Why Even After American’s Changes They’re Still Better for Me Than Delta… Barely

With changes to the AAdvantage program that make it so much more like United MileagePlus and Delta SkyMiles, elite frequent flyers at American especially are re-considering their loyalty.

Some members will do better with the changes (higher spending; those flying 75,000 – 99,999 miles a year with average or better spend) and many will do worse (especially lifetime elites).

American thinks these changes are going to be good for revenue, but American has been performing better than United financially already and Delta doesn’t think its frequent flyer program changes are a driver of their revenue premium.

Lucky at One Mile at a Time explains why he’d consider switching to Delta.

He mostly explains several reasons why it makes less and less sense to choose which airline to focus on based on the unique benefits of their frequent flyer program, rather than extolling true virtues of Delta.

I would argue that:

  • Delta is the better operational airline

  • Delta’s top tier elite program will soon be the equal of American’s

But that’s not the full picture.

There’s no question that Delta runs a more reliable on-time operation than American despite American management’s obsession with “D0”. And Delta does it with a fleet of older planes.

While American is investing in its inflight product and its lounge product to some degree, it’s not as good as Delta’s.

San Francisco SkyClub Bar Area

And Delta has faster internet — they’ve got more recent generation air to ground Gogo installations, and they’re a launch customer for Gogo’s high speed satellite internet.

If frequent flyer programs didn’t exist, and geographical differences in schedule didn’t exist, you’d pick Delta over American in a heartbeat.

Delta’s top tier Diamond level requires 125,000 miles and $15,000 in spend, compared to American’s which will require 100,000 miles and $12,000 in spend. We know the spend can be waived by using a Delta American Express card for $25,000 in purchases a year. American will likely have something similar but don’t know the details yet.

American’s threshold is lower, and they’ll count partner flights (through a distance and fare class equation) towards the requirement. So depending on the charts American releases they could wind up easier still to hit.

But even if you assume that you can hit top tier elite with either program there are still real differences. But we don’t know what additional changes are coming to AAdvantage when they roll out Basic Economy fares, and domestic and international premium economy.

The biggest thing that used to rule out SkyMiles elite status for me was that they privileged full fare over status for upgrades. They stopped doing that 5 weeks ago.

When they rolled out extra legroom seating as a separate fare class they started treating elites with companions on the same reservation as having the lowest status to get those seats. A Diamond with a companion (and only one was permitted to join in extra legroom seats) wouldn’t be able to get extra legroom seats until check-in. They’re fixing this.

Delta’s Diamond tier will be as good as American’s Executive Platinum, although it’s worth noting that Delta won’t provide complimentary upgrades on New York JFK – Los Angeles and San Frnacisco, and as tough as it can be to confirm upgrades at booking on international flights as an American Executive Platinum, it’s tougher to confirm upgrades at booking both domestically and internationally on Delta.

Delta’s redemption program is better for transatlantic business class (availability and no fuel surcharges) but I still give the edge to American for better award routing rules (as draconian as American’s are), actually having an award chart, lower award prices on many routes, and still having awards for international first class. American also has partners I want to fly more than Delta’s (I’ll take Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and Etihad over China Eastern, China Southern, and Middle East Airlines).

Delta is the better airline, with better meals, reliability, and inflight internet. American has newer planes and I like American’s international business class seats better than Delta’s, though American still has way too many angled business class seats flying. (Both Delta and American are probably better airlines right now than United, though United offers a better redemption program in my opinion than SkyMiles.)

American’s Old Angled Business Class Seats Are Taking Too Long to Replace

Say what you will about American, since the no-notice changes of April 8, 2014 they’ve gone out of their way to make sure changes are known in advance. That’s not how Delta behaves. There are many reasons to fly Delta but SkyMiles isn’t one of them.

Net net AAdvantage is still the better program for me, but I’d consider trading off the better frequent flyer program for the better airline if Delta’s hubs were more conveniently located for me. As an Austin-based flyer my choices of primary carrier boil down to airlines with nearby hubs: American (Dallas hub) and United (Houston). Plus American and United have lounges at my home airport and Delta does not.

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 InsideFlyer.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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  1. Given how long of an investment it is to earn and maintain status, I’m upset over the continued number of changes with more to come. For the most part, the changes haven’t been positive. At what point does one say enough and just become a free agent?

  2. I thought you were DC-based where UA and AA have (secondary) hubs but, there’s one thing AA didn’t lose: Amazing partner Airlines.

  3. While I am a AS flyer ( too damn close to 1mm to change ) I like the idea of revenue based rewards, more slanted to ticket price and light on cc spend. although as a businessman I can understand their reasoning.

    I agree that American is way way too slow in revamping their birds. Some of them are pitiful but as a consumer once you board you can’t turn around walk off and say I want a clean airplane for my money! Well you could but.

    Loyalty tends also to be a regional thing, having grown up on the east coast it was Eastern and Delta now that I am on the west coast AS does me just fine with my only gripes is lack of alliance ( I travel internationally ) but my Marriott status gives me Gold and revenue based rewards.

    So many bloggers came on crying and slamming AA, my comment get a life

    At the end of the day it’s all about revenue baby !!

  4. Just like you noted, I’m waiting to see what AA does with basic economy and how that impacts status. It still makes sense to fly AA for me, but they are making it more likely that I will shop around when needed.

  5. @Henry I don’t think I suggested otherwise, at least that wasn’t my intention. We don’t know what American’s partner elite qualifying dollar earning will look like so it still COULD be easier.

  6. American has first class awards!

    As far as loyalty, why bother. Both programs are so weak now they really don’t make much difference.

  7. I too, won’t be leaving AA because of the changes to the program. What it comes down to for me is price, schedule and routes. I travel to EU cities (from San Diego) about six times per year and buy J and use earned miles for award flights in Premium cabins. The cost of International J has continued to come down in the past 18 months. Things about the same for me. Impact is minimal.

  8. Gary, as important as that AUS-WAS route is for you, I’d think you would end up flying on United or Southwest on their nonstops (United to IAD unfortunately, Southwest to DCA). 3.5 hours non-stop vs. 5.5-6 hours with a stop in DFW or CLT seems like a no-brainer, status or no. I guess the flight is just long enough that getting the automatic upgrade or at least extra legroom is valuable. But I don’t think it’s worth the extra time and hassle of adding the stopover.

  9. @ Gary — You are missing some key points. American’s SWUs are much better than Delta’s thanks to their relationship with ExpertFlyer. I have better things to do than spend hours on end with phone reps at Delta trying to find upgrade space, especially when there is a great fare available for a brief time, like AA’s $414 SFO-ZRH this morning. On the other hand, Delta Diamond is VASTLY superior to AA ExecPlat for many reasons, which no one ever seems to write about (and I hope it stays that way). Diamonds get tons of flexibility, especially if you are on a premium fare and/or are willing to use HUCA ad naseum. I won’t give any further details on this, but let’s just say that this this is by far the number one reason I stick with Delta. American agents are about as flexible as a piece of concrete…

  10. @Gene I have written about Delta agents especially during irrops, but I have had great flexibility from AAgents myself and amazing flexibility from agents in their clubs

  11. @DCJoe Dulles means not nearly so much of a time savings, DCA is in Arlington and I’m going to Arlington. Southwest has just a single frequency AUS-DCA, a 1240pm flight out of Austin is useless to me.

  12. Hi Gary…

    Do you think it’s likely that the potential co-brand card exemption will apply all the way up to Executive Platinum?

  13. @Jason indeed that’s a key question. We don’t know yet what they are going to do.

    * Delta, $25k spend exemption across the board
    * United, $25k spend exemption up to 75k status

    We can bet that there WILL BE an exemption of some kind.

    * Will it be at $25k?
    * Will it be up to EXP?

    I’m not sure that’s decided yet for certain.

  14. Wow, a $12,000 ticket spend to be EXP or you get nothing. I can “become EXP” for $3000.00, if they would just keep giving those $420 all in RT fares JFK-NRT with E-VIP upgrades, double mile bonuses, and then use those miles for a 67,500 one-way First Class CX tickets.

    That’s what you get with US Airways, ObamaCare, digital Silicon Valley crap (like Google, Facebook, Yelp, Snapchat, Apple, etc.), and the policies of the communist left.

    Donald Trump will fix it! He’ll build a wall to keep EXPs out. LOL

  15. Gary… What about that fact that objectively, United is running a better on-time operation than AA right now? I understand that united under Smisek obliterated every shred of consumer goodwill, but the operation has definitely turned the corner in my experience, which is confirmed by their OTP and completion factor lately.

  16. Gary, you have been so far right on Delta and SKypeso but in this case, I am with Lucky. I am also a loyal AA Platinum but am switching to either Delta or Alaska. Two points that you did not mention about Delta are: Gifting with Amex Reserve and the ability to earn MQMs that is much higher than AA. For instance, if my wife got Reserve card and the two of us spend $60,000, she gets 30,000 MQMs that she can gift me. Also, if we flew Business together once from LAX to Europe and each racked up 20K MQMs, I now have 70K MQMs. These two benefits make Delta a much better (as you said) and even easier to get the top tier status.

  17. Dallas? If you live in TX you should know AA is not based in Dallas nor is the Metroplex hub located in Dallas.

  18. We gave American a try for 18 months. It was just way too many issues that we never had with Delta. I am still after American to refund bag charges and we hold both of their credit cards. They keep apologizing and saying that their refund dept. will send a check, and no check ever shows up. Mind you, that I am a stockholder. American sucks as an airline operation, and sinking closer to United everyday.

  19. Life Platinum. I have purchased just 2 AA revenue fares in 7 years and yet flown 545,000 miles (actual) in that timeframe. These changes have minimal impact on me. I’m chuckling a bit because I’ve hacked the AA program well and truly and clearly 99.9% of folks have not. Credit card spend limits are about the only thing that might be a bummer.

  20. Jeff,
    I was going back through this week’s changes to the AAdvantage program and noticed that I can’t find anyone talking about what appears to be a change to the EQM accrual methodology. Starting with the August 1st chart there is now a footnote (see below) for the EQMs that show the accelerators to be using a percentage of distance flown and booking code.

    EQMs per mile flown3

    3EQMs are calculated based on a percentage of the distance flown as determined by the booking code. Elite bonuses do not apply to EQMs.

    Do you have any insight on this? Maybe I just missed it with the all different write-ups this week.



  21. Hi, Gary. You mention that Lifetime Elites will suffer under the new program. Would you please explain further.


  22. @Bill Garrett — A lifetime Platinum was mid-tier, will become second from the bottom. Even within the Platinum tier, they will be at the bottom of the upgrade list (unless they ALSO earn their status some other way) because upgrades will be prioritized based on trailing 12 month qualifying dollars. So relatively lower status, and at the bottom of those with the status.

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