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Why Can’t I Use Miles on Empty Flights?

Dear Tim,

On one leg of my frequent flyer award, Delta refused to give me a seat on a plane that had sold approximately eight out of 150 seats. Since the original award required 60,000 miles they would only give me a seat on this particular flight if I used a 75,000-mile award. On another leg of this award itinerary, they would not give me a seat on a flight that left an hour later than the originally awarded flight in spite of numerous empty seats. Why would Delta refuse to give me seats on empty flights?


Dear Nick,

My best guess is there are two different issues at play here.

In the first case, where Delta charged you the price for an unrestricted award even though the plane was almost empty, the culprit was most likely Delta’s yield management system. This is the combination of software and capacity-control policies that dictates how many award seats are made available for mileage redemption on every flight. Even though the plane had many empty seats, Delta’s reservation system only allocated a set number of award seats for your flight, and those apparently had been spoken for. Therefore, you were forced to redeem more miles for a rule-buster award.

To determine why Delta wouldn’t allow you to change to a later flight on the second leg, let’s review the rules governing same-day changes. Delta’s website says:

“The same-day confirmed option allows you to change your flight time on the same day of travel for a fee of $50. To use the same-day confirmed option, you must confirm your new flight within three hours of the scheduled departure time…. You can use the same-day confirmed option for travel within the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Delta and Delta Connection flights.”

I assume you were in violation of one of the two conditions. You were trying to make the flight change outside the three-hour window, or more likely, given the number of miles required for your award ticket, your travel was outside the geographic boundaries within which such changes are allowed.

While these cases have different root causes, they share one important element in common: In both instances it was within Delta’s power to override the rule. Under the circumstances as you’ve described them, they should have done exactly that.

It never hurts to ask for an exception, reminding the airline’s service personnel that you earned your award ticket through your loyalty to Delta. But these days the airlines rarely have the time or inclination to bend the rules. So while hoping for the best, you should be expecting the worst.

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