March 27, 2013 at 9:31 AM ET
Attention Delta Skymiles members: Better make good use of your account during your lifetime, because when you expire so will all your miles.
In a move that’s upsetting some of the airline’s frequent fliers, the carrier no longer allows the transfer of miles when a member dies, a change that quietly went into effect last week. Delta’s previous policy allowed members to leave the miles they had accumulated to family and friends.
The reversal prompted backlash online, with the blog LoyaltyLobby calling it a “sleazy way” for Delta to try to retire more of its miles and dozens of people signing an online petition, titled “Delta: don’t steal my miles when I die!”
Christopher Friese, a frequent flier who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., is among those names. He holds platinum status with Delta and said he was shocked by the policy change.
“Many people who travel frequently, the road warriors, they’re simply too busy to use the miles. So many of them bank them for their family, their friends and in many cases survivors,” Friese told NBC News.
“Essentially Delta is saying, hit the delete button.”
Friese now tries to book as many flights as he can with other airlines and he makes sure he uses his Skymiles right away, he said.
Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com, was not surprised travelers are angry.
“Earning frequent flier miles in the minds of most people is akin to earning money and the idea that your miles -- or your money, for that matter -- would simply disappear when you die strikes a profoundly disturbing note in the minds of many,” Winship told NBC News.
Delta countered that the benefits of SkyMiles are intended to reward those who participate in the program directly. They are the ones who demonstrate their loyalty to the airline, said Delta spokeswoman Chris Kelly Singley, in a statement.
She added that the policy change was made after careful review.
"We are the only airline whose miles do not expire, so our customers have the ability to enjoy using miles without the risk of ever losing them," Singley said.
"In order to offer this unique benefit, some other, lesser-used policies were examined and determined not to have as much value to our members."
Delta is not alone in having a policy that forbids the transfer of miles upon a member’s death. United, Southwest and JetBlue already have similar rules in place.
Carriers that still allow members to leave their miles to family and friends include US Airways, Alaska and American Airlines, which says it may credit accrued mileage “to persons specifically identified in court approved divorce decrees and wills.”
Winship said Delta’s policy change is likely a cost-saving measure. The airline reduces the miles outstanding on its books, plus it no longer has to devote resources to the transfer process, he pointed out.
He was puzzled the carrier implemented the change without giving members much advance notice. No e-mail was sent announcing the move, Winship said, though an airline representative did write a brief post about the rule update on Flyertalk.com last week.
The change is a reminder that it’s best to use your miles sooner rather than later, Winship said.
“Allowing your miles to accumulate is a sucker’s bet,” he said.
“The lesson there is don’t allow yourself to be in a position where you’re sitting on a huge cache of frequent flier miles because tomorrow the program that you earned those miles in could make some kind of an enormous systemic change that pulls the rug out from under the value of those miles,” said Winship.