Ask Randy: What will happen to frequent-flier miles in the Delta-Northwest merger?

— -- These are tumultuous times for frequent fliers, as struggling airlines continue to add new fees and restrictions to their loyalty programs. So we've invited frequent-flier expert Randy Petersen to take your queries and offer advice on how to make the most of your miles. Join him in his ongoing forum to post one of your own or help answer a question from a fellow reader.

So far every regulatory agency and even the shareholders of these two airlines have signed off on the Delta-Northwest merger, and it is expected the last approval necessary — the Department of Justice — will not see anything that hasn't already been addressed. So, with this much work done so far, it is likely that it will happen by the end of the year and since I've seen some comments by a few "travel experts" who seem to think the sky will fall in, I thought I'd save you from that misinformation and give you a recap of these two frequent-flier programs and some viewpoints which we'll update as we get closer.


Since 2003, these two airlines have shared a partnership in not only a domestic alliance of their two programs, but an international alliance as well in SkyTeam. Philosophically, SkyMiles has changed more over the years than WorldPerks, with WorldPerks having long been seen as lenient on upgrades and offering other imaginative promotional efforts. So let's compare these two programs.

There will be some change, but let's be clear, these two airlines already share 95% or so of their frequent-flier programs so there really won't be much change for you to worry about, but just in case, let's read about the differences:

Expiration of miles

For SkyMiles members, accounts with no activity for 12 consecutive months after enrollment will be deleted and after that period, miles will expire after 24 months unless there is some activity in the account, including earning miles not only from Delta flights but from earning miles with program partners, redeeming miles for an award or buying miles from Delta.

WorldPerks rules for expiring miles are a bit more murky, though more positive: WorldPerks miles have no expiration date. However, consistent with the general terms and conditions of the WorldPerks program, Northwest Airlines reserves the right to change the WorldPerks program at any time without notice, including imposition of expiration limits or reactivation fees. If a WorldPerks member's account does not have any mileage-earning or redemption activity within three consecutive years, the account is subject to termination, including forfeiture of all accrued mileage. See what I mean by "murky"?

Bottom line: Should this merger come to pass I believe that the combined program will include the language that governs the SkyMiles program. Not a real loss to WorldPerks members, and melting WorldPerks miles into a SkyMiles account will count as activity so everyone who has the two types of miles can be guaranteed at least two years before the mileage police come knocking at your door.


While I find it unfortunate that this part of frequent-flier programs is even an issue, it is a reality that the convenience of redemption is not a free ride.

If you wish to redeposit your awards, you can do so for $25/$50 ( if a WorldPerks member and for $75 if a SkyMiles member, although Platinum members of both programs escape this fee.

Roughly all other fees are similar including government- and airport-imposed fees such as the Federal Excise Tax, PFCs, September 11th Security Fee and International Air Transportation Taxes. However, SkyMiles does nick members in a day and age of "e-tickets" — $75 per ticket for award redemption 20 days or less from departure (Platinum Medallions are exempt from this fee). Our best guess here? Show them the money. This means sticker shock for WorldPerks members.

And I'll be a gentle as I can but on the issue of fuel surcharges for awards, I am not convinced it will be party time. I think that Delta will continue these fees for incoming Northwest members but maybe, and that's a small chance, they will void them for elite members. There's still a chance that some members will want to move with Continental to the Star Alliance and this fee is less an issue over at Continental right now. But, it will likely be a merger-time decision as I've not heard a peep from Atlanta or Minneapolis about it as of yet.


When it comes to awards, there are distinct differences, such as WorldPerks requiring a Saturday-night stay with most PerkSaver awards (domestic flights) and SkyMiles offering a new Pay with Miles option. Of course, I'm pretty partial to the mixed one-way awards (PerkChoice) that Northwest recently introduced, which allows members to mix one-way awards with money, while SkyMiles members can mix coach and first class awards one-way for better award availability.

There is likely no other merger that could offer the breadth of award redemptions as these two programs. Northwest might have a slight edge since they would probably continue their popular Cash & Miles options that SkyMiles members do not have. Overall, a few mileage redemption levels here and there are different such as Delta's biz to Europe at 90,000 miles vs. 100,000 for either biz or first class in the Northwest program, but the programs' award redemption charts match up for the most part.

As for award redemption, both programs have above-average reputations for redemption. In 2006 (last year of available statistics prior to bankruptcy), Northwest flew 9.3% of their passengers on awards while Delta flew approximately 9.1% of their passengers on awards. The industry average is 7.2% of passengers flying on awards.

Read more about the effects of the Delta-Northwest merger on frequent-flier miles in Randy Petersen's special " Help Desk" forum.