American Airlines Sent Me a Year in Review and It Has Me Questioning the Value of Loyalty

I’ve been mostly grounded for the past three months since my daughter was born. I made two quick trips to DC, just two nights each, and my wife and I also went to New York. Our infant daughter did wonderfully on the flights in both directions, and it was great to get compliments from other passengers.

With less flying, and spreading my flying out across more airlines more often than ever before, I only just requalified for American’s Executive Platinum status this week.

Ironically for the flight that did it I was in the last row of coach. My connecting flight home to Austin was delayed. But my flight to Dallas Fort-Worth got in early I managed to get on an earlier (delayed) Austin flight that was already midway through boarding. I was grateful for the back of the plane — and I even lucked out with the row to myself.


Yes that’s a stain on my shirt from the gulab jamun I ate for dessert on my inbound flight

American just sent out an email summary of the year, which is a pretty cool idea. It opens,

It’s been said that so much of who we are is where we have been. We hope you’ve enjoyed where we’ve taken you this year and are grateful you’ve chosen to spend so much of your time with us in the skies.

I couldn’t help but think of this scene from Hitch

For me this summary was just a reminder of how much less valuable my status has become. Here’s some of what they shared.

I only flew American domestically in 2018. Living in the middle of the country I don’t find myself on premium transcon flights or even widebodies very often. Instead I slog it out domestically on Boeing 737s. And there are now 18 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in American’s fleet, along with 41 Boeing 737s that have been converted to have the same interior (“Oasis”).

That means less legroom in first class (and a less comfortable seat, with obstructed underseat storage despite not having a seat back screen). It means less legroom in Main Cabin Extra and the rest of coach. The coach seat has less padding than before, which is okay for a short flight but anything three hours and up is painful (and they use these planes on flights over 7 hours).

My 100,000 miles flown earned me just over 62,000 bonus miles.

Before AAdvantage went revenue-based I would have earned 100,000 bonus miles. So I’m 38% worse off than before.

I used to receive upgrades almost every time I flew. There are more elites now since the merger, more passengers with a bigger route network means it’s easier to fly more miles — especially for people on either side of the country. Planes are more full than ever before, and first class is sold less expensively than it used to be. American is selling almost 50% of its domestic first class.

So what did Executive Platinum get me? What was it worth?

There’s a reason that I earned elite status with Southwest Airlines this year, too. They’re the biggest carrier at my home airport and they have the only legally permitted non-stop from Washington National to Austin thanks to the antiquated perimeter rule that United lobbies to keep in place. There are only a limited number of flights permitted to travel more than 1250 miles from that airport, and Austin is 1315 miles away.

I will continue to fly American Airlines. They are the largest full service carrier in my home market, and they have a hub at my most frequent destination where I fly for work every month. I will also fly other airlines too — something I didn’t used to do. There was a time when I needed to go somewhere my first and only stop was aa.com.

When even Executive Platinum status isn’t worth all that much anymore — while ConciergeKey status has gotten better — I think it underscores how much has changed about the idea of airline loyalty in the United States over the past four years.

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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Comments

  1. Want to know whats worse? 13.5 times round the world, top 1% EP, over 530K flown miles, over $80K EQD, 101 segments and NOT Concierge Key! If this is not a travesty, nothing is. Oh, and ALL travel was business class- long haul – AA, CX and QR. Zero Systemwide used. THey must really like me (after 15 years EP)

  2. Want to know whats worse? 13.5 times round the world, top 1% EP, over 530K flown miles, over $80K EQD, 101 segments and NOT Concierge Key! If this is not a travesty, nothing is. Oh, and ALL travel was business class- long haul – AA, CX and QR. Zero Systemwide used. They must really like me (after 15 years EP)..!

  3. Want to know whats worse? 13.5 times round the world, top 1% EP, over 530K flown miles, over $80K EQD, 101 segments and NOT Concierge Key! If this is not a travesty, nothing is. Oh, and ALL travel was business class- long haul – AA, CX and QR. Zero Systemwide used. They must really like me (after 15 years EP)..!

  4. Thanks for sharing! I will be curious to see how long you stay with AA vs SWA now that you have a baby. I live in an AA hub but chose SWA because of the flight schedules and benefits. (A+ and Companion pass are hard to beat with a kid). Although I have flown every major us airlinee this year (based on schedule)

  5. A very belated congratulations on your new family member! As for less important matters…

    Take if from someone who’s done it, Gary, leaving both AA Exec Plat and United 1K in the dust: Simply going with whatever airline works best for a given trip is liberating.

    Besides, even if you still need to fly American frequently:

    1. I’d imagine you have some sort of AA lifetime status that helps you out.
    2. There may be times (admittedly far fewer than a decade ago), when a combination of 15K miles and $75 can get you an AA upgrade in advance.

  6. Well sure, if you’re only flying domestic short hops then the “value” of EXP is going to be limited.

    But it’s quite a jump to go from there to a blanket statement that “even Executive Platinum status isn’t worth all that much anymore”. Your use case eliminates the utility and applicability of a large swatch of the EXP benefits.

    And “benefit” would be a much better term to use than “value” when talking about status levels.

  7. Yes indeed, AA’s new seats totally suck; AA execs should be required to use them in their office.

    Yet, in reality, lowering the price of First and filling it with revenue pax works for the benefit of many more than the few who fly more frequently.

    Gone are the days when an Eastern FA brought me a sundae in coach because First was sold out between PHL-IAH in 1979.

    I still believe we need to open our air market to cabotage/fifth freedom to be served by the competent, service-oriented foreign carriers.

  8. Those AA737Max are bad, but nothing compared to a long haul in a 10 across AA777. In the 777s if you or either of your adjacent seatmates are remotely broad shouldered, you will be touching them the entire flight – a more egregious situation than my knees touching the seat in front.

  9. I agree with Steve. I found it liberating when I made the decision not to bother qualifying for United 1K. Now I’m not bound to any one airline and since I’m a million miler with UA and AA I have enough benefits to keep me happy. I would rather fly less and pay for FC when I want to sit upfront. Before I was flying to maintain status now I’m much happier only flying when I really need to do it or really want to do it.

  10. Perhaps AA’s meditation and mood music will help hypnotize and sooth those anti-social customers that usually would not appreciate others invading their personal space. If the music is good enough, they could update go to 7 across seating on 737’s and 12 across on 777’s.
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  11. I got the same e-mail today. 260K EQMs, 65K EQDs. All but one flight paid F or J. No Concierge Key. About 50% of that earned on partners (including the evil QR), so that I assume is what did it.

  12. I have been trying to use my miles – no flights on AA – all routing is connections with IB or BA and business on the AA Domestic leg and coach on the overseas flight – at the business class level of miles and ridiculous fees – when they have 2 daily non-stop flights and unless I want to do the highest level of miles – no space??????? I’m looking way out in the future 220K miles for one ticket

  13. @Gary — congratulations on the baby!

    @DT (and others) — the CK metric is profitability. If you spent $80k on 530k miles and 101 segments, you are not that profitable.

    From the data points online, I see two common CK scenarios: (1) spend per segment is greater than $1,000; or (2) spend per actual flown mile is greater than $0.50.

  14. Congratulations on the kid. I do hope that the picture is not of your wife, since you often find great fault with the TSA, and that would cause much domestic strife.

    The Oasis seems to be named as an oasis from comfort.

  15. Five upgrades out of how many total AA flights for the year? How much do you figure you could save by going with other airline options? Congrats on the baby.

  16. Having Exec Platinum status gives you more to blog about but, otherwise, if I lived in the middle of the country at a non-hub airport and was only flying AA domestically, I wouldn’t give a fig about status. Well. I guess I’d want AA gold status because that gives you plausible free seat assignments and decent pre-boarding, which is more than enough for these short flights. What I would focus on is getting as many nonstops as I possibly could on any airline, as nonstops would be a clearly better flying experience than connecting (even with an upgrade).

    Congrats on your baby. I don’t envy flying with young children these days given how crowded most flights are. In the “old days” (like 15 years ago) it was pretty easy to get an empty free seat for a lap child. I never paid. But I think I would now because empty seats are scarce and there’s less pitch between seats. If you didn’t want to pay, I would think WN would be your best choice because a parent with a lap child is going to be the last empty seat on the plane!

  17. Long over due congratulations on becoming a father.

    Hopefully your daughter lets you get enough sleep when you’re home, or maybe we will see the results of the life event in what is written in this blog.

    Looking forward to you gaining expertise in lap child infant ticketing and other child travel related travel matters and sharing more of that. Will VFTW have a child blog known as daddypoints.com, to continue on boardingarea.com where mommypoints left off? 😀

  18. If you want to earn Star Gold status from your daughter’s flights too, Egyptair’s program may be for you. If you just want to earn redeemable miles (and not also status miles for yourself) from her flights, you may want to consider something like the Aegean Together accounts or some Asian airline programs that have family accounts.

    Looking forward to seeing how your daughter changes your travel and other experiences, your knowledge base and even your politics, and in how all of that gets reflected in this blog for as long as there is enough credit card referral and other ad/marketing-related money coming in from it or whomever buys it.

  19. As I heard one Indian parent say to their child a long time ago: “you will become a gulab jamun if you eat too many gulab jamun””. Decades later, that very Indian parent became a grandparent and told their portly child, “you owe it to our grandchildren that you don’t become a gulab jamun”.

    I like gulab jamun, rasmallai and some other Indian desserts as much as the next person, but Indian desserts seem to make for a lot of diabetic and cardiology patients. It’s never too late to try to eat healthy, live healthy and exercise so as to ramp up the energy level to try to keep up with the little folk for a bit longer before they become too fast.

    Which airline was serving the gulab jamun on a flight? One of the GCC3?

  20. There is such little benefit anymore for Exec Plat… Its a joke. My Brother is Plat Pro and we compare numbers,benifits, etc and there is litteally no difference or advantage. As gary said, AA Domestic is either 737 or A321’s, You’re dealling with 12-16 First Class Seats, 50% Purchased. There are 50 people on the upgrade list every flight for 4-6 Seats!! Waste of time!

    We should all just be happy with the beneifts of Pre-Check, Lounge Access, Early Boarding, No Checked Bag fees , better access to main Cabin Extra? I guess this is Utopia?

  21. Congrats on the baby, that’s wonderful news!

    As for status, outside your upgrades and a handful of bonus miles it seems it’s time to fly what you need to without regard to status, just grab a credit card for the other benefits. And early boarding on AA is easy, they never check so just walk on up whenever you’d like to board!

  22. Yeah…

    Will be EP in 2019. 30,688 “bonus miles from Elite status”… 307,704 “award miles earned without flying”.

    10 times more miles for CC promotions and CC spend.

    Maybe loyalty to AA means no longer actually sitting in their planes?

  23. I received the same email. I will requalify for American EXP after today’s flight home. I received 86 upgrades this year on exactly 120 EQS’s. Many of the regional jets like the Embraer RJ145 that I am on don’t have first class and I fly standby a lot which always puts me in coach. My home airport is a regional airport and I usually fly into a regional airport. The best part of EXP is no cost standby/priority standby and upgrade to first class on the CRJ-900 in seat 2A which is a single aisle with lots of legroom.

  24. Congrats on the baby!! I too fly out of ABIA, and didn’t realize AA was the biggest carrier, but I guess it makes sense since DFW is so close, I also didn’t realize the thing about National airport, which is crazy- I grew up in DC and always wondered why the hell I couldn’t get a damn direct flight to DCA!!

    I am a United 1K and have been pretty pleased about upgrades overall but I definitely search for planes that have only one or two seats booked up front, to the point where I will go a day early to get a better chance at getting the international upgrade using a GPU. At this point I am honestly flying with loyalty only until I achieve million miler status in the next year or so. Once I get that and can book Econ Plus for free and free bags checked, I’ll bail on loyalty and just buy whoever has the cheapest business class fare. Which is rarely United and almost always Turkish for me.

  25. Mine said “5+ upgrades received” when I got upgraded on INTL trips more than 12 times this year TATL alone, plus a bunch of domestic UG’s. So, I think that’s the highest number they are reporting for the EXP requal emails.

  26. I achieved Platinum for life ( 2MM miles) and was elated but realized it’s not a big deal anymore since the merger.
    Sure, I get grp 3 boarding but I find most gate attendants seem to call grp 1, grp 2 and then
    grp 3 and 4, etc. It’s a cattle call anyway. 2 free checked bags, big deal I usually carryon. I do get exit row which is nice but I’m tired of the cattle call, fighting my way through the gate lice and I haven’t be able to use my upgrades in 6 months! Plus I had to pay a $200 (company did) change fee. I find some AA flight and gate attendants lazy and seem to not care. Don’t announce reasons for delays and skip grps.
    Southwest on the other hand advertises exactly what they offer, plus their mileage awards are much less than AA. I’m located in PHX and can use either airlines and I’m going to be looking at Southwest a little closer for shorter flights.

  27. @Sam – correct, AA is the largest full service carrier and I note in the past day or so that I’m flying Southwest quite a bit because they are largest overall

  28. It seems that this thread has morphed from looking at the e-mail data to generally bashing AA’s frequent flier wards program, which if one is honest, while not perfect, is still vastly superior to the pump and dump scheme Delta is operating….

    That said, onto the year in review: Apparently I spent 393 hours in the air with AA and I’m not done yet. Also, they say, I am in the top 1% of CK fliers on mileage flown. That made me feel pretty good until they told my wife she was in the top 1% of Platinum since I find the conclusion questionable — might be true though since we are hitting miles not dollars. FYI, I will be close to 600K MQMs this year on AA, was slightly over that in 2017.

    Gary specifically mentions Concierge Key, so after two years let me give you my impressions. I like the program but the value you derive from it will differ HUGELY depending on the type of flyer you are. If you fly domestic, buy coach and look for an uplift you are probably golden. If, OTOH, you fly globally, buy your business and first seats using the occasional Y Up, the benefits are going to focus more on how you are treated. Yes, I like getting on first, and when flying through DFW the meet and greet can be a great stress saver.

    From my direct observation: It is hard to earn CK just by flying a lot. If you want it badly enough buy a $60K Airpass (the flexibility of which has made my traveling life so much easier) from Monica Comey at AA. I think, but don’t know, that AA uses CK status to toady up to influencers who impact corporate travel budgets. Several of the other Keys I have encountered have been total asses (rude and excessively demanding to staff, etc.) flying coach with an expectation…..but then, they might say the same about me, except, I don’t fly coach.

    Just my 10c

  29. Gary,

    In what way is American “full service” and Southwest not? Southwest gives the average customer free baggage check, American doesn’t Southwest doesn’t charge for seat assignments, American does. Southwest offers more non-stop destinations from your airport than American. The only thing American has is international flights.

    I would fly Southwest more, but they tend to be 10-25% more expensive than the legacy airlines in my experience.

  30. I’ve been forced to fly American these days out of PHX – I make the PHX – PHL route several times per year – what I can’t understand is how on earth on a 4+ hour flight there still isn’t any power at the seats – just nuts. It’s an old A320 and maybe just maybe they’ll change the plane but for this year no such luck.

  31. EP for years- didn’t receive my Year in Review last year or this year. My wife is Gold and received her both years. 150K+ miles this year. Called AA Web desk last year and they said I would get mine by Jan 30….nada and not holding out hope this year either.

  32. I’m platinum for life, for what that’s worth. I used to fly only on American, even when it cost more. AA marketing geniuses gutted the AAdvantage loyalty program to the point where I fly American on price, but my first choice airline has become Jet Blue. Thank you American for opening my eyes to how devalued the loyalty of your customers has become. I can no longer just excuse employees who can be downright rude. If American ever puts an Oasis interior on routes I fly, I’ll never fly the airline again.

  33. The merger of US and AA was problematic due to such differing business models. US became a “low cost carrier” some years ago when it was acquired by America West – who rightly decided to retain the US Airways name. US wasn’t a pure LCC when it acquired AA, but had a number of the characteristic business practices. My “loyalty” has been exclusively to Virgin America, Jet Blue, and Southwest for a number of years. However, I find myself soon to depart on an AA A321 DCA-DFW. I paid for exit row 22D, but upon reading the less-than-glowing reviews of the seat’s proximity to the midcabin lavs, opted for 31D. I also wish AA’s web site had advised me 22D had no underseat storage and a large immovable arm rest taking up seat space when I selected and paid for the seat. Of course, AA’s website DID advise me upon my opting from 22D to 31D that seat upgrade fees remain non-refundable. And knowing the nickle-and-diming nature of the Big Three, I probably won’t get the early boarding that came with my paid-non-refundable seat upgrade as well. But, “THANKS, AA” for reminding me of exactly why I avoid the Big 3 (DL, AA, UA) like the blood-sucking vampire plague they are.

  34. I too have become less enchanted with AA on many levels! Uncomfortable seats, no power on the old USair planes, no leg room, young rude flight attendants, etc.
    I have to say I am the most sick of the constant credit card pitches on every flight!! If only you could get the flights they pitch over and over! Southwest is getting more of my business all the time. Such a shame… I miss the old American before it was USair in an American wrapper….

  35. I stopped flying AA when they cancels all my miles for lack of activity. I loved AA until then. I must have missed that email reminder. Yes, I was an infrequent flier but did have 25,000 miles. I know my comment is not worth much to those who really fly, but it hurt just the same. Southwest doesn’t/t cancel my miles and now I have over 200K. I did fly AA last year to Hawaii (Southwest doesn’t fly there yet), I think they pulled the plane out of the museum, the TV monitors were cathode tube TV’s and the overhead compartments were very small, and I had to check my normally acceptable carry on bags. I was nervous the entire flight wondering of the plane was going to make it there.

  36. For many years I was a TWA then a NWA gold card holder. Always got upgraded to first class
    When we would fly to Asia I would buy a coach ticket and upgrade with points;
    Now I seldom fly but when I do I fly SWA I have a Visa card that earns points and use it for family and friends.

    Flying used to be enjoyable but today’s cattle cars aren’t fun.

  37. Several comments. First, you can get free bags with a free credit card so that is worth zero. Second, systemwide upgrades are a okay if you can use them. I have never used all mine but I do think it is a valuable benefit, at least in my case. I tend to buy only business because I mostly travel internationally and it is somewhat easy to use it from business to first but they only have international first now on the B777-300. That means for me London or HK, some Tokoyo, but not, unfortunately Sydney or New Zealand, although I have switched to Qantas for that SYD flight from DFW anyway because it avoids the dreaded LAX and the seats and service are significantly better than the AA flights (and I do mean significantly).

    Lastly, although perhaps most important to me, and as I have said before, American is not a transportation company and you have to think of it only as a sales and marketing system. If they get you there that is great, and they hope it happens, but it isn’t particularly relevant to their main goal of producing revenue. That explains the complete lack of attention to detail, service, comfort and especially timeliness. They simply don’t emphasize any of that because with the demand and price sensitivity there is no need. I was reading a hospitality industry magazine yesterday and one of the accomplishments AA listed under “customer service” was that they hired 165 more sales agents. Not more baggage handlers, not more gate agents, not more lost baggage service desk reps, not more “distressed passenger” reps. And, while they have spent huge amounts on cabins and seating, as you point out, it certainly wasn’t for improved comfort or leg room. It was to get more revenue from a limited space by cramming more people in regardless of how much you pay for your class of service.

    Except for the fact that I believe the American flight crews are extremely concerned about safety, I believe the company has lost sight of its history and vision and certainly of any customer satisfaction or comfort. It has become a ponderous, confused hulk of a company lead by management that has no interest or perhaps ability to improve it. At the risk of repeating myself, it is not an airline it is just a marketing company. What a sad, sad story.

  38. Gary, congrats on the baby!

    I do wish folks would stop referring to these as “loyalty” programs. Best I can tell they’re more about being incentive programs than loyalty. The goal is to make you fly them more often – part of the reason that upgrade priority is based on rolling EQMs.

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