Delta's New Elite Status System Adds a Credit Card Incentive

By Cathleen

Dear Cashing In,

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I live in Memphis, a hub city for Delta Airlines, and fly a lot to Atlanta, another major Delta hub. Delta isn't the only airline I fly, but I'd like the perks of elite status and it seems to make sense to build loyalty there, if I have to pick one. The SkyMiles program doesn't seem like the best deal out there, but I like Delta's airport lounges and free Wi-Fi. Right now I'm at Silver elite status on Delta, and I'd like to get higher. I'm considering the Delta credit card. It seems like a big commitment, but maybe the best way to climb the elite ladder. What do you think? 

- Jose

Dear Jose,

Before you commit, you should know the game just changed significantly with Delta SkyMiles and the Delta American Express card. The airline has announced that it's unveiling new status requirements for customers who reside in the U.S. If you're planning to get the card anyway and Delta is your first choice in airline loyalty, this may not be all bad. But getting to that higher status via credit card may require some serious spending.

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Starting in 2014, Delta is shifting to a revenue-based system for its SkyMiles Medallion program. That means that in addition to the miles or flight segments you now need to fly to earn elite status, you will also need to spend a certain amount of money on tickets to qualify for status in the 2015 Medallion program.

Earning Silver status -- the base level you're at now -- will require $2,500 in Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) as well as 25,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) or 30 Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs). If you want to get to Gold level, it's 5,000 MQDs plus your choice of 50,000 qualifying miles or 60 qualifying flight segments. Platinum requires 7,500 MQDs with either 75,000 MQMs or 100 qualifying segments. Diamond, the highest status, requires a whopping $12,500 spent on Delta and 125,000 MQMs or 140 segments.

Medallion Qualifying Dollars are accrued on base fare and surcharges but not taxes. Delta posted an FAQ page on the changes. Note that while flights on any of Delta's partner airlines count toward the mileage requirement, only flights on Delta or partner flights ticketed through a Delta channel count toward the spending minimum.

Here's where that credit card comes in. That new MQD requirement will be waived for customers with a Delta SkyMiles American Express card -- if they make $25,000 in eligible purchases using their card that year. That's a big commitment to a credit card. If you don't mind putting all your spending effort into a co-branded credit card, then you could make this work for you, but if you're already having doubts about the SkyMiles program and doing a significant amount of flying on other airlines, you may want to give it some thought.

Why is Delta making the change? "Adding a revenue component to the SkyMiles Medallion program ensures that our most valued customers receive the best program benefits and a more exclusive experience," said Jeff Robertson, vice president of SkyMiles in an official statement. This sounds like the airline is moving its focus to the big spenders and premium fliers, possibly at the expense of everyone else.

I'm assuming that since you're at Silver now, you're aiming at Gold or even Platinum. Until now, it's been relatively easy to get elite-qualifying miles on Delta, compared to other airlines, without flying. Delta gave away enough in AmEx sign-up bonuses to earn base-level status in one fell swoop during certain promotions in 2012. Maybe the airline  overdid it, ending up with too many infrequent flier elite members, and is trying to shift the balance -- food for thought.

See related: Airlines launch slew of elite-level perks for frequent fliers, Your credit card can make you elite , Want elite miles from your card? Be sure to shop around