Delta SkyClub: Hitting the bottom shelf

Delta SkyClub: Hitting the bottom shelf

Summary: With premium alcoholic beverages now an upcharge at all of the airline's $400 per year airport lounges, Delta is in a race to the bottom in treatment of its most valued customers.

(Image: Jason Perlow/ZDNet)

Technology people are often among the most heavy business travelers in the world. In my previous job at IBM, I flew about 40 weeks out of the year.

It's not often I write about topics completely out of the scope of ZDNet's core mission, but as travel and technology often intersect, and as there are few people who can place themselves in an advocacy position of a business traveler, I've decided that I'm going to put a stick in the ground with this one.

Business travelers frequently seek refuge in airline clubs, where they can find comfy chairs, clean bathrooms with showers, free Wi-Fi, complimentary snacks and most importantly, a bar amply stocked with alcoholic beverages to wind down after a long day of work or to sit out a multi-hour layover.

These airline clubs do not come cheap. Entry requires about a $400 per year membership fee, depending on the carrier and your so-called "medallion status." The American Express Platinum Card, as part of its $500 per year fee includes admission to a number of airline clubs provided you are flying that carrier that day.

I happen to use that option, because I fly different carriers as needed. If you happen to have a first class ticket on an international flight on a particular carrier, you can also usually get in for free that day.

The carrier I use most is Delta. I'm based in southern Florida, and that's the airline with the most outgoing direct flights and connections to the cities I frequently visit. I’m a regular at the Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta SkyClubs.

But since May, Delta has quietly downgraded the quality of its "complimentary" beverage offerings at all of its SkyClubs.

I first noticed this a few weeks ago when I checked in before a morning flight and asked the bartender to spike my coffee with my usual Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur. "No more Bailey's," he told me. I thought this simply meant they were out of it that day, but in actuality, Delta no longer stocks it in their SkyClubs.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

(Image: Jason Perlow/ZDNet)

At New York John F. Kennedy International Terminal 2, the SkyClub has now been transformed into one of many "Luxury Bar" concepts across the country where all the good alcohol is now a premium upcharge. Only two complimentary beers are available, Budweiser and Miller Light. Blue Moon and Heineken, which used to be complimentary offerings, are now a $3 upsell. Three or four regular table-serviceable wines are also available.

The basic hard alcohol selection now consists of Jack Daniels, Gordon's Gin & Vodka, Meyer's White Rum and a low-end whiskey. Everything else is again an upcharge.

The bartending staff at the SkyClubs I have visited have told me that these changes have extremely annoyed Delta's customers and that their gratuities have suffered as a result. People expect decent complimentary alcohol at an airline club, not the ptomaine dregs that you'd be embarrassed to serve at a business catering function.

People expect decent complimentary alcohol at an airline club, not the ptomaine dregs that you'd be embarrassed to serve at a business catering function.

There's also the very annoying issue that SkyClubs prohibit bringing food on-premises. I've never really understood this, as only simple snack items are served at the clubs, and if they actually had real food for sale, people would likely purchase them. I can't tell you how many times I’ve smuggled in a sandwich and hid in one of the business cubicles to consume it hastily, like a starving animal, shamed by my actions.

Now, I don't know what the hell Delta CEO Richard Anderson is thinking, but he and his executive team are being penny wise and pound-foolish on this one.

The people who visit SkyClubs are usually medallion customers who rack up many miles and contribute a lot of money to Delta's bottom line. Business flyers like this typically pay more for their flights because they frequently aren't booked weeks or months in advance, like vacationers. Business travelers contribute heavily to the bottom line for all airlines.

I know this sounds like a first world problem, but let me say this again — it costs $400 a year (or $50 or so per visit) to even get into a SkyClub.

The $400 will buy you over the course of a year a lot of Blue Moons and Heinekens at any airport bar venue. Most airport bathrooms are now pretty clean and serviceable, and prospect of free Wi-Fi is not that big a deal anymore considering most business travelers have smartphones with 3G or 4G service, and have the capability to tether wirelessly.

The value of a SkyClub membership, therefore, has diminished greatly.

If Delta needs to save money, then what I suggest it does is make all of the alcohol a purchase item, and substantially lower the membership fees, to the tune of $200-$250 a year. After all, there are many people that do not drink. And offer some decent food, you C-seat stingy fat cats.

Has Delta's alcoholic beverage downgrade at its SkyClubs got you steamed? Talk back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Tech Industry, 4G, E-Commerce


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Not sure

    You should be highlighting to the world (well, tech geeks) a desire for the morning tipple/pick me up......

    Just Joshing :)
    • After flying Emirates any US airline experience is poor at best.

      Even BOA, a fairly new and limited airline in South America, offers better in flight service than any US based operation.

      Deregulation in the US, has provided customers with the worst and most expensive airline service in the world.

      Whenever possible, I avoid any and all US airlines.

      Midwest was the only US airline that understood customer service.
  • WTF

    I didn't realize this was a gossip column/site, until now!
    • When we start writing about Lindsay Lohan

      I promise I'll let you know. Personally.
  • Maybe Delta is saving funds for their legal staff...

    to aid in the possible battle over the use of the word "Sky" in the name of SkyClub...
    it's confusing for travelers, they might think they are using the British Broadcasting's
    "Sky" service, especially after a few too many Baileys in their coffee!
    • Good one

      You got a vote for that.
  • Well, at least for 500 dollars a year Delta still gives you peanuts & coke

    One must be thankful for the "little" things in life, Jason. BTW, I enjoyed this blog. Bottoms-Up.
    • Are you sure it's Coca Cola "Coke",

      and not "Sam's Club" cola? Budget cutbacks and all that!
      • LMFAO

        good one. probably get their peanuts from Costco too.
        • yep

          I only fly a few times a year, and about half the time it's Delta because I can get out of my mid-size city direct. While sitting on a Delta flight with my family heading to vacation last week, the passanger next to me asked for extra complimentary cookies. Talking with the stewardess, we found they were the same cookies as from Wal-mart, just packaged with Delta branding.

          Customer service on airlines just is terrible. Glad I don't have to fly for a living.
  • I agree

    The real annoyance is when considering the actual math involved. Purchased at restaurant rates, a no-brand 1.75L of Vodka (just for example) is maybe $10, while decent stuff is more like $35.

    For 40 shots, that's a premium of 63 cents a shot. That's practically the definition of penny-ante, and even more so when the whole enterprise is being marketed as a premium service.

    When you get really cheap, people notice, and they don't like it. I stopped going to an otherwise favorite venue earlier this year because the drinks were so weak (and lousy), even after I bitc*ed about it. They were saving a few pennies a drink on what they served me, and now I don't go at all. Idiots.

    Why not just raise the member fee to $450 per year? The extra $50 will cover the incremental cost of the first 80 shots of Kettle One. Most folks wouldn't get too upset at the increase, and it would keep them from getting pi**sed when Delta tries to nickle and dime them at the bar.
    • They raised the fees too...

      Here's the kicker - they DID just raise the fees by $50 in March, right before the changes were rolled out in May. Raised the fees, made announcements about how the rates were going up so be sure to renew now at the lower rate, then cut the offerings...
  • American airlines suck, simple fact

    The Big three of airlines, Delta, AA, United; pretty much all suck. They've lost all touch of reality with their customers. it seems 10 tiers of mileage plans before mortals can board, and way too many restrictions to use your points.

    However, Southwest can board and deboard a plane in 15min. Their points program was pretty simple back in the day, and great for west coast travelers. Virgin America has swanky planes, and good looking staff, though their friendliness has dropped off in recent years. JetBlue and Frontier are still good and solid, as is Alaskan to some degree.

    However, jump to any other airlines that is based out of Asia or Europe, and generally there is a 3-10x improvement in service, quality of amenities, and staff appearance.

    I loath companies like Delta.
    • this bad???

      I never realized it was this bad having never flown in the US for many many years.
      I'll stick to asia (CX, SIA and others) who are in a different and real world.
  • Thank you Jason!

    Thanks for articulating what I've long felt about the recent downgrades at Delta's Skyclubs. These downgrades and the minimum spend requirements for the Medallion program effective 2014 are driving me to their competitors' frequent flier programs and lounges.
  • Drugs Just Leave You Feeling Worse After Your Journey

    Yes, ethanol is a drug.
  • Jack Daniels is now ptomaine?

    Though I do prefer George Dickel myself.
  • Flying has become a thoroughly miserable experience

    No amount of business upgrading can fix it anymore.
    • Not sure I buy that.

      Air travel can definitely be a drag, but Virgin American & Jet Blue keep it palatable. Even United's Premium Service flights are acceptable.
      • Even in those instances where the airline

        Remains tolerable (like Canada's delightful Porter), the security theatre, the terrible gate scheduling, and congestion adds enough misery to sour it anyways.