Maybe I’ve Been Too Hard on American Airlines?

There’s no question American has degraded the AAdvantage program in the last couple of years. And there’s no question that AAdvantage was American’s unique selling proposition. They don’t have the airline operation that Delta does, or the route network (and award availability) that United has access to through Star Alliance.

Since I’ve flown American by far the most over the past 6 years I’ve watched the airline change, and mostly (although not exclusively) in ways I haven’t liked. So I’ve had a lot to complain about.

On the other hand there are many things about American that are still quite good, better than their competitors, and indeed when I complain about how American compares today to where it used to be a more fair comparison might be with its competitors. And that comparison is more favorable than many of us often give them credit for.

Not in every way of course. Domestic first class meals still lag both Delta and even United. But in most of the ways that count.

Confirmed Upgrade Space Is Harder to Get — and That May Be a Good Thing

I can’t confirm domestic upgrades with miles or certificates on most flights at booking anymore. But that also means general members with tons of miles from credit card spend can’t either.

In a world where upgrades are harder to get because planes are full and the price of domestic first class is much lower than it used to be, American isn’t making as much space available to AAdvantage members generally. But that means the remaining seats are more available to top tier elites on the upgrade list.

In Fact, I Get Upgrades

I was just upgraded on an Austin – New York JFK flight where the ticket was purchased 10 days in advance. There were only 5 (out of 16) first class seats available when I bought it. Three days out there were 3 seats left for sale. Then two days out I cleared, with 2 seats remaining for sale.

American has been making efforts to clear upgrades before the gate recently. They still hold back seats closer to departure than they used to, but at least may process more upgrades a few hours in advance which saves the gate agents from failing to do it having to do it while they’re trying to get the flight out.

Upgrades are more common day of departure than they used to be, but for Executive Platinums they do clear as long as the upgrade at issue isn’t a flight like New York LaGuardia or Washington National to Dallas at 5 p.m. on a Thursday.

American Treats Me Well During Irregular Operations

American’s on-time performance isn’t as good as Delta’s despite their relentless focus on departing exactly on time or before to the exclusion of customer service procedures. But when things go wrong, a long delay or cancellation, American has been great to me getting me where I need to go. Agents on the phone are generally helpful, agents in the clubs that I frequent the most are great.

The airline is taking away some of the tools that help agents help customers but I’ve had nothing but great luck in my home club of Austin — which has the best ‘AAngels’ in the system — getting backed up on flights rather than having to change flights, and preserving even complimentary upgrades when that happens.

American Has the Best Business Class Seats of Any US Airline By Far

In fact I’d argue their business class seats are better than any European airline except Air France whose new business seat is similar to American’s offering on the Boeing 777-300ER.

American Airlines Super Diamond Business Class Boeing 787-9

Sure they chose the B/E Aerospace Diamond (as opposed to Super Diamond) seat for their international Boeing 757s, and in a two-by-two configuration window seat passengers climb over the aisle seat to get to the lavatory. But that just means American’s worst business class configuration [except for the handful of unreconfigured planes that might sub-in for international] is equivalent to what’s offered on the bulk of United’s fleet.

American needs better blankets and pillows in business class. Flying their Boeing 787-9 Paris – Dallas recently I brought my own pillow, like a teenage girl. But that’s a relatively small fix.

United’s Polaris seat is a huge advance over the current United offering, but isn’t as roomy as most of American’s seats. And very few planes have the seat. Even without delays they’re a couple of years off of even having half the fleet equipped with seats that were inferior to American’s before the first one rolled out. The Polaris soft product is good, but they’ve made a huge strategic fail in calling their business class Polaris without the seats.

It’s possible that Delta’s new business class with doors will compare favorably to American’s Super Diamond business class when it begins to roll out in the fall, although it’s far from clear that it will be since the basic seat the doors are going on — the Thompson Vantage XL — isn’t better.

And of course American is the only US airline which is keeping an international first class product. It’s not suites with doors (but at least the seats still swivel!). But it means better ground experience too, not only is American investing in new international business lounges they’re investing in dedicated first class dining rooms.

They’re Introducing High Speed Satellite Internet

It’s taking too long, they only have their first plane with Gogo 2Ku in service. And they’re going to have inconsistent offerings from 3 different internet providers (Gogo and ViaSat satellite domestically, Gogo air-to-ground domestically on most of the mainline fleet until the satellite transition occurs and even then still on the regional fleet, and Panasonic on international widebodies). But this element of the inflight experience is getting better, and will be increasingly better over the next 1, 2, and 3 years.

American Airlines Doesn’t Have the Partner Award Availability of United, But It Has My Favorite Partners to Fly

Delta makes decent award space available on its own transatlantic flights and sometimes transpacific flights from Seattle during low season. Their partners outside of China Airlines are generally weak. They don’t get the same award space that Air France gives to its own members despite being in a revenue-sharing joint venture. Partners like Vietnam Airlines (other than their new 787), Kenya Airways, and Air Europa are weak. They don’t offer first class awards, period. And their pricing is exorbitant and ever-changing.

United offers Star Alliance award availability which is fantastic because of myriad partners offering several options to get to most destinations which makes awards easier to come by. And United doesn’t add fuel surcharges to any awards. That makes United miles, overall, worth more than American miles.

American AAdvantage takes heat for award availability on its own flights, but the goal isn’t to fly American most of the time anyway at least that’s not my goal. Etihad has both among the world’s best first class products and great award availability. Qatar has the world’s best business class and good availability from several US gateways (including for travel beyond India and the Mideast, you can use these flights to travel to Africa).

Etihad First Apartment

Qantas first class awards are tough from the US, much eaier to get from the Mideast and between London and the Mideast. Cathay Pacific first class awards are much tougher than they used to be especially if you’re looking for multiple seats, but they’re an American partner with my favorite bed for sleeping.

I find that I redeem American miles the most because I manage to get award availability on the airlines I want to fly. That counts for a lot. (Most miles aren’t earned by flying any longer, of course.)

The Grass Isn’t Greener

After United ousted hated CEO Jeff Smisek in the midst of a corruption scandal, Oscar Munoz seemed like he might change the tone at the company. He lacked airline experience, but he went on a listening tour and employees seemed to like him and feel like something was different. But he hired American Airlines President Scott Kirby to be United’s President, and Kirby brought several executives along with him like Andrew Nocella who is now United’s Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer. The two men most responsible for the degradation of the AAdvantage program are now running the show at United. Plus they’re bringing American’s D0 obsession to United, even though D0 hasn’t made American an on-time airline. They’re re-banking hubs as well.

Meanwhile Delta operates with better on time performance using an old fleet of planes. Their service is marginally better (I always get predeparture beverages in first class and coats are always taken). But confirmed upgrades are at least as elusive, their top tier is harder to earn (at 125,000 miles and $15,000 spend) despite being able to ‘roll over’ qualifying miles from one year to the next, and they even charge extra to bring guests into their clubs.

SkyMiles keeps devaluing their miles every few months, doesn’t offer international first class awards at all, and has new literally insane pricing for awards on partner airlines.

As frustrating as devaluations at AAdvantage has been, SkyMiles devaluations have been worse. A source at AAdvantage explained to me that when they came up with their March 22, 2016 devalued award chart the design was meant to increase prices while being ‘not quite as bad’ as United and Delta. And of course United is devaluing again too.

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, 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. You’re not being too hard. We’re all in the same boat.

    (congrats on two contradictory posts on the same day; should be good click through action)

  2. Remember how you used to use the phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” a lot? Well…

  3. No, you weren’t being too hard. I am still with them because of upgrades, but that won’t last due to being in an elite heavy area and having the minimum EQMs for ExPlat.

    They know only allow either a Miles/copay or 500 mile segment. The 500 mile segments ones clear sooner than the miles and copay prior to T-4, then the order switches. I’m going to have to pull my miles-copay request, go for complimentary, and if it first clear by T-6 or do, switch back.

    I get to the gate just now at the boarding time and because they no longer have true priority lanes, I’m at the back of the scrum even though I’m group one( they were up to group 4 at t-30).

    All could be forgiven with good operations, but I’ve had many nightmares with them.

  4. With demise of loyalty programs as they have existed to now we’re all better off being a free agent. Your posts show just that, no reason to be loyal to just one but no reason to abandon one either.

  5. What these companies don’t get is that we criticize because we want to continue to patronize. We’re just asking them not to make it harder for us to patronize their business. Even though I like AA more than the other two, I can’t justify requalifying this year. Alaska is where i’m going to be putting my money in the interim.

  6. You have been hard on America. Completely deserved. I could accept the increases to the award chart of a year or 2 ago if they would ever offer award seats. There are some routes where the lack of award seats on flights that aren’t full should be embarrassing to the program. They do have fantastic partners (for now), but it becomes a pain in the butt if you have to ever include an AA flight to ORD, DFW, LAX or JFK. You can try to put lipstick on that pig, but I’m not buying it.

  7. Wait. What, Gary?

    So you’re saying that you’re embracing the US Airways Cancer then?

  8. @Gary Friday most have found you in a philosophical state. American is an inferior airline to what they have been in almost every way except ticket prices, which have been forced down by discounters and enbabled by low fuel prices and more seats crammed in. Their on time peformance sucks. Their reward program is a joke. Seriously, a rt domestic ticket that can be brought for $300 routinely costs 60,000 miles. Their customer service is generally perfunctory. I know you can redeem them – at great effort on partner airlines, but for the average customer their uuuuge signup bonus is worth 1 round trip ticket. I live in Dallas, am lifetime Plat, am sitting on 40+ 500 mile segments, 1.2mm miles, but fly them as little as possible. If Jeff Bezos ran an airline they would be Sears.

  9. Agree with most of your comments Gary but would like to add three things you should have addressed in my opinion.

    1. While you claim the goal isn’t to fly American using Saver awards, no domestic flight award inventory makes it difficult to get to a gateway city for the partner flight. What AA makes available are these silly regional connections; like LAX-OKC overnight then OKC-ORD and one is usually in coach. Good luck getting a west coast award across the Pacific unless you live there (mostly because you get an AS flight) or want to buy a positioning flight which defeats the purpose of an award ticket. Granted United isn’t much better but at least they open more options closer to departure and worst case economy is usually available.

    2. Another issue is their routing rules. Yes Etihad and Qatar are fabulous, but unless your destination is the Middle East or you want to go to South Africa on Qatar you end up redeeming 2 award tickets. Recently I flew Lufthansa first and Asiana first to Seoul via Frankfurt for a single redemption. Add in a visit to LH first class lounge and it’s the best deal out there.

    3. British Airways. I bet 75% of the awards AA makes available anywhere are with BA and those ridiculous surcharges for an inferior product. Searching on is fruitless.

    Yes the Super Diamond seats are great, but you can’t get an award on one so what difference does it make?

    You’re own pillow, really?? 🙂

  10. I have given up my status. I can never get any “good” flights. I don’t believe they ever open up any significant international flights in business class.
    It is a scam award program.
    How do you spell class action lawsuit?

  11. No you’re not being too hard on AmericanAirlines. I just flew teas on – one way on Delta and one-way on AA. Both on a 737-800 in paid first. The Delta experience was far superior. First , the satellite wifi on Delta work. AA was like dial up. Two, The food was much better on Delta than American. Three, servicr was much more attentive on Delta Four, it took AA 35 minutes to get my bags vs 15 on Delta. Delta wins hands down.

  12. Gary, were you being too hard on AA? No. Were you voicing a personal opinion? Yes, as you do much of the time. After all, this is YOUR blog. But let me be the voice of “loyal opposition” for a moment — quickly adding that it isn’t outright opposition, but rather one of mild dissent.

    You have “X” number of readers — uh, make that “subscribers” — and my guess is that a very small percentage of those are in your shoes, as an AA Executive Platinum elite/Concierge Key whatever/VIP. I’m sure some people who subscribe to your blog are, but I also think you’d agree it’s definitely a small number. So I would ask you to stop and think for a moment about “the rest of us,” those of us NOT among the highest of the elites. Whether “we” are frequent passengers aboard AA with a lower level of elite status than you, are merely “frequent fliers” with no status whatsoever, or (like me in reality; I’ve only flown 3 r/t on AA in the past decade) . . . what would YOU think of AA and AAdvantage Miles if you were in OUR shoes?

  13. @Jason Brandt Lewis — Absolutely! I would think far less of American without Executive Platinum status, but also less of United as a non-1K, a Delta non-Diamond etc.

  14. How many new transcontinental aircraft on American Airlines will have seat-back video?


    You’re being way too soft.

  15. @Gary — Yes, I thought so, and that was precisely my point: w/o the uppermost echelon of status, all three of the US legacy carriers are a far less attractive place to spend one’s hard-earned dollars (or points). And, IMHO, *that* is something most bloggers should keep in mind . . .

    One reason I’m flown Virgin American so much since they began flight operations in August 2007¹ is the level of service I received as a NON-elite, compared to Southwest — which had the vast majority of my business up until then. I’ve only had elite status with VX the last three years, 2015 as Silver; 2016 and 2017 as Gold; and by the end of this year, I will have re-qualified as Gold for 2018 (on Alaska² as an MVP Gold, but through flying on VX). Certainly having status is better than not having it, but what won me over was how VX treated me — as well as my wife and family — as non-elites.

    ¹Virgin America began flight ops on August 8, 2007. I joined their Elevate! program (which then had the exclamation point attached) on August 10th.

    ² 2018 will be the last year I have Gold status on Alaska, as I earn it through flying segments not miles, and AS wants 60 segments for MVP Gold as opposed to 30 for Elevate Gold on VX. “Straight” MVP status takes 30 segments, and I might not even qualify for that in the future.

  16. Point – Counter Point. Jane, you ignorant slut!

    I thought that TLiT’s hard-on was reserved for UAL?

  17. The grass isn’t greener, but when I need to pay a $300 change fee just to be able to use my SWU, the program is AFU. They added revenue, reduced certs and then made those few certs near impossible to use. I’m super angry about that. But at the moment don’t have a good alternative.

  18. Your being too nice. The reason they have no upgrade availability is because they made the decision to have only 8first class seats on their a319. Also, they might have good partners, but if you don’t live in city served by the partner, AA isn’t going to give you any saver awards to get to the city.

  19. @ Gary — The SO and I recently even had our free complimentary upgrades protected by the gate agent on a SDC to the last two seats on CLT-SFO! The very nice agent even re-booked us into full Y. Of course, the extra EQMs didn’t help us get any closer to those 12,000 EQD. Thank goodness for cheap QR J fares and the Barclay’s Aviator card!

  20. You are right that, compared to Delta and United, AA isn’t “that bad.” But that ignores how good Alaska, Southwest, and JetBlue are in comparison. The Southwest Companion Pass is a phenomenal benefit—I think it’s the best benefit that any airline offers in return for loyalty. Alaska offers a truly rewarding FF program, with outstanding partners. JetBlue runs a fantastic operation, and Mosaic status is very helpful for the ability to make all the changes I want.

    With the declining benefits from elite status from the Big 3, it’s time to better appreciate the benefits that come from WN, B6, and AS.

  21. It still would be nice for me to connect to anywhere domestically without more than half of the few available saver award flights forcing me an overnight connection on a domestic only trip. No, I don’t want to overnight in Dallas on my way to Seattle!

  22. How long after the anti-AA post did you start writing the retraction, and what prompted it? Or did you have both of these ready to go before either was posted. I’m guessing the latter. The content of both is too much for a single post. That’s all good and fine. But this type of stuff is more along the lines of TPG.

  23. @Hepworth I wrote one, then wrote the other, both in advance. I don’t consider the second a retraction just trying on ideas. Not sure what you mean by ‘more along the lines of TPG’ these were just what were on my mind.

  24. Well, I pretty much agree with all the points in both posts. I think it really just boils down to the fact that they think they can get away with it, because there are no longer any competitors doing things so much differently that they fear losing business over the changes. I think that’s why they are often the last to follow. They let the other airlines change things for the worse first, then wait to see if it helps them being more generous, and when it doesn’t, they just follow the crowd confident it shouldn’t hurt them any.

  25. @Johnny — “If Jeff Bezos ran an airline they would be Sears.” Ah, but like other posters, you’re not understanding the complete picture.

    Wall Street doesn’t care if Amazon makes money. This has enabled Amazon to do so many great things regardless of whether they make much economic sense. The equivalent of the Middle East airlines giving you ridiculously expensive champagne in their premium classes. Amazon has essentially been a non-profit enterprise. With so much cash being thrown at them, this has enabled them to build a somewhat monopolistic enterprise that makes it very difficult for “normal” businesses to compete. See articles like this for more details.

    Wall Street treats airlines very differently. Like most businesses, they’re supposed to actually make money. And if they don’t, their stock prices are punished mercilessly. Doug Parker’s owners are the shareholders and, obviously, if he wants to keep his job, he needs to please them. And since almost all of his compensation is linked to stock options (he collects a $1 salary, I think), he has every incentive to keep Wall Street happy. Alas, this means he has to make money, and making money in the airline industry sadly involves taking away some perks that travelers like (upgrades, legroom, food, award seats, etc) that studies have proven they won’t actually pay for. Which is why many more people complain about airlines than Amazon.

  26. @brteacher —> “With the declining benefits from elite status from the Big 3, it’s time to better appreciate the benefits that come from WN, B6, and AS.”

    I couldn’t agree more! The *only* drawback(s) to “the Next 3” come from flying inter-continental. All three carriers have, to varying degrees, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the “top” of South America well in hand. But while B6 has a number of “partner” airlines on which you can *earn* JetBrue points, really only AS has a wide variety of partners on which you can BOTH *earn and burn* miles for overseas travel. But with their extensive network, even the loss of DL and the partial cutback of AA flights, the “damage” isn’t too bad.

  27. Citi and Barclays are the culprits.
    They largely support AA buying miles and could demand a decent value for their customers.

    With 1 million AA miles, I’m actually hoping they convert to a $ value like Southwest and JetBlue. That would have been a downgrade a couple years ago.

  28. Gary needs to grow some balls and stand his ground.
    Everyone knows Parker and AA suck no matter how you slice it.

  29. AA customer service is the worst I have ever encountered.

    After we had an inflight depressurization emergency on an ELP-DFW flight (on American Eagle), there was not a single customer service rep on duty at DFW to assist the shaken passengers.

    This was one of those descend to 8000′ events, complete with O mask deployments, a straight-in landing and AFFR equipment every 800 feet lining the runway. Half of the pax were praying, a quarter were deathly quiet, and a quarter of us were busy recording everything on our iPhones.

    But there was NO ONE, not a soul, in the gate house.

    Just another day at the office.

  30. readership will go down if you keep bipolAAr Gary style. You need to stick to you gun as a loose cannon toward AA, DL and UL.

  31. AA should be charged with felony contempt of its customers for selling miles that can’t be used.

  32. I find the new AA program terrible. The AA points are often closer to ZERO as there rarely is AA operated saver award space. So this program points wise is only useful for partner airlines. Further, the partners Etihad and Qatar may be on their way out if they can.

    The Elite status has taken such a hit. Upgrades and 100% bonus used to be the benefits of platinum and executive platinum. Sure they sometimes happen now, but only at last minute. As well the upgrade is less useful, as it used to be that the first class seat was hundreds more. Now on most of my flights, they are only a few dollars more expensive (especially when I am free to choose between First class flights offered by American, Delta, United and Alaska) Because I am free to choose instead of locked into one loyalty program the difference between a coach ticket on American and what First costs on American or a competitor, the price difference is small.

    As far as miles earned. I earn more from car rentals then flights. That is sad.

    So no, you haven’t been to hard on American.

  33. Flew Business Class JFK > BCN recently. I did not care for the seats, I thought they were tight and my seatmate and I couldn’t really interact with each other during the flight due to the herringbone design. Also, no fault of the airlines, but a mother and bickering daughter in the reverse herringbone seats facing us so we could hear them arguing for most of the overnight flight despite the Bose headphones. If that had been my daughter I would have put her back in economy without hesitation.

    I used miles and paid a fee for the upgrade. The food was good and service was great by the AA staff, but the hard product needs more improvement. The seats were hard and awkward. I’m 5’9″ and felt very claustrophobic during the flight. I can’t image a 6′ male or taller being comfortable at all in that fully flat seat.

    Also, 4 empty business class seats in our cabin for that flight. I assume there were other empty business class seats in the front cabin as well. I doubt AA would have let me upgrade at the gate with miles if I wanted based on everything I’ve been reading on the blogs.

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