9 Ways American Airlines Outshines Their Competitors

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AAdvantage used to be head and shoulders the best frequent flyer program in the United States. Upgrade and award space used to be the best, too. A lot has changed since US Airways management took over American. They have a different philosophy of which routes to fly, and the economy experience has been getting worse.

I don’t value an airline’s inflight entertainment, and wouldn’t mind their getting rid of seat back video, if it didn’t also come along with reducing legroom in first class and elbow room in the lavatories. The airline’s CEO even though they could get away with not adding seat power to the legacy US Airways fleet which I often refer to as a ‘basket of deplorables’.

But American is investing in the domestic fleet, adding seat power and bigger overhead bins and high speed internet even as they’re cramming in more seats. AAdvantage has been devalued, but so have most of their competitor frequent flyer programs. Delta was even ahead of American is ‘densifying’ their fleet (more seats in the same amount of space).

I fly American more than any other domestic airlines though not more than half of my travels these days. When I used to need to go somewhere I’d head over to AA.com and find flights, I don’t start there anymore. I used to pay a premium to stick with American, and would even add a connection in Dallas rather than taking a non-stop on a competitor. I don’t generally do that anymore, so in that way all of the changes at American over the last four years have probably been good for me.

Nonetheless there are a lot of things that the airline really has going for itself. There are fantastic assets and improvements that shouldn’t be overlooked, and should even be celebrated.

Business Class Seats

American’s business class seats are better than United’s and Delta’s. That’s going to change as Delta retrofits their fleet with new Delta One Suites — modified Thompson Vantage XL seats with doors. But in the meantime American’s direct aisle access fully flat seats are better than the flat seats Delta offers. The current standard B/E Aerospace Super Diamond seat is far superior.

American Airlines Boeing 787-9 Business Class

And United, while the Polaris seat is fine the real innovation in that seat is the ability to offer direct aisle access without taking up more room than United’s more antiquated seats. It’s a brilliant business play, one that makes the seat no longer a reason to actively avoid United, but it’s not as comfortable or spacious as American’s Super Diamond seat. And of course United has only retrofitted 5 of their existing aircraft with new Polaris seats in the 21 months since the seat was announced. They haven’t retrofitted a single Boeing 777-200.

United Polaris Business Class

Flagship Lounges

United and American offer elevated lounges for international premium cabin customers. While Delta’s SkyClubs are marginally better than United Clubs and American’s Admirals Clubs, Flagship lounges and United’s Polaris lounge in Chicago are better than SkyClubs.

American has managed to open Flagship lounges at New York JFK, Chicago O’Hare, Miami, and Los Angeles. And once American’s renovation of their Dallas Fort-Worth A club completes next month they’ll move on to building out the DFW Flagship lounge — all the while United has so far opened just a single Polaris lounge.

American Airlines Flagship Lounge Los Angeles

To be sure, I’d rather the Polaris lounge in Chicago a notch above Flagship lounges. However American’s Flagship lounges are open to many more guests — not just international business class passengers, but also mid-tier elites flying internationally in coach and oneworld partner mid-tier elites (and American’s own ConciergeKey members) flying domestically as well.

What’s more American’s Flagship Dining experiences in the New York, Miami, and Los Angeles lounges for first class passengers only are better still — in my opinion the best lounge experience in the United States besting even the Qantas first class lounge at LAX.

American Airlines Flagship Dining New York JFK

The Most Accessible Lounges

Delta charges more than United or American for lounge access. Their premium credit card that bundles lounge access doesn’t even allow free guests and neither does the Platinum Card by American Express.

We might have said that the most accessible lounges are United’s, since the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card comes with two lounges passes each year on cardmember anniversary (and those passes have been widely available inexpensively on eBay) however new passes are now electronic and not nearly as transferable as they were.

American Airlines Admirals Club New York JFK

Made to Order Guacamole in the Currently-Closed Dallas Fort-Worth A Club

Remarkably though the premium AAdvantage co-brand card which has a $450 annual fee and bundles Admiral’s Club membership not only includes guest access but offers no annual fee authorized user cards and authorized users can show their card for Admirals Club access, including guests.

You can get as many as 10 authorized user cards for no annual fee, and each can bring up to 2 guests into an Admirals Club. That’s access for 33 people in total ‘for the price of one’.

Advance Notice of Changes to AAdvantage and Award Charts

Ever since eliminating distance-based oneworld awards and moving to a multi-tiered award pricing system for AAnytime awards overnight in April 2014, American has consistently recognized the need to give members advance notice of changes to the program.

The need to give advance notice of changes was even noted to investors by then-airline President Scott Kirby and in their recent discussion of AAdvantage changes with employees they reiterated that changes to the program would be shared in advance.

I may not like the changes to the program rolled out over the past several years — more expensive award tickets, elite benefits that require a cash co-pay (buying up from the cheapest Basic Economy fares) even for ConciergeKey members that you’d think the airline would want to treat well every time they step into the airport.

However they still maintain award charts, they price awards based on those charts, and they tell customers in advance when they’re making changes to the program. Applauding that may seem like ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ but it’s something that not all of their competitors do, and after the Supreme Court’s decision in Northwest v. Ginsberg there’s not much we can do about it when a loyalty program doesn’t behave in an honorable or trustworthy manner towards its members.

First Class Awards

First class awards are more expensive than they used to be, but not expensive as United’s are. Both United and American first class awards are cheaper than Delta’s, whose price is infinite. You cannot redeem SkyMiles for international first class at any price.

I value my AAdvantage miles for first class redemptions. The awards I’ve booked the most over the last five years have been on Etihad. To be sure American has been a bad partner to Etihad, eliminating codesharing which caused Etihad to cancel their Dallas Fort-Worth flight (which used to be fantastic for award space). But American miles for Etihad First Apartment redemptions have been one of my favorite things in the frequent flyer universe (and here’s the hack to get the seats).

Etihad First Apartment

The award I’ve claimed next most often over time is Cathay Pacific first class. Cathay has just 6 first class seats per flight and doesn’t often make two awards available in advance at the same time anymore (although sometimes they do). They have more access to Cathay space than Alaska Airlines does.

Cathay Pacific First Class

Japan Airlines first class is a phenomenal product and offers good availability, which turns into great availability within a couple of weeks of travel.

To be sure finding more than one first class award on Malaysia Airlines isn’t really an option most of the time, and British Airways first class isn’t first class, but at least if they’re going to whack members for fuel surcharges on BA redemptions you can fly first class rather than their laggard business.

British Airways First Class

High speed internet

American isn’t just upgrading their domestic fleet to offer high speed satellite internet, they expect that project to complete for their current fleet by a little over a year from now.

What’s more monthly gogo internet subscriptions will be valid for satellite internet — on both gogo and ViaSat-equipped planes.

Speed Test Onboard Gogo’s 737 ‘Jimmy Ray’

Business ExtrAA double dipping

Southwest Airlines launched the “Southwest Sweethearts Club” in 1972, awarding secretaries with credits towards travel for each flight they booked for their boss (15 one way flights earned them a free one way ticket, and 120 one ways for their boss entered them into a raffle for a free vacation). In 1980 the program was renamed “Southwest Secretary Club.”

Awarding the travel decision-maker and not just the traveler is an important element of marketing, and United, Delta, and American all offer a small business program that earns points for the company on top of the miles earned by the traveler. United’s PerksPlus and Delta’s SkyBonus are similar to American’s Business ExtrAA program however I’ve always found American’s program more accessible.

For instance United has minimum revenue requirements to stay in the program, Delta instituted minimum requirements in 2016, while I haven’t seen any great culling of members from Business ExtrAA. I’ve also been a part of a federal criminal trial involving SkyBonus and have heard from another person being prosecuted in a similar case. So on that basis alone I prefer the Business ExtrAA program.

I redeem Business ExtrAA points to gift gold status to friends, and a similar number of points allows gifting Admiral’s Club memberships. I’ve always kept a stack of one segment domestic upgrade awards, great for upgrading premium transcon flights from business to first class and still useful (even with less confirmable domestic upgrade space these days) for routes on which I don’t want to change a complimentary upgrade. They’re not valid on the lowest fare codes, but my tickets often do qualify, and I’ll set up an ExpertFlyer alert for confirmable C inventory and then ring up meeting services to process the upgrade.

More upgrades than Delta

Delta was selling 57% of first class seats for some amount of cash in 2015. They set a goal to be hitting 70% this year. That doesn’t leave many seats for upgrades. And in fact they’ve even started calling extra legroom seats an upgrade conditioning their elites that that’s all they should be able to expect.

Delta does offer cocktails (and snacks on longer flights) and dedicated overhead bins for their extra legroom seats, but American is matching on the cocktail and bin front (but not snacks). Executive Platinum and ConciergeKey members still do get complimentary snacks in coach of course.

However the important differentiator between Delta and American is that while American too monetizes their first class cabin far more than they used to they aren’t selling nearly as many domestic first class seats as Delta. So there are plenty more seats left over for upgrade. And unlike United they don’t sell those seats at check-in to non-status members by pointing out how many elites are waiting for the seat.

American Airlines Boeing 737-800 First Class

To be sure the introduction of a 75,000 mile elite tier and re-ordering upgrade priority to base it on spend within the previous 12 months puts the airline’s lifetime Platinum elites at the back of the line for upgrades. That was a real slap at 2 million milers. The million mile program needs to be addressed. But there are more seats for upgrade on American than on Delta, and American reserves those unsold seats for elites to a greater extent than United.

The Best Transcon Product — With Complimentary Upgrades

American’s business class is competitive with United’s and Delta’s. However American is the only airline offering a three-cabin first class product on its premium transcon flights between New York JFK and Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The first class A321T seat is essentially the same as the international business class seat on American’s Boeing 777-300ERs, arranged in a 1-1 configuration meaning each is both a window and an aisle seat. And American’s first class ground experience in both Los Angeles and New York JFK includes access to Flagship First Dining.

To be sure American doesn’t offer the product on as many routes as their competitors do but one thing that’s a real advantage on the two routes they do is that domestic upgrades are available from economy to business class for elites (and therefore complimentary for Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum, and ConciergeKey members) and available via upgrade instrument from business class to first class (including Business ExtrAA upgrade certs).

What These 9 Things Have in Common

American Airlines shines when they strive to deliver a premium product and offer value to their customers. They have the capability to be a great airline, the problem is that they aren’t always consistent in deciding to be one. Employees are confused by a stripped down standard domestic inflight product, they’re under pressure to get flights out exactly on-time and sacrifice customer service, and basic economy fares undermine the message that staff are supposed to be treating customers well with every interaction.

If American would focus on their premium investments, on their loyalty AAdvantage members, and strive to offer a consistent experience (and not merely fleet) delivering value with each interaction they could earn – and would be worth – a revenue premium.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »

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  1. These things are great for those who fly internationally or want to use miles for premium cabin partner awards but for most people who fly domestic casually, American falls hard. Nice to see a more balanced article on AA since most of what you have posted recently is pretty negative, but AA still sucks big time. Please keep hammering them.

  2. A big one – no 2-tier award chart for int’l partners (like what UA has done). I can still do CX US-HK in biz for 70K each way (though I’m sure that will be raised sooner rather than later).

  3. The thing I miss most is the breakup with Alaska. I’m a lifetime AA platinum, and often fly from San Jose to Victoria BC (but not enough to get Alaska status). Until this year Alaska reciprocated status with AA, but not any more. Now get worst seats and board last.

    AA- please make nice with Alaska again!

  4. Article headline: “9 Ways American Airlines Outshines Their Competitors”

    While the use of the plural “they” and “their” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun is rampant, why use it here? American Airlines has no gender, and therefore no one would be offended by simply writing “9 Ways American Airlines Outshines Its Competitors”.

    If someone wants to respond saying I’m being pedantic, so be it.

  5. It’s highly unlikely that I will want or need to travel on Cathay or Etihad. Back in the day I did get a lot of use out of very good Y availability rtp with a stopover . Biz or first transcon would be nice but hardly worth it at 32.5 and 50k! So effectively Aadvantage gutted for me. I put money on Cap1 spark giving 2 points and hope to pull a Mint seat occasionally. That’s my max excitement in the hobby

  6. I don’t understand the claim that you cannot redeem SkyMiles for international first class at any price. We just did. Booked 2 tix to Paris via the Delta app with no issues. Perhaps I am just not understanding the lingo Gary is using?

  7. Very well stated. As a former weekly flyer of AA, it really started to feel that they were not only on a mission to destroying the product (which they continue to accelerate), but they seem to be consistently punishing their best customers. Upgrades are tougher to get, fewer seats now former 737 routes now being flown with 319s, making it more and more difficult to even quality to begin with, etc. This of course on top of really destroying the product itself. I’ve always enjoyed their inflight entertainment. Heck with the overhead monitors I’d enjoy the music selection at each seat (American Bandstand was my favorite channel). Their IFE is in my opinion the flat out best amongst any carrier. Yet they are removing it. Punishing the best customers, destroying the product, and all but gutting the AAdvantage program to being nearly useless are reasons that I simply choose them only IF it’s the better option for my travels. I can often purchase a confirmed upgrade on Delta for a really low cost. I’ve chosen that many times instead of spending significantly more for an AA first class seat or hoping for a never-to-be-received complimentary upgrade. The Delta tends to be consistent and reasonably comfortable.

    In this day and age I’m caring less and less about elite programs as the benefits of them seem to be nearly non-existent. Airlines want us to buy all tickets versus using any awards. The best I’ve seen for months on AA to Europe is all funneled through BA ensuring insanely high surcharges.

    AA does have the ability to be a great airline, but I believe they need a new CEO to lead it. This has been a multi-strategy to utterly destroy the product and reputation of AA and this CEO is doing a fantastic job of just that.

  8. Such a 180 swing; did Parker take you to the woodshed, or what?

    For those of us not “privileged” to live in NYC, LA, or SF to fly transcon, how can anybody claim AA provides a good F experience, particularly with its piddling Guantanamo-style food? AA domestic F is just not worth the cost or miles.

    In view of such pathetic domestic F (other than apparently the transcons), why would anybody select AA in B or F to fly international, given the number of superb European and Asian carriers?

  9. F on 319 and 738 Max sucks big time.

    LAX AAdmirals Club was closed for almost a year only to reopen as a smaller less comfortable version.

    They said Saver awards weren’t changing. Becoming extinct is a change; zero advance notice on that. They could have cut the miles required in half, still wouldn’t matter.

    Flagship first dining just comes at the cost of space for paying AAdmirals club members.

    Half the power ports don’t work, they show little interest in maintains them. 3 prong adapter often doesn’t work either.

    I think you were only 5 for 9

  10. My experience with AA is a mixed bag. On one hand, my personal travel takes me to LAX, LHR, and HKG from JFK. For those reasons alone, AA is my preferred choice. But for work travel (mostly domestic and to cities on the east coast that require connections through PHL or CLT), AA is an unmitigated disaster. The domestic routes from NYC are mainly to hubs, or crammed on some E175 (luckily no RJ travel in years). Little to no MCE. No power. The flights board and close early only to leave and arrive late. Loud, obnoxious credit card announcements. No room to open my laptop if the person in front of me reclines. No IFE. And since I usually book 24 hours in advance or less, my tickets cost close to a dollar per mile flown, and have no chance of an upgrade.

  11. Lot of complaints on Flyertalk about saver award availability on premium seats.

    That’s a pretty important thing isn’t it?

    Maybe the most important factor for some people when evaluating in which program to earn.

  12. Replying to Gary’s comment – we booked tix in Delta One. I’m sorry if this does not meet your definition of “first class”. We’ve always been treated very well on Delta and prefer what is evidently only a product for a lower class of folks than the indifferent and often rude service, coupled with the late flights we’ve had on American. But enjoy your “true first class” flights, Gary.

  13. @Carrie I am not criticizing the product! I’m simply offering that Delta allows redemptions for economy, premium economy, and business class. So you cannot use your miles for first class on Air France, Korean, China Southern, China Eastern, or Saudia. You can redeem for business class on those partners, but not first class. And Delta years and years ago explained that since they do not offer a first class cabin they don’t offer redemptions for one.

  14. I’ll take an AA 77W J seat over every other J option in the sky. Such a great experience.

  15. Not sure how this compares to its competitors’ high-status levels, but as an EXP I greatly value the ability to change or cancel AA award seats without penalty. This means when I am flying on a revenue seat and I’m trying to get the husband onto an award seat on the same flight, I can book an inferior option and make last-minute changes or cancel right up to the day of travel, as better seats open up or plans change.

    This also proved very helpful for both of recently when mom-in-law had a series of unexpected hospital visits on the other side of the country — the changing plans could be accommodated without onerous penalties.

  16. Carrie you were wrong. Just say that your sorry and move on or shut up. You cannot used Skypesos for any international First Class. At least on AA and UA you can do that on partner airlines. This is one reason why I don’t collect skymiles.

  17. @beachfan- I use saver awards all the time. Idk what you’re talking about. Extinct? Just because they aren’t available exactly when you want them doesn’t mean they’re not available. I see them all the time on last minute trips. I usually see them when the dollar cost is extremely high too. I’ve taken them to and from Europe in business class last year, to the caribbean and back many times and across the US to San Diego and LA from Portland, Maine or Boston, MA and back. Sorry you don’t find them but I see them often, I also look often…

  18. Super article; AA is my preferred domestic carrier (holding my nose + I am DFW based). Having said that, as a CK, I get treated awesomely. I am sure I would not feel the same way as a EXP.

  19. Showing a picture of a AA 737-800 with IFE I think is a little miss leading. Most I have travel on did not, even in first class. If you know any way of figuring out which AA aircraft have IFE it would be greatly appreciated. Good article. Thank you.

  20. AA is superior to DL at least in that AA EXPs can earn up to eight upgrades per year that can be used for international travel. These upgrades can be used for first class if one buys a business-class ticket. Also I beleive DL does not allow cancellation and refund of award tickets less than three days from departure while AA does not have this restriction.

    Carrie is confused by DL deceptively referring to its business class as Delta One.

  21. I have to agree that AA 777-300ER biz seats are among the best in the industry. The air vent is a gift from God. Having just flown CX biz without the air vent it was so uncomfortable due to a super hot cabin temperature. I couldn’t sleep well.

    Thank you to AA for that and the ability to cancel award tickets up until the time of departure.

  22. Gary –
    Yes, elite flying status has become a thing of the past, tempered by the customers desire for everything at a discount ticket price. People lose sight of the fact that you don’t buy a plane ticket for the meal you get, the movie you might get to watch, or a seat that feels like a pillow top bed. You buy a ticket for efficient, safe travel from point A to B! That said, I feel that all of the legacy carriers are meeting their goal. The next time you want a gourmet meal consider a restaurant, next time you want a soft mattress check into the Ritz. You might consider Broadway for your entertainment next time but in the meantime, when you want someone to fly you safely from one location to another maybe you can appreciate all of the Airlines that work hard to accomplish this along with a few perks. I love how everyone is so critical of every aspect of an airline but oblivious to the work “behind the curtain” that is required just to get the jet off the gate on time! BTW, most of the jets that are late off the gate are a fault of slowly boarding passengers with ten pounds of luggage trying to fit it into a five pound hole! You can be as critical as you want of the elite first class amenities but this only makes you appear snobbish as most passengers will never experience the likes of first class. Truth be told, if most of our first class passengers were paying for their ticket themselves rather than their client or company footing the tab, they too would be with the rear end crowd! Don’t lose sight of the fact that there is another class of air travel. You either own your own jet or a fractional ownership. Now that type of travel is in a class that even most of our first class passengers will never experience! Air travel used to be a prestigious event when people actually dressed up a bit. Now – I see people board in pajamas, sweat pants, “wife beater” tee-shirts, and my favorite…. scrub suits! You are an incredible doctor when you have to travel from operating room to operating room via the airlines!
    It is easy to write an article that highlights inadequacies in the amenities offered to our passengers and I don’t like the fact that things go wrong or break. On whole, I think we accomplish the mission we are tasked with, and do it day in and day out thousands of times a day!

  23. Unfortunately, my experience with AA has been different. Delta’s is my preferred, but recently gave AA a shot at 3 consecutive weeks of travel. All 3 weeks were a disaster from cancelled flights and late flights, yes 1 week was due to weather, although Delta seemed to be able to get me where I wanted to go after AA couldn’t. I don’t need fancy seats, entertainment, or snacks, those are delighters. I just want safe on time arrival. AA just couldn’t get it done for me in the 3 weeks I gave them a chance.

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