American AAdvantage Award Availability and Redemptions are Up

During the American Airlines second quarter earnings call they offered several metrics of success for their AAdvantage loyalty program. They offered that,

  • Redemptions are up
  • Their elite population has increased
  • Yield growth among their elites outpaces the airline’s average
  • Co-brand credit card acquisition and spend is up

They noted that last year they “increased redemption inventory” which “increased the value of miles” and that in the second quarter they took a 0.8 point negative hit to unit revenue because of increased award redemption trading off with paying customers in seats. Furthermore they “anticipate a similar impact for the remainder of the year.”

The story they tell about the numbers they’re seeing seems at odds to the experience that frequent flyers have with the AAdvantage program, so it’s worth unpacking what’s going on.

Award redemptions are up, and saver availability is up. We can see that in data reported to the SEC on the percentage of passengers using miles on American’s planes. The airline still lags competitors on that metric, but it has improved significantly.

In other words, it’s possible to use fewer miles for coach tickets than it used to be. They still have six award chart levels, and premium cabin international award space on American’s own flights more often than not seems to be a unicorn. But they are making strides with coach, which is where most people spend their miles. What American is doing is expensive.

There are traditionally two major considerations whether to make saver award space available,

  • Is a seat going to be sold for cash? Unsold inventory is cheap to offer to mileage customers. Once a plane takes off the revenue the airline can generate for an empty seat is zero, so they can give it away through the frequent flyer program.

  • Will making an award seat available discourage someone from buying a paid seat? Selling an award seat through a frequent flyer program is effectively offering it at a deep discount to customers who can pay with miles, which are supposed to be different customers than those who would pay with cash. It’s a form of price discrimination. However small businesses that might fund work travel with miles but that would otherwise pay cash are a problem for this model. They don’t want award availability to trade off with ticket purchases, which is why they might make only less desirable flight times available or ensure that upgrades can’t be confirmed too far in advance.

American has held back even seats that are going to go empty, avoiding making them available for miles. For instance I’ve seen transatlantic flights recently that have filled up their business class cabin with half nonrevs without a single saver award being available.

However in general planes are full, and making saver award space available means potentially trading off with paying customers. That’s the unit revenue hit the airline is talking about — they recognize less revenue from the award redemption than what they’d have sold the seat for if paying cash.

American is driving towards getting average value for miles, which is good if you just want to use a seemingly reasonable number of points to travel, and a lot less good if your goal is to get great value for your miles like international business class saver awards.

Of course the way I use my own AAdvantage miles – and I redeem AAdvantage miles for my own travel more than other currencies – is that I don’t actually want to fly American Airlines on an award, I use my miles to fly on partner airlines. There I still get great value, whether it’s first class on Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Etihad, or others.

Now, American says that their co-brand card acquisitions are up and that doesn’t surprise me since they’ve been offering much more attractive initial bonuses. Since they don’t give numbers here I’m skeptical that they’re doing as well as they suggest, at least through all of their acquisition channels.

They also report the number of elites are up, but they’ve been aggressively comping status and clearly don’t say the number of top tier elites are up. You’d expect elite numbers to grow as passenger numbers grow, and we’re in the late portion of the economic cycle. Remember that American’s increased spending requirement for status only applies to the 100,000 mile Executive Platinum tier.

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. Seems to me the person in charge of setting the award schedule probably flies non- rev and benefits from this perk. It’s ridiculous that this is offered to employees and their families at the expense of their loyal customers. Do they pay taxes on this?

  2. I have a question. AA is claiming an .8% hit to unit revenue because of award redemptions. Are they counting only those that booked an award on a flight that has 100%+ load factor or are they making a blanket accounting charge?

  3. This is all artfully worded sophistry by AAL. Investors see thru it as evidenced by the 8% hit the stock took today.

  4. Seems to me that AA has increased coach award space, but a great deal of it is for absolutely horrible itineraries involving an overnight stay at one of their hubs. When it comes to finding an efficient routing, their award availability is pretty much as horrible as it was before. At least that has been my experience.

  5. To @Jones point, I just booked the wife and self over to Europe for Sept, return Oct and found tons of Saver coach space but with absolutely nasty itineraries. I landed us saver J Bos to Lhr, which of course means BA metal and $600 each in fees plus 52,500 miles each, that was simple but expensive. Return is Hel to Bos and there was Saver space on AA metal so we get home with a 3 hop itinerary (Hel to Man to Phl to Bos) with a couple hours connection time in each hop. This Saver fare (J for 52,500 each plus $62) keeps us on AA metal, avoids BA and gets us home same day. But damn if there weren’t a whole bunch of really crappy itineraries offered up. Overnight in London, overnight in Philly, and some even worse. This has been true for a while now, 3 years ago we went J Bos to NRT and had to position ourselves to DFW to avoid wandering all over the bloody US to get to DFW for the flight to NRT. That in spite of about 6 flights from BOS to DFW every day. Once on board, the 777 had a nice business class, great seats, decent food, and very good booze.

    I am now down to only 80K AA miles. I have lots of Amex and Chase points, so I can freely move about the world as I see fit. I like AA, not one to bash them, I think their international business class is often very good. But I found it easier this past winter to book two round trips on Singapore Airlines (EWR to SIN) using Amex miles than I ever do trying to put together a reasonable routing on AA. I am lifetime Plat with AA so will likely use them for domestic travel but I suspect this one is our last international AA adventure for the foreseeable future. Now, the wife is talking Argentina for this winter so I may have to eat those words. But that would be better than most of the business class meals I have eaten recently.

  6. Please note that AA’s newest (apparent) scam for premium international awards. AA is finding availability on the international leg(s), but none on the domestic leg(s).

    In other words, if one were flying from Sacramento to Doha RT, AA will find Premium Saver availability on a DFW-DOH leg, but not the SMF-DFW nonstop leg. On the return, AA finds DOH-LAX premium availability, but none on the LAX-SMF nonstop leg. This requires a separate AAnytime award or the purchase of a separate ticket.

    This has happened in the past six months to me (an XP) twice now and another friend twice as well.

  7. Eh. If the masses are redeeming for coach seats on AA I’m quite ok with that. Not how I ever intend to spend miles if I can avoid it.

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