After writing about American's problem with phantom availability on Finnair, I thought I had found more of the same tonight on Delta. Delta.com is my favorite SkyTeam search engine, so I was going to be super bummed if the award prices displayed on the 5-week calendar were no longer accurate. Turns out it's a little more complicated than that, but let me back up a little bit first and show you what I'm talking about. Here's a screen-shot of the award calendar for my search (ORD-AMS):
Delta routinely shows the lowest price available on any given day, and if any of the flights displayed above were priced at the lowest possible price, they'd be highlighted in orange. In this case, the lowest price (70,000 miles) isn't available. You get 85k, which is the lowest price for a partner award, and then 87.5k, which is Delta's "level 2" price, according to their non-existent award chart. So given that 85k is the best I'm gonna do in this particular week, I check out what's available on 4/29. Here's what I get:
Sorting by price, the best option is 137,500 miles. What gives? Where's my 85k award? Extra points if you already know what's going on here (you can skip the next few screenshots, in that case). I tried scrolling to the bottom of the page, but all the flights were over 100k.
So I skipped to the very end of the list, and there they were, chilling at the very bottom:
I tried monkeying around with other searches and other days, trying to figure out what was going on. Was Delta intentionally burying partner redemptions and trying to steer people into more costly redemption on Delta? Whether sorting by price or by "Best Match" (which is the default sorting option), the partner flights were always at the bottom.
It took me a minute, but I eventually got there... it's the taxes and fees! It's pretty misleading, but Delta's award calendar shows you the cheapest option in terms of miles. However, when you sort the flights by price, it sorts them based on the cash price, and since Air France charges more taxes and fees than Delta does, the Air France flights fall to the bottom. For whatever reason, "Best Match" seems to prioritize the taxes and fees above all other criteria as well. If you try sorting by duration, on the other hand, the flights will sort as expected, with the 11h5m Air France flight near the top.
I've used Delta's award search engine a lot, and I can't remember coming up against this problem before. In fact, I'm absolutely sure I've booked partner award flights through Delta.com when Delta flights were also available, and I never had to dig through the search results to find them. I don't think it's a conscious effort on Delta's part to obscure partner awards, though, since there are times when the taxes/fees on Delta are higher than on partners, and in those cases the partners come up first.
In this example, the Delta flight is the lowest fare in miles, but because it costs an extra 5 euros, it drops to second place.
One could certainly argue that Delta's "Sort by Price" option should put the flight tagged "Lowest Fare" at the top of the search results. It does seem very Delta that "fare" and "price" mean two different things on their website. Of course, the more opaque the loyalty program, the harder it is to understand the search results, the more idiosyncrasies they can cram in there... it's all toward the goal of preventing their overall customer base from wringing maximum value out of the program (while dubiously claiming to be America's favorite loyalty program). Every program toes that line between making the program attractive enough to bring in customers and not making it so attractive that it loses money, and Delta has always been aggressive on the customer-unfriendly side of that line.
In the end, at least Delta's award calendar is still accurate! Now I know that I just need to dig a little more to find the flights I want. Just Delta bein' Delta, I guess.