I Just Purchased American Airlines Tickets for Someone Else, and Two Things Struck Me

Here’s what it’s like not to have elite status on American Airlines. This is a two hour flight. In order to avoid paying extra for seats on top of their fare, and avoid a middle seat, these passengers are able to book something only in the last two rows of the aircraft. This is for travel two months out.

This seat map taught me something about basic economy — and why it is going to perform worse for American as they make the travel experience worse — and I noticed another big failure during the booking process as well.

Remind me the benefit of paying extra to avoid basic economy, in order to select seats at time of booking again? For someone without elite status, who isn’t concerned with the rate at which elite qualifying miles are earned and who won’t be upgraded, the only real benefits to buying up are:

  • Not boarding dead last, so carry on bags should fit in the overhead bin. One of the few benefits of American’s cabin retrofit program (cramming in more seats) is that they’re adding larger overhead bins, so this benefit of avoiding basic economy will be going away. By the way that’s one way in which ‘Project Oasis’ is going to cost American Airlines revenue — less benefit to buying up from basic to regular economy.

  • Assigning a seat at time of booking. Basic economy customers can pay for a seat assignment 48 hours in advance of travel, or will ahve a seat assigned to them at check-in. But the seat that gets assigned at check-in won’t be worse than what they can assign for free anyway, and it could wind u better if people don’t pay for the ‘good seats’.

Don’t fly United, which still bans basic economy passengers from bringing full sized carry on bags on board. And Southwest’s policies can be the most friendly for the median traveler.

However if you don’t have elite status it’s unclear why you’re spending more to avoid basic economy with a seat map that looks like this one does. And it’s a fairly common seat map.

Meanwhile am I the only one who thinks it’s absolute malpractice that American doesn’t have a way for customers to join the AAdvantage program within the booking path?

Given that the AAdvantage program accounts for all of American’s profits they surely should solicit passengers to join the program while they’re online and entering their personal information. Or they should at least make possible to join at the same time. Instead I have to go back and get these passengers to do it later, which may or may not happen.

It would go a long way towards steering business to American, too, to give their biggest boosters (Platinum Pro members and higher) the ability to book travel for friends and family and extend some kind of benefit of their status — maybe Group 5 boarding excluding basic economy fares. As it is I was simply making the choice here on the basis of schedule and price, but could have used this as an opportunity to both pay American more and help extend a loyalty relationship to other customers.

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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  1. As a non elite I see this often as well. If I am looking at a flight on American and I get to the seat map and it looks like this, virtually every time I click out and immediately reconsider every other flight on other airlines that will work for me. Almost always I end up booking away. American if you are listening, keep up the great work!

  2. American blocks out seats although they’re not actually taken. You can go thru the booking process (without actually buying) and get to the seat map screen and compare the seat selection between “economy saver” and “economy anytime” awards and see which seats are just blocked by American.

  3. I book award travel on AA 11 months in advance to an effort find any coach saver award space usually the first day the schedule is available. Never are the direct and logical connecting flights available and I find that the seat map is blocked out except row 13 (non movable seat backs) and the very back of the plane near the toilets often middle seats only. This is at a time when there are no ticketed passengers on the flights.
    At what point is the AA program shut down as a Ponzi scheme?
    IF they had to accrue the open liability of their points issued at 80% of what they sold for (a reasonable profit earned) wouldn’t they be insolvent?

  4. The obvious answer to all this is that AA is just a badly run airline which execs that aren’t actually examining the real world choices people are faced when booking AA

  5. Does American lose or make money when AA points are used on partner carriers? If the former I would think they would make it easier to use the points on their own planes and vice versa. Also a refinement on the first question, does this depend on whether the person has status or not? I would think a redemption from a person without status (who got the point through credit card spend) would cost less as they do not need to be extended status privileges. Following this line of thinking, American should make more of its award space available to folks with points but no status. This will drive sales of credit card points which is after all the profitable part of American.

  6. AA is obviously trying to combine 2 concepts into one upsell (and remember it’s the upselling that keeps the lights on — “regular” airfares are too low to make money on). The first upsell is seat assignments: offer non-elites almost no seats and convince them to buy a seat. On it’s own, that’s not a bad profit-maximizing strategy.

    But then this strategy overlaps with the new Basic Economy strategy. Once you can bring a carry-on, Basic Economy isn’t that bad. I mean, what’s it worth to avoid it? I’d say $20 or $30 for most customers, ASSUMING you can get a normal seat assignment for free. But, as you say, if there are no “good” seat assignments, why bother?

    Of course, you are presupposing that people booking airline tickets are RATIONAL. That’s a massive overstatement. I don’t think they are. I think a significant portion can be “tricked” to pay more for little. And I think that’s why these two programs overlap in an irrational way: because customers are, frankly, foolish. “Rationalizing” the choices would likely make AA less money. So what you see as “foolish” on AA’s part is probably the profit-maximizing strategy, at least for the moment.

  7. Since the vast majority of bookings I do for close family and friends is for NON-elite or any kind of statused travel (75% versus 25% for those with status; my partner and I are both likely to attain status with Delta for 2019 once they FINALLY CREDIT the two return flights JNB-LHR and LHR-JFK in PE from earlier this year that it and Virgin Atlantic keep insisting the other airline is responsible for crediting [long story; outbound miles were credited, but getting the return legs credited is taking a bit of doing with our eticket #’s having gone “lost” in both airlines records]; with him possibly even getting to Gold Elite given his quarterly transcon business trips in Comfort+, among other trips past or upcoming on Delta and/or SkyTeam airlines), what Gary has described here is EXACTLY why American isn’t even considered for bookings made for others, or ourselves (even though we swore off Always Awful for another reason back in 2014 when we had one of the worst customer service experiences imaginable at that airline – or any airline for that matter that’s been discussed elsewhere a few times and won’t be recounted here).

    Anyhow, this pretty much gets to the heart about why AA just isn’t even a factor when family and friends turn to me for advice, or to straight up book their flights.

    Leaving out AA’s awful, and ever worsening aircraft and overall product soft or hard, as Gary aptly notes, how does one reckon with this seat map madness once people are given information about fares, schedules and availability if only a certain amount of seats at a certain fare are shown as remaining available?

    The simple answer is you can’t – if only because then one either looks like an idiot for failing to provide clear, concise information, and has to do the airline’s dirty work of presenting the bigtime “bait & switch” – or they have to face the option of either punting the planned booking and starting all over searching for other, and better, alternatives on Delta, Southwest and JetBlue, with, of course, Southwest requiring a separate fare cursory search altogether on its web site.

    Or simply look like an idiot telling them they’re stuck in the last few rows of the plane if they don’t want to pony up the varying fees for other seats as seen in the example provided above by Gary.

    It’s all just so tedious, and what one gets in return so awful anyway – I mean hello 30” row pitch on an seatback IFE-less 737 with a teeny, tiny bathroom is Always Awful by any reasonable standard of decency and civility when flying, let alone the vicious hate sell one has to endure before being humiliated in such awful, cramped seats with a third rate IFE “option”.

    No, thanks!

    And that’s why AA really is Always Awful – bc you know what?

    It is.

    Thanks, Gary, for also explaining with a nifty seat map/very useful graphic one of the main reasons why Always Awful long ago was put on my personal, and anyone who seeks my assistance in planning/booking their flights, “No Fly” lists.

    With its bigness has come a degree of greed, arrogance and callousness that just makes it nothing more than a bigtime “why even bother looking, let alone booking and flying” airline for those who the airline more than amply makes clear, it could really give a rat’s tail about at all anyway.

    That’s why it’s Always Awful – bc it is.

  8. RE: Of course, you are presupposing that people booking airline tickets are RATIONAL. That’s a massive overstatement. I don’t think they are. I think a significant portion can be “tricked” to pay more for little. And I think that’s why these two programs overlap in an irrational way: because customers are, frankly, foolish. “Rationalizing” the choices would likely make AA less money. So what you see as “foolish” on AA’s part is probably the profit-maximizing strategy, at least for the moment.

    So, let me see if I understood what you’re saying correctly:

    Confusion, deceitfulness, chicanery, obfuscation are all fair game as long as it allows the airline to “trick” its customers in the name of maximizing profits from those whom are the least travel savvy, and whom because of their infrequency as consumers are deemed as ripe for exploiting to maximum effect as if a predator hunts for its prey.

    Is that correct?

    Just curious.

    FWIW, sure seems so to me, anyway. And not just by your discription as quoted above; bit also because your description pretty much sums up the situation EXACTLY for what it is at most airlines now – a total “screw you”, hate sell, that is.

  9. I used to bash Delta because of their worthless frequent flier program. Now that United and AA have joined them in that department, Delta is looking quite attractive. It is a much better airline (operationally) than the other two.

    I stopped the “miles game” a few years ago when I realized all of the chips are stacked in the airlines’ favor. I switched to a 2% cash back card and have never looked back. Now, when I need to book a trip, I have total freedom to book any airline without the pressure of being “loyal.” It’s quite liberating.

  10. In a booming economy with few large airlines, AA can’t make money on flights. What will it take to remove Parker? What he has done right besides get lucky sometimes? I’ve never met him, but I assume he’s an extremely likable great guy you’d want to have as a friend. It seems like the only explanation for his career.

  11. the funny part about this is I consistently hear from my co-workers who have to grudgingly fly American without status sometimes that they end up in the “good” (MCE/window/aisle) seats on a regular basis because people won’t pay for them. Basic economy passengers basically get the better end of the deal rather than the suckers that paid full boat

  12. RE: I’ve never met him, but I assume he’s an extremely likable great guy you’d want to have as a friend. It seems like the only explanation for his career.


    While I can’t possibly explain why Doug Parker’s “let’s just copy and paste the same crappy product we had at America West and US Airways onto American and hope it works” isn’t already causing alarm among the Board of Directors at this crumbling airline that, according to Gary’s analysis over the past few days, isn’t even making money transporting passengers, the truth is, you have hit the nail on the head about Mr. Parker!

    Having met him in year’s past at what used to be among the premier Wall Street Analyst conferences back in the day, the Merrill Lynch event that used to be held annually in the spring at the St. Regis Hotel in NYC, and having dined with him, I found him always to be EXACTLY as you described him: “extremely likable” – and probably for those whom one would expect to socialize in his universe, “a great guy you’d want to have as a friend.”

    He certainly was pleasant to talk with, and exceptionally bright, too.

    Which is something many might find that much more puzzling seeing how many things seem to be misfiring at American since he, and his minions from his days at America West, and later US Airways, were successful at engineering a semi-hostile takeover of legacy AA when it was in bankruptcy.

    Especially since his and his team’s “one size fits all” business model that may have been successful at his two prior airlines, clearly is failing, and on the verge of a freefall at American, which is an altogether different airline than either America West or US Airways were.

  13. The seat map that you show reminds of what I see when I try to book a flight on Alaska Air, now that AAdvantage members have no reciprocal benefits. This is a reason why I try to book on AA, unless the routing or pricing is unreasonable.

  14. “Don’t fly United, which still bans basic economy passengers from bringing full sized carry on bags on board.”

    Recently flew United from Europe to SFO and back to Europe on a new 787. R/T price was rock-bottom. Ticket bought directly from United.com in Europe. Ignored the upsell to premium economy. On both legs scored an entire row in premium economy just by asking to be re-seated at gate. By the way, if you read the fare rules you are allowed to carry-on a full-size bag *and* you are allowed to choose a seat on United international basic economy fares. At least for now. They put out a press release on it months ago and I printed it out and even carried it with me! Which ultimately was unnecessary.

  15. Mr. Parker is a likeable guy. I, as a customer, met him quite by accident in DFW one day. I wish I was to say it was because he was doing a “random audit” of his airline’s performance but he literally was coming off some press event and stopped to say “Thank you” to a few customers at the gate. Nice guy. Nice guy finishes last? Probably at this point, yes.

    As I see it the problem with American is the same problem with many, old large companies. They still have the old bureaucracy, unmotivated employees, and lack of direct management and, in American’s case, without the large profit margins to soak it up…so we all know the obvious end game here.

  16. UA now will be following this insidious practice of blocking more economy seats. Thanks Scott Kirby!

  17. Yeah, I have zero elite status and have been wondering what the difference is between Basic and standard economy if my only free seat option for standard is in the last couple rows, which are the SAME rows as Basic.

  18. DB is right. For non-elites (and esp. the many of us who have status on other airlines) that map is a non-starter. Particularly for a family of 4 where those seat charges add up and I am not going to risk seating my children next to random strangers. Much easier to buy on southwest, purchase EBCI for one traveler who can then save seats for the rest. That’s why WN often has higher base fares than AA.
    But it gets even worse for AA as I find that I get the same crappy seat map when booking business travel as a non-elite. It is much easier just to book away without trying to explain the fees to justify reimbursement.
    And finally you have the possibility of an equipment change, which meant that (on AS) my family was bumped from row 14 to row 28. Months in advance with no better options available, and now the flight is sold out (holiday travel) so there will be no reseating. Thankfully did not pay the seat fees as there would be no options.

  19. Very slightly off topic:
    I attach the url from the past Sunday’s NYTimes article which explains clearly why the pay raise at AA did nothing whatsoever to improve service. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/opinion/sunday/science-rewards-behavior.html
    The title of the article is: People are not Pets.
    Although the article is worth reading in its (short) entirety, the gist is that people hunger for intrinsic rewards (e.g. work satisfaction) and all outside rewards have complex OTHER effects.

  20. Gary, you’re absolutely right. My wife and I now play the opposite game – if we buy Basic Economy and there are only a couple of blue seats open *even within 24 hours before departure* we’ll sit it out knowing that they will have to assign us green or orange seats when we eventually do check in. This clicked for me after spending 2.5 hours in an exit row seat (which I paid for) next to two guys who couldn’t believe their luck at landing two exit seats for free, which gave them plenty of room for the various wrappers for the Burger King they brought onboard.

  21. Off topic, but I had to share. I was looking for economy award seats for February/March next year and AA came through for me. I wanted to go from Edmonton (way up north!) to Los Angeles. Loe and behold, AA has saver awards. Not only can I get the seats I need, but I get to fly from Edmonton to Phoenix (so I can see Los Angeles on the way by) and Phoenix to Seattle (so I can see Los Angeles on the way by) and Seattle to Los Angeles. Just 29 hours after I leave, I am 3 and a half hours from where I started! I used United miles

  22. True dat, AA is being run into the ground.

    Separately, my parents recently flew from YYZ-JFK on Delta and didn’t want to pay for advance seat assignments. At the airport they asked the gate agent if there was any way for them to sit together and they were upgraded to first class.

  23. Like others, I get awful routing options when I use our miles. Then the seats offered are always crappy seats but that is not the end of it. On our trip to Italy last month, they kept changing our seat assignments, until I paid to “upgrade” to preferred seats. Once I paid up, they didn’t move us again. Now crediting husbands business flights to Alaska (if he has to fly AA). As soon as we use the miles we have with AA, will try to avoid them.

  24. Gary at one time you blogged about while BA shows no availability on AA flights if you call them they should let you book and also not charge a fee for them to book the flights. I tried to book through BA today using Avios however it seems that BA is only given an allotment and once they are gone it doesn’t matter if AA shows availability on their site. Is this information correct? Thanks for your help.

  25. Luke H I actually wasn’t trying to book on AA– just to use my remaining BA miles–so I should probably just give you my miles. Perhaps you can get a nice flight. Obviously US airlines haven’t given a darn for a long time. Best of luck.

  26. Flying to Europe next month. Very cheap fare option was Iceland Air. For 1 moment AA also had a cheap fare, but started requiring $ for even the cheapest seat, at smaller pitch. I took Iceland Air. Will find out if they are better than AA during actual flight, but the booking experience was much better!

  27. @UA-NYC
    And a Thank You to you too, Sir.

    While I am on a break from trying to figure out how to screw the flying public even more let me take this opportunity to thank my dear friend Dug for creating so much discord over at AA.
    Hell, looking back at our UseLess Air/America West days he & I could never dream of creating this hostile environment.

    Next one is on me Dug. Bottoms UP!

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