Overall Loyalty Driver Score: 35.4

Delta Airlines loyalty marketing program–Delta SkyMiles–is one of the few brands that does incredibly well across all the drivers of loyalty. Most brands stick to one (Starbucks is great at Time) or at the most two (REI is great at Financial and Content), and while Delta isn’t great at all with Content, they pretty much rock it in every other possible corner of the drivers of loyalty.

Long ago they committed to serving the actual needs and wants of their customers instead of just toeing the line between what a business wants and what customers are asking for. Their idea was to give the customers what they are asking for, which is mainly an easier and smoother air travel experience buoyed by the Delta SkyMiles loyalty program that is replete with tons of ways to use miles without all of the standard gotcha hurdles that most loyalty programs layer in.

Delta SkyMiles do not expire nor are there blackout dates or flights. They have a phenomenal baggage tracking system where you can see where your bag is at any point in your trip right through the app. Delta is now testing facial recognition software for international flights. At certain levels of status, customers are automatically upgraded, and then texted ahead of time what their status has provided them.

Delta has been rated the Best Rewards Program the last four years by Travel Pulse, due in large part to listening to their customers and acting accordingly. We have tested the mettle of Delta and its customer loyalty through our own rigors to see if they truly live up to how they have been recognized.

TIME – 31

The basis of Delta’s high marks in the Time driver is powered mainly by their app and their proactive communications (also driven from the app). Here again, Delta is showing that they understand the customer journey and its pain points and is addressing them. This is an important lesson: Delta isn’t claiming they lose or mis-route fewer bags than other airlines. That is just a thing that happens with logistics with heavy dynamics. But their solve for an unavoidable situation, which is to provide you with a bar code tag so that you can track your bag wherever it goes, is what sets them apart. They go even further and send proactive communications both through the app, SMS, and email to let you know the location of your bag during flight, any gate changes, upgrades, and various other messages that are important during travel.

There’s tons more that every airline could be doing, but as far as saving its customers time, Delta is the company to chase.

Streamlined in-store/on location experience – 5

Delta is no better or worse than other airlines with their experience at the airport. If you look over at the Delta ticketing lines as you are standing in United or American or god forbid Frontier, you won’t see Delta passengers zooming around like they are on skates. Customers are still customers. They don’t have their credits cards or IDs ready. They want a paper ticket even though they have a scannable pass. If there is a possibility here of speeding this portion up, beyond what others have done, we believe Delta will be leading the way. But so far, all airlines have been leveling up together and all airlines are constrained by overwrought security measures that act as governors to passenger speed from garage to gate.

Streamlined website/app shopping experience – 10

Delta alchemizes its Recognition of its customers into time savings, both on their website and in their app. The Fly Delta app is clean and clear, as well as selective in what it shows on each screen. At any point in the app, you can pull up the full website that you see on desktop, if you prefer. The mobile experience truly understands that you are on mobile for a reason, with quick access to where you bag location, tickets, upgrades, past purchases, payment information, upcoming flights, points, status, nearby lounges, you name it. You are never left wondering where something is.

The website is similar to the app and helps create an ecommerce experience that is light and quick, with stored payment information, SkyMiles number, Known Traveler Number, and other personal information. It’s like shopping on Amazon, except for plane tickets.

Certainly, on both the app and the website, Delta is looking to grab more dollars in the form of upgrades you don’t qualify for, but that’s just the way of things these days. This section of the buyer journey is better than other airlines, but it is still the same species of friction that we must all face in this era of plane travel.

Smooth BOPIS experience – 6

Thinking objectively, perhaps all airline transactions are Buy Online Pick-up In Store. The Delta experience is a bit smoother than other airlines. Most of this success is on the shoulders of its app and having your digital ticket right there. Certainly, not everyone uses the app, and in those cases the experience of either curbside check-in, standard ticket counter, or a digital ticket, all airlines are in pretty much hitting the same average.

Proactive communications and management – 10

Proactive communications and management of the customer journey is a sore spot for us, as we find it is largely ignored by most brands and we always appreciate brands who do even a modest amount of this. Proactive communications are particularly important in the travel industry where their product is always used outside of home (naturally) and in a dynamic environment of delays, gate changes, and cancellations. Being proactive about the location of a customer’s bags, when gates change, when departure times are moved or flights canceled, is always deeply appreciated—even when they news is bad. Delta is on top of things with their comms. They don’t try to do too many things in one email or alert, and they just keep things simple and direct. That’s all we have ever asked for. Well, more legroom. And free luggage.

FINANCIAL – 47

Delta is a bit of a knuckleball in the Financial driver. Most brands drive loyalty in the Financial category by being the cheapest, either in up-front savings, such as with Amazon, or enduring products, like REI or Patagonia. Delta is not the cheapest airline out there. They don’t even crack the top 10, which is hard to do since most of us can’t even name 10 airlines. Where they do get into the strike zone is great member pricing at their various Medallion tiers. Their loyalty points never expire and with no blackout dates or flights, they are always cashable. They have a standard signup bonus that rivals all other miles programs, and they notch this up at various times of the year to as high as 70,000 miles + companion flights. And while this is not fully matured yet, Delta has a little cache to it, for those who know and love them. It’s not to the level of Virgin or Air Emirates, Patagonia or Mercedes, but we believe it’s headed there.

Perceived or Actual Savings – 3

Flying Delta ain’t cheap. If you have Kayak sorted cheapest to most expensive, you might think they have gone out of business. Delta has had a strategy to be the most luxurious and complete airline of the majors. While Delta isn’t turning its back on price, their target is value for their preferred customers. Where they guessed correctly, we believe, is that we are willing to pay for a better experience: shorter lines, more legroom, lounges, status, better food, more communications. The byproduct of this is higher prices. They aren’t the absolute highest priced, but this is not a brand where you are expecting an upfront discount.

Select or members only pricing – 10

There are so many members-only priced items that it would take too long to list. But for some of the things that usually get customers’ attentions are automatic upgrades at various tiers. They’ll even send you a note a couple days before a flight to let you know you’ll be in first class now. And that kinda rocks.

Status members over a certain level have bags fly free, even for a whole family. This adds up to just a tremendous amount of savings for a frequent traveler over the course of the year.

Additionally, if you are a member at any level, when logged into the website they offer upgrades (points, dollars, or both) for your upcoming flight. This is something that is not available if you don’t have a login.

Delta offers so many angles for its loyal customers. And the loyal ones won’t ever leave because every other airline is a step down.

Reward/Loyalty points – 9

Delta’s SkyMiles points never expire, which is a good place to spend a second. Most miles or rewards programs expire at the end of the year, so that you don’t get a free boat or too many first class tickets from stockpiling (though this is era is about to end) This not only puts a low ceiling on your ability to accumulate points and status, but also forces customers into spending when they don’t want to in order to reap the benefits of the spending they already did. Delta said, hey that’s a gotcha capitalism trap, and we’re not about it. Points are points for life. Where other brands see loss, Delta sees that they can win a customer for life by not playing the same game that most airlines play.

They also do a nice job of making points transparent and easy to access from within the app or website.

Where they come up a little short—as does almost everyone—is making transparent the dollar value of the points on each flight or purchase. If you eyeball it, you can see that it’s generally a little better than $1 per hundred points. Just quickly looking at a random flight from DEN to BNA as a logged-in user, I can upgrade to first class for $330 or 29,400 points. The points here are 89 points/dollar. We have a sense that this is pretty much in the same ratio zone, but that it fluctuates constantly based off a host of things they aren’t revealing. Just like at a grocery store where we get price/unit, we would like to see areas where points can be used as a transparent relationship of dollars, points, and the rate. Fine if the rate of conversion is different for each thing. We just want to see it.

Sign-up Bonus – 7

The standard sign-up bonus for the Delta SkyMiles credit card these days is 30,000 miles, but all miles are pretty slippery and transactional and are valued at HQ, so it’s hard to tell how much this is actually worth on a given day or for a given flight. We have seen bonuses as high as 70,000 packaged in special offers that we think were targeted to high value customers. Many airlines have a standard offer at 50,000 miles, and, statistically, all of those airlines have cheaper tickets than Delta, on top of a 66% bigger bonus.

But flights are valuable, and the average consumer is looking at a sign-up bonus as a free roundtrip US ticket, at least between major cities. We feel that the standard bonus likely won’t get you anywhere in the US and back, but this might be part of the Delta calculation. At this level of miles, they are practically eliminating anyone who is just gaming the system for one free flight and immediate cancellation of the credit card, and instead rewarding those who sign up from a deeper understanding of their total rewards package.

Longer lasting products – 10

As mentioned, but worth repeating, their miles do not expire. Imagine what this does to customers who may not fly that much or may have a family that can only afford big trips every few years. Instead of gaming their credit card for a fee flight, they are now committed to the brand for years on the premise that one day they can take a big trip or fly with their spouse first class somewhere for an anniversary. And once they start down this path, even with a partial commitment early, the sunk cost fallacy takes over. If this is their calculation, it is high concept. And shrewd.

Perceived personal value – 8

Delta isn’t yet to the level of primo brands with high-end products, like Harley Davidson or Virgin Airlines or St. Regis Hotels, but it’s easy to see the zone they will occupy, where smart consumers are looking for the most high value item in the medium price category, right before products get really expensive. Delta is offering too much total value, personal and financial, and smart shoppers have caught on and so has the media, ranking them as the top travel rewards program four years running. Some of us count among their loyal followers, and, internally, you can see the perceived personal value on the faces of those who claim unofficial ambassadorship.

CONTENT/LEARNING – 20

In traditional Content/Learning drivers, we are looking for ways that Brands educate consumers on their products and connecting activities to help customers know how to get the most life out of a product, have the most enjoyment, etc. With Airlines, this dynamic changes somewhat. As customers, we still want to know the angles on the various amenities, how to get more of them, and how to get them cheaply. However, while we certainly do want an enjoyable experience flying, what we most want is to avoid bad experiences. In this way, we look closely at Delta and how they are using Content and Learning to provide the right information when we need it: during flight travel.

Delta does a solid job through their app of creating easily accessible features that may seem obvious as we write them, but are not standard across airlines. They have real time bag tracking, which also appears in Time and Recognition drivers. Plus, they have boarding information and airport maps. Not rocket surgery, but a piece that often gets missed.

Delta doesn’t soar when it comes to providing Content and Learning outside of the travel experience. While they have many categories of content, it is mainly self-serving PR pieces for investors and the media. They are rarely talking to their customers and barely creating any regular content that helps their customers on their next experience. Airlines do not live and die by a content calendar of consumer blog posts, and this is certainly an area where Delta has chosen to ignore.

How to use products – 5

Delta is no better/worse than tons of other brands that don’t really require how-to spellouts, like Starbucks, Lululemon, and Yeti. People know how to fly. There are likely some creative concepts to be had here, making fun of the simplicity and the people who jump up several rows, but this will take them inches, not miles.

How to get the most out of products – 3

As with How to Use, there isn’t much hay to make about getting the most out of a boarding pass. Show up. Fly. Come home.

Where we feel Delta is lacking, is being very descriptive and specific—outing their own audiences—about how to get the most from their SkyMiles loyalty program. There are certainly drawbacks to doing this, but there are wins to be made in this area where few loyalty programs show you how to game their own system. Instead, they ask us to go to The Points Guy or NerdWallet or Luxury Travel Expert to read about their own program. It is a weird transaction to create for its customers.

We would love to see them create audiences or segments, in some tasteful format, and show ways that this program can be used or is being at the highest level, depending on which segment you belong to. As an example, if I am a frequent work traveler, which Delta Lounges have the fewest people at certain times? If I am a family man trying to earn points across several years for some future international vacation with the kids, what are some smart moves I can make with the credit card or flights to get to where I’m going faster?

How professionals use these products/services – 1

While celebrities, other than Mariano Rivera, don’t often fly commercial, what we mean in this instance, as with the Sub-Driver on How to Get the Most Out of Products, is showing customers who are using SkyMiles at the tippy top of its capacity. Delta would have to be comfortable with standardizing the gamesmanship, which many brands are not. However, loyalty programs evolve over time and they can tighten loose areas in the program just as easily if the game is outed or guarded in secret. If more people know how to get more, it will create acquisition. And those people will stay because of the open secret.

Instructional / advice / etc.  – 1

Same as with the previous Sub-drivers. There isn’t much grain to be harvested here either, but they also aren’t trying very hard.

Downstream/Iterations/Predictive – 10  

A place inside of Content and Learning where Delta is excelling is with predictive content, namely the bag tracking, boarding information, and airport maps. These features are not always necessary, depending on the traveler, but if a bag get mis-routed, gates change, flights are delayed, or it’s an unfamiliar airport, the Delta app has you covered before you even realized you needed help. We don’t feel these are super difficult, creative, or non-intuitive measures to create. The answer is right there in front of most brands: listen to your customer and act accordingly.

ACCESS – 32

Access is one of the things we most crave from Airlines. We want Access to that lounge, that priority boarding lane, and to the first class cabin. Delta Airlines provides a great deal of Access to the standard issue Airline perks, based on their various Medallion tiers, to all of these places. This is where they expend their efforts for customers. Delta doesn’t put much, if any, effort into exclusive events, lead-time, or returning intelligence to us, but they do place their effort in the correct places—enhancing their strengths and saving their weaknesses for another time.

In-store/at location – 10

Customers can level up into a Medallion tier that will grant them Access to early boarding, which gives additional access to overhead space, increasingly a premium for carry-on passengers. For the sometimes-occasional flyer, this may not seem like a perk worth paying for. After all, what you are truly getting is EXTRA time to sit on a plane. If you are going on vacation or otherwise not someone who works on planes, you might not see the point. But for those of us who travel often for work, there are plenty of wasted minutes during travel if you aren’t paying attention. Getting early-boarding can give customers back sometimes 30-40 minutes they otherwise would have wasted at the gate, in the boarding line or on the jetway. And again, these days, statistically, you are more likely to have your bag gate-checked the later you board, which just adds more dead time to your travel.

Exclusivity – Places – 10

Delta does have lounges, called Delta Sky Club, because everything needs a branded name, and they claim there are more than 50 Delta Sky Clubs now plus a handful of other third-party business lounges (though we can only find 34 in the US and 3 outside). Depending on your Medallion status, you can gain access to these exclusive lounges to hang in a more relaxed space, with free food, drinks, as well as tons of access to charging stations, more comfortable seating, and nicer rest rooms. Sometimes even showers. You need to be flying Delta on that day and have status, then you’re in. It is a truly nice reward for those who can either afford it or travel often. Airports are over-crowded, plug-in anemic, and just plain uncomfortable to relax or work in.

Exclusivity – Events/People – 1

Delta thus far has not put much effort into creating exclusive access to either events or people, and this likely makes sense for the brand. There isn’t much loyalty to be gained here. If they did create access to a professional or celebrity, it would seem fairly oblique to the brand, even if this celebrity was a great get. We’re sure they recognize that this isn’t likely to do much for Delta except create distraction from a good customer marketing system that is working.

Exclusivity – Product – 5

Delta technically does have exclusive products for nearly every flight in the form of cabin classes, exit row seating, and pre-boarding. However, these same products exist in every other airline, so can can’t give additional marks for this. As customers, we are glad they exist—here and with other airlines.

Lead Time – 5

In most industries, we think of lead time as offering loyal customers a jump in the line for a product. Getting the newest iPhone before its launched in stores. Short windows of Access to the new Air Jordans before they go on sale. Lead time does not always translate into savings, but it is a way to show your loyal customers that you are looking out for them by creating a small window just for them, before the stampede and, possibly, before the brand sells out.

Delta is just phenomenal at lead time for upgrades, flight changes, and gate changes, but especially the upgrades. The automatic upgrades to economy+, business, or first class is an act other brands should study. By providing advanced notice of an upgrade in seat class, Delta provides its customers a chance at an experience better than the event or the memory: the anticipation. Certainly, it’s nice to be surprised right at the gate, but even better to get to think about the awesome experience of flying first class for days before it happens.

Where Delta’s Lead Time grade falls is in not anticipating our future flight needs. They have built their loyalty program with an eye towards keeping its customers from ever going to Kayak to compare flights. What we are looking for from them is a platform where we can tell them where we are going and when—far in advance—and have them return to us when is the best time to book for the best price or best value on SkyMiles. They could choose to offer this only to SkyMiles members or open to the public.

We are being hard on them here, as we don’t give them advanced notice, but they also don’t give us lead time. We are both at fault, but we are certain, as customers, we would offer our information if the exchange had promise. We’re waiting.

Information/Intelligence/Data – 1

Delta doesn’t return much intelligence about purchase habits or how to optimize them better, which is the standard curse of loyalty programs: they are fearful that access to our own purchasing habits will curb our purchasing. Perhaps. If that is actually true, then only provide this intelligence to business travelers.

Some people may not want this, like we don’t like to see the calories posted at the restaurant. We just want to eat our whole cheesecakes without the additional guilt. But transparency of habit is something all brands can provide to make better customers. They can always turn it off if it backfires.

RECOGNITION – 47

Delta is great at recognizing its customers and not just acting accordingly, but also acting according to the notes they can hear, even if others can’t. By this we mean, they deliver on the stuff that we already know we want: they use our names in emails, recall our past travel preferences and the like. Yet they also provide experiences through Recognition we didn’t even know we needed, such as storing past purchase and travel history so that it’s easy to locate; they recognize each person by status level, then filter content, and simplify engagement knowing that I’m, say, a business traveler and this is clearly a business flight; with status, they greet you by name and check on you in your seat to make sure you don’t need anything. All of what they do in the Recognition Driver of Loyalty seems simple and obvious. But Delta is succeeding by doing the simple things that most companies keep missing.

In-App – 10

Inside the Delta app, they Recognize the status as a global setting. You don’t have to select into it. They just know and sculpt your experience via your status. Additionally, they filter content knowing who you are and what you’re likely interested in, such as gate information and airport maps for your upcoming flights. What all this amounts to is a simplification of engagement. They aren’t fumbling around trying to offer everything to me because they know who I am and have a reasonable understanding of what I need. The real kicker is that they act on it.

Individual Emails – 8

Delta Airlines does a better than average job of curating the content sent to me. It is mostly right in line what the customer is looking for, taking into account both past and future travel destinations. They also do a nice job with push notifications. They are careful and don’t overreach. They send things that you need rather than what Delta wants you to have.

Newsletters/Blasts – 5

Delta doesn’t do any better or worse than anyone else with newsletters. We don’t read them. We doubt anyone does. These are still largely self-serving, as is most of their blog content. We aren’t mad that these aren’t good. We’re just disappointed.

In-Store – 8

Looking at “in-store” both from the check-in counter as well as on the plane, Delta will greet its status customers by and welcoming them, by name, to the live Delta experience and check on its status customers in their seat to make sure they have everything they need. As simple as this is, it has a way bigger impact on the individual than most are willing to admit. You are treated like a celebrity in that they know who you are even though they don’t know actually know you. You are preceded by your reputation (status), and, sad as it is to admit, we like it. It is enough of a thing that people will pay to get the same treatment. We are certain this not only drives loyalty—as who would want to give this up once they’ve have it—but also acquisition: those who see it will want to get it.

On-Website – 8

The Delta website runs on the same rails as the app, and, once logged-in, it immediately recognizes your status and filters content for your personal web experience. They will default to your original destination and preset to your most likely travel spots, if you are a frequent or business traveler. We recognize those are, in fact, small things that don’t save all that much time, but the convenience from that experience far outweighs its actual value.

Stored Memory – 5

Just like many other major and forward-thinking brands are doing, Delta also stores your past purchases and destinations. Where they fall short is failing to include cost information or dates of purchase vs dates of travel. If they can already surface transactional details, they should be able to unearth a few more features that will help me understand that I can save if I buy within a certain window or I need to buy at least X days in advance on this regular flight to have a business class seat.

Philanthropy – 3

Delta Airlines engages quite a bit in philanthropic efforts with both their charitable giving and through their foundation and presently emanating from their commitment to give 1% of profits to charitable organizations. Those are great and laudable things. We just want to restate our job here, which is to judge all company exertions and determine whether they are driving loyalty.

With Delta, we don’t believe they are driving much, if any, loyalty with the way they have chosen to give charitably. They have spread their charitable giving across six major categories, one of which is Arts & Culture, and we think this mainly provides them with impressions. They feel like branding campaigns. There are a few areas where their giving can look largely self-serving. And look, we aren’t holding their feet to the fire that they are using their foundation arm to give away to their own benefit by way of a different type of marketing accounting. Rather we would rather see them use these same efforts to keep the customers they have as customers for life.

How do they do that? We will go back to the old standby which is to find the underserved population in their customer base and do right by them. Let’s say they try to do better for the aging population by funding something that is near to their hearts and will win them over. “Delta does X and that is why I only fly Delta.” They need to look for X in each customer segment and figure out what is possible (and smart) for them to commit charitable dollars to. Arts & Culture isn’t right for them. The Environment could work, but their content and PR is so self-serving that they might be too tone deaf to both commit to and message this properly.