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Elite airline status is the holy grail for air travelers and Delta Air Lines just made achieving it harder.

The Atlanta-based carrier late Wednesday announced upcoming changes to its branded American Express cards that will reward big spenders. It's the latest example of a broader move by the airline to reserve its most desired benefits for an increasingly exclusive group of cardholders.

"They're focused on who is spending the most with Delta and who is spending the most with the SkyMiles credit cards, which is where they're making most of their money as an airline," said Gunnar Olson, a Thrifty Traveler reporter and flight deal analyst.

As a result of the changes, cardholders will need to charge more to their Delta credit cards to earn perks such as first-class upgrades, complimentary airport club access and more.

Delta also confirmed this week plans to cap the number of entries to its Sky Clubs starting Feb. 1, 2025 for AmEx Platinum and Reserve American Express cardholders. Those with the Platinum card will be allowed six visits per year, while Reserve holders will get 10 annual visits. Individuals holding both cards would get 16 visits per year, according to Thrifty Traveler.

And for those who book a basic economy ticket? No lounge access starting Jan. 1, 2024, regardless if they carry one of Delta's premium credit cards.

Over time, Delta has been shifting its frequent flyer program away from rewarding miles flown toward higher spending. These latest changes will raise the spending floor even higher.

Achieving airline status is its own subculture, with websites, blogs and experts dedicated entirely to the topic. Many air travelers have gamified the attainment of status. But to the average consumer, understanding the process — and terminology — can be difficult.

Delta says these changes are aimed at simplifying the program, which uses a formula for measuring a customer's loyalty and granting status. It's doing away with two key measures — Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) and Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs) — used to build status, keeping Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQD) as its only qualifier for status beginning Jan. 1.

But it is raising the MQD threshold.

"The airline is bargaining the changes won't lose them many customers," Olson said. "Some people just love Delta so much that this isn't going to matter to them."

Travelers in markets like Minneapolis-St. Paul, where Delta's market share and network size is so dominant, often feel beholden to the airline.

But the continuous changes to its reward program are souring many. Patrick Cool of Edina, who currently has Platinum Medallion status that he expects to lose under the new system, will no longer fly Delta if he can find better fares on competitors.

"It's not just alienating the rank-and-file consumer," the 37-year-old said. "It's alienating people who've been exceedingly loyal to Delta for a long time."

He called Delta's changes "terrible" and asked for suggestions for a better rewards credit card in a Facebook post.

Delta argues it is offering more ways to earn. But the airline is open about its effort to reinstate exclusivity to the SkyMiles program.

"If you're going to spend more than $6,000 on Delta a year or, without spending a dollar on Delta, you'd have to spend $120,000 on your Delta SkyMiles credit card just to earn the lowest level of status with the lowest level credit card," Olson said.

Maria Bailey, a Diamond Medallion member from Pompano Beach, Fla., who spends at least $250,000 a year on her Platinum card and takes extra trips to maintain the highest status, will no longer prioritize spending on that card or flying Delta after this week's developments.

"I just feel like, as a consumer, I've been following their rules all along and anytime they make a change it's never in the customer's advantage," she said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Nick Benson hit entry-level Silver Medallion for the first time this year. The 38-year-old from Burnsville still considers Delta his first choice but has decided against an extra flight this year to maintain his status.

"I never got an upgrade to the more comfortable seats or first class," he said. "It wasn't what I was hoping it would be."

The 2024 MQDs needed to earn 2025 status are:

  • $6,000 for Silver Medallion (up from $3,000)
  • $12,000 for Gold Medallion (up from $8,000)
  • $18,000 for Platinum Medallion (up from $12,000)
  • $35,000 for Diamond Medallion (up from $20,000)