American Cracking Down on Award Availability Trick (and Gutting Free Elite Changes)

A little over a year ago American Airlines started offering more coach award space, and they did it in an interesting way. Traditionally a given flight segment either has award space or it doesn’t, and you can combine whatever flights have space as long as they correspond to a program’s award rules.

For instance if Austin – Dallas has space and Dallas – Los Angeles has space, you can book Austin – Dallas – Los Angeles. Or you can book Dallas – Los Angeles.

  • Award space was generally available on flights that were expected to go out with empty seats
  • But they wouldn’t always be available — they wanted to make sure members didn’t book tickets with miles they’d have been willing to pay cash for

What American did though was start opening up award space on a married-segment basis. It seems that flights they’re selling less expensively would be made available, especially at less convenient times that aren’t as likely to sell. This is in coach, on American’s own flights.

  • It means more award space.

  • It also means a whole host of new restrictions

If Austin – Dallas – Los Angeles is available, it used to be that Los Angeles – Dallas would be available too. But now American says they may want to sell the Dallas – Los Angeles non-stop flight, but they’ll make it available only as part of that larger itinerary.

At first there was a workaround. You could put the whole itinerary American was making available on hold, and then drop the segment you didn’t want. American has cracked down on this, and agents can get into a lot of trouble now helping you do it.

For me this is actually a huge devaluation of Executive Platinum status (and also of ConciergeKey status). One of the things I value most is being able to change award tickets without a fee. Sometimes only part of an itinerary that I want will be available. I’ll book it. And then I’ll add the missing segment(s) later when space opens up.

Now, however, if the flights I want to add aren’t available as part of the married itinerary American won’t let me add them to what’s already booked. The award change flexibility afforded top elites essentially goes out the window.

I’ve heard from several agents who are frustrated with this — they cannot help customers as well as they used to be able to, and they’re being ‘watched’ now, much more closely scrutinized than before. Agents report that more calls are being listened to and more key strokes are being reviewed.

It’s gotten harder and harder to circumvent American’s married segment logic. Now I wouldn’t try, because an agent that helps you do it puts themselves in jeopardy.

Overall American’s shift to married segment availability has increaed the amount of coach award space on offer. It’s also represented a shift towards revenue-based redemption — there’s essentially a fare value tied to an award, and availability is determined based on the value revenue management assigns to an itinerary. In the long run that’s bad for customers. Sure it means 5000 mile awards, and 12,500 miles to Hawaii with no changes permitted, but it also means miles worth about a penny apiece.

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. This is a *huge* devaluation–and mirrors what made SkyMiles next to worthless a few years ago. The biggest advantage of award change waivers granted to top elite flyers is the ability to grab seats as they come available, segment, by segment. *Especially* at the last minute there will almost never be availability “all the way through” to shift to that aspirational premium cabin space that just opened up a week out while maintaining the domestic connections. Given AA’s really nasty policies about baggage interlining, this is even more than just about money: sometimes there isn’t enough time to collect bags between segments on separate tickets, even if you want to pay cash for part of the ticket.

  2. You have it exactly right. A lot of these shenanigans are about discouraging people from using their miles or AA being able to perpetuate the charade of saaver award availability when the only routing with a reasonable total travel time is on an aanytime award. Especially egregious for premium awards, with things little landing in LGA for an onward flight from JFK.

    You also make the point I’ve been making for a while. Most redemption American are for 1 cent or less per AA mile.

  3. This can affect premium cabin redemptions to. If there’s only economy space (or the plane only has economy) on the domestic ticket to connect to the international gateway you can get screwed by this.

    It’s such a big devaluation for all members that really only adds to the inconvenience of using one’s miles.

  4. AA seriously need to stop destroying everything.
    Every time I think they hit the bottom, they prove me wrong.

  5. This is a double ‘screw you’ to customers in hub markets – we have to pay extra money for the privilege of flying nonstop on our paid tickets, and after racking up enough miles, we need to pay again for the privilege on award tickets!

  6. typical AA-mouthpiece JonNYC fear mongering here. Any smart EXP (who has free changes and refund on awards) could simply book the original married segment as is, then later down the road say “my travel plans have changed”.

  7. @henry LAX, you’re missing the point of the policy. According to the newly enforced rules, “my travel plans have changed” means that the agent should re-ticket the reservation based on current availability, and not allow you to keep part of a married segment.

  8. Apparently, henry LAX thinks that AA (in trying to close a loophole) is going to actually keep that loophole wide open.

    Way to go.

  9. Great… I finally hit Exec Platinum this year for the first time… So maybe I should make this the last time. Thanks for making this decision easier AA! Status challenge on another carrier here I come!

  10. Gary, the new thing I’ve started seeing is award segments that are married not only by routing but also by flight times.

    For example, check MSY-CLT-RDU on 12/23 in saver coach 12.5K. If I choose the 7:15-10:13 am departure, it shows connecting flight options including 5:59p, 8:35p, 10:45p. It also shows a 12:11-3:04 pm departure to MSY, but for that one, the only available connection is overnight, CLT-RDU the next morning.

    In other words, the 5:59 pm CLT-RDU IS valid for a MSY-CLT-RDU routing, but only when connecting from the flight with the 8 hour layover, and not the one with the 3 hour layover.

  11. American copied this from Delta which started it 2-3 years ago. As airlines keep whittling benefits and reducing flexibility, they are getting closer to pushing me to become a free agent. When miles become worth only 1 cent apiece with no booking flexibility, I will leave a program. I can get a credit card and easily earn cash back of 2 cents per dollar, and then buy any ticket I want from any airline. And when more and more people stop playing the airline credit card game, the airline credit card revenue subsidies will dive. They started the best loyalty program ever, and now they are killing it.

  12. So Gary – when’s the next time you’re going to tell us about a great AA credit card offer we can’t miss? (or a Delta one).

    You’ve got no credibility whining (like that whole last para) about restrictions that make frequent flyer miles less valuable – when all you do is push miles inflation and devaluation via credit cards.

  13. Being I left American I could care less
    They self destructed long before this and going forward until they actually value customers
    Its farewell for good!
    My condolences for all those that still string along being abused

  14. Can’t you just book a married segment as a one-way and then drop the final segment when you fly? This assumes a return leg is available from your departure point

  15. In booking an international business itinerary I often need to downgrade the domestic legs and then when business/first opens up I get the legs upgraded. Do you think this will now come to a screeching halt as well?

  16. Have people noticed as I have that when I book an AA award flight and put it on hold, the number of miles required doesn’t hold still? I’ve observed this a couple of times in recent weeks. I book an domestic economy round trip award at 25,000 miles, put it on hold, then a couple of days later come back to pay for it, but the mileage required has soared in the meantime. Is this a glitch or is the hold feature rendered useless?

  17. Long time EP. Ran into this last week and had no idea of the change. Booked a 5am SAAVER Biz award SAT>CLT>JFK>BCN. A few days later the 859am the SAT>JFK opened 2 seats in SAAVER 1st. It took 5 calls and long holds with other desks to change. The agents were either frustrated or confused by the new system. This completely negates the benefits of EP status. Another frustrating change from AA. The race towards to bottom continues….

  18. @henry LAX, If JonNYC is an “AA mouthpiece,” then why would he fear-monger? An AA mouthpiece would do the opposite, tell us there is no cause for concern. I’m very confused by your comment “typical AA-mouthpiece JonNYC fear mongering here.”

  19. @DaveS, I have not seen the award price change while on hold. Can you give an example? Next time it happens, I suggest asking an agent to check the original price quote in the itinerary, and to call tariff to restore it if need be.

  20. It sounds like an astounding limitation, even worse than the limit of four segments per international award (three for domestic). I’ve read that AA makes far more profit selling miles than selling flights. If so, seems remarkably foolish to make miles even more difficult to use. At what point will people abandon AA-affiliated cards in favor of generic travel rewards?

  21. So I have a question. Say I want to fly Business Class from LGA-HKG. However, there is saver business availability from DFW-Hong Kong, but no saver availability from LGA-DFW. In the past, I would have booked the DFW-HKG leg. When LGA-DFW leg became available, I would call and the agent would happily add it. (Since I gave up my EP, for a fee, which I would happily pay.) Are you saying that now, they will not longer do that? Instead, they will reprice the whole award based on today’s availability? That would be a massive downgrade.

    Although I am no longer an AA elite, I have about 400,000 miles from when I was. Shakespear said, “Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d”. Well, I am not a woman, and I am not sure this statement is politically correct, but really, but this statement seems apropros for how I feel about AA right now.

  22. USA frequent flyer programs have become absurdly complicated, and I could certainly see how this change in policy could be bad for top elite flyers who are good at gaming the system. But, overall, I would say the SIGNIFICANT increase in award availability that the new married segment policy has brought has been significantly beneficial to the vast majority of AAdvantage members. People who complain when their favorite loophole gets closed have to remember that these programs aren’t designed and maintained for loophole seekers. If you find one, great, but when the loophole gets closed, try to maintain some perspective.

  23. I have seen this on UA for years – now suddenly news on AA?? The online portal often offers crappy segments and connections. Just yesterday I found a better connection with space (i.e. shorter layover) for LAX-SFO which will have plenty of open seats but 1K agent refused to change the ticket because the other segment was no longer available. Was advised to try a free SDC at 24 hour mark. Very frustrating and not a way to keep elites happy.

    That being said 1K (and presumably ExecPlat) still offers value because often space will open on more desirable nonstop within a week of travel and you can then switch.

  24. This applies to business awards as well. I recently held RSW-MIA-CDG one-way U class on both legs. I ended up needing only the second leg. Before ticketing I called and asked to drop the first leg. No go with EXP desk. Even a supervisor refused to do it.

  25. All the more reason I don’t bother trying for ExPlt status any more, and all the more reason that I don’t make an effort to fly AA if there are other good options around.

    Killing off the frequent flyer program through 1000 cuts. Like Skymiles did – only there is still availability for many awards on DL that aren’t available on AA.

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