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 American has a similar unpublished level, Concierge Key, but that’s about service and not upgrade or waitlist priority.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.