Wednesday, April 9, 2003

Angry Delta consumers aim to increase pressure

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It's an issue that just won't go away for Delta Air Lines.

When the Atlanta-based airline in December changed how its frequent fliers could qualify for membership into its Medallion Club, which allows extra perks such as free upgrades and access to the private waiting lounges, company officials anticipated some squawking.

But now, a vocal group of customers has joined forces to create a Web site. It's even collecting money to erect billboards directing people to their Web site later this month at Delta's annual shareholders meeting in New York.

"We really don't think that Delta has a clue as to who its best customers are," said Mike Seidenman, a Fairfield-based salesman who flies three times a month and who is an organizer for the group.

"They give us the lower prices and then penalize us for using them. And you know that Delta wouldn't turn away a cheap hotel when their workers travel," said Seidenman, who added that a contract for the billboard had been signed Tuesday.

Delta, which operates its second-largest hub locally at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, says it has about 30 million SkyMiles members. Only two or three percent of those are Medallion Club members who will be affected by the changes, said the company, which would not say how many Medallion Club members are in the Tristate.

The problem for Delta is some of those Medallion Club members are some of its highest-mileage fliers.

And what has some of those members upset is Delta's December announcement that it was eliminating the number of flights as a way to qualify.

Only total miles and the kind of ticket purchased will be factors in getting "elite status."

Delta SkyMiles program director Rob Borden acknowledges the move was made to create more revenue, with more business travelers paying higher fares to qualify, although he would not provide specific goals.

He also said that some customers have thanked the company for making the changes, saying the new program "rewards the customers who invest the most in the airline ... a lot of people have told us that this is more fair."

And he said that more Medallion Club members from the Cincinnati area would move up in status (either silver, gold or platinum) than would move down.

One such customer is Gerry Baker, a salesman for Evendale-based GE Aircraft Engines, who makes several international trips annually and who has maintained his platinum status, the highest achievable.

"If I spend my life in an airplane, I want to be comfortable," Baker said. "I can't speak for anyone else, but this change certainly helped me."

Frequent flier program expert Randy Petersen says that Delta is the only airline to make such qualification changes, and that no other carrier has matched the program.

"These protesters are really, really mad," said Petersen, publisher of Flier Talk magazine and the Flier Talk web site and Internet forum, on which many SkyMilers have made their feelings known. "But they aren't crazies who are howling at the moon. They actually want to save Delta, meaning they are customers many companies would want."

Seidenman estimates that at least 4,000 customers have signed up and that the Web site has raised more than $6,000 worth of pledges.

And while a main issue remains the link between higher fares and elite status, other Delta customers are also complaining about the value of a Medallion membership, which has seen its share of cuts in the past two years.

"Who cares how hard it is to get to Platinum Elite if there is no benefit once you're reach it?" said J.C. Rubi of Miami, Fla. "That is what Delta is missing and what will cause a grand exodus of Platinum/Gold Medallions at year's end."

But there may be a thaw between the two sides. Seidenman and others in the group of upset SkyMilers held a meeting with Borden and two other Delta representatives late last month.

Both sides characterized the meeting as friendly and frank and noted it lasted more than an hour longer than scheduled.

Borden said he asked his customers to "try the new program on for awhile before jumping to any conclusions."

Seidenman, who says he will drop from Platinum to Gold status next year, said plans are still in place for the New York billboard, but that he came away from the meeting with a sense that Delta wants to placate its upset customers.

"We would really like to work through this and help Delta and keep flying them," Seidenman said. "We don't want this to be a boycott or anything like that."

Petersen said that he could see middle ground between the two sides, a marked contrast to other such protests at other airlines.

"Nearly five months have gone by and the industry as a whole and the company's (financial) performance has only gotten worse," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see Delta make some small amends here, even while they won't roll back everything."


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