Background info. You can skip down a few paragraphs if all you want to know about is the mileage opportunity: As you may know, most major airlines operate on the “hub and spoke” system. In other words, if you want to fly to A to B, just about any major airline will be able to get you there, but you’ll likely have to connect in that airline’s “hub,” which is a city that the airline dominates. Delta’s major cities are Atlanta, Detroit and Minneapolis (among others) so, for instance, a passenger traveling on Delta from Boston to Los Angeles would likely have to connect in one of those cities. United controls Chicago, Newark and San Francisco (again, among others), while American has a significant presence in Dallas, Chicago and Miami.
It’s rare that a major carrier invades another carrier’s hub. It’s an uphill battle to win business anywhere, but to challenge an airline on its own turf, where it has a loyal customer base, all its resources and a ridiculous number of flights is costly and almost never works.
Which is why it is so interesting to see Delta’s assault on Seattle, an Alaska Air hub. Alaska Air is known as the prostitute of the airline industry: It’s not in a monogamous alliance but has partnerships with just about everyone, including Delta. Delta lacks its own true presence on the west coast, although it did just announce a Los Angeles-San Francisco shuttle, similar to its east coast product.
Delta figures that its size and financial strength will allow it to win share from Alaska in Seattle, but I don’t think the battle will be particularly easy. First, Alaska Air is well known for its high quality service and ability to connect passengers in Seattle. Delta won’t have those same advantages. Likewise, Alaska Air has a very profitable business flying people between the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Nobody else could put up the infrastructure to challenge Alaska Air on these routes. So be prepared for a very interesting fight. And when airlines have large turf wars, they buy off their customers with mileage opportunities.
The Mileage Opportunities
Alaska Air: Sign up here to earn double miles and double elite status miles (known as elite qualifying miles) for travel between now and May 31, 2014 on seven routes out of Seattle. Double miles is not uncommon, but double elite qualifying miles is an excellent deal that we don’t see as often. Alaska’s deal is very similar to Delta’s (below). You must register for the deal at the deal above.
Delta Airlines: Register here. Delta’s is the most interesting of the three from my (i.e., a mileage geek’s) perspective. Delta is offering double miles and elite status (known on Delta as Medallion Qualifying Miles) miles to six cities out of Seattle, including Anchorage and Portland, two Alaska Air strongholds. Interestingly, Alaska Air did not feel a need to offer doubles to either of those cities, indicating its confidence in its strength in those markets (and it’s probably right). But what also makes Delta interesting is that you must book the flights by December 31, 2013 to fly by October 31, 2014. So why is this restriction so interesting? Well, for a couple of reasons. First, booking by December 31 for flights as far out as October will appeal to leisure passengers, since business travelers tend to book closer to the date they fly. But Delta needs the business traveler if it is going to succeed, since business travelers pay much higher fares than leisure passengers do. The double MQMs will appeal to the business travelers, but they’re not going to be in a position to earn them in 2014 if they have to book in 2013.
United Airlines: Wow, a three-some! With Alaska Air and Delta both offering bonuses into Los Angeles and San Francisco, United has been forced into defense mode to defend its turf. Since it’s playing defense and not offense, it’s offering the worst deal of the three, which you can register for here. So why is United’s deal lacking? First, you only earn double miles for redemptions, not for elite status. Second, like Delta’s you must purchase your travel before the end of the year but you have to fly by May 31. That won’t help the business travelers who will be flying next year but don’t know when. But, more importantly, the deal is only good for those booking tickets going forward. In other words, if you booked a ticket last week, before United launched its deal, you won’t get the bonus,
The Bottom Line: It’s free to register for the bonuses, so you might as well do so, even if you don’t think you will fly qualifying flights. But if the bonus is important to you, be sure you understand all the restrictions.
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