Delta Terminates Frequent Flier’s Account: Was It ‘Right?’

In the news this week is a story about Lynn Harrell, a world-renowned cellist, whose Delta Air Lines SkyMiles account was terminated for a violation of program rules.

For years, Harrell traveled the world and always bought a second seat for his cello under the name of HARRELL/CELLO. The cello even had a SkyMiles account, created by Harrell’s travel agent 15 years ago. And both Harrell and his cello earned and burned miles on Delta until January this year, at which time he received a termination notice.

Harrell posted the letter he received from SkyMiles on his blog, which states:

During a recent review, it has come to our attention that you have continued to earn miles for your cello even after you were advised in 2001 that this was not permitted. Per the terms and conditions of the SkyMiles program, mileage credit is not awarded for tickets purchased for musical instruments. Therefore, SkyMiles account 4XXXXXXXXX has been closed.

On his blog, Harrell says his travel agent never received the original warning in 2001. But he told that he either just forgot about it or never saw it when his secretary handled the correspondence. Besides that discrepancy, what is simply amazing is that it took Delta until January this year to catch the ongoing violation.

Each airline’s frequent flier program has its own T&Cs, but all do have the right to terminate a member’s account. And while no one really does, members are supposed to read and understand those rules. Here’s Delta’s language:

Delta reserves the right to terminate your membership in the SkyMiles program at any time if you violate the SkyMiles program rules, any term or condition of Delta’s contract of carriage, Delta’s fare rules, or any other Delta rules and regulations that apply to your travel. Termination of your membership will result in a loss of all accumulated mileage credit in your account, the cancellation of any unused Awards, and the loss of all other SkyMiles benefits. Terminated members are not eligible to participate in any aspect of the SkyMiles program, including without limitation any special promotions or SkyMiles partner offers. In lieu of termination, Delta may at its sole discretion deduct mileage from your account but permit you to continue participating in the SkyMiles program.

I agree with Harrell that Delta could have processed this audit in a more timely fashion, but will side with Delta on the termination for the simple fact that they have the right to do so.

Was it the nice thing to do? No. They could have taken the less-harsh approach in their policy and simply terminated the cello account and deducted any mileage used from that account from Harrell. But they went the fully punitive route and terminated both accounts, barring Harrell from participating in SkyMiles in the future.

Harrell’s blog post is thoughtful and worth a read, though he incorrectly states that airlines sell “customer’s miles.” They don’t take miles from people and sell them, as he claims in the comments referencing this article. They simply sell blocks of “new” miles to credit card companies and other partners who then give them to members for completing some type of transaction.

If I were the auditor, I probably would have bestowed the less harsh punishment given the volume of business Harrell (and his cello) seemingly gave Delta over the years. With the media exposure Harrell has received, I’ll be curious to read if Delta reopens his case.

What’s your opinion?



  1. Absolute and complete B.S.

    Nevermind the fact that if he was buying seats for his cello (my father is also a cellist and does this occasionally) he should have been able to collect miles for those flown miles. But to terminate BOTH accounts is just criminal (I know it isn’t, but you get my point).

    Harrell should make a huge PR stink for DL, I hope they take one on the chin for this.

  2. Delta is that desperate that they can’t afford a few skymiles rather than all the bad pr they will get?

    Someone at delta will get some real heat over this before its
    settled .

  3. Just forwarded this story to everyone on my email list and posted it on Facebook under the heading: Reasons Not to Fly Delta

    If an extra seat was paid for, then he is entitled to the miles. If Delta’s rules says that he is not, then its rules are wrong–plain and simple.

    What an incredibly stupid decision from a PR perspective… the few dollars they save will be lost a hundred fold through ill will and fewer bookings.

  4. If he’s paying for the seat and the Cello is sitting in it, I see no reason why the Cello can’t have a Skymiles account, particularly if it was burning the miles for itself.

    Uugghh DL……..

  5. I wonder how many points he had at the notice time vs at the end. I’ll bet Delta profited by his continued flights, and by taking more points than they would have at the beginning. In a lot of law you can lose your rights if you don’t excercise them in a timely manner

    Sounds they had thier cake and ate it too.

    I’ve stayed away from Delta for a while and now I lknow I won’t fly them again.

  6. I think they are right in canceling the account and apparently gave him plenty of warning. Just wait until they find out about the cellos credit card and lounge membership.

  7. Great story! Not sure which party I’d side. It does sound a bit ridiculos that a cello earned miles though.
    I just want to know:
    Is he allowed to fly with a lap cello as another option?
    Do cellos get a meal & beverage?

  8. Delta should ban this man from Skymiles for life. He probably used award miles from his instrument to visit Fiji. That would’ve made this article more interesting.

  9. The only “fair” response would have been to terminate the cello’s account, and let the human keep his account. If I were him, I certainly would never fly Delta again (presumably Delta prefers that decision).

  10. I think Delta is mostly in the wrong. First, I think that he should be able to earn the miles for the cello. He paid for the seat. So what if it is occupied by an instrument? Delta of course can set whatever rules it wants but really it makes no sense. They are not being cheated out of anything. Second, Delta was aware that the cello had a Skymiles account. Why did they not just terminate the cello account back in 2001? They were aware of it and did nothing except write him a letter and put the onus on him to cancel the account. From his response I believe he was aware of the 2001 letter. Delta did nothing so he just kept doing what he had been doing. It does not sound like he was being sneaky at all and again the seats were paid for so I think Delta’s response was over the top. They sat on it for over 10 years and did nothing about it and now suddenly someone finds the file behind the copy machine and gets nasty about it.

  11. This guy got what he deserved. You can make the argument that after such a long interval, another warning was appropriate, but he was told what he was doing was against the rules and kept on doing it for 10 YEARS. I don’t feel the least bit sorry for this guy, and I don’t think anyone else should, either.

  12. @nonsosmart: Yep, terminating both accounts was harsh.
    @Mikey @Mofessor: It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the negative PR.
    @The Weekly Flyer: Valid point.
    @Carl: I’d be curious to know the point acclamation, too, on the cello account.
    @Matt: Ha! “Mr. Cello, you’ve been upgraded.”
    @Michael W. Travels: I was once asked to move from my bulkhead seat on United to accommodate a pax and his cello. He only needed the one seat (this was 1998, though).
    @Jon: I’m with you.
    @joe: Yep, we only have this info third/fourth-hand.
    @Dan: The enormous delay in terminating the account(s) is absolutely ridiculous on Delta’s part. They should reconsider their stance for just this reason.

  13. Oh Delta… you are so petty and pathetic. What does it matter to you if a human sits in the seat of a piece of wood? The money was paid either way.

    This just confirms that DL remains a horrible airline at its core

  14. Delta Skypesos are almost worthless nowadays anyways, so this is a really odd move by Delta. The negative PR is not going to help the cause and the fact that the cello was in a paid seat I see no reason why it should not have been able to collect a separate mileage balance. Penny wise, pound foolish Delta.

  15. I have never known Delta to do the right thing and this confirms my opinion. Worst frequent flyer program in the USA.

  16. Edward Ross says:
    November 15, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    “I have never known Delta to do the right thing and this confirms my opinion. Worst frequent flyer program in the USA”


  17. Can’t believe Delta did this. If I were that guy, I won’t fly Delta again.

    And why can’t the cello get miles? Unless they give it a discount for being an inanimate object, I just don’t see why they are fussing about it.

  18. This is so lame. The cello was a good paying customer – never once complained, never held up fellow passengers trying to stuff an oversized bags in the luggage bin, and never disobeyed the attendants by trying to keep talking on its cell phone.

    The cellos should start a boycott of Delta. How dare Delta discriminate against persons of dark wood color!

  19. Yet another reason why not to fly Delta. Useless. Complete lack of common sense. Harrel is big time, he probably spends more money flying per year than the entire value of his terminated mileage account. Stupid beyond belief…

  20. @AlohaDaveKennedy It could also be an entertaining option for your in flight entertainment if the cello was playing some harminous tune

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.