My 2017 Airline Loyalty Decisions (A Bit Late)

a group of people standing in a line

It’s February and I’ve already done a decent amount of flying in 2017.  I still need to write up all the new places I hit in 2016.  But I thought I needed to get off my butt and memorialize my decisions for 2017 before it was, you know, 2018.  I struggled with this decision a bit, and truly appreciated everyone who weighed in when I asked for help making the decision.

I won’t try to build up fake suspense on my decision.  I’m officially pulling the rip cord on American Airlines Executive Platinum status and focusing on United in 2017.

My Reasoning

American made a bunch of changes.  Not very many at all were good for the customer.  I discussed most of them in the question thread above, but I’d call specific attention to the list of changes I put together as well as my thoughts on how American could earn my future loyalty.

I’ve been an Executive Platinum for 10-ish years now.  One could argue that American should have “earned” my future business over that time.  To some extent, they did.  But, they “redeemed” that award when the merger went through.  Other than picking up non-stop flights to Charlotte from my home airport of Washington-Dulles and a few new non-stop routes to Europe (hello, Athens).

United is no saint, either.  Just their changes to award booking are enough to make me cringe.  And, that doesn’t take into account things like Basic Economy.  So, why United?

I’m Officially “Hub Captive”

I remember hearing that term a number of years ago and thinking, “Why the heck would anyone be hub captive?”  If you don’t follow this “hobby” closely, hub captive means you only fly with the airline whose the dominant carrier at your home airport.  That way you end up with the most non-stop flights and the least time traveling.

Before the changes of the last few years, it made sense in some cases to not be hub captive.  For example, my home airport of Washington-Dulles.  That’s a United hub.  If I flew American and wanted to go anywhere other than Miami, Dallas or LAX, I needed to connect somewhere.  But, the airlines used to award you more miles to connect to your destination (when programs were distance-based, like Alaska Airlines still is).  Now, you’re awarded miles based on what you spend.  Those are “redeemable miles”, not elite-qualifying miles.  You can still earn elite-qualifying miles for taking a longer set of flights to get where you’re going.

The other reason I used to be willing to connect was that I scored free upgrades on American Airlines for virtually all of my flights.  Literally, 98% or higher for 5+ years.  Part of that was flying on less popular routes (IAD-DFW), and part was how American took care of their Executive Platinum members.  Those numbers have dropped precipitously.  Part of it is planes are just packed nowadays.  And, part of it is a result of the merger and new leadership at American.  Bottom line, I’m clearing upgrades a bit more than half the time now.

It’s All The Same To Me, And Family Matters

The elite programs that American and United offer are so very similar in terms of how they reward.  I earn the same number of systemwide upgrades, the same amount of redeemable miles, and need to hit the same revenue requirements to earn top-tier elite status.  In the past, I could justify a bit more time away from the family to fly American.  I was earning more miles and traveling more comfortably.

Maybe that wasn’t the “right” decision, but most of the trips where I took the longer flights, it was done at times that didn’t impact the family.  When I’m coming home at night, they’re asleep by 10pm.  Whether I land at 11pm or 1:30 am doesn’t really matter to them (though I’m a bit groggier).  In the current world of sameness, the nonstop flight is the one that generally makes the most sense.  United is the dominant carrier at IAD, so I’m primarily booking flights with them.  My goal is to hit 1K status with United again this year, even though I expect my upgrade percentages will further degrade.  The airlines are just too good at selling cheap first class upgrades.

I had a flight earlier this week where I missed an upgrade on a midweek, midday flight on a route that’s decidedly not a business travel route.  In short, a slam dunk upgrade a few years ago.  It wasn’t even close this week, I missed it by 3 spots.  That is the new reality and I’d be a fool not to realize that.

Who Will I Fly When It’s Not United?

I think American will still be my backup carrier.  I had to go to Lubbock, TX for work earlier this year.  Nonstop flights don’t exist between here and there.  When faced with the prospect of connecting, American had significantly better times.  I could take my kids to school before leaving on my trip, an important tradition I enjoy.  I might have been able to book Delta or Southwest for that flight.  But, I still hope to have an outside shot at American’s 75,000 mile Platinum Pro status level in 2017.  They offer the ability to earn 20,000 elite-qualifying miles from credit card spend, so I’d need 55,000 miles on American Airlines (or partner airlines) to hit that.  With an international trip or two it’s not out of the realm of possibility.  I’d put it at a 25% chance.

I’ll fly United nonstop on many routes this year.  I’ll likely pay a premium to do so.  That’s another part of the new reality.  And, I’ll be a true free agent on my other flights, with a preference to American.  If it becomes clear that I can hit 100,000 PQMs on United before the end of 2017, I can also see booking away from United for a handful of flights.  I flew Delta and Southwest a handful of times last year, and even ended up on my first Frontier flight.  As I noted then, United essentially made me book the Frontier flight.

The Final Two Pennies

This is your public service announcement.  I held on for a bit too long, thinking that American might not roll out negative changes.  They did, and I started to book away from them in 2016.  Now, I’m jumping almost completely off the bandwagon.  If you’re trying to figure out where your loyalty should lie in 2017 and beyond, it’s to your watch or wallet.  The programs themselves aren’t unique enough from each other to make a difference anymore.  We still want to collect miles and elite status where we can, but we need to keep our eyes open to the lack of true differentiation between the major airline loyalty programs.

The post My 2017 Airline Loyalty Decisions (A Bit Late) was published first on Pizza In Motion


    1. Seth, took me long enough, right? Some of the routes I fly consistently are $600 one-way even 3+ weeks out because they’re filling every seat. Forget upgrades, I’d just welcome some lower prices. Makes it very tough to make last-minute changes when every seat is full.

  1. Dulles is my home airport too. Nonetheless, I have managed to avoid United for the most part. (United – I still haven’t forgotten 2012!) Yes, I still get stuck on the United Express flight to Cleveland when I just can’t get to DCA in the morning traffic but for the most part, I can get where I need to go without too much trouble . The secret is I will fly AA, DL, B6, or Alaska. For international flying, I use KLM, BA, or AF. As Ed correctly noted, even 1K and ExecPlats are no longer the keys to a free upgrade. Instead, I fly the best schedule for my needs. (including United when no other option makes sense)

    If I want to fly up front, the new first class fares usually fit the travel policy so I just buy them. I end up with mid-tier status on AA , Alaska ,DL and Mosaic on Jet Blue. That works for me. The major airlines have killed the goose that laid the golden egg by gutting their loyalty programs, devaluing my miles and keeping employees who hate their jobs. I understand they are running their businesses smarter by not giving away F. I can play that game too by not being blindly loyal to any airline. Buy what you want, free agent for everything else. It all works out in the end.

  2. I’m MM’er with UA, so I have no incentive to fly with them. SInce AA went the way of Delta and UA, there’s no incentive to fly them either. Every so often I mention that I’ve ‘adapted’ to Southwest. The big find these days is getting full mileage credit (in most cases) by flying an Alaska partner, and crediting the full mileage to your Alaska account. I realize that not all flights on a partner will qualify. AA’s partner Republic doesn’t have an agreement with Alaska).

    My son has been flying for business recently. His company books with American. My son has 300,000 lifetime AA miles, and is now diversifying his mileage strategy to include crediting his AA flights to his new Alaska account.

    If you’ve been reading the blogs, you know that Alaska has cheaper (and better) award redemptions.
    Something for readers of the blog to consider.

    1. dhammer53, I have no problem with Alaska. I have mostly no problem with Southwest, though I’d prefer assigned seats. IAD is just not a place where you can really rely on either for business travel. But, for folks looking to make flying decisions, both programs can be valuable, especially if you’re based in California.

  3. In considering elite status and loyalty, I think you also need to look at which benefits and their approximate value before deciding how much extra you will be willing to spend to obtain that status.

    Obviously everyone has different needs and values. For many, elite status (if you are just concerned with upgrades) has much less value today. Upgrades are harder, premium fares cost much less. If you are a free agent, this will become even more apparent and often I can find a domestic first class fare for the same price or just a few dollars more, then a competitors coach fare that I might buy to maintain my loyalty and “free” upgrade.

    Secondly, chasing elite status the only other significant benefit for myself is the miles and their value, and the ease of getting the redemption that I want. Unfortunately, prices have rose significantly. The additional miles you now earn as an elite, often doesn’t even compare to the raise in price for the new award charts. 220,000 miles to fly first to Europe with UA miles? YIKES. AA charges 170,000 miles for First class on partners, or more typically if you fly want to fly AA to Europe I see award prices hovering around 280,000 miles in the middle bucket to Europe in First on AA metal because they just don’t release very much award at the saver level.

    So for many of us. Elite status is just status in name. Very little value….. Unless your The Points Guy and you value AA Executive Platinum at about $5000 lol or AA Gold Status at $2000 lol.

    Anyhow, keep us updated on how United Airlines is treating you as a precious (and I use that term lightly) elite!

    1. I am a 3 million miler with AA, have had “Platinum for life” status for 15+ years – and get nothing (that I value) for it. Of course, all those miles were not from flying, either, so it’s hard to complain …

    2. Greg, the biggest value of elite status for me right now is free award changes. I did approximately 12 of them in the past few days trying to get an award just right on United. I’m 1 out of 4 on domestic upgrades this year. I expect that percentage to rise, but I’ll be shocked if it gets over 60%.

  4. You can make up the expensive fares buy reselling Polaris Duvets on ebay. At over $100 each that’s a pretty good rebate 🙂

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