Delta's new "Bags on Time'' offer falls short of rival Alaska Air's guarantee

Who is Delta trying to fool this time? Its new "Bags on Time'' checked bag guarantee - Your luggage arrives at the carousel within 20 minutes or you get 2,500 miles - falls way short of a similar deal rival Alaska Airlines has offered since 2010.

As a battle for lucrative West Coast routes continues between the two airlines, Delta announced it will implement a checked-bag guarantee similar to Alaska's, making Delta the second major airline to offer passengers compensation for delayed bags. Compared side-by-side, however, Delta's offer comes with more strings. Here's a look at how the two compare:

What you get:  Delta awards 2,500 bonus miles to SkyMiles frequent fliers. Alaska offers 2,500 miles OR a voucher worth $25 towards a future flight. The vouchers are transferable, meaning you can pass on the credit onto someone else.

Who qualifies: Delta's guarantee applies only to members of its SkyMiles frequent flier program. With a few exceptions, Alaska compensates anyone who has paid for a flight operated by Alaska Airlines, Horizon Air or SkyWest.

How to apply: Here's my biggest beef about Delta's new rules. Delta requires that requests be submitted online within three days of a flight's arrival. The online form is then checked against the airline's tracking system which measures the minutes elapsed between the time  the aircraft door opens and bags are delivered to the baggage claim belt. Who's going to arbitrate a dispute? Do you really want to bother?

Alaska is more inclined to take customers at their word. It simply asks that passengers report delays within two hours of a flight's arrival by informing a customer service agent at the airport, contacting the airline on Twitter (@alaskaair), or calling customer service at 1-800-654-5669. I don't know about the Twitter part, but I think most of us would feel more comfortable resolving matters in person or by phone rather than filling out an online form and hitting "submit.'' 

When you see the credit: Delta says to allow up to two weeks for miles to be posted to your account. Alaska promises to post credit within three days. 

International travel: Neither guarantee applies to international travel, an especially glaring omission for Delta given its promotion of Seattle as its West Coast gateway to Asia. Alaska exempts flights to and from Mexico and between Anchorage and Dutch Harbor.

Multiple bags: Dings for both airlines here. Neither offers more than one award per passenger, no matter how many bags are checked. Both exempt oversize or "special'' bags such as golf bags, skis etc. 

Bottom line: The Department of Transportation requires airlines to refund checked bag fees for lost bags, but there is no such requirement for delayed bags. There should be. In the meantime, guarantees such as the ones Delta and Alaska offer are better than nothing. Hopefully other airlines will follow. If so, we can thank Alaska for kick-starting the competition, and setting an example on how to streamline the process in favor of the customer.  

Delta's latest catch-up move follows another recent announcement also hyped as a new benefit for SkyMiles members, albeit with a hidden take-back. This one came amid complaints about new rules requiring frequent fliers to spend at least $3,000 annually (called Medallion Qualifying Dollars or MQDs) with Delta to maintain elite status.

Delta relaxed the MQD rule, saying that customers can now earn MQDs, regardless of ticketing carrier, for travel on most of Delta's airline partners, a move which will help frequent flyers achieve Medallion status faster. The hidden take-away: Left out of the deal was Alaska Airlines. Alaska which Delta bumped down from a Group 1 partner, whose flights are eligible for full Medallion Qualifying Miles (Delta requires 25,000 annually) and now full MDQs, to Group 4 status, lumped together with the likes of bit players such as Great Lakes Airlines, Hawaiian Air, Korean Air and Westjet. No Alaska Airlines marketed flights, even if ticketed by Delta, will qualify, Delta said. The changes were effective April 1. 

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