Executive Platinum, Platinum and Gold members. There’s also a $150 fee for a change in origin or destination of most award tickets; waived for AAdvantage Executive Platinum.

Continental OnePass:
Since December 2009, OnePass has had the following policy for awards ticketed less than 21 days before travel: general members must pay $75 per passenger; Silver members pay $50 per passenger; Gold, $50 per passenger and the fee is waived for Platinum members. These same fees are applicable for changes to award tickets less than 21 days before travel. The fee is waived for award changes 21 days or more in advance, as long as there is no change to the origin and destination.

Delta SkyMiles:
As we mentioned, Delta SkyMiles members do not have to pay a fee to book award flights within 21 days from departure. But changes to award tickets cannot be made within 72 hours of an award flight. Changes are allowed before the 72 hour cutoff for $150, even for Gold and Silver elite members.

Frontier EarlyReturns:
There are no fees for booking award tickets within 21 days from departure. As long as you make changes to your award tickets eight days or more before your flight, you will not incur a fee to make changes to your itinerary; within seven days, $50 will be charged for CHOICE and Standard award tickets (there’s no change fee for Last Seat Availability awards). These fees are waived for Summit members and traveling companions booked in the same reservation as the Summit member.

Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles:
There is no fee for close-in award ticketing. But if members change their awards, there are fees such as $30 within Hawaii or $50 elsewhere for award changes within same class only.

JetBlue TrueBlue:
TrueBlue does not charge a fee for booking within 21 days from departure, but because the program takes a tiered approach to award tickets, the longer you wait to book your flight, the chances are the cost in points will rise. As the website states, “Just as regular fares vary, the points required for an award flight also vary according to destination, day of the week, season and advance booking window.”

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards:
Rapid Rewards does not charge a fee for booking within 21 days from departure. There’s no fee for flight award changes, but the cost in points might rise.

Spirit Airlines FREE SPIRIT:
FREE SPIRIT members must pay non-refundable, per-customer fees based on the date of their award travel. For award tickets booked at least 180 days prior to departure, there is no fee; between 21 days and 179 days prior to departure, the fee is $15; between seven and 20 days prior to departure, the fee is $75 and if you request an award ticket six days or less prior to departure, it will set you back $100. A further stipulation is that if you are redeeming for an Off-Peak award, the award redemption fee must be paid with a FREE SPIRIT MasterCard. Changes to award flights can be requested up until the departure with a $110 fee per customer, plus any additional miles that might be required for the new itinerary.

United Airlines MileagePlus:
As of June 15, 2011, United MileagePlus members who book an award ticket less than 21 days prior to departure will have to pay $75 if a general member, $50 if Premier member and $25 for Premier Executive members. If you are a Global Services or 1K member, these fees are waived for the member and for anyone the Global Services or 1K member gives a flight award to. If members want to change award tickets, it’s free to change the date or flight number, as long as everything else remains the same. Changing your origin or destination city, adding or removing a connecting city or changing one of your flights at any time before the flight will cost you $75 if you are a general member, $50 for Premier, $25 for Premier Executive and free for Global Services and 1K. Cancelling your ticket to redeposit miles will cost you $150, $125, $100 or free depending on your status: general, Premier, Premier Executive and Global Services/1K, respectively. Prior to the recent change, on July 30, 2009, United discontinued fees for booking award tickets at the last minute. Prior to that, the carrier charged $100 for award tickets booked within six days of travel and $75 for tickets booked within seven and 20 days of travel.

US Airways Dividend Miles:
Dividend Miles requires members to pay a “quick ticketing fee” of $75 if you wish to book within 14 days of travel. This fee is waived for Chairman’s Preferred members. If you change the award flight, the fee is $150, regardless of when it is changed before the award trip begins (also waived for Chairman’s Preferred members).

Virgin America Elevate:
The points needed for Elevate award tickets vary and there is no fee for booking seats close-in to your departure. Any change you make to your booking, however, may result in a change in the number of points required and may also have associated fees such as a change in reservations over the phone or at the airport of $100 or a points redeposit fee of $75.

Bottom line: The ink might not yet be dry on close-in award flight ticketing policies as airlines scramble to find the sweet spot with their fee structure. One thing we do know for sure, is that the recent move by Delta continues to be unpopular with members. FlyerTalk members have been polled about these changes and very near 50 percent answered, “I am opposed to it and intend to be loyal to a different airline frequent flyer loyalty program” to the question, “What Do You Think About the Policy Change for Award Re-Deposits and Re-Issues?”

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