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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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