Do the American AAdvantage Changes Really Matter?

Tahsir was one of the first to report the recent changes to the American Airlines AAdvantage program. I’ve merely sat back, amused, and read others’ commentary for the last two days. But I haven’t seen many happy faces. Dan’s Deals called it a “mAAsacre.” (Hey, it’s AA’s fault for incorporating the double-A into its branding.)

The biggest complaint is with the lack of notice — something I agree with. However, I also try not to linger on the past. Several key features of the AAdvantage program were great while they lasted. It was well understood that they were probably a little too good. And so, while maybe American Airlines ought to be kind enough to provide warning before it makes changes, at the same time we all sort of knew these changes were coming. Especially since they recently merged with US Airways and there had to be some kind of reconciliation between their two loyalty programs.

Gary Leff put it very well in the title of one of his posts: “…Changes to…Awards You Probably Don’t Ever Book,” though this does not refer to all of the changes implemented.

As someone who just recently moved to the American Airlines program, I only have a few hundred thousand miles in my account and not a lot invested with the carrier. I realize I’m probably not the best authority when it comes to expressing feelings of victimization.

But on the whole I don’t see a reason to abandon American AAdvantage — a conclusion I ultimately reached after several years with United MileagePlus. Whereas MileagePlus decided I need to spend a certain amount to earn my status and made it more difficult to fly on premium partner airlines, American hasn’t done this. Instead, American has cut back on some areas where it was more generous than its competitors. Perhaps, in a few areas, it has cut a little further still.

Switching topics to US Airways Dividend Miles (since the two will eventually be merged), it’s true that the business class award from the U.S. to North Asia has become less sweet, moving from 90,000 to 110,000 miles. It’s still possible to book Cathay Pacific for those 110,000 miles, and Cathay Pacific has a lot of award availability. If you want to fly on Singapore Airlines using United miles (just as far as Hong Kong), you need 160,000 miles in business class, you have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding award space, and United won’t even display that space on its website. (American doesn’t display Cathay space, either, but for United this is worth noting since it displays almost every other partner.)

So if my goal was to fly to Hong Kong, which airline’s loyalty program would I choose? American/US Airways. Without a doubt. And for many other routes it continues to have a valuable award chart. Even Lucky says that he’d continue to buy US Airways miles.

I can’t book stopovers anymore with AA, but I was never a particular fan of free one-ways for my own uses and generally prefer simple round-trip awards with direct routings. So I’m not losing there, and neither — I suspect — will the majority of people. I was looking forward to booking an Explorer award at some point, but I think I can tolerate the loss. It may turn out to be easier to rely on a mix of awards booked through different programs if I ever decide to take a round-the-world trip.

In terms of benefits, one of the most notable changes was the reduction in the free baggage benefit. Full-fare and AAnytime award tickets will lose their complimentary checked bags, and there will be a reduction in the number of checked bags for mid-tier elites in each program, but these losses aren’t necessarily putting American at a disadvantage to their competition. In fact, US Airways’ elites are getting some reasonable improvements as far as in-cabin amenities go, which might matter more to frequent travelers who tend to avoid checking bags.

The new prices for the AAnytime awards will be particularly interesting. There will be three different prices for these awards that give access to the last seat available — something United doesn’t even offer anymore to all its customers. But those prices will vary only according to date.

Contrast that with Delta, which is implementing a five-tier award chart. One could argue that five tiers is just another way to find-tune the price of last-seat availability while ensuring that no one can predict that price. With American, you will be able to predict it. And since some dates will be lower and others higher than the current AAnytime award prices for some routes, they average out most of the year. It only becomes an issue for a few specific dates when, previously, US Airways wouldn’t let you book them at all.

As I said, I’m probably the wrong person to ask about this, which is why I did not rush to write any posts when the changes were first announced. I only recently chose to switch to American Airlines from another carrier and suspected there would be some bumps along the road. I don’t at all agree with the lack of notice on these changes. United — and even Delta — have tended to provide plenty of notice for the majority of their changes.

If I were completely unfamiliar with the old American Airlines, would I still choose the new one? You bet. I think American AAdvantage remains a strong competitor among the major U.S. carriers. Let’s just hope these are the most disruptive of changes and not a small sign of big things to come.

Scott created Hack My Trip after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • J w

    No doubt AA would definitely implement a EQD scheme very soon … And you won’t be flying SQ J on UA miles unless you’re talking regional routes flown with 330 or 772A

    Factor in the routing flexibility of UA and their miles are quite decent still. UA can still stopover ANYWHERE on a round trip award, not just North American gateway (like AA) or alliance hub (like US)

    • Scottrick

      “And you won’t be flying SQ J on UA miles unless you’re talking regional routes flown with 330 or 772A” — That’s kind of my point. Cathay doesn’t seem to put similar restrictions on my ability to use AA miles.

      As for stopovers, I use one every time I travel at my destination, but not at home, and I’ve had difficulty convincing some family to use them at all. I didn’t say they weren’t valuable. I only said they aren’t important to everyone.

      • Scottman

        Are Int’l stopovers still permitted on award travel (i.e DFW-LHR (stop) LHR-CDG (destination)? In other words, is it just the free one way tacked on the end (or beginning) that has been eliminated?

        • cokt

          still? they never were permitted

          • Scottrick

            One stopover is allowed anywhere along the itinerary on round-trip awards booked with United miles. This hasn’t changed in recent years. American Airlines used to allow stopovers at the North American gateway city on international awards, but that is no longer permitted.

  • Brian C. Lee

    I generally agree with your take. My biggest gripe is that they made these changes unannounced. That doesn’t bode well for the future, given Dougie’s track record, and that’s going to lead me away from AA and Advantage where it makes sense for me to do so. Given that I live in the DC area, I won’t be able to avoid them completely, but I’m going to try not to use them when I have another reasonable option.

  • Marvin O’Grovel

    I was going to book a oneworld explorer trip to see Machu Picchu later this year. Now I’m out of luck. And they haven’t even announced the horrific devaluation that is guaranteed to happen once they’re done merging with US Airways.
    So yeah, it was kind of a big deal, I thought.

    • Scottrick

      If you have something in mind sooner than later, it does hurt more. I’m taking a trip to Hong Kong in June and was planning to use my US Airways miles. Now I might as well pay up for first class.

  • BFrankley

    Do the American AAdvantage Changes Really Matter?
    Ummm… Yes… they do. But thanks for letting American think that they don’t. I’m sure that’ll be helpful. Just because we’re all used to being screwed by airlines doesn’t mean we should act like it’s acceptable. It’s not.

  • Jon

    I know most bloggers are top-tier elites, but for the rest of us who are mid-tier, I’d love to see an article about how Aadvantage Gold has devalued over the past year. While MCE was never intended to be a true ‘benefit’ of Gold, I don’t see how it’s impacted AA’s MCE availability on the flights I take. Half the time MCE was 1/3 empty, or I was sitting next to people who got free gate-upgrades to MCE anyways. Taking that away from Golds seems needless. Then reducing checked baggage now also comes down the line… At this point, the only true benefits of Gold over simply having the credit card are: Sticker upgrades on deep-discounted domestic fares, Priority AAccess checkin/security, and that’s about it. Even then, depending on the airport, Group 1 boarding and the general security line isn’t even that bad.

    I’m simply seeing less and less benefit to sticking with AA (especially for domestic travel) versus going with Southwest. Hell, most of the benefits I can get on AA with Gold and the branded credit card are either included or dirt cheap with a fare on WN (2 checked bags, “priority” boarding for $12.50, an extra inch or two of legroom, etc. etc).

    • Scottrick

      I wrote some comparisons along what you suggest in January of this year when doing a broader review of airline status:

      http://hackmytrip.com/2013/12/status-worth-case-american-airlines/

      http://hackmytrip.com/2014/01/comparing-airline-elite-status-2014/

      I recall the only carrier who’s status I recommended at 50K miles or less was Alaska Airlines, which you can still choose as an option when crediting American Airlines flights. There are also rumors they are in discussions about strengthening their relationship, which might mean more reciprocal elite benefits.

      http://hackmytrip.com/2013/12/status-worth-case-alaska-airlines/

      • Jon

        Thanks for that Scott. The only thing which still keeps me on AA (at least until February of 2015) is that on the domestic routes I fly, my upgrade percentage as a lowly Gold is somewhere between 75-90%. No other program can give me that.

        However, the thought that as a Gold that I could not only miss out on the upgrade to First, but also on an MCE seat (thanks to the 24 hour clock on both) is a frustration I don’t really care for. Even with MVP, I’d have no access to upgrades at all (whether to MCE or First), so if I’m likely to get stuck in Y as AA reduces excess capacity, I might as well get the better Y product that WN offers.

        I’ll just take ‘aadvantage’ as much as I can this year (I have an Explorer Award redemption that was booked before April 7), burn my miles, and either “up my game” or go elsewhere!

  • Joey

    You made very good points to defend AAdvantage program and I myself won’t be abandoning AAdvantage mainly because I have AA/US miles to burn!
    Given your example on flying to HKG, perhaps it may be better if you answer that question after AA’s devaluations have been published, given AA/US is the only carrier out of the big 3 that hasn’t announced their new award chart yet (or answer the question based on UA’s and DL’s old award charts.) Also, would you still defend AAdvantage if by tomorrow they start charging fuel surcharges on partner airlines —- without advanced notice? Or if by tomorrow they suddenly change the cost of a North America to North Asia one-way business class award from 50k to 70k on partner airlines — without advanced notice? What happened on Tuesday affected each of us differently but it definitely hurt more to those who were planning a oneworld explorer award.
    Similar to you, I was a frequent flyer for United the past 5 years (Continental Platinum and United 1k) but recently became a free agent. Though I was unhappy with United’s changes in its MP program, at least they had the decency to announce the changes in advance.

    • Scottrick

      This *is* the new award chart, probably at least for six months to a year until the merger has made more progress and the loyalty programs are combined.

      If there are other changes announced, I’ll respond to them when they happen. Until then, we don’t know what those changes will be or how they’ll be handled. I probably wouldn’t be pleased with the changes you describe, but it’s not difficult to imagine unpleasant changes regardless of how likely they are to be realized.

  • shay peleg

    Yes they matter

  • RDMWorldTravel

    Like you, I just moved to AA (a year ago), lots of bumps along the way, longer to get status, but the value is there. Even at only Platinum I get better service, not to mention more and more newer aircrafts seems to be a BIG plus for. 767 or 321 cross-country… I’ll take the A321 (even though I am fan of Boeing). Besides you checks 3 bags???

  • Sam

    Neither Leff nor you have mentioned a huge impact of eliminating stopovers. AA’s dramatically reduced award availability compared to, say, two years ago could sometimes be dealt with via a stopover. For example, a trip from CLT-BOS-LHR might have availability BOS-LHR only on Tuesday, but CLT-BOS has no availability after Sunday. So you fly to BOS in Sunday, spend a day and a half in BOS, then continue on to LHR.

    Not now. You don’t just lose the stopover; rather the whole trip is gone. And in this case and all others like it, this change gets AA nothing-there is no cost difference to AA regardless of when you fly-Sunday, Monday, Tuesday or a month from tomorrow.

    While AA may have eliminated stopovers to cut out the free one ways, they did not just eliminate the free one ways. By overreacting, they cut out a valuable benefit of their program which helped offset their often crummy availability. And this leaves AA as the only major airline that charges a full priced, separate award for a stopover.

    • Scottrick

      It’s still possible to get up to 24 hours to make a connection at an international gateway or any other stop along the itinerary. In your example, you want 36 hours. We’re arguing about numbers.

      You could make the same argument about every stop along the way and that AA should allow an unlimited number of stopovers to ensure successful connections. I understand your point, but I think that need is already met by permitting 24 hours for international awards instead of the usual 4 hours for domestic awards.

  • Tom

    Yes they matter. Two years from now people will look back at AAdvantage or at least what left of it will see all of this as the beginning of the end. American folks who expect AAdvantage to stay intact while UA and Delta dismantle their programs are kidding themselves.

    Next Up…devaluation of the eVIPs. Get the popcorn out. Apologists gets your scripts ready: “well we really expected this. They HAD to do this…”

    • Scottrick

      Not necessarily. Delta has loosened their restrictions on systemwide upgrades. That puts pressure on American to maintain their value.

      • Tom

        Well I’m not sure you want to put all your faith in AA following DL’s lead. You might get what you wish for. Nobody should want their program to play follow the leader with DL. DL’s move has seemingly not caused UA to bat an eyelash with their systemwide upgrades and DL and UA are arguably in fierce competition for one of most lucrative markets, NYC.

  • mike

    the explorer award seems to be a massive loss. you get to try out cool partner planes, tons of stops and all distance based? you could come up with a routing to earn every last mile out of a point, kept in the air via international premium cabins, cross from one continent to the next over the US and use cash/cheap awards to plot stopovers in the US to go back to work/resume a oneworld ticket. used often, perhaps not, but super valuable? certainly so, if you could make it fit.

    • Scottrick

      It is a massive loss for those who used it, but I don’t think it was used often or by many people. It’s comparable to a change in Hyatt’s program a couple years ago when they stopped offering 5-night award packages that included free meals. Most people didn’t book them, but they were extremely valuable for certain properties like the Park Hyatt Maldives.