On the heels of American Airlines’ announcements this past week about changes to the AAdvantage loyalty program, I’m spending some time trying to figure out where my future business should go. The changes themselves aren’t a monumental shift on where American stands, nor is any of it that surprising.
I’m not ready to jump ship, but for the first time in a long time, I’m trying to be as open-minded as I can be about my options. It was probably about 5 or 6 years ago where a couple of close friends kept telling me how good United was and how they couldn’t figure out why I patronized American. I agreed to give United a try while they did the same thing with American. I had enough flying back in those days to qualify for both 1K on United and Executive Platinum on American. As it turned out, that wasn’t long before everything started to go to hell in a hand basket for United. And, those friends came back and said, “You know, American really is better than I thought.” I’ve had a pair of rose-colored glasses with the AA logo on them for as long as I can remember, started out by my father’s lifetime status earned with AA.
If I take off the glasses, it’s time for me to assess the last 3 years. It’s helpful to look backwards as I try to look forward to 2017, since I’m already locked in to qualifying for Executive Platinum again this year. Here’s what that last few years have looked like:
- We’re closing in on 3 years since the merger was made official. I was skeptical back then that the merger would prove to be better in many ways than a standalone American. Doug and Scott had a reputation, one that didn’t likely mean that customers would get more with the new American. But, being an AA fan, I figured there would be plenty of time to evaluate. And, there was.
- Things were mostly quiet for a while, then American made some unannounced changes, pretty much all to the detriment of the customer. These didn’t really affect me much, since I didn’t traditionally take advantage of the explorer awards or North American stopovers. The big uproar here was no notice, but I think AA learned from the backlash.
- Late in 2014, AAdvantage rolled out big chunks of their new program and many breathed a collective sigh of relief, thinking things might not get worse-ish. Keeping domestic upgrades mostly the same was big, but it’s diluted by a reasonable amount with the decision to give unlimited upgrades to new 75,000 mile Platinum Pro members.
- AA makes a few adjustments to the same-day change policy, one of which I really didn’t like.
- The other shoe drops and AA announces big cuts to the systemwide upgrades awarded to EXPs. They also announced revenue-based earning. As a mild plus, they announce more EQMs for folks who buy more expensive tickets.
- American then devalued its award chart, though not as bad as some expected.
- Then, they whacked partner earning.
- They announced premium economy, which is generally a plus. They left unanswered whether the reduced number of SWUs would also only be eligible for upgrades from coach to premium economy (instead of to business class).
- After hinting about it for a while, American confirms it will start offering “basic economy”, which essentially means they’ll give out less benefits to customers buying cheap fares, including their elite members.
- It hasn’t been all bad news, they’re upgrading Flagship lounges and opening more of them.
- American proved they can still be the airline I love by finding a way to get me home to a sick family.
- American eliminated the ability to hold a revenue flight for 24 hours. This sucked.
And, that gets us to today.
There are still some dreadfully old planes in the fleet, though they’ve announced some of these will go away next year. Wifi is slow but reliably works. While AA is working on having a much younger fleet, though, these items won’t get noticeably better for quite some time.
When I take a step back and look at all of these changes, I see an airline with a loyalty program that now resembles Delta and United in many ways. If there’s no emotion in the decision for me, I should be focusing on price and schedule. But, if I’m trying to give American the benefit of the doubt, here’s three areas where I could see myself making the decision to stay, even if these might not seem like the greatest reasons to others:
Fix The Executive Platinum Phone Line: For years, I’ve loved calling the EXP line. There’s never a wait, the agents are always very knowledgable and generally speaking, very helpful. The agents that have been around the longest can do some crazy stuff with Sabre. And, I’ve also found over the years that if I asked nicely (and didn’t do so too frequently), they’d bend the rules when I really needed to get home to my family. You can’t put a price on that for a frequent traveler who values the time he spends with his family.
Since the merger, the EXP line has gotten progressively worse. Hold times are longer, even during times when there are no apparent weather events driving up call times across the board. In some call centers (Winston-Salem, for example), the background noise is unbelievably loud. This was a US Airways call center, so maybe they were fine with that sort of background noise, but it can actually be hard to hear the agents at times, given the background conversations.
On par, the agents are less helpful than they used to be. For example, I called the other day to check for availability on a route. I gave the agent an existing record locator I had booked seats under and asked them to look up the itinerary I already had and search for availability on those same flights. Literally, 5 seconds after I had given the record locator to the agent, they replied that there was no availability on the flights for award inventory. It’s not even possible to pull the search up that quickly if they knew the city pairs. In that instance, I thanked the agent, hung up and called back and got a real answer. But, those situations are frustrating. Right now, the EXP line resembles United’s 1K line, which doesn’t inspire admiration.
Fix The In-Flight Product: American has touted for a few years that they’re working towards the youngest fleet in the industry. The new plane deliveries are great, but there are still a lot of older birds in the system. I don’t mind the Mad Dogs (MD-80s). But, the legacy US Airways Airbus planes are really showing some wear, especially in the domestic first class cabin.
And, American still doesn’t have 100% lie-flat seats for their international fleet, which puts them decidedly behind the competition. They need to accelerate this process. I don’t really care if an airline has bells and whistles on their flat-bed seat, nor do I put much value on the “next generation” seat. And, I generally sleep well on planes. But, a slanted business class seat isn’t lie-flat, and it’s an area where American still lags. Let’s not even discuss the legacy US Airways international 757 fleet, which they’re thankfully retiring.
They also need to address in-flight internet sooner than later for the planes that have the older Gogo service. They’re slowly doing this through retirement of the older planes and new contracts with Gogo and ViaSat for some planes, but not quickly enough to compete with where Delta is.
Offer Lifetime Platinum Pro Status
I hit two million lifetime miles on AA a long time ago. Back in the day, miles from all sources (including things like credit card spending and shopping mall bonuses) would count towards lifetime status. So, 2 million was pretty achievable if you worked at it. In fact, I’m all the way to 3 million now, which is probably why I’m hoping AA carves out a path to a higher level of lifetime status.
Lifetime Platinum members took two hits this week. First, with the announcement of Platinum Pro, there’s now a whole category of fliers who get upgrades before Platinum it’s even considered. And, since Platinum Pro gets unlimited complimentary upgrades, that will further reduce the available seats for Platinum members. Then, the addition of 12-month trailing revenue as a tiebreaker hurt Lifetime Platinums who slow down their travel at some point.
Honestly, if I can’t get upgrades, most of the benefits of my Lifetime Platinum, like free checked bags and priority boarding, can be attained by holding one of the co-branded credit cards American offers.
I value upgrades. American Airlines made it much tougher for me to get them as a Lifetime Platinum this week. I’m hoping they establish a path to make it easier again.
If Only Wishing Made It So
Lifetime Platinum Pro is probably the most likely of these 3, and it’s not that likely anytime soon. Loyalty programs alone aren’t enough to differentiate American, Delta or United from each other. I’ve been taking a wait and see approach as the merger wound through the various steps. We’re no longer in the beginning, or even middle, stages. What we see now is what American and the AAdvantage program will likely be for a while. It’s a lot less appealing than it used to be compared to their competitors. If nothing else changes, it makes we wonder where I should be committing my travel dollars next year.
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