What a long, strange trip it’s been. American Airlines is treating some of their best customers like they did a long time ago. The airline industry has been through so much the past 20 years. I traveled a bit here and there for work in the 90s. I never really traveled enough to earn elite status until 2000, and then started chasing status in earnest in the wake of 9/11 as business travel returned.
Leading up to 9/11 my father was a road warrior who traveled almost exclusively with TWA. TWA was acquired by American Airlines in 2001 and my dad started flying AA on a regular basis. His habits became my habits. As I started traveling more for work I earned elite status on American Airlines. At first it was just Gold status, but I quickly worked my way up to Platinum and finally top-tier Executive Platinum status.
Let’s fast-forward to today for a bit. View From The Wing wrote an article earlier that I read with keen interest. Apparently, American Airlines Admirals Club employees have started contacting Executive Platinum members ahead of their flights to advise them of potential complications. In some instances they’re also blocking middle seats to give Executive Platinum members a bit more space onboard. To understand why this is significant, we need to look backwards. 2001 seems like a good place to start.
What Executive Platinum Status Used To Be
If we look back to 2001, we’d see an airline that treated it’s top elite members very differently. My father would tell me stories of upgrades on long flights and of special gifts like Baccarat crystal when he hit milestones like 1 million miles flown with American Airlines. Though my memory is a bit hazy of the exact details, suffice it to say that those early memories of American were quite positive. My best friend had a job that, at the time had him traveling the world. His airline of choice was frequently American. As an Executive Platinum member, he was treated wonderfully.
Those early experiences etched in my memory, I chose American Airlines when I booked flights. And, in 2007 when I earned Executive Platinum status for the first time, their experiences became my experience. I got to know the Admirals Club employees by name. They knew when I was coming and would always save a newspaper for me in the old Admirals Club at the end of the D concourse of Dulles Airport.
I was flying to Denver on a pretty regular basis along with Las Vegas. With my home base Washington-Dulles, United Airlines would have been the logical choice with nonstop flights to both of my primary destinations. Instead, I took connecting flights on American Airlines, mostly through DFW. I logged a bunch of extra hours on the road to take those connecting flights. But, it was worth it.
In most years, when I was logging anywhere from 50 to 100 flight segments, it was a big deal if I missed an upgrade. Over the course of a year, missing two upgrades was highly unlikely. More than two? It just didn’t happen. On those lone flights when I didn’t clear an upgrade, one of the folks I knew in the Admirals Club would block the middle seat next to me in coach.
With that much time on the road, things happen. Whenever I was away from the family and I needed to get home, those same folks in the Admirals Club or the agents that answered the Executive Platinum line made sure it happened. There were plenty of rules back then, just like there is today. But, there was a solid recognition of the value the top-tier Executive Platinum members brought to the airline. It’s why for years I started my searches at aa.com, not an online travel agency or any other airline website. Those “soft benefits” may have come with a cost for American Airlines, but that cost was minimal. In exchange they got a loyal customer.
As the years blended together I remember my fellow road warriors criticizing me for my loyalty to American Airlines. Most of them were loyal to United Airlines, some by way of Continental Airlines prior to their merger with United. They pushed me to give United Airlines a try. I agreed, but only if they gave American Airlines a try.
The timing would turn out to be almost perfect, depending on which side you were on. American Airlines was on the way up, focusing attention on their top elites. Those fellow road warriors kept telling me how impressed they were with AA’s onboard service, the attention by Admirals Club employees, and especially how Executive Platinum phone agents worked hard to get Exec Plats to those important appointments, especially if that appointment was home with a sick kid.
At the same time, the service levels on United Airlines were degrading. Upgrades that used to clear stopped clearing. Instead, those upgrades were sold cheaply to non-elites. Planes were in a bad state of repair. Phone agents increasingly had less ability to help customers.
The story doesn’t have a particularly happy ending. American Airlines entered bankruptcy and got acquired by US Airways. The majority of those soft benefits went away. When the loyalty program became less loyal, so did I.
A New Beginning?
More than a few people have accused me of having blinders on when it came to my feelings about American Airlines. There’s some validity to those critiques. And, maybe I’m falling back into that same pattern when I wax nostalgic about the similarities these new soft benefits have to the time when I enjoyed air travel quite a bit more than I do today.
Does this mean we’re seeing a new beginning, a return to a time when airlines worked hard to earn the loyalty of their most frequent flyers? I gave this quite a bit of thought tonight. The easy answer is no. The least likely answer is yes. Somewhere in between is the truth, and I think it’s a bit closer to yes.
We’re not going back to 2007. But, conditions are at least more favorable today than they were five years ago. The biggest advocate for a cost-based approach to running an airline is Scott Kirby. He was a key part of leadership at US Airways when they took the reins at American Airlines. He has since moved on to United, recently becoming CEO of the airline.
Are these soft benefits here to stay for top elites? Are there still enough folks hanging around American Airlines that remember the old playbook? If history is any indicator, airlines have worked hard after lean times in aviation to earn the best customers. The newest version won’t be as previous as the reruns. But, I’m interested to see whether this is a passing fancy or the start of a trend.
I may not want to connect at DFW every week. But, I’m still rooting for the latter.
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