Which Airline Should I Focus On For Elite Status In 2017?

It’s time for me to start booking airline tickets for next year, and I’m honestly not sure what to do.  My primary goal in 2016 was to re-qualify for Executive Platinum status on American Airlines.  I also figured to maintain at least Gold status on United Airlines.  I had hoped to reduce my travel after 2015, but that wasn’t in the cards.  As the year wore on, I thought Platinum status on United was achievable.   Then, things started to change.

Changes

This summer, United announced changes that included fees charged to elite members for award redemption.  One of the primary reasons I considered trying to achieve Platinum status on United was the ability to change awards for free.  The new rules instituted in August made this much more painful.  $50 might not sound like a lot of money, but it adds up, especially for families or larger groups traveling together.  I made 3 changes to a reservation earlier this year.  As a Platinum, they were all free.  Going forward, I’d be out a lot of cash.

Shortly thereafter, one of the top executives from American bolted for United Airlines.  That’s relevant because Scott Kirby seems to be at least partially responsible for many of the “enhancements” at American Airlines the last few years.

A few months later, United introduced basic economy fares that were more restrictive than expected.  I have to think Scott had something to do with the degree of severity.  I don’t think I’ll end up having to book many of these fares, but I feel for others.

As if that weren’t enough, United also rolled out “enhancements” to their award booking process.  My initial testing seems to indicate there are less award choices for customers.  These changes are real costs for elite members.  In some cases, they can make a big financial impact on “free” trips.

United did announce big changes to their business class offerings.  But, the timeline to roll out the new product is so long (5 years) I’m not sure I can consider this a valuable change for some time.

Airline Elite Status 2017

What hurts more are the changes to the loyalty side. I suspect award redemptions will be much more cumbersome in the future. Admittedly, I’ve only researched a half-dozen or so itineraries. But, none of them have looked better under the new system. 180,000 miles for round-trip in domestic first to Hawaii. Ugh.

And, On The American Side

Most of American Airlines’ painful changes came in previous years.  They removed many of the benefits that differentiated them from the competition.  You can read through a summary of these benefits and my thoughts in case you missed it.

American wasn’t quite done.  They introduced some changes mid-year, including a new 75,000 mile elite status level.  These weren’t terribly surprising.  They were, however, a big kick in the family jewels for folks who had earned lifetime Platinum.  This really hurts Executive Platinum members who change their tickets within a day or two of departure (yup, that’s me).

They tore apart partner mileage earning rates with virtually no notice.  And, they began selling cheap domestic first class to a wider group of travelers.  Gone are the days where an Executive Platinum member could count on clearing 90% or more of their domestic upgrades.

Airline Elite Status 2017

Status For 2017

As planned, I earned Executive Platinum again. I’ll have that status going into 2017. I traveled much more than I thought and stumbled into 1K status on United.  I didn’t have it last year. I’m still not entirely sure how much it will help in 2017. Given the changes, Platinum is now “more worse” than it used to be compared to 1K.  But, complimentary upgrade lists are still 50+ deep on a number of flights. And, both United and American are selling lots of cheap upgrades to first class.

Variables

There are a few variables for me to consider. These decisions are like snowflakes. All are unique. My home airport and where I need to go impact my decision much more today than it used to.

I live near Washington-Dulles airport. That’s my home base. I prefer flying out of IAD, though I can fly out of DCA and BWI. If you know the DC-area, driving times are highly variable. There’s standard rush hour, then all the other stuff. Both DCA and BWI are an hour from my house on a good day.  That’s a huge variable in selecting an airline.

American Airlines offers me service to 4 cities from IAD.  DFW (their biggest hub), Charlotte, Miami and LAX.  What’s missing from that picture?  American hasn’t served IAD from Chicago-O’hare in a really long time.  That makes it very hard to get to the heartland of the US before midday.

I used to balance the convenience of United against the fact that American treated me better. They had a significantly better loyalty program. Now, all 3 of the major airlines have very similar loyalty programs.

That leaves price and routing as much more important factors for me. Some might choose treatment in the air as well. I’d take better flight times over better food. I do still highly value customer service, especially when problems arise. Another area American excelled in where they’ve regressed a bit. My father shared a story recently that illustrates that old magic I came to rely on.

Where Does That Leave Me?

I’ll be doing a full recap of my year in travel. Until then, I’m honestly curious about your opinion on where I should focus next year.  I want to fly less in 2017 than I did in 2016.  That means it’s unlikely I’ll have enough to keep top-tier status on both airlines.  Do I shoot for 1K again in 2017 and forego Executive Platinum?  Is it worth it to try to lock up Platinum Pro and Premier Platinum?  That might be a stretch given my hope for less travel.

To be clear, Southwest is really not an option for me out of IAD.  They have even less desirable connections than American.  I have no issue with the Southwest in-flight product.  But, the route network just isn’t robust enough out of IAD to support my business travel.

Where To From Here?

The post Which Airline Should I Focus On In 2017? was published first on Pizza in Motion

35 Comments

  1. You live near Dulles. You’re back to United because (1) non-stops, and (2) a whole lot more options to get out in the event of irrops. And because American no longer offers enough of a value proposition to cause you to connect, have fewer flight choices into your nearest airport.

      1. :::shudder::

        Salt Lick isn’t barbecue.

        And the DFW location is worse than the AUS one.

        The original Salt Lick is a great physical space out in Driftwood, but even that’s not where you go because you like barbecue.

        And if you connect in Chicago on United you’ve got Tortas Frontera!

        1. Oh, and I know you’re never driving as far as my house when you’re in DC. But, if you ever did, AND you still felt like driving further, I’ll take you to Monk’s. It’s not Lockhart quality, but probably some of the best this area has to offer. Headed there in an hour.

  2. Guys, this is gold. ^

    Ed, thinking it might be United for Chicago, IRROPS, and *A network redemptions. AA’s premium cabins are all over the place as well, however not being stuck in the non-refurbed AA321s is a plus for this PHX traveler. If it is elite customer service, compare your experience with United 1k this year to recent changes with AA EP. Be well!

  3. After 8 years as an EXP, I’ve made the hard decision to bolt to B6 this year.

    1. Nonstops – as a Boston-based flyer, I’m sick of connecting and AA decimated their BOS schedule this year
    2. Fewer upgrades – As you mentioned, I’m no longer automatically cleared on upgrades, down to 60% or so this year, and that hurts on BOS-LAX.
    3. Mint – JetBlue’s mint pricing is often non a huge increment over economy on BOS-SFO and I’m more willing to come out of pocket for it to save 3 hours and have a guaranteed upgrade to a nicer cabin
    4. SWUs. I fly to London 4 times a year. I used to connect on AA through JFK or ORD to use an SWU but that adds a lot to the travel time. I now buy premium economy on British Airways on the nonstop and it’s fine for such a short flight, and it’s usually only $200 more than coach.
    5. JetBlue has talked about a BOS-STN nonstop which would make my day. Probably > 1 year out though.

  4. I’ve just crossed 5M lifetime on AA and still see a decent upgrade %age. I do expect it to go down next year, but experience for me has been solid and they make good when the chips are down. I’m staying with AA….at least for next year.

      1. Dca. I avoid clt like the plague, and often route via Mia or dfw. Generally avoid ord from mid October until spring, but that’s for weather more than anything. I do find it odd and refreshing to even get the business seat on jfk/lax or sfo, but I may be pushing my luck there. One thing I’ve noticed almost entirely is clearing upgrades less than 24 hours in advance..flew last week and fc was empty, not a seat sold at all, and they didn’t clear us for until at the gate 10 minutes prior to boarding. Similar issues with other routes. Can’t really remember the last time I cleared an upgrade more than a day out. I’ve also noticed fc seats are within 50% of coach on many of my routes, which occasionally makes it reasonable to purchase. DCA-lax was $300 in coach and $429 in fc…who wouldn’t do that for an early morning Monday leg out there?

        1. When I inquired as to why my SWU’s weren’t clearing in advance (EZE, LHR, GRU trips in Q4) a veteran ExPlat desk agent told me last month that AA was more focused on selling the upgrades than doing them out free. As she said, it “was money” to AA.

  5. Ed, since you live near IAD, you might want to consider Alaska now that they will have the Virgin America flights out of there. Getting MVPGold isn’t that hard and that will give you free changes to tickets whenever you want.

    1. Glenn, thanks for weighing in. I like Alaska and Virgin. But, they represent the same problem as AA and Southwest. No reliable way to get to the Midwest. DAL (and DFW) are not great ways to get to Chicago or anything in that area.

  6. I, too, live near IAD and used to fly United exclusively. Now, 1.5 mm miles later, I rarely end up on UA unless its the ONLY way to get where I am going. Gold for life if I have to fly UA. I still have a special hate in heart for United after how they treated me the last few years, especially United Express out of IAD. I will be an exclusive free agent in 2017. I’ll fly enough to get Silver (maybe Gold) on Delta, will be Mosaic on jetBlue and be able to hit Gold on American. (I am Platinum now but a series of unfortunate experiences and an inability to get to ORD from IAD on American will prevent them from being my airline of choice.) I have flown my last trancon on AA from IAD on former US Airways metal. I matched to MVP Gold on Alaska and I’ll try them or Virgin American for transcons. If I need an upgrade, I buy it. Priority Pass gives me access to enough clubs in the event of a flight disruption. Fare/schedule/non-stop will completely dominate my choice of airline in 2017. The amount I save in airfare will pay for my purchased upgrades. I can’t see how I can lose.

    1. rjb, sounds like a good strategy for you. United has been rough the last few years, no doubt. But, the number of nonstop flights is appealing for time with the family. Just don’t know how much I sacrifice on everything else to have that.

  7. Ed, I think you’ve answered your own question..
    – You can’t chase 200k worth of status in 2017 (if you want to fly less)
    – Platinum Pro (AA) and Platinum (UA) don’t present sufficient benefit to effort.
    – Platinum (UA) isn’t as good as 1K.
    – American doesn’t provide sufficient direct connections for your travel patterns.
    – All 3 Legacy US flagged carriers are more or less equal from a Frequent Flyer Program.
    – You don’t anticipate buying many (if any) basic economy fares (thus UA’s draconian rules may actually help for misconnects/late upgrades)
    – While you didn’t state it, I’d argue that the only of the 3 legacy carriers that has a notably better operational record is Delta, which is not even an option flying out of IAD.

    Seems like all things are pointing to UA. The fact is, when all options are equal in the intangibles, then you are still a hub captive. If I were in your boat, I definitely wouldn’t be driving out to DCA or BWI, that means x fewer hours to spend with the family for example.

  8. With SFO as my home airport, it is hard to avoid being with United – and I have flown over 2 million miles with them. But I made the tough decision last year and switched to Delta. I’m a happier man. While the lack of non-stops to BOS, IAD, and ORD hurts, the fact that I can fly on full size jets into the smaller markets makes a big difference to me. Great service throughout the south. And I can usually start SFO-ATL on a 767 business class with 1-2-1 seating.

    I will say that the FF program is better on United but keeps “enhancing” so I don’t see that as a long-term benefit. I did fly Polaris on United: Newark-Paris. Nice blankets, slightly better food, service attentive – but they should have waited until the seats and clubs were in place to roll it out. It’s not enough to keep me on United.

    1. Diamond Dave, even if all the seats were rolled out for Polaris, I just don’t think it’s on enough routes for me to have that be the decision maker. Delta is just as bad as AA out of IAD, though in a different way. I have DTW and MSP, but I don’t have anything between Atlanta and the West Coast for the bottom part of the country. I’m tempted to try it for a year, though, just to see what I’m missing. But, I do like actual value for my miles. 🙂

  9. Go UA. I’m a 1K and Platinum on AA based in RDU. UA has better flight times and connections via IAD, ORD, and IAH get me anywhere. I’m high percentage of upgrades out of my home airport, and rarely miss on a connection (an occasional west coast). Great options to Europe via IAD and EWR (and friendlier staff than JFK any day). For 2017, I’ll go exclusive to UA and fly the occasional DL when I need to get in to the southeast where UA doesn’t cover well.

    1. Matt, the Europe options on UA (and Lufthansa, Austrian, Brussels) are great for our family. My upgrade percentages out of IAD are quite bad on United. 2016 was a poor year for my UA upgrade percentage but I was Platinum until the very end of the year. We’ll see how 1K does in 2017.

  10. Given your location, go with United, at least for business travel. United is still not AA in punctuality, but miles are more valuable for travel abroad anyway, because it has more partners and because AA charges those horrible fuel surcharges on BA flights. Status will get you lounge access and nearly always economy plus upgrades, though not as many business/first upgrades as you/we would like.

    1. Uri, I’m even seeing some flights fill up in E+ nowadays. LAS and LAX are two markets where UA has demand and supply matched to their pleasing. But, international awards without huge fuel surcharges is a plus, if the new UA system will actually price the itineraries we need.

  11. I have to agree, you’re married to UA if any of those perks or status are important to you

    Just buy what you want and fly what you want, Ed.

    I only have UA lifetime gold to fall back on now. And struggled to even make it to AS MVP Gold (40k on AS to make it) this year. UA miles are still your best bet out of IAD for the family, I imagine.

    -David

  12. The rest of my reasoning ..

    out of the top/big 3, there’s only 1 decent airline, and they of course have a crappy (but not completely unusable) FF program. However, they are probably not that viable for IAD.

    In my view, AA and UA are equally crappy, but UA seems to have better partners in their award program, though AA has CX, JAL, etc also, but those are probably less meaningful to you out in IAD as a family man.

    AS, B6, SWA, etc are not viable for you at all.

    So for most travel, where you can get decent flights etc, you might as well just go with UA, but I wouldn’t be completely loyal to them when pricing/schedules are out of whack, even possibly driving to DCA as needed.

    -David

    1. David, DL is a tough slog out of IAD, just like AA. I do find myself using Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest and even the likes of Spirit and Frontier when I’m on the road for business travel. They might not be useful from IAD, but there are a number of routes where they can connect me while I’m on the road.

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