I’ve been loving American Airlines as a customer since doing their Executive Platinum challenge as part of the oneworld MegaDO. American’s 100,000 mile flyers are truly top tier, in contrast to at United where it’s just mid-tier and the real top elite level is Global Services. American’s top elites clear their upgrades, their international confirmed upgrade instruments are valid from any fare, and the lounges are nicer (albeit with less free food). And onboard wireless internet has changed my life.

American miles are also currently my favorite mileage currency, since my own goal is international first class awards — Star Alliance first class awards have gotten really tough, especially for a North American-based flyer who doesn’t want to fly United‘s first class. While first class awards with American miles are quite doable — Etihad (and I’m excited they’ll be adding Washington DC service next year), Cathay Pacific, British Airways (albeit with fuel surcharges), and even the occasional Qantas A380 seat. And of course American’s award availability to South America in first class is excellent, even if the first class product itself is dated.

American may be improving its product and making real investments geared towards the premium traveler. But there’s one area where it seems to me that they’re really kicking their customers in the shins.

Award Wallet. And of course other services that help you track your miles and points, as well.

American sent legal nastygrams to the online services that help their members track their miles and points, saying that those services were not permitted to access their site on behalf of others and could not store member passwords.

American claims that security was a major issue, they weren’t ok with a third party site storing member passwords and having access to those passwords to access member accounts. Of course, they continued to let Points.com do exactly that. American said they were confident in Points.com’s security, but of course Award Wallet is also a Points.com partner, and that partnership didn’t raise security flags for American… The story didn’t hold together for me.

Award Wallet developed a browser plug-in so that their website and servers would never have to contact American’s. Members entered their own passwords into their browser, and their own browser accessed American’s website to check member account information. The information was all stored on the member’s computer, and not passed through to Award Wallet’s servers. That seemed like it would be the end of the objection — no more sharing passwords with a third party, no more third party access of American’s website, their stated concerns would appear to have been met.

Unless the stated concerns weren’t the real concerns, I’ve imagined it was more about control over the product and customer experience than about security. If American’s members don’t go to American’s website, then American’s members can’t be sold ancillary products and services and can’t otherwise be marketed to through that channel. And American likely believes Award Wallet means fewer eyeballs for them.

Award Wallet now reports that due to American’s objections, they’re having to withdraw the browser plugin. Here’s the Award Wallet announcement:

We regret to inform you that we will be discontinuing support for the AwardWallet browser extension on February 25, 2012. This means that you will no longer be able to track your American Airlines related information (balance, status, etc.) on AwardWallet.com.

 We have been forced to take this action by American Airlines’ stance toward AwardWallet. We created the browser extension in order to address American Airlines’ concern that AwardWallet was collecting customers’ mileage data. We believe the extension addressed this concern because it simply collected your mileage data and stored it locally on your computer. American Airlines, however, objects to the extension. It’s position appears to be that AwardWallet is prohibited from providing any software tool that facilitates the ability to track the customer’s American Airlines’ mileage information. We think this is unfortunate.

I reached out to American, and their spokesperson got back to me within the hour. I wanted to know from their perspective why they were doing this, and if they thought there was a benefit to their customers. They described their position as upholding American’s

…long-held stance on how third-party websites access proprietary AAdvantage member details… Because travelers’ AAdvantage account numbers and passwords can be used to claim AAdvantage mileage awards out of their accounts and access personal details, American will always protect this information.

We simply cannot permit websites that have not satisfied our security requirements the access needed to track AAdvantage balances or any other function that is otherwise secured behind AA.com login credentials.

I did seek more information on exactly why Award Wallet’s browser plug-in wasn’t acceptable, but didn’t get very far with that line of questioning.

Nevertheless, American did say that they’re “in the process of qualifying a number of other mileage tracker websites.”

Now, if true it could well prove that they really do have security concerns. And that my sense that their stance is anti-customer is wrong.

Time will tell, because they wouldn’t say which websites or offer any sort of timeline for members to be able to use third party sites other than Points.com (which I do not find to in any way be a reasonable substitute for Award Wallet).

By shutting down website access to AAdvantage accounts that their members want to use pits the airline at war not with Award Wallet but with their own customers. Award Wallet actually helps to engage customers and reinforce the value of AAdvantage miles.

Members use Award Wallet and track their miles obsessively, they watch their balances grow and identify small changes in their account balances which allows them to follow up on missing points. I know that Award Wallet draws me to the AAdvantage website fare more often than I would otherwise go — every time there’s a change in my balance I log in to see the details. Each and every transaction is more valuable with AAdvantage when it’s easily tracked.

And AwardWallet keeps members engaged, MommyPoints observes that this is especially tough for families but AwardWallet lets you track multiple accounts on a single page and since its premium membership (a whopping $5 every 6 months) also displays expiration dates right next to account balances it helps prevent customers from falling away from the program.

Ultimately any product or service that makes it easier for customers to be customers is a good thing for both sides. Making your customers’ lives more difficult, making it harder for them to engage with you, raising the transaction costs of being an engaged member cannot be a long-term profit-maximizing strategy.

In fact, mileage programs that you can conveniently track in one place, whose expiration dates are easy to see there, and where balance changes are seen on a simple basis become that much more valuable. The easier a program is to engage with, in the way that you want to engage with them, the more valuable their currency and better the relationship you have with them. Award Wallet is a relationship tool that enhances the loyalty between program and member.

If indeed they’re “in the process of qualifying a number of other mileage tracker websites” then they’d better hurry up. And I’d hope that they would be open to ‘qualifying’ the ones that consumers actually find most useful.

  1. John said,

    Well said, very disappointed with american Airlines:(

  2. WillRunForMiles (katstarr) said,

    I got the email too. Thanks for making “sense” of it for me.

  3. Michael W said,

    I made a post on my blog yesterday about the AA/Award Wallet issue. Soon after the PR representative for AA sent me an e-mail with American’s perspective. It was nice that AA reached out as it is always good to hear both sides to a story.

    If security is a real issue then I thank AA for making sure they got removed from Award Wallet. I just wonder why security is not an issue for the other airlines!

    I sent a few questions back to the AA rep which could not be answered. The info e-mailed to me was all they could provide…

  4. super bob said,

    I wonder how AA’s partners will fare? My (very large extended) family uses the Citi line of AA credit cards exclusively – 20+ people earning over a million miles annually.

    So you say United is OK with AwardWallet AND doesn’t impose fuel surcharges? Don’t they have a Chase card?

  5. Phil said,

    This IMHO is just poor form from AA trying to force traffic to their clunky and awful web site. I do not think they give a monkeys do do about security but let’s see if they do start approving things going forward

    Never mind that though you’ve gotten me all excited about ey coming to dc. And with three class service no less! I see lots of f availability via AA/ana in my crystal ball!

  6. Ian said,

    It is great AA is reaching out to “our” community with at least some sort of, albeit scripted, response as to their decision regarding Award Wallet. Is this really a secuirity concern though? Maybe, maybe not.
    I have both law enforcement experience as well as some IT security sales experience and it’s not quite clear to me. I think AA should go a little further in explaining what the security issue is (doesn’t need to be in great deal).

    Surely AA should know customers raising concerns about this being disallowed are a very valuable demographic, listening to their feedback is important. I don’t know what Award Wallet’s security architecture looks like but most likely addressing AA’s concerns shouldn’t be over complicated.

    Although the Star Alliance tends to be my choice, if American is listening/reading and hops on this quickly I might go out of my way to choose them in the future ;)

  7. Jack said,

    While it is certainly deplorable what AA did- I am also very disappointed in Award Wallet caving in to them without any explanation whatsoever to its users- leaving me very uncertain over their entire business model.

  8. marc said,

    New fuel surcharges on IB partner awards (even if small), blocking Awardwallet… they devaluation hits keep coming! Eventually one of these airlines will figure it out.. no one stays loyal to a program because the programs keep devaluing. And when one airline truly decides to treat customers right, they will be the one earning true loyalty.

  9. Miguel said,

    So, didn’t anyone ask AA about the AW issue during the DO?

    Too busy drinking the kool-aid?

  10. Abby S said,

    Ugh — I love Awardwallet, especially because it allows me to track my husband’s AA miles alongside my own all in one place — but no more. I also can’t see how the browser extension, which only stores our PW and FF# on our own computer, could possibly be a legitimate security concern. Really just seems like AA is throwing unnecessary roadblocks between their loyal customers and their miles program.

    Any sense that they’re just approving miles sites that enter into some sort of marketing/remunerative agreement with them? Otherwise, I really just can’t figure it out. Even the “eyeballs” to AA.com argument doesn’t make sense, as the AW extension automatically opens our AA.com page in another window — which I then check!

  11. Alexi from AwardWallet said,

    American’s concern can’t be security. The AAdvantage number, the password, the miles and the rest of the attributes are only stored on the user’s computer. They are not transmitted to AwardWallet and AwardWallet is not accessing their website. There is zero traffic from AwardWallet to American. AwardWallet does not have *any* data as it pertains to American. So saying it is a security concern makes no sense as then you would have to disallow any type of browser access to aa.com.

  12. LarryInNYC said,

    There is no security issue here, at least with respect to the browser extension.

    This is a terrible decision and will be costly for the airline. I manage the frequent flier accounts for my wife and two children as well as for myself and each transaction with the airline is now likely to result in at least one phone call which will have to be handled by a human being.

    I don’t know whether it’s corporate spite (against Award Wallet for not knuckling under to begin with), an inability to understand how the browser extension works, a sense that somehow having me visit the web site to check my miles (which I’ll do by phone, anyway) is going to result in my buying something, the sense that with less ability to see my miles I’m more likely to let them expire, or whatever.

    But I don’t see this, ultimately, as an assault on Award Wallet. I see it as an assault on my ability to manage and redeem my frequent flier miles in favor of American’s attempt to squeeze every last dime out of me.

  13. Linda said,

    I use MileBlaster and American disappeared from their mileage tracker site on the same day!

  14. Crissy said,

    As I wrote to AA. I live in NYC, I have a lot of choices in airlines. Decisions like this make it easier to choose another airline to fly with.

    I think their line that it’s a security issue is made up.

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  19. Jonathan Meiri said,

    Hi All,

    FYI – Superfly.com supports all major US airlines including AA, UA, DL, US via Superbox.

    Pls send any feedback,

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    […] the past two years first American, then Delta, and finally United stopped AwardWallet from tracking member account balances on their […]

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