ATLANTA — Delta Air Lines is changing its frequent-flier program to favor passengers who buy the priciest tickets instead of those who fly the most miles.
It is a bid to attract higher-spending business travelers, who often book flights on short notice and pay more than bargain-hunting leisure travelers.
Beginning next year, Delta will base miles toward free flights on the amount that passengers spend on tickets. Currently, members of its SkyMiles program earn miles based on how far they fly — it does not matter whether they bought an expensive first-class seat or the cheapest ticket in economy.
Delta will become the biggest US airline to make such a change. American and United are likely to watch to see how travelers respond.
Wednesday’s announcement was not a total surprise.
A year ago, it announced that starting in 2014 passengers would need to spend at least $2,500 to qualify for the lowest level of elite frequent- flier status, which carries perks such as free upgrades and a waiver from bag fees. Before that, they could qualify on miles alone. United quickly matched Delta’s change.
Virgin America and JetBlue Airways Corp.’s ‘‘True Blue’’ frequent-flier program award points based on dollars spent, not miles flown. Southwest Airlines Co., which carries more passengers within the United States than any other airline, overhauled its Rapid Rewards program in 2011 to award free tickets based on money spent, not trips taken. It seems to be paying off; a spokeswoman said the changes boosted Southwest revenue by $180 million in 2012 and an additional $100 million last year.
The move by an airline the size of Delta, with its international routes and important corporate customers, adds to a more fundamental trend in air travel — attracting big-bucks travelers with better seats, fancier meals in first class, and VIP treatment at the airport.
‘‘If you’re a corporate traveler, the IBM guy, this is good for you,’’ Randy Petersen, editor of InsideFlyer magazine, which tracks the airline-loyalty business, said. ‘‘The infrequent traveler clearly is the loser here. Frequent-flier programs are no longer for them at all.’’
Some leisure travelers wasted no time complaining on social media. The same thing happened at Southwest. But if United and American follow Delta’s lead, ‘‘there’s not much a consumer can do,’’ Petersen said. ‘‘Where are you going to go?’’
That is the dilemma facing Ben Holcomb, who works in information technology in Norman, Okla. He said he has earned seven or eight free trips in the past couple of years and climbed to Gold Medallion elite status on Delta by racking up miles with bargain-fare leisure trips. ‘‘The days of being able to do that are numbered,’’ he said.
Holcomb said he understood why Delta decided to change its program, but added, ‘‘It really leaves no incentive to fly with Delta unless they have a better price.’’