When American Airlines merged with US Airways in 2013, the two combined to become the largest carrier in the United States, at least in terms of fleet size, daily passengers, and destinations served. The process, which took several years and was finalized in April 2015, had its fair share of hiccups. Now that the dust has cleared though, higher flyers are left with the conveniences that come with a huge route network, an advantageous loyalty program, and a promising vision for future air travel in the United States. Old aircraft are being refurbished and replaced at astonishing rates, and correspondingly the “New American” represents the highest standard for domestic air travel. Despite these improvements, the corporate management inherited from US Airways has implemented cost cutting measures all across the board. As a result, saver award availability is becoming increasingly rare, perks aren’t as great as they used to be, and the airline is shifting into the mold of a low cost carrier. The “New American” no longer has its status as an indisputable bastion of higher flying, and the future has grown more murky since.
- Name: American Airlines
- Code: AA
- Website: www.aa.com
- Hubs: Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW), Charlotte Douglas (CLT), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Los Angeles International (LAX), Miami International (MIA), New York JFK (JFK), New York LaGuardia (LGA), Philadelphia International (PHL), Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX), Washington Reagan National (DCA)
- Destinations: 350
- Alliance: oneworld
- Loyalty Program: AAdvantage
- Loyalty Tiers: (1) Executive Platinum, (2) Platinum Pro, (3) Platinum, (4) Gold
Three Notable Features
- Huge Route Network: When American Airlines and US Airways merged, they combined their two networks and created the largest network in the United States. They have a number of hubs in practically every region, and odds are, they probably have a significant presence near you. That makes being a higher flyer loyal to American that much more convenient. You probably won’t have to go far out of your way, or make a lot of connecting flights, to get to your final destination. There’s a lot more flexibility, and for status holders, that means they can earn more points and use their perks throughout any trip.
- Great oneworld partners: American’s domestic route network is complemented by its strong international presence. For those flying outside of the United States, American offers a competitive product (particularly in premium cabins; more on this later) on a significant number of routes. As a member of oneworld, its reach is extended further by its partners, and higher flyers can enjoy comfortable accommodations all the way through. While the alliance itself isn’t particularly large, it does feature a disproportionate number of elite carriers. Even better, American AAdvantage miles can be redeemed for flights on them, and award availability is usually pretty decent. Partner awards, in fact, are actually probably the best uses for American/oneworld travelers right now…
- “New American” is the best (in a premium cabin): It’s no secret that around the time of its merger with US Airways, American was trying to reinvent itself by introducing new seats, service models, and in-flight entertainment options on a brand new fleet. A lot of work still has to be done, but the airline is moving at breakneck speed to get this revitalization project done as soon as possible. The quality is noticeably better on the new planes too. For example, American First Class used to look like this…
…and now it looks like this!
Business class is also a lot more comfortable, as angle lie flat seats are being phased out and replaced by fully flat ones. That’s a huge improvement.
There’s a lot to look forward to in the future as well. American is getting ready to install premium economy in some of its long haul fleet, offer Wi-Fi on more of its planes, and further upgrade dining options. The management is gambling that this will keep higher flyers loyal to the airline, especially as Delta and United move to be more competitive.
Three Notable Drawbacks
- “New American” sucks (in economy class): Compared with the beautiful first class suites and spacious reverse herringbone seats in business class, economy is significantly worse on American. Granted, a steep drop off in quality between premium cabins and cattle class is to be expected on any airline, but American’s is particularly noteworthy. They are cutting costs by reducing meal services and charging more for it, doing away with built-in TV screens (which are expensive and add a lot of weight to the plane), and cramming more into the plane by getting rid of bathrooms and tightening seat pitch.
American is slated to take delivery of new 737 MAX 8s, and its management is pining for a 174 seat configuration. That would mean 29 inches of pitch, which is less than what a lot of low cost carriers based in the United States offer. They usually offer 30 inches, and Delta and United typically have 31 inches on their planes.
- WHERE is the award space?!: For an airline that once prided itself on its loyalty program, it sure is surprising to see the cuts that American made to gut AAdvantage. It used to have ample amounts of award availability at quite cheap prices, but it has since done away with both. It is near impossible to find tickets at “SAAver”-level prices, and a one way ticket in business or first class would cost tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of miles.
This is a slap in the face to both higher flyers and returning American customers. There is no excuse, other than for cost cutting, for being so stingy on award redemptions. There are better ways to go about saving money, and penalizing the most valuable, loyal travelers is not a smart way to do that.
- No significant transfer partners: Ridiculously priced award tickets would be more manageable if you could transfer flex value points from a bank to the AAdvantage program. Too bad you can’t. Every now and then, rumors swirl around suggesting that American will become a partner with Citi, but none have ever materialized. At least you can transfer points from a Starwood account, plus there are a lot of cobranded credit cards. Other than those options though, you have to earn the bulk of your miles through travel (WOAH WHAT A CONCEPT!) and other, smaller promotions. While this isn’t out of the ordinary, it’s frustrating nevertheless for higher flying, especially when dealing with a major airline.
Three Special Opportunities
- Lots and lots of credit cards: To make up for the lack of transfer partners, American Airlines has traditionally offered a lot of cobranded credit cards that dole out huge signing bonuses to new account holders. The merger with US Airways brought even more options in to the AAdvantage Program. There is currently a huge roster of available cards, and you can earn hundreds of thousands of miles after successfully applying for them and completing their minimum spend requirements. They also offer a variety of perks, such as points rebates on award redemptions, Admirals Club access, and free checked bags and priority boarding. If you fly American a lot, or just want to use its program more, consider picking up one or some of the offerings.
- Cheap partner awards for transatlantic routes: While American doesn’t release a lot of SAAver award space on its own flights, the same can’t be said for its partners. One of the best redemptions of AAdvantage points is for transatlantic business class on other oneworld carriers. For 57,500 miles one way and minimal fuel surcharges, you can fly airberlin, British Airways, Finnair, and Iberia from North America to Europe. Availability is plentiful, even around peak tourist times like Thanksgiving.
Even in other parts of the world, American frequently offers the cheapest partner redemptions in premium cabins, at least compared to Delta and United. Higher flyers can put all those cobranded credit card signing bonuses to work, but ironically, not for travel on American Airlines!
- Redeem points for Etihad Apartments: Beyond oneworld, American partners with a number of other companies. Most are smaller regional carriers, but there are some exceptions, like Etihad. The Abu Dhabi-based airline revolutionized first class travel on its A380 when it introduced the “Apartment”-concept suite. Each seat has both a huge sofa-bed and a reclining chair, and guests have space to move about their “rooms” during the flight. Complementing this is a bar/social area, a shower, and an amazing lounge on the ground.
Flying in an Apartment isn’t cheap; a single ticket from New York to Abu Dhabi usually costs more than $15,000! Not many people can afford that, but it’s easily attainable with 115,000 AAdvantage miles instead. That’s still a hefty fee, but it pales in comparison to the sticker price in cash, plus it grants you access to one of the most “higher flyer” experiences in the sky.
As is the case with the other airlines, American has its share of strengths and weaknesses. While it isn’t one of my favorites, that doesn’t mean that its competitors are definitely superior. You probably have different experiences, perspectives, and values than I do; what matters to me may not matter to you and vice versa. The point of this guide is merely to highlight the features that makes American unique, and help you better understand how it fits in to higher flying collectively.