In the fall I offered Five Good Reasons to Fly Delta. As I told a reporter yesterday, you fly Delta for a reliable airline operation and because you live in or near a Delta hub or the Upper Midwest. You don’t choose Delta because of its frequent flyer program.
Despite United’s “monkey see, monkey do” copy cat approach of Delta, theirs remains a better frequent flyer program but a far worse airline operation. Perhaps their IT problems are the reason they haven’t been able to cram down their mileage program the way Delta has done.
For the past four years I’ve been fairly focused in my domestic flying with American. I’ve flown United and Delta and Alaska of course, but I’ve chosen American for the bulk of my paid travel and have been an Executive Platinum (100,000 mile level).
I criticize American’s award availability and myriad other things. As one commenter observed as it happens while I was in the middle of writing this post,
Good job criticizing AA Gary (despite being their #1 fanboy). Credit where due.
I thought I’d explain what makes me a loyal American flyer — and areas where I think they fall short. Not everyone will make the same choices that I do, different elements of an airline will carry different weight for different folks preferences. But these reasons have been pretty compelling for me, and I think I have a reasonable sense of the product that each of the airlines offers.
Executive Platinum Really is Top Tier
American’s 100,000 mile flyer level is true top tier elite status.
- American has their revenue-based special ‘Concierge Key’ program but that doesn’t put a designated member above Executive Platinums in the upgrade queue the way United’s Global Services does.
- American doesn’t privilege fare paid over status. This is especially important to me with all of my DC trips, where a Delta or United Silver member on a government YCA fare trumps a top tier member flying on a mid-priced fare.
- Delta’s top tier takes 125,000 miles and doesn’t even offer complimentary upgrades on New York – Los Angeles/San Francisco routes as a published benefit (it’s an unpublished day-of backpedal). American still offers complimentary upgrades on the ‘good’ domestic flights.
In addition, at the top of the upgrade list, I tend to clear upgrades even when my flight is cancelled or I misconnect. Unlike United, American holds back first class seats until the gate. The first class seats aren’t all gone by the time I get there off of another flight. So instead of a middle seat in back, I generally still get upgraded. (In fairness, Delta rarely ever cancels a flight.)
If I don’t clear the upgrade? I’m not only comped a cocktail, but also a buy on board snack. (Delta bundles snacks with their extra legroom economy seats.)
Help When Things Go Wrong
American’s club lounge agents take amazing care of me during irregular operations. Now, their system does a good enough job providing automatic protection on backup flights when it looks like I might misconnect (and preserving my upgrade while doing so). But their club agents have gone several steps further even proactively rebooking me and calling me to suggest I take an earlier flight.
I also get outstanding help from American’s Executive Platinum telephone agents and even their twitter team.
To be sure, Delta’s strongest suit has been in their willingness to accommodate in rebooking situations.
But American – as official policy – will let you keep a confirmed international upgrade when rebooking you even when they put you on a oneworld partner. And they’ll treat separate tickets as one when you misconnect as long as you’re traveling with oneworld.
I can monitor my American AAdvantage account better and more closely than my United and Delta accounts, because American lets me use AwardWallet.com to track my miles. As a result I see even the smallest of changes. I’ll know quickly if anyone has made unauthorized redemptions, so it’s great for account security. And I actually notice small amounts of miles posting, so it’s worth making transactions with American’s partners.
United, Delta, and Southwest don’t allow members to track their miles with Award Wallet. That’s annoying, I track all of my other miles with their service (hotel programs, car rental, credit cards, shopping, etc). Fortunately there’s a workaround that keeps things up to date once a month by directing my e-mail statements through the service.
What’s more, I can search award and confirmed upgrade fare classes using Expert Flyer. That way I know when there’s confirmed upgrade space available, I’m not relying on phone agents to hunt and peck with me — I do the research myself and then call. It’s much more efficient. And Expert Flyer can even email me when the space I want opens up. United and Delta both block Expert Flyer from searching special classes (although Expert Flyer has a new workaround for Delta award seats only but not awards or even revenue flight availability).
For me, being able to be an educated customer puts me in the drivers seat in my flying and is a modicum of control I wouldn’t want to give up with someone else.
First Class Awards for My Miles
I’ll admit that one of the things I really love about frequent flyer miles is the ability to travel in a manner I wouldn’t ever feel in a position to pay for. It’s not just about transportation — and business class is fundamentally just transportation and a better seat — but about making the journey a part of the experience in addition to the destination.
Delta does not allow redemption of their miles for international first class. Business class is the top cabin offered.
United is admittedly better than American for both transatlantic and transpacific business class awards. They have more partners who offer more availability, and they don’t add fuel surcharges to any awards.
However, their first class awards are truly exorbitantly priced. Lufthansa won’t give them access to first class awards except within 14 days of travel (outside of rare anomalies). Swiss won’t offer first class awards to United at all. Neither will Singapore Airlines. That leaves Air China, Asiana, and ANA.
In contrast, I’ve had great luck with American redeeming for Cathay Pacific first class (that could change and of course award space isn’t as generous as it was four year sago) and especially Etihad. I’ve redeemed for Qantas Airbus A380 first class, and even British Airways first class (fuel surcharges and all).
Cathay Pacific First Class
Etihad First Class
Qantas First Class
Confirmed International Upgrades from Any Fare
As an Executive Platinum I receive 8 confirmed upgrades valid on any American flight with any paid published fare.
- Delta introduced international upgrades from any fare 18 months ago. They give out only four.
- United offers 6 but requires paying a higher fare to get them. It can cost several hundred extra dollars per itinerary to be eligible to request one of these upgrades. If confirmed space isn’t available at booking, you’re playing the lottery. If the upgrade doesn’t clear you’ve given United several hundred extra dollars, and you still sit in back. You don’t get the higher ticket cost back.
A Business Class Product I Enjoy
When using miles I want to fly first class. When paying for a ticket I’m buying economy and I want to upgrade. I prefer American’s business class.
Remember, I believe that business class is first and foremost about the seat.
American 787 Business Class Seat
- United crams in more seats. They don’t offer aisle access from all of their seats. If you’re in the window you climb over someone to use the lavatory, if you’re in the aisle by the window someone climbs over you. And if you’re in a legacy United 777’s business class you’ve got dorm-style 8 seats across compared to American’s and Delta’s four.
- American has more reverse herringbone seats. US Airways, a brand that will disappear in 3 months, pioneered the reverse herringbone business class seat that Cathay Pacific, EVA Air, and others copied. American has it on their 777-300ER, and a similar product on their 787 and refurbished 777-200s. Delta has it on a limited subset of their fleet. But Delta’s predominant seat is four-across on their 767s, an inferior product compared to four across on wider planes, and that’s matched by American on their 76’s.
American’s 767 Business Class Seat
With fully flat business class, every seat an aisle seat, I’ve got one of the best hard products in the sky that I’ll take any day not just over Delta and United but also over Lufthansa, Austrian, and British Airways. (Air France is beginning to put in a similar product, and American seems behind in reconfiguring 777-200s to these new seats.)
Not Everything is Rainbows and Unicorns
To be sure there are several things I don’t love, there are always tradeoffs, and in a perfect world American would offer things that its competitors do.
- Delta is installing faster internet on their planes. United is finally catching up in offering internet, I’ve been thrilled with the mainline internet that American has had for years and US Airways even has on its regional fleet. But the older installations are slow, and competitors are updating speeds. American should get with that program. Having internet isn’t enough when it lacks the bandwidth to keep up with usage.
- Award redemption routing rules are draconian. In my Ultimate Guide to Booking Award Tickets Using American Miles I explain that the airline imposes unreasonable rules for redemptions (not as bad as Delta’s ‘journey control’ where they won’t let you have flights that have saver availability). You’re constrained both by published routings of the primary airline you’re flying and by a rule that won’t allow you to connect in a region other than the one you’re starting or ending in unless there’s a specific exception. Those two are duplicative and only one or the other should be in place.
- American charges co-pays on mileage upgrades — even on domestic flights. United waives these fees for elites, American only waives them for Concierge Key members. On the other hand, American’s domestic upgrade availability (at least aside from their JFK – San Francisco/Los Angeles flights) is much more generous than what United or Delta offer.
- Fuel surcharges on British Airways awards. American doesn’t offer much premium cabin award space on their own flights. Their primary transatlantic partner is British Airways. You’ll often pay about $900 in cash on top of taxes for the privilege of redeeming your miles across the Atlantic. (Delta though adds fuel surcharges onto some partners, and onto award tickets originating in Europe, so it’s not just an American phenomenon — but it’s still utterly egregious.)
- Flights should board when American says they will, not 5 – 10 minutes before. American has a big emphasis now on on-time departure and that’s great. But if a flight is going to board before posted boarding time, posted boarding time should be changed. Similarly, boarding and departure times should be updated when there’s no plausible way a flight will meet them. If an inbound aircraft isn’t on the ground 35 minutes before departure, the flight won’t board 30 minutes prior. Boarding time should be updated before the scheduled time for boarding has passed.
It’s the uncertainty that’s frustrating — I leave the lounge and get to the gate only to find the flight either already half boarded (will I have overhead space?) or not boarding for at least 20 minutes (I should have stayed in the lounge). When the airline should have better information, better information should be provided to reduce uncertainty and wasted time.
- No upgrades on award tickets. A first class seat will go out empty rather than moving up a top tier elite on an economy award. This one stings because using British Airways points for short haul American flights is such a great value.
- Food got pretty bad there for awhile. September 1 last year American went with pre-merger US Airways-style catering and it was mostly inedible. They had a mystery meat (that I’ve been told is short rib) that seemed to come in infinite varieties and descriptions. They even got rid of baked on board cookies.
Well, they improved the cookie and brought back entree salads. August 1 they’re introducing a new domestic first class meal service. So things could be getting better.
And the soups introduced in the lounge this year are actually pretty good. My favorite was this spring’s tortilla soup — but the chicken coconut curry soup is a definite winner, and the roasted corn and green chili bisque is good.
- US Airways Inflight Product. Since there won’t even be US Airways flights anymore in three months a consistent inflight product matters — but the US Airways product severely lags. There’s no extra legroom economy seating at this point, and no timetable announced to get it. US Airways actually removed seat power from Airbus planes in order to save fuel. American needs to fix this now that they’re one airline.
If American Changes, I Might Too
Their people and their loyalty program drive the bulk of my decision-making. I’ve heard good things about the people at Delta.
I believe American’s AAdvantage program is a real competitive advantage. If they decide to follow the pack at United and Delta, they’ll change the value proposition and I’ll have to rethink things.
Despite going to a revenue-based program (or because of) United’s financial performance, especially operating margins, lag the industry. Delta is a strong performer, but they were before they made changes to their program. There’s no reason to think that their program has been a contributor of any sort to their bottom line.
On the contrary, it’s precisely because airlines have been operating full that they haven’t needed to spend money marketing to fill incremental seats.
And now that we’re seeing a loosening of capacity to go along with lower fuel prices, and we’re seeing more seats in the air (both because of more planes and because of packing more seats into planes), it’s not so obvious that the planes will remain full at historically high fares.
That means a need to spend more on marketing to fill planes, not less and undermines the reason to cut back a program’s rewards the way that Delta and United have.
I’m hopeful, then — for my own interests and American’s, which I believe align — that they haven’t gone too far down the road internally where they’ll make wholesale changes to their program once the US Airways merger integration is complete.
In the meantime, though, I continue to fly American. I’ve never understood those who choose a less rewarding option because of the possibility that a more rewarding one will change at some point in the future.
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