Bad News: Delta Is Now Selling Basic Economy Award Tickets

Dec 6, 2018

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It’s new, but it’s hardly shocking: Delta will now let you exchange SkyMiles for a Basic Economy (E fare) ticket, which was previously a cash-only product. For several weeks, Delta’s Book A Flight page has allowed the Basic Economy dropdown selector to remain in place when toggling between Money and Miles. Given CEO Ed Bastain’s recent comments on allowing passengers to use their SkyMiles in more ways, it wasn’t a stretch to put two and two together. BE award tickets have long been on Delta’s horizon. As of Thursday, they’re a reality, and that’s largely bad news for consumers.

Previously, Basic Economy wasn't a fare class option when toggled to "Miles" on Delta's Book A Flight portal
Previously, Basic Economy wasn’t a fare class option when toggled to “Miles” on Delta’s Book A Flight portal.

In a weird way, the ability to only use cash for basic economy fares — which are littered with annoying restrictions — pushed the value of a SkyMiles award ticket higher. Even if Delta’s SkyMiles pricing increased for an award ticket, at least you could do no worse than a Main Cabin ticket, where you can still select your seat ahead of departure and be eligible for Medallion upgrades. Going forward, you’ll have to shell out even more for what used to be the baseline.

The option we never wanted to see: SkyMiles pricing for basic economy fares
The option we never wanted to see: SkyMiles pricing for basic economy fares.

Basic economy fares are not yet enabled on all award routes, with Delta calling this a “test” for now. Certain ones, such as Pittsburgh (PIT) to Charleston (CHS), are already allowing SkyMiles purchases of BE tickets. On certain dates, BE pricing is shown as higher than main cabin — clearly, we’re in the early innings of the rollout and there are some quirks to be worked out.

Update: Delta confirmed to us the following test routes. “All non-stop and connecting flights between Minneapolis (MSP) and Phoenix (PHX), as well as all US50/CA flights to/from Charleston, SC (CHS) only.”

This is especially bad news for Delta’s highest two Medallion tiers, Platinum and Diamond. For those two tiers, they’ve long been able to cancel any SkyMiles award ticket up to 72 hours prior to departure and have the entire ticket value redeposited/refunded. In essence, this means that SkyMiles award tickets are as close to a refundable ticket as one could get for Platinum and Diamond members. As a Diamond, this is a remarkable perk that has saved me thousands in cancellation fees over the years. Even as the value of SkyMiles has declined, I’ve held onto this particular perk — which grants an immense amount of booking flexibility — as a reason to stay loyal to the program.

Basic economy tickets, classified as E fares, have historically been non-changeable and non-cancellable after 24 hours. No refund, no partial value toward future travel. Nothing. Per verbiage on the airline’s website and as indicated during the booking process, Platinum and Diamond Medallions will not be excepted from this policy. To get the fee-free cancellation perk they’re used to, they will need to pony up for pricier Main Cabin (or above) seats.

When asked for comment, Delta provided us with the following statement. “Our customers have told us they want the flexibility to use their SkyMiles on more types of Delta products, and we are always looking at new ways to expand those options, while making that process simple and intuitive for them. As a part of this effort, we are testing the ability for customers to use miles for Basic Economy tickets on select flights.”

Delta CRJ200 Economy Seats
Economy seating on a Delta Connection CRJ200. (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

On one hand, this could be viewed as a positive — “A new way to spend fewer SkyMiles to travel!” — but there’s slim chance that actually happens. What’s more apt to happen is basic economy will become the new main cabin in terms of award pricing. It’s painful to admit, but Delta has been on a pretty deliberate path to force the value of a single SkyMile to $0.01. The outsized value that once ruled the program is being further diminished with this rollout. Long gone are the days when you could exchange 120,000 SkyMiles for business class travel between the United States and the Maldives on a mix of Delta and Korean Air metal.

Yes, this technically achieves Delta’s goal of giving you more ways to use your SkyMiles, but it’s a not-so-stealthy devaluation nonetheless. Fingers crossed that as more routes become active, we’ll see lower-than-ever pricing for BE award tickets while Main Cabin prices remain steady. If you aren’t willing to wait and see, now may be a great time to burn a few SkyMiles on main cabin award seats while they’re still the low rung on the totem pole.

For more on how to survive basic economy on Delta, check out our exhaustive guide here.

H/T: One Mile at a Time

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