Why Do American Airlines Frequent Flyers Complain the Most?

There are several gripes that frequent flyers have. Here are just a few based on recent trends in the US airline industry.

  • Devaluations. It costs more miles to redeem an award than it used to as airlines have raised price.

  • Award Availability. In part because planes are generally full saver awards are tougher to get than ever. However there’s also been a philosophy shift at American Airlines towards just not making saver award space available most of the time even when seats are unsold.

  • Revenue-based requirements for elite status culling elite ranks for those paying for travel out of pocket.

  • Mileage-earning based on cost of a ticket which isn’t just redistributing who earns miles but earn rates are set so fewer miles are awarded than before — even as award chart pricing has gone up.

  • Upgrades harder to get than ever with smaller first class cabins in some cases but airlines monetizing seats like they never used to. Fifteen years ago only 10% of passengers were paying some cash to sit up front now at Delta around 70% are.

  • Basic economy means elite benefits you’ve earned now require a cash co-pay to receive. You may spend $40,000 a year on an airline but if you don’t spend an extra $20 or $40 each way you don’t even deserve an advance seat assignment let alone extra legroom or the change of an upgrade. Multiply that by a family of five roundtrip and it’s serious cash.

  • Changes without notice. The biggest culprit here is Delta which is the least transparent of the major US airlines.

While airlines say they make changes to ‘better reward their best customers’ that isn’t true, since it takes more miles than ever to redeem an award and those awards are just as unavailable for big spenders. And above average spend is required just to earn as many miles as before, which are now worth less.

And it’s hard to remember the last broadly positive thing any major US airline has done for frequent flyers.

Of course Alaska Airlines hasn’t devalued, they still award miles based on distance flown and don’t have minimum spend requirements for status, and their award chart pricing (outside of Emirates awards) remains reasonable. Their Virgin America merger likely means they won’t devalue any time soon.

There’s plenty of value in non-US frequent flyer programs as well, and plenty of competition in the credit card space from proprietary bank rewards programs whose points transfer to miles – they’ve left airline credit cards behind in the dust. So not all news is bad.


But what I’m interested in for the moment is this. It sure seems based on reader feedback and the bulk of conversations I have that most of the ire over frequent flyer changes is currently aimed at American AAdvantage. There are more people complaining about American, saying they’re going to leave American, than any other carrier best I can tell. And I’m trying to parse between a variety of competing explanations.

  1. American’s changes are the most recent. Their merger with US Airways delayed many of the changes that Delta and United already made (reducing the value of currency, introducing revenue requirements). So it’s recency.

  2. American’s program used to be clearly the best, so in regressing to the mean they’ve fallen the farthest.

  3. The frequent flyer program was the reason to fly American, take that away the cupboard is bare. No one has chosen to fly Delta because of the SkyMiles program in at least 15 years, so gutting of that program doesn’t change the reason people do business with Delta — their somewhat better airline operation or because they live in Atlanta or the Upper Midwest.

  4. Sample bias. People who comment on blogs, interact with bloggers, participate in frequent flyer forums are disproportionately in the know, made decisions based on value, and are most aware of the most recent changes to value. So it’s a combination of all of the above, amplified by whom I talked with.

Chicago O’Hare

Why do you think American AAdvantage members are the loudest about recent frequent flyer program changes? There’s not a ton of difference between the programs anymore. Delta is less trustworthy. American has worse award space. United doesn’t offer top tier elites international upgrades on any fare. So there are differences, but not nearly as much as there used to be.

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. @Alan Lower award costs and SWU for top tier status. I suppose AA’s Award chart is still better on paper, but lack of SAAver routes on AA metal makes that apples/oranges as Gary pointed out.

  2. Many of the above reasons are true, but the fact that their loyalty program has gone from pretty good to downright terrible is a more common reason, I suspect. It also seemed that a number of disgruntled United customers listened to the American blowhards who trumpeted how awesome American was compared to United–switched over/status matched to American…only to see American incorporate revenue like United and then sink lower than United by far.

  3. I honestly think its sample bias. I would wager that if you were to ask a sample of people on a more wide distribution, it wouldn’t seem so lopsided, but would probably be higher due to 1 & 2.

  4. One of the reasons for the more vocal criticism of American Americans is the speed at which they killed AAdvantage. In the space of 12-18 months we were earning considerably fewer miles, award prices went up (some by over 60%), top tier elite benefits were slashed, lifetime status was devalued, minimum spend criteria were brought in and Premium cabin award availability (at the saver level) was dropped to near zero.

    That’s a lot of devaluation in a comparatively short time frame…so it really stands out.

    On top of this a lot of us are expecting another award chart devaluation when Premium Economy awards are added and I don’t know many who don’t think that upgrades to Business will soon require the purchase of a Premium Economy fare….so we don’t think they’re done slashing yet.

  5. I could take the Aadvantage devaluation, it’s the customer unfriendly decisions that are so miserable – SDFC limits, QIK everywhere, the massive loss of quality on the phone lines, the lack of award availability, the atrocious food and cutbacks there, basic economy, the ops that just can’t get it right, early boarding, generally more surly staff/crew and so many more. It went from a good airline – program agnostic – to a depressing one.

  6. I’d say it’s all of the above, possibly except for confirmation bias. It’s undeniable that AA’s devaluations and cuts are the most recent, and have been the most devastating, and have eliminated the reason many people went out of their way, enduring worse schedules, often-shaky operations, and frequently paying more, to fly AA.

  7. I think the reason American flyers are the mpst upset is because of the reasons you mention. They have gone from the best (elite benefits, ease of use, award availability) to frankly the worst. In just about every category.

  8. it’s hard to remember the last broadly positive thing any major US airline has done for frequent flyers.

    Almost exactly a year ago, Southwest added free same-day standby for elites. At first your new flight had to be no more than 2 hours earlier, but in March of this year they extended the benefit to any flight earlier in the day. This is a major benefit.

  9. AA also has the most restrictive routing rules. Can’t route to asia via europe. Can’t route to australia/nz via asia. They made up for it before, but now its just useless

  10. Don’t forget about the most recent (as far as I know) insult AA inflicted: a hard maximum of three segments on a domestic award, four on an international. It used to be possible to work around AA’s pathetic lack of SAAver space by researching creative routings (allowing improvements if space became available on more direct routings), but the limit makes that virtually impossible.

  11. I am totally frustrated by AA and their lack of saver award availability, especially premium cabin seats to Australia/New Zealand. I have had success recently booking economy saver awards on both Delta and United; so in the last two years AA has gone from my favorite to my least favorite frequent flyer program.

  12. It’s the combination of a poor FFP with poor operations policies:
    1) Re-banking of flights, inconsistent boarding times (early), and failure to update flight times when late = can’t make good use of clubs to work, eat, drink;
    2) Changes Gary described to F availability, inconsistent fleet availability of Main Cabin Extra seating, and unreliable wifi = can’t work on plane
    3) Worst in class domestic F food, inconsistent catering, and indifferent onboard service = poor F experience

    Those, coupled with worst-in-class domestic saver award availability, an inability to use AA’s website to book either major Asian partner (JL and CX) online (and no ability to route Asia awards via European partners that do appear online), and the stinginess of AA with compensation for even the most outrageous service failings, are all factors I pointed to in a recent letter to AA explaining why I moved ~$20K of business this year to WN.

    I’d also add that with construction at various hubs, AA seems to me to have the least reliable set of hubs. DL has DTW, MSP, and SLC, and UA has DEN and CLE. All of these are far easier and more reliable to connect thru than CLT, ORD, DFW, LAX, and PHL, although ATL, IAH, EWR, and LGA are also real dogs.

  13. What’s the most recent broadly positive changes?

    – Well AA is expanding and improving their lounge offerings. As is DL, as is UA.
    – Everyone just ignores the introduction by AA and DL of true premium economy products on longhauls – which is a great improvement. But by all means keep whining about basic economy (which by the way – does not introduce a “co-pay” on my elite benefits. Company won’t buy basic economy – so the fares I buy are the someones I have always bought.)

    And, once again Gary continues to hawk credit cards to no end – then whines about the FFP devaluations directly related to all the bonus miles being handed out like candy by those very credit cards. You can’t have it both ways…

  14. I think points 1, 2 and 3 are the primary culprits — American’s changes being the most recent; the decline from best too average was steepest; and AAdvantage being the key selling point for flying American, which was perhaps less true of MileagePlus and SkyMiles.

    But you’re missing a key angle in “sample bias,” and that is that this blog has been a big supporter of AAdvantage over the years, meaning you have a larger following of AAdvantage elites — you’re going to hear more from this corner because there are more of us in it. If you’d been a pusher for United all this time, you would have had a bigger following of United elites.

    I also think the point above about United (and probably Delta) elites jumping ship just before AAdvantage pulled the rug out from under all of us is also a reason for disenchantment from some.

  15. @Bob Seriously, you are an ignorant troll, please crawl back under your rock – or better yet, go chow down a handful of Chex Mix in the Admirals Club.

  16. The reason is plain an simple as stated:

    “The frequent flyer program was the reason to fly American, take that away the cupboard is bare. ”

    I was EXP for 3 years and Plat before that for several more. I only flew AA JUST BECAUSE of the elite program/benefits/miles. They are horrible at operations, always behind schedule and always delaying flights, cancelling and changing planes to crappy ones. Now I havent touch AA in a while and I am flying jetblue.

  17. I think AA’s competitive advantage was their frequent flyer program. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of investment to hit Executive Platinum (and other levels) and reap the benefits of the program. In a sense, you are now vested/captive, and AA has taken away the competitive advantage. You can’t easily go to another program that has a better frequent flyer program and enjoy it. You invested in gaining status with AA based upon an understanding of the benefits of said program, and now AA has changed the terms of the agreement.

    Put another way, say you fly Delta due to their operations being the best. If Delta suddenly started having the worst operations, you could easily move to the next best airline in regards to operations that went where to you needed to go. There is no barrier to change.

  18. I suspect the answer depends on who you are and how you fly…but…. I’m in the camp of (not necessarily in the order of importance)

    1) AAdvantage was clearly better for a very long time, and it helped make up for a slightly less operationally stellar airline.

    2) A lot of folks that frequent the blogs are more in tune with maximizing the value from a loyalty program than most people.

    3) AA is further behind the others in devaluing/converting to revenue based earn.

    4) A purposeful decision on the part of AA revenue management to limit “sAAver” inventory to mind-bogglingly poor levels.

  19. I was an EXP 9 of the past 11 years. Almost 2 years ago, I saw the light. Award availability had gotten much, much worse, and a series of other things happened. Food got worse, upgrades were getting harder, timing of flights changed, maintenance issues, etc. It was one of the hardest emotional issues to make the break, but I had a great alternative in AS. I suspect many readers to not have a great alternative, so the point is moot. That said, AA was better than the competition. And it was painfully obvious when they started getting worse. Fast. I’m glad I left.

  20. I agree with many of the points that have been made. I will add that American has probably been the most relentless and frequent in the last year flogging points for cards, purchase of flowers, miles, points hound, etc. etc. I have 2 college age kids with thin credit files and they each get an AA personal and Business Card offer about every 2 weeks – though I guess that’s as much Citi as AA. And to add insult to injury the offer is for 50,000 miles, which use to mean something, but now more often than not does not even by a domestic coach round trip. For what their miles are worth they should offer 150,000 – which by the way often won’t cover a one way Biz seat to Europe.

  21. I was a 1K with United when they introduced revenue requirements. I complained a lot about them, but then moved on to AA. To be honest, I do not really care about United any more since I do not fly them, so am not complaining about them. Similarly, I expect to soon stop flying AA after my Executive Platinum expires. After a year or so, I will stop complaining about them either. I fly on my own dime. Flying 100K miles is a lot of work. Drop down to around 50K and probably won’t fly American very much any more.

  22. I actually don’t complain about air carriers much (other than muttering “b******s” when I look for Delta award flights and find they’ve come up with yet another stealth devaluation).

    For the reasons others have quoted, I value UA miles at about 1.5 cents each; AA and DL at about 1.0 cents each. (And I value AS miles at about 1.2 cents each – I know many will feel that is too low, but for my particular travel patterns they don’t offer that much availability without exorbitant carrier surcharges. Unlike many on this blog, I try to book premium cabins only for long overnight flights, or daytime journeys longer than 12-14 hours without an overnight in a hotel; am satisfied with economy for most long daytime flights.)

    Also, it’s much easier to get good value transferring points into UA (Chase UR points transfer instantly); no equivalent “good value” options exist for AA, DL, and AS.

    And, like many others, I’ve changed from being a card-carrying (“name your carrier” – in my case, UA) loyalist to being “carrier agnostic” – traveling with whoever offers the best combination of schedule, price, and benefits, and focusing credit card spend on mostly transferable points.

  23. You are right I stopped commenting on AA forums at all on most flyer based websites because the people there are so bitter. When I fly AA I am like looking around thinking, “are these people all the people online who hate life so much?!”

  24. I think it is sample bias and whining, frankly. Commenters on this blog and the bloggers themselves (Gary and Ben) complain about AA all the time, but they almost never propose alternate frequent flier programs, at least for US based flying. Ben is just trying Delta now, but I am guessing he won’t really be able to recommend Skymiles over AAdvantage for award flights. For my actual flying patterns out of NYC, I like American and will continue to fly them. Delta and JetBlue are good too. United and Southwest, no.

  25. @Anthony – I never recommend alternatives? Like fly based on schedule and price, accumulate credit card points, and focus on foreign frequent flyer programs — unless you live in a market well-served by Alaska…

  26. Gary – Many of your readers fly a lot for a mix of business and leisure. And most, as you point out, don’t live in areas well served by Alaska. For most of us, we are going to be on one of the majors (Delta, American, United) or Southwest. Since AA started to devalue, restrict award space, etc, here’s what I haven’t seen (and I apologize in advance if I’ve just missed these)

    – A comprehensive review on what an AA mile is worth vs Delta or United
    – A comprehensive comparison of award availability between AA, Delta or United for popular destinations/routes, and a comparison of cost
    – Detailed reviews of Southwest and JetBlue mileage programs and a comparison to the traditional carriers
    – Comprehensive review of status tiers between the three (or really five or six) carriers

    In short, AA is bad, we get it, but are United/Delta better? If so, why, and if not, why?

    I’m not just picking on you, Lucky is just as bad, and I am a big fan of both of your blogs

  27. @Anthony –

    I’ve done a comprehensive comparison of the value of points across most programs.

    I haven’t “shown my work” on the comparison of availability across Delta/American/United, roughly speaking for international awards you’re going to do best with United because of their Star partners (more partners with more availability from more cities) followed by Delta (albeit outrageously priced on partners) but American remains decent for first class awards though with the blocking of Etihad space even that’s now in question.

    Southwest and JetBlue mileage programs are useless to anyone who wants premium cabin international travel, they’re strong rebate programs for domestic travel.

    I don’t consider myself ‘bad’ sorry that you do!

  28. Gary,

    Sorry if I’m being too harsh, you do a great job, and I like the blog a lot. Thanks for the stuff on the availability. Just given the AA devaluations, i’d like it to be clearer if the things people are about are really better on Delta and United. Given fewer Delta and United loyalists “complain,” maybe their availability is truly better, or maybe they just had lower expectations. Digging into this issue would help you answer the question you posed in the original post

  29. I’m going to chime in with those who think it’s #3. AA covered up for abysmal operational performance with a superior elite and reward programs (you really should consider the two separately). Now that AAdvantage has very rapidly and substantially devalued both the rewards for flying them and the elite befits for favoring them, there’s nothing left but rolling delays and inconsistent product and services. Delta, for the abundant flaws in their rewards program has — at this point — the best elite program.

  30. I’ve got to think that part of it is the speed at which customer service plummeted.

    Great customer service goes a long way. 5-6 years ago, as a non-elite using the Citi AA Executive card, AA messed up the benefits on a flight to Hawaii with my family. I complained. Three CS reps met us in the lounge in DFW on the way there, they upgraded us all to business on the second leg of the flight back from Hawaii LAX-NY), and gave me Gold for the year. Even though I live in New Jersey, I dropped United like a hot potato and gave basically all of my business to AA (and oneworld partners like BA when I needed to fly from EWR to Europe).

    Fast forward to last year, post-US merger. Boarding a flight to Antigua with family, held for a random check at security after AA delayed us for nearly an hour at check-in due to an insistence on trying the kiosk before waiting on a line for assistance, no elite agent open… My wife ran up to the gate and told the agent that I was just a few minutes behind her. The agent said to her, in front of my kids, “Well, are you coming with us, or will you be waiting here for him?” Then on a trip to Toronto, cancelled a flight, screwed up a rebooking on WestJet (created a reservation, didn’t move the ticket), and it took a sympathetic WestJet agent to help – social media was useless and platinum phone support told me that if I wanted to make my new flight I should hang up and find an agent. Unable or unwilling to call the local station, and the agents all disappeared after the flight was cancelled. A WestJet agent went into a staff-only area and found an AA agent to reticket me.

    After that, I decided that if Airline X provides better service for non-elites than AA does for elites, I’ll take it. If the value prop for elites is so small and the cost is relatively high in $$, convenience, timing, etc, there’s no reason to go out of my way for AA.

    I fly from EWR to Toronto a few times a month. I take Porter, for the simple reason that with a flight an hour, I can show up at the airport whenever and get on the next flight home and get treated like a human being under all circumstances. When I go to Europe, Virgin trumps AA or BA when it comes to service. For India, I’ll take Turkish with an Istanbul layover over any US airline. For domestic flying, JetBlue whenever possible, Southwest or even Delta works pretty well. And living near EWR, at least UA is convenient, so there’s that.

    I take AA when I have no other choice. It still happens a handful of times per year, mostly a few flights/year to Charlotte, but I’d have to be insane to take them over the tons of better options on pretty much every route I fly.

  31. I’m not sweating AA even though I have plenty of miles still with them, which I will most likely use on lesser known international partners who still leave plenty of award space.

    With the death of the AS-DL partnership and the near-death of the AS-AA partnership, I am looking forward to more domestic growth from AS/VX (my preferred carrier) as well as WN. Both the service culture and the FF program (for both) are competitive advantages relative to UA/AA/DL.

    I am also hoping that B6, F9, NK, and G4 continue to grow, and maybe, just maybe, we see a codeshare and FF partnership between B6 and AS. I think F9 and NK will become stronger competitors as they improve their service reputations and operations; plenty of room to do that.

    Somebody (OO?) needs to figure out how to be the NK for small markets with right-sized planes, so small markets are not captive to the big three.

  32. For me it’s lack of saaver awards. I’ve booked my family of 4 successfully in J or F every other summer for the last 12 years, mostly using AA miles for saaver awards. This is from the west coast, too, which generally is tougher to get. For next summer, I had no trouble at all booking 4 J awards on Delta at 70K mi each, with minimal fees, on our outbound. For the return, got 4 J awards on UA at 57.5K mi each, also with minimal fees. AA, of course, had zilch available, except for the BS BA awards with their offensive surcharges.

  33. With saaver awards so hard to find, the program becomes increasingly useless. I had to think long and hard before paying $150 to redeposit 25,000 miles after needing to cancel an award trip a couple of weeks ago combining AA and AS (one that would no longer even be possible due to the execrable three-segment limit).

  34. Forget about AA because they forgot about you a long time ago! Just last spring we had to cancel a trip with DL to Italy and return from the U.K. We cancelled due to a medical emergency. DL refunded our entire cost to our Amex card within 2 days of receiving my email request and we had never flown them before!! It doesn’t really get much better than that!! We rebooked that trip for Spring 2018 and went back to DL. It took exactly 1 nano second to make that decision…..oh by the way those were First Class tickets both times! I’m sure neither AA or UA would have done the same.

  35. I find that award availability is the biggest frustration. If you think of “miles” (AAdvantage, Skymiles or United) as a currency whose value is also dependent in part whether you can spend the currency at a good exchange rate, AA has made the AA miles worthless, and I do not understand how Citi and Barclay do not realize they are being handed a worthless currency and the dissatisfaction among cardholders will catch up. when they realize they have been given something that is worthless.
    I am a multi-million mile AAdvantage member and used to have always over half a million miles in my account. AA pushed me into diversification, so, it is not all bad. Loyalty is a 2-way street.

  36. I don’t really consider myself a “loyal” person. I mainly fly UA (I’m 1K) just because it has the routes I need. But I fly many other airlines once a year or so, and have plenty of miles on AA. For all its faults, it seems to me to be easier to get award tickets or upgrades with miles on UA than any other carrier. I think that probably has a lot to do with it.

  37. I joined AAdvantage in 1981 when I used to travel for business. After long hiatus raising family and close to retirement I’ve upped my travel once again enough to gain gold elite status on my own dime and accrue 350k miles.

    Largely unhappy with AA but enjoy Admirals club lounges with executive card. Considering medallion challenge and complete switch over to Delta as I fly out of NYC. Hoping they’re better.

    Sorry to leave AA after 36 years but feeling so abused on so many levels – like a marriage gone bad it was great in the beginning, now, not so much. Who should my next travel partner be? Also considering Jet Blue.

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