Why I’ll Be Switching Back To American Airlines As My Primary Carrier, And Why That Might Change

As I look forward to 2013 from a travel standpoint, I’m hoping to be in the air a bit less and home with the family a bit more.  I broke down my travel recently to see what I had accomplished from a flying standpoint in 2012.  But, as I thought about next year, I wanted to double-check my decision to bail on United Airlines as my primary carrier.

I took a look back at my mid-year report on UA’s upgrade policy and some changes that happened in March when they updated their computer systems.  Back then, I was clearing 62% of my upgrades, a pretty abysmal percentage when compared with the 99% I averaged on American Airlines over the 3 years.  I think it’s also worth taking into account that 9 of my flights from the first half of the year were on planes with no first class cabin.  If I had flown those 9 flights on AA, 7 of them would have been on planes with a first class cabin, and at least some of those (if not all) would have cleared.  So, it’s safe to say that I only sat up front about 50% of the time as compared to a virtual 100% on AA ( I only missed 1 upgrade on AA this year again.

As I look at the end of the year stats, I had 78 flights on UA.  Two of those were a MegaDO, so that makes a total of 76 segments I could have been upgraded on.  Of those 76, a total of 14 planes didn’t have a first class cabin.  So, using a generous barometer, I should have been able to earn 62 upgrades on UA.  It appears I earned a grand total of 36, or approximately 58%.  Backing out the flights that could have been upgrades on AA puts me under 50% for the year.  That just blows.

So, what other barometers can I use to measure whether switching is right for me?

How about mileage accrual?  I earn the same bonus miles on both airlines, and have plenty of each to redeem.  I’ll also be using Chase Sapphire and Ink Bold as credit cards this year, both of which earn me Ultimate Rewards points that I can convert into United miles.

How about global alliance status?  Well, Star Alliance Gold is pretty awesome for international travel.  In theory I won’t have that for 2014, but I could retain that by earning 50,000 PQMs on UA (which is likely doable, especially since I can earn 5,000 PQMs from my United credit card) or by finding a way to qualify through another Star Alliance carrier.  I also tend to redeem miles for international Business or First awards, so I would likely have lounge access by way of those awards.

Network?  United does have a much better domestic network than American.  So, that’s a reason to consider staying.  But, since UA generally charges me between 50% and 100% more for the privilege of a more direct flight, it’s not all sunshine and roses.

There aren’t too many reasons UA could convince me to move business their way right now.  While I guess the upgrade percentage could significantly improve, I don’t see that happening.  And, their customer service is pretty bad overall.  I know I’m entitled to some compensation for problems I’ve had, but after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to notify them, it’s moved down my priority list pretty quickly.

So, why would I switch back?  Well, it really all depends on AA.  It’s no secret that AA is considering a merger with US Airways.  And, if that merger were to cause the same kind of disruptions at American that it did at United, it’s possible that UA’s network and/or an improvement in the way they treat elites could sway me back.

View From the Wing has some updates as well as some good thoughts about what might happen in a AA/US merger.  For me, I think it comes down to one thing.  If Doug Parker is in charge of a combined airline, service levels will decrease and the in-flight product will suffer.  I’m optimistic that since AA will almost certainly get the lion’s share of a combined entity that somehow the AA management will survive and preserve the levels of service I’ve grown accustomed to.  It’s anyone’s guess and we’ve still got a ways to go before we’ll have answers.

But, for now, I’ll look to American Airlines first and foremost for my air travel.

Who are you choosing to fly in 2013?



  1. I switched from UA to AA after the summer of 2001 and while AA is not perfect, I have not seen a reason to go back to UA.

    1. Sagy,

      I’ve always referred to AA as the “least bad” of the domestic US carriers. Lately I feel like they overachieve according to my expectations. Sincerely hoping Dougie doesn’t wreck that.

  2. I fly AA for transcons and AA/Oneworld for international travel. I’m 98% on domestic upgrades and 100% on international ones for the past three years that I’ve been EXP. I fly Alaska for shorter west-coast hops.

  3. I would love to switch to aa but for most of my travel it is not practical – I love going to Europe and LHR is a no-no in my book – just way too much hassle. I far prefer Lufthansa direct flights to Denver and then Lx, tk or os for the rest of the trips. To asia Cathay is great in biz, but not so fun in economy if 6’4″ 🙂
    Nice analysis, and I will pray usair and aa dont merge. I used america west before the merger with usair, and that transition was awful in terms of service.

    1. I echo your thoughts on Lufthansa. I’ve really enjoyed the handful of flights I’ve taken with them. I’ll be interested to see how AA does with the new 777 product, though it’ll be a while before they have enough planes to make a difference. Meanwhile, I’ll satisfy myself with BA and LH.

  4. I’ve seen posts that hint AA might go bankrupt and that scares me. I’m looking to try another program besides DL but I was thinking of United, now I’m not sure about them either. What would happen to our miles if AA goes bankrupt?

    1. MCP, American is currently in bankruptcy protection but should be exiting shortly. There’s really no concern for your miles. Any acquiring carrier would be absolutely sure to honor the miles, IMO, or risk losing so many customers as to not make it worth it to buy the business in the first place.

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