Delta SkyClub: Hitting the bottom shelf

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.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
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.

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