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.
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.
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