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Frequent flyers who like to pick their seats may need to shell out more miles for their next award ticket.
Delta Air Lines has been quietly offering its most restrictive tickets to loyal travelers on some routes. Since last month, Delta has been offering SkyMiles members no-frills basic economy award tickets, along side those for standard coach class and first or business class. Passengers booked in basic economy are barred from making changes to their tickets and from selecting a seat ahead of time, and also board last.
Delta was the first among the three biggest U.S. airlines to offer basic economy fares in 2012. American Airlines and United Airlines rolled out their own versions of the bare-bones fares last year. Executives have not been shy that they measure the success of this fare class by how many passengers book the higher fare to avoid the basic economy restrictions.
The frequent-flyer miles required for a free ticket varies by route and demand, but a search for Dec. 14-21 trip from Detroit to Charleston, South Carolina, was 47,000 Skymiles in basic economy and 50,500 for a regular coach ticket.
"It seems like a really risky move," said Gary Leff, a travel and loyalty program specialist who noted the new offering in his View from the Wing blog. A ticket purchased with miles is "supposed to be an experience, not a pain."
If the SkyMiles member chooses the basic economy award ticket on Delta's website, a window pops up reminding the loyalty program member of the basic economy restrictions, much like it does if the traveler simply bought the ticket.
Delta is currently presenting the basic economy option on nonstop and connecting flights from Minneapolis to Phoenix and flights to and from Charleston from within the U.S. and Canada.
"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," Delta said in a statement. "As a part of this effort, we are testing the ability for customers to use miles for Basic Economy tickets on select flights."
Delta declined to say whether it plans to offer basic economy award tickets more broadly.
Delta also allows use of frequent-flyers mileage to book into its premium economy class, which it offers on certain international flights and comes with more legroom, an amenities kit and more dining options.
United, which started selling premium economy seats this week, also allows members of its MileagePlus program to use miles toward that class but does not offer travelers seats in its restrictive basic economy class if they're using miles. American does not offer basic economy fares to members of its Aadvantage frequent flyer program and it is planning to allow travelers to use miles toward premium economy tickets in the future but it has not specified a date.