We know something about the direction American will be going with the AAdvantage program:
- Bonus qualifying miles for elite status when paying premium fares (no penalty for cheap fares)
- No minimum spend requirement for status
- Top tier elites get 4 confirmed upgrades from any fare
- Revenue-based mileage earning from flights, similar to United and Delta, starting in a year
There are still likely changes to come:
- Changes to earning miles on American’s partners (we only know what British Airways and Iberia will look like)
- Changes to earning and/or benefits on Basic Economy fares
- Changes to award chart
As an American Executive Platinum, these changes will hurt a little. I’ll probably earn a few less miles, though not a lot, and of course I earn miles through many mechanisms other than flying. So it doesn’t make a huge difference for me in terms of my overall miles earning. I have too many American miles anyway, especially now that my US Airways miles have been combined into my AAdvantage account. I’ll also earn fewer confirmed international upgrades, although hopefully my flying patterns will be enough to earn 6.
Contra American’s internal narrative this does not make the program better for high value customers, but they are right that overall it doesn’t make the program worse than competitors. With these changes to ‘better align benefits with customer value’ they do not actually do anything to improve things for high value customers. There will be a small subset of customers who earn more miles (although I still have to believe we’ll see changes that make those miles worth less). But the real problem with the program is award and confirmed upgrade availability, and extortionate fuel surcharges (with the price of fuel low!) on their primary transatlantic partner British Airways.
On the redemption side, as of now United remains the best program for burning miles for business class to Europe or Asia. United also remains the best program for spending extra miles to get most any economy seat (only elites and co-brand cardholders get last seat availability, though pricing is most reasonable in this category). American remains the best program for burning miles for international first class. Delta remains the best program for burning large numbers of miles at very low value.
I still think American’s 500 mile upgrade certificate system is better for Golds (25,000 mile flyers) than complimentary unlimited upgrades for all elites at Dlta and United. It means that Golds don’t compete against every other Gold and every Platinum every time, making actually clearing the upgrade when it’s requested more likely.
And for me as an Executive Platinum – until and unless this is changed – American has a far better domestic upgrade program than either United or Delta.
- United and Delta prioritize full fare over elite status for upgrades.
- So a silver on a full fare ticket trumps a 100,000+ mile flyer.
United also places their revenue-based top tier Global Services members over 100,000 mile flyers for upgrades.
As long as American doesn’t change their upgrade priority, AAdvantage remains a win for me as a top tier elite.
American has no 75,000 mile tier. Location aside – since one’s city often determines one’s choice of airline – a 75,000 mile flyer, especially on high fares, may be best off with United. American’s systemwide upgrades presumably will still have no minimum fare requirement, while United’s require buying a more expensive ticket in order to be eligible to waitlist for the upgrade. And of course United doesn’t upgrade the extra money you spend for the upgrade lottery ticket when the upgrade doesn’t clear.
Ultimately this leaves Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan alone as the best all-around airline loyalty program in the United States, in my opinion. How long Alaska stays that way is anyone’s guess of course but hopefully Delta’s onslaught on Seattle and their view that a quality frequent flyer program differentiates them from Delta and other competitors will be a reason to keep it that way. Of course Alaska doesn’t have the international route network (or domestic route network!) and confirmed international upgrades to make them a viable alternative for customers throughout much of the U.S.
For those customers outside of Alaska Airlines hubs and focus cities, or who fly international and wish to upgrades, they’re left with American, United, and Delta. And until more shoes drop American’s frequent flyer program still looks more attractive to me that United’s or Delta’s. Just less so. And with more areas of AAdvantage potentially changing, that could easily change. And with United’s overall indications that they’d like to actually be flyer friendly and not just just say so, they could face competition.
After all, AAdvantage finds itself cutting value to flyers (even incrementally) at a time when competition is heating up in the industry. Fares are falling. That’s when you need to rely on your marketing engine more than before. United and Delta made cuts to their program at a time when they thought they didn’t need to spend dollars to fill incremental seats on planes. American finds itself doing so precisely at the moment that they need to. We may even be entering the kind of period where consumer pushback against changes has actually worked before.