The Best and Worst Features of American Airlines

Now that I’ve flown enough to re-qualify for American’s Executive Platinum status for next year, I figure I’m in a position to express an opinion on my biggest likes and dislikes about the airline and its AAdvantage frequent flyer program.

There Are a Few of My Favorite Things:

  • Gogo inflight internet. Delta has this too, and with even somewhat better fleet penetration. But compared to United and US Airways it’s incredible. Inflight internet has changed my life. I’d unplug on the flight and be desperately behind when I landed, with urgent messages to answer and calls to return. My flight time is now much more productive time. It’s why even the laggard carriers are getting on board with internet — not because usage fees will cover the costs of installation, but because it’s so crucial that customers are actually booking away from airlines that don’t offer it, costing ticket revenue.

  • Complimentary ‘buy on board’ meals and a cocktail when in coach. It’s long been common to get a complimentary drink chit as part of your elite kit when you’re a top tier member. And Delta prints out a coupon when checking in electronically if you don’t get the upgrade. Not only does American offer the benefit — and it is a drink and a snack item, but the snacks are actually pretty good. The sandwiches are excellent, and I really like the spiced nut mix. What’s more, no coupons involved. You’re supposed to have to show your boarding pass or elite card, I think, but I’ve never had to. Flight attendants proactively seek me out most of the time, they know I’m an Executive Platinum and they thank me for my business. Wireless internet, an exit row, a cocktail and a snack and I’m perfectly happy on a 3-hour flight even in back.

  • Consistently friendly crew. I genuinely don’t understand how they’ve seemed to have such strained labor relations and yet their employees don’t take it out on passengers, they don’t gossip about it in the galley, they always strike me as friendly, helpful, and even come across genuine most of the time in thanking me for my business. It just doesn’t feel like a battle when I step into the airport and then onto their planes.

  • Executive Platinum really is top tier. At United 100,000 mile status is really second tier behind Global Services, the invitation-only revenue-based level of the program which gets priority for upgrades and other services. American has a similar unpublished level, Concierge Key, but that’s about service and not upgrade or waitlist priority. Flying 100,000 miles with American makes you top tier. At Delta, where fare often trumps status in any case, it takes 125,000 miles to be top tier. So while 100,000 miles isn’t nothin’, it’s more rewarding to be at that level with American than with the other airlines.

  • My upgrades clear, even during the irregular operations. I suppose this is in part due to American’s 100,000 mile status being true top tier. And that they hold back some inventory until the gate, so it’s possible to be moved to a flight after a cancellation and still sit up front. Furthermore, upgrades are processed by status first and then fare comes into the picture. Full fare entry level elites don’t trump top tier elites as you find at the new United and at Delta. Long-term loyalty over buying up in a single flight (or being a government employee on a YCA fare).

  • International first class award availability. I like to accrue my miles domestically and cheaply and spend them for premium class international awards, to travel in a manner I couldn’t otherwise afford — aspirational redemptions. And currently American offers the best shot at that. United’s partners have gotten much stingier (Lufthansa first class within 14 days of departure for the most part, Swiss almost never but sometimes right before departure, ANA in Wintertime only, Asiana has an outstanding first class product but on very few routes and New York – Seoul is a very tough get). Delta doesn’t even offer international first class as a feature of the program. American on the other hand has British Airways offering outstanding availability (albeit with fuel surcharges), Cathay Pacific (with good availability and one of the best products in the sky), and Etihad (which sometimes opens their entire first class cabin – true suites with doors – to redemptions). You can even occasionally get the Qantas A380 in First.

  • Flagship Lounges. Admittedly this is unique to my situation, I’m a British Airways Gold member because BA acquired british midland where I had Gold status through flying. But oneworld top tier members get access to first class lounges when flying internationally, I could take a coach flight to Bangkok from Hong Kong and access the first class section of the Wing. When I fly domestically, though, I flash my British Airways Gold card and it gets me into American’s own first class lounges, and they serve pretty good food and booze…

  • Systemwide upgrades are good on any fare. Delta makes you buy nearly a full (“M”) fare ticket before you can be eligible for upgrade. United places fare restrictions. You pay more to play the upgrade lottery and if you don’t clear the upgrade you’ve spent more than necessary for a seat in back. An American Airlines systemwide upgrade, top tier elites get 8 per year, is valid from any pad fare.

  • Competent agents on the telephone. You’d think you would get that at other airlines and you really don’t. US Airways agents don’t know geography. Delta agents don’t know their partners or how to book seats on them. United agents are totally hit-or-miss, some are outstanding and others are at war with their customers. American’s phone agents are consistently friendly and try to help. Earlier in the month one gave me no pushback at the suggestion of putting me on a United flight when I was looking likely to misconnect, and then actually contacted American’s revenue management to open up inventory on a flight when I said I’d prefer to stay on American. Even when I was merely a Gold they managed to open up award space on a domestic segment to connect to an international trip (which was showing availability) that I wanted to book.

  • Discounts. I love applying discount promotion codes to my reservations, it’s usually possible to get 5% off when booking at AA.com. And I love double dipping with their small business program, BusinessExtrAA, some of the lowest level awards you can cash in points for are giving away Gold status to someone else and getting a year’s Admirals Club membership.

It Isn’t All Rainbows and Unicorns:

  • Same-day confirmed flight changes incur a fee even for top tier elites. Their competitors waive this fee, the $75 applies to change a flight if same-day changes are available even to their 100,000 mile flyers.

  • Cash co-pays apply for domestic mileage upgrades even for top tier elites. I dislike cash co-pays to begin with, a fee to be able to use your miles. United waives the fee for their elites who spend miles to confirm domestic upgrades. American does not. If I want to spend miles to ensure I get my upgrade, even as a 100,000 mile flyer I have to cough up $75 each way.

  • Fuel surcharges on British Airways award tickets. It used to be you couldn’t redeem miles for first class between the US and London. You could route via Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean though. And fly anywhere you wished beyond Heathrow. When they entered into their joint venture with BA the transatlantic restriction was lifted, but they began imposing fuel surcharges on all BA redemptions. An award on British Airways to Africa shot up to over $1000 cash per person when using miles. Great availability, but these are hardly ‘free’ tickets anymore. And they’ve started adding (very modest) fuel surcharges onto Iberia redemptions as well. In contrast, neither United nor US Airways adds fuel surcharges to any frequent flyer redemption ticket.

  • Award routing rules are both generous and draconian at the same time. Every city pair has a published ‘maximum permitted mileage’ that can be flown. Some programs like Aeroplan allow award passengers to exceed that amount of flying by 5%. American AAdvantage allows you to exceed the amount by a full 25%. Incredibly generous. However, the overwater carrier must have a published routing between the starting and ending cities in order to fly on an award between those two cities. If there’s no published route on, say, Etihad between Raleigh and Male then American will require you to spend extra miles to redeem the award (since it will be split up into two separate awards, e.g. Raleigh – New York – Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi – Male).

  • AAdvantage members can no longer track their accounts at AwardWallet.com. This is beyond frustrating. I manage all of my frequent flyer accounts on one page, except for my AAdvantage account. If I wasn’t an Executive Platinum I would never log into AA.com and would be pretty unengaged in the AAdvantage program as a result, despite the clearly identified upsides for award redemption. My life is much less convenient thanks to American’s decision not to permit Award Wallet to access their site or even display AAdvantage balances.

Overall the package is quite good, the positives far outweigh the negatives, and I’m happy. And re-qualified.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Great analysis, Gary. I think the telephone operators that deal with Elites are outstanding

  2. Nice article. Can you tell me how you booked flights on Etihad with AA miles? Etihad does not seem to be a Oneworld alliance member?

    Thanks

  3. This is a persuasive list. I also like that domestic awards are reasonably plentiful, and it is easily bookable online. deltas engine is broken and their saver availability is spotty. The other advantage of AA having good domestic availability is that I can use Avios to book the short flights.

    one thing I dislike about AA is their stopover rules. getting a stopover at only the gateway city is pretty limiting and not that useful. for example if I am flying mco-JFK-HKG-TPE I’d really like to spend a day or two in HKG to rest after a long international flight and see HKG. however, I cannot do that now on an AA award unless I book a oneworld award or break it up into multiple awards.

  4. Gary-
    Thanks so much for this very thorough and thoughtful post. It is really helpful to see all of this explained especially by someone like you who was a top-tier flier on UA.
    One concern I have about making the full switch from 1K to EXP is the upcoming potential merger with US/VX or some other airline. UA treated 1Ks amazingly well pre-merger. Then they merged. . .
    Although we don’t know if AA will merge or with whom, could you comment on your thoughts on how AA’s mileage program would change? My concern is getting involved with AA only to be treated terribly after a merger a year or two from now…

  5. The negatives are all really annoying, but American has always been a carrier I would give strong consideration to, except for their minimal (and eastward-facing) presence at MSP.

    It’s worth mentioning that “Somewhat” more wifi on DL is fleetwide on 2-class planes, including RJs (I guess the regionals are at 99% officially, but I’ll call it fleetwide) vs hit and miss coverage on American.

  6. Is your list ordered?

    On the pluses, I would reorder your list significantly, but I do agree with them. I think the number one benefit of Executive Platinum is the EXP desk.

    As for the negatives:

    – Free standby for elites frequently eliminates the need for same day confirmed changes. It certainly would be a nice perk.

    – I would like to see a miles only option for co-pays, but I would rather have the existing system rather than a fare class restriction on my upgrades.

    – Agreed! Fuel surcharges suck. I am looking forward to the outcome of the BA lawsuit on fuel surcharges. Certainly it should never be cheaper to buy a ticket than book an award.

    – My bet is your routing example is an IT short coming and is a little outside of AAdvantage control. Or maybe AA wants you to move to a hub city where you wouldn’t have this problem.

    I agree with bluto, I always want to spend more than 24 hours in Hong Kong and never do because I don’t want to book another award.

  7. UA Is actually pretty good for F redemptions for elites. You can put in a filler UA first tatl, then go to Asia if you want to on OZ or TG. when space opens up, you can change to LH for free. an you can get Ana close in up through may.

  8. When I was flying enough on AA to maintain Platinum, I went through a particularly bad 4 to 6 months of flights. Issue after issue…and then they really messed up by inconveniencing me when my wife was along. I status matched to United….for the second time in 6 years. Same as before, United and I just don’t go well together.

    I’ve spent more time flying US lately, and they are better than they were….and sort of a no-brainer when you live as close to DCA as I do. But my flights on American since removing them from my bad list have been consistently decent. Like you, I’ve always found their phone agents to be top notch, rarely needing to speak with anyone else to resolve an issue.

    Now, I’m about to relocate to Atlanta, and my flying life is going to change significantly…….. Of course, I love flying Delta, so that’s all good….but the mileage program…. oy.

  9. @gleff

    Can you share more information on this point? Newly matched EXP, this looks attractive…

    “Discounts. I love applying discount promotion codes to my reservations, it’s usually possible to get 5% off when booking at AA.com. “

  10. Hi Gary, the Etihad seems to have presence at SFO and SGN airports. However, I cannot seem to book from SFO to SGN using Etihad. May I ask if this is doable, and how many miles would the trip cost? Thanks so much.

  11. Thanks Gary. As a Delta Diamond I am looking for a “Plan B” where I could get many of the perks but at a lower mile level. After the bankruptcy/possible merger I am going to take a harder look at this. Thanks

  12. A benefit I value the most, 100% bonus miles for PLAT/EXP, if that goes down, it would be short of the end of the world.

    Also, $150 award redeposit fee is high, but waived for EXP.

    OT, but which of the major airlines is the most generous with promos, miles bonuses, etc. I know that US has the most offers for buying miles, plus grand slam, but I think that AA has pretty good mileage offers.

  13. Might not be a big deal to many, but two elite benefits that many airlines offer that AA does not…

    1. Complimentary upgrades for companion. AA requires the elite+companion to be either on a full Y or B fare for a complimentary upgrade or the elite has to procure stickers to upgrade the companion.

    2. No complimentary upgrades on award tickets.

    Another key thing that makes it hard for me to consider AA is their weak international route network.

    Other than that, AA does sound quite decent and they are definitely an airline that knows how to take care of their customers, particularly EXPs.

  14. I’ve recently redeemed a single one-way award on UA as such : JFK-GVA-ZRH-FRA-BKK-TPE-NRT-ICN-SIN including 2 stopovers at Zurich and Taipei just under 24 hours … can’t imagine AA giving me that level of flexibility

  15. A January AA codeshare LHR-DFW on BA metal failed to post to my AAdvantage account after 5 months and two follow up email inquiries. Finally I called the AAdvantege desk. Linda fixed the problem immediately. She called the next day to follow-up and make sure it appeared in my account. I offered to send her an Applause card. Linda said thanks, but she requested I give it to a FA, as she felt they deserved them more. Despite all of AA’s travails their service, as far as this Executive Platinum is concerned, is top notch.

  16. Cristina – on an international itinerary, any time you stay in a city en route for less than 24 hours, it’s a connection (not a stopover). So AA (and all carriers) should normally allow your “just under 24 hour” visits.

  17. Just a hint. If you want to stay in Hongkong without incurring an additional mileage award on American airlines via Hongkong you are allowed to stay up to 23 hours. So count your time of arrival to Hongkong from wherever you are coming from and count off the departure time from hongkong the following day. If this flight interval is less than 24 hours book it this way and you have your “23 hour stopover”.

  18. One last item to add to the negative list is the deplorable condition and utter filthiness of AA’s decrepit fleet. When I absolutely must fly AA I contemplate wearing a hazmat suit and surgical gloves, but settle for hand sanitizer and a long, hot shower.

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