I’ve been a frequent critic of American Airlines, and that’s largely because I believe no U.S. airline has greater potential to be better than it is today than American. I’m also frustrated with many things about its loyalty program, AAdvantage, but when I sit down to compare AAdvantage to the programs offered by United and by Delta it actually comes out ahead.
Loyalty Programs May No Longer Be A Reason to Choose an Airline
To be sure Delta has the more reliable airline operation, and I find their flight attendants a bit friendlier. American and Delta both have excellent inflight wifi on domestic flights, something United lacks (which for me makes United un-flyable).
I no longer go out of my way to fly American as a result of the frequent flyer program. There was a time when I needed to travel I would just go to aa.com. I used to connect through Dallas rather than taking non-stops on competing airlines, and I know that I spent more money doing it too.
Now I fly less on American than I used to, and I spend less on American too. However American remains the largest legacy airline in Austin (though Delta is growing, and has the nicest club lounge by far). Still, American’s lounge agents in Austin are the best, friendliest, and most helpful in the system by far and they’ve rescued me many times when the airline’s operations have failed.
When loyalty programs were launched at airlines they were meant to take a commodity product and create differentiation, so that consumers would prefer one airline over another (indeed, they might wait around for a less convenient flight to stick with their preferred carrier). I’m not sure the big U.S. programs accomplish this anymore.
The programs have all devalued consistently over the past 5 years, and largely homogenized along the lines of following Delta’s lead – American AAdvantage still comes out on top.
I take this to be an intentional strategy on American’s part. When American announced their new award chart pricing in the fall of 2015, effective March 2016, the head of the program told me they looked around at their competitors and intentionally made sure that the new higher prices were still marginally better than what Delta and United offered.
Recognition – Elite Program
Nearly every loyalty program is trying to do two separate things: recognition and reward. These are separate objectives with separate strategies, bundled together inside a single frequent flyer offering.
Recognition is accomplished through elite status, treatment and benefits for a group of customers that are identified to be valuable to the business. At American, United, and Delta the first tier of status is basically a giveaway. Upgrades aren’t something to be expected. Checked bag fees are waived, but that comes with a cobrand credit card too. In fact United, in offering two club lounge passes per year, bundles benefits with its credit card that comparable elites don’t get.
At the mid-tier the most tangible benefit is access to complimentary extra legroom seats in economy. American and United both offer this at booking to second tiers. Delta does not.
In fairness American only offers ‘unlimited complimentary upgrades’ to Platinums (50,000 mile elites) on flights up to 500 miles. However earned upgrades often cover the rest of the upgrades they’ll receive in a world where half of first class seats have become monetized.
The top public elite tiers of United’s, Delta’s, and American’s program are all fairly similar. They all offer unlimited complimentary upgrades domestically and confirmable international upgrades from any fare (United just added this with PlusPoints, albeit at a premium).
To be sure there are differences. For instance American’s same day change policy is restrictive. However what’s most salient for me is that American’s top tier Executive Platinum status is highly achievable.
- Minimum spending for this status is $15,000 versus $18,000 at United
- Minimum miles flown for this status is 100,000 versus 125,000 miles at Delta
American Airlines Boeing 787-9 Business Class
And premium cabin fares earn a multiple of elite qualifying miles. Domestic two-cabin first class earns double qualifying miles, even though the fares are often much less than double.
And by the way, for those who achieve revenue-based top tier status (Delta 360, United Global Services, American Airlines ConciergeKey) I’d point out that American gives its ConciergeKey members access to its international business class Flagship lounges when flying domestically. United does not do this, and Delta has no such lounges.
American also has first class dining rooms at New York JFK, Miami, Dallas Fort-Worth and Los Angeles and for the past two years has offered ConciergeKey members access to these too.
Flagship First Dining New York JFK
Miami Corn Chowder With Corn Fritters
Reward – Earn and Burn
The reward component of a loyalty program is also known as the rebate, the points you get for doing business with and through the program that can be redeemed for future value. At an airline that’s frequent flyer miles (oddly still called miles when they aren’t earned – or redeemed – based on distance any longer).
I value American’s miles more than United miles and Delta miles at this point. There are several reasons for this.
- American still has award charts. While they’ve offered awards at a discount to their ‘AAnytime’ pricing on their own flights (web specials mostly) they still publish a maximum price, and they still price partner awards directly based on their award chart. Both Delta and United have eliminated award charts. That’s led to huge devaluations of the best awards at Delta, and we’re already seeing creeping partner devaluations at United. Award charts are a commitment that American still makes, that competitors do not.
- American still offers award holds, in most cases for five days. You can lock in an award itinerary and then go confirm that a trip works for a spouse or significant other, or can be lined up with available hotels. Neither Delta nor United will allow award holds. Instead you have to pay for an award at booking, and you can usually cancel within 24 hours for a refund.
- American offers international first class awards on high quality partners. Delta doesn’t offer first class awards at all (except in limited cases on China Eastern), while fewer and fewer first class awards are possible through United. SWISS first class isn’t available to MileagePlus at all. Long haul Singapore Airlines first class isn’t available either. Lufthansa first class is available only within two weeks of travel. Asiana has dropped first class entirely. ANA first class, however, remains a treat.
Using American AAdvantage miles I regularly have been able to book first class on Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Etihad, Japan Airlines, and British Airways – and that’s what I want to do with my miles.
- American’s miles are more scarce although Delta has limited the number of partners it works with for mileage-earning, and offers far fewer bonuses than it used to, both Delta’s and United’s miles are easily available through bank transfers (American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards, respectively). Citibank wasn’t willing to pay the premium American wanted for ThankYou Rewards transfers, and so there’s no bank program transfers to American. Each mile is a bit harder to come by.
Qantas A380 First Class
When it comes down to it, when I’m booking award travel, I find I use my American miles much more often than United or Delta miles – and that’s true even though flights on American’s own metal are challenging to find at the saver level in business class, and flights on their primary transatlantic partner British Airways incur huge surcharges (Delta adds fuel surcharges to some partners, and to awards originating in Europe too).
The Program That’s Best For You Will Depend On Your Circumstances
While Delta requires 125,000 miles for its top Diamond elite tier, they do make it easiest to earn that status through credit card spend – with multiple cards allowing spend towards status, and even offering qualifying miles as part of initial bonuses.
And of course if you live in Atlanta or the Upper Midwest it’s going to be hard to book away from Delta. Delta acquired hubs in Detroit and Minneapolis from its merger with Northwest Airlines, and Northwest execs used to say about the region “it’s cold, it’s dark, and no one wants to go there – but it’s all ours!”
Similarly if you live in certain parts of New York – Staten Island, for instance – you’re going to fly out of Newark on United. If you fly internationally from the Bay Area, United is going to be your choice. So, too, if you live in Houston.
If you prefer business class international awards, United MileagePlus is going to do a better job delivering those – through its more extensive Star Alliance partnerships – than American will on its own flights and through oneworld.
As a result where you fly, how much you fly, how you earn elite status (or don’t) and the awards you want to book may differ from the things that work best and matter most to me. However given the particular features and benefits I find to be the most important, American AAdvantage comes out on top of Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus.