Airline Review: American Airlines

The tail and logo of an American Airlines airplaneNorth American airlines rank among the worst in the world. In any survey, Asian and Middle Eastern airlines are always among the top 10 airlines in the world. But as an American, it’s easier for me to join the frequent flier program of a US carrier because I can get a branded credit card and rack up miles. We have four major choices: American Airlines, United, Delta, and US Airways (Continental doesn’t count because it merged with United).

Out of those four, I stick with American Airlines because they have the best customer service, a good frequent flier program, and friendly staff.

The flying experience on American Airlines is a lot better than other US airlines, and their planes are nicer too. American Airlines’ fleet may be a bit old (all US carriers’ fleets are), but they still have a nice interior, and their newer model planes are really good. The AA 767-300, for example, is a bit more spacious. The AA 767-200 is nice and has Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, like most US carriers, AA doesn’t offer personal television screens in the back of the seats on any of their continental flights (Update 2014: their new A321 and 777’s all have seat back entertainment systems). Qantas flights from Sydney to Perth have personal screens, as does a two-hour flight on Eva Air, but you can forget about personal screens on continental flights in the US. I’d be more upset about this if AA was the only airline that did this, but every major US carrier does it, with the exception of Jetblue and Virgin America. Even when I get upgraded to a better class, there are still no screens. This bothers me to no end. I don’t think there’s an excuse for not having personal screens in 2010.

September 2011 Update: I recently flew American across the Atlantic from London to Boston. They fly 757s, and in business class they have hard shell reclining seats with (very bad) personal viewing screens. Sadly, economy is still missing any modern amenity most travelers have come to expect on a long-haul flight. It makes me wonder why anyone would fly them internationally over one of their alliance partners that actually have personal screens and new interiors. The quality of the food was the same too.

Televisions aside, what keeps me flying with American Airlines is the service and their loyalty program. AA’s frequent flier program has better perks and rewards than its major competitor, United. You can forget about Delta too, since Skyteam only has a few airline partners. While Star Alliance has more carriers, United (the major US Star Alliance partner) has an awful redemption policy. They don’t offer as many perks on lower elite status levels and their upgrade policy isn’t as good. Moreover, it takes more points to redeem your flights. I like American and, if the flight isn’t full, I’m automatically bumped up to the next class. Plus, flights can be redeemed starting at 12,500 miles.

The main reason I like American is that they have better service. I’ve found their ground staff to be good, and their flight attendants are more accommodating than other airlines. If I oversleep and miss a meal or they run out of something, they usually give me a leftover meal or some free alternatives. Plus, they usually pour me a stiff drink when I ask. They aren’t as grouchy as staff from other airlines, and that makes a big difference.

But what really sealed the deal with American was an incident that happened a few weeks ago. I participated in the American Airlines challenge, which meant getting 10,000 points in three months for Platinum status. The booking code I had for my flight to Sydney should have qualified me for platinum status, but a Qantas desk agent messed up when I checked in, and I didn’t get my points. I accumulated regular miles, but it didn’t count towards the challenge. Needless to say, I was quite upset, and I called AA to complain. I also tweeted about my experience with them. A few days later, I received an email stating that they would give me platinum status because I had bought the ticket in good faith. They thanked me for my loyalty, and now I have elite status on American. Last year, United broke a guy’s guitar, and even after the guy made a viral video of it, they barely did anything. American Airlines seems to have learned a lesson from that incident.

So while AA’s planes are only slightly better than the rest and they still don’t have TV screens in the head rests, at least they have good staff and better service than the other US carriers. At the end of the day, we use companies because we not only like their products, but also their employees. It’s the people who make the companies. And while their tickets aren’t always the cheapest, I like the folks at American Airlines.

  1. I’ve started flying AA only because I made premier on them through one business class, round trip from Sydney. So far, though, I’ve been impressed. Though you’re right: When you’re used to having your own TV on most flights (I usually fly Virgin America domestically), it feels so old school going back to the one big screen per cabin (or a tiny one every few rows)!

  2. MG

    If you fly on a AA 777 you will get the individual screens on the back of the seats. These planes fly domestic and international routes so look for them when you book.

  3. I live in Seattle and fly quite often. I have never had luck with American Airlines. I’ve only had bad experiences with them. I guess it reinforces what you say at the beginning, airlines in North America are terrible. It is just a matter of luck, I suppose.

  4. It is a bit of a shame that you only really compare them to other American airlines.

    All things being equal (no credit card miles etc) which airlines would you be flying on the major routes out of the US. Say US to Europe, Asia, Africa, South America?

    I first flew from the UK to US in the early 90’s with AA, at the time I thought that they were a good airline, I then had the pleasure of flying on Singapore airlines about 5 years later, the difference in food quality, service and entertainment blew me away! I recently flew with Etihad for the first time, shiny new plane, and the crew could not do enough for you.

    It seems that the American airlines have just stood still in the last 20 years.

    In a way I prefer to fly with the no thrills airlines such as Airasia and Easyjet than US airlines; as you know when you are booking that the services will be streamlined and you can be prepared.

    I still have bad memories of flying USairways from Philadelphia to San Diego (a long flight, not much shorter than an Atlantic crossing) and not even being able to buy a sandwich and a drink as the plane took off after 6pm so they did not have a food trolley aboard!

    • NomadicMatt

      I think Asian carriers and Middle Eastern carriers are by far the best. American is just the best of the American airlines.

  5. Glad they sorted you out – I’m a Star Alliance guy, if nothing else for Air New Zealand’s top notch service between LAX and AKL.

    • NomadicMatt

      If I flew their routs more, I would consider Air NZ. I hub a lot through Bangkok and they don’t fly there.

  6. I flew with AA a couple of times, always intercontinental, and I can only think of one time when I didn’t have a personal tv. It was on a NY – Brussels flight.
    I’ve always found the service a little basic, but I never flew with the other mayor US airlines so I can’t really compare. The food is always regular as is the service. You get what you expect, nothing less, nothing more.
    The reason why I keep picking AA is because they always seem to be the cheapest solution. And I don’t have anything complain about.

    One tip: Last time I wanted to buy cookies on the plane, they handed them over to me and then asked for my credit card. I told them I only had cash with me – which they don’t accept – and they said it was no problem and I could keep the cookies for free.
    Maybe it’s some kind of policy, worth the try for next time.

  7. Delta has been installing at seat entertainment (similar to Qantas’) on more and more domestic flights, which I appreciate, but paying $6 for a 23-minute HBO Entourage episode is not appreciated.

    One thing I really appreciate about Delta though is that extra miles not needed to obtain the next frequent flyer elite level rollover to the next year. That is really helpful when you do several super long trips one year but not the next. For example, at the start of this year I already had about a fourth of the miles needed to obtain elite status in 2011.

    @ Deano It’s sad that so many Americans and Canadians stick to North American carriers. The frequent flyer programs here allow travel on partner airlines, but often it is harder to book frequent flyer tickets on these (in terms of doing so online) and, if paying, you frequently do not receive full mile credit, unless paying the full (expensive) economy price or for business or first class seats.

  8. I agree that service is better everywhere else. I find that the Middle East and Asia have excellent service. I’ve lately been trying to decide which alliance to try to stick to, to make my points count the most. It’s tough because I always seem to fly Delta or Southwest in the US, but like you said, SkyTeam is pretty limited. It’s great that AA will bump you up if they aren’t full though- I hadn’t heard that before.

  9. Rusty

    American Airlines? What??? I travel 10-12 times a year to Sao Paulo, Brazil. After really great flights on their 777 I moved all my travel to American for the awards from Continental. Big mistake! They switched planes on me and now are the worst airline I have ever experienced. On top of that they raised the fares from DFW so I now have to return via MIA. American is a horrible international connection in Miami.

      • David

        I’m a flight attendant for United and really resent the negative comments on this website. While we have had some bad days behind us, things are improving and the merger with Continental should really change things for the better. True, our management for many years stunk and we lost 30 percent of our pay and loss of our pensions. Nothing went into the airline for many years, but now many changes are taking place for the better. I happen to give 100 percent at work and so do many of my hard working co workers. Before you throw out negative words at us be respectful that United employees may be reading this.

        • NomadicMatt

          There are good employees in every organization. There are bad employees too. I’ve had bad experiences on AA too. It’s not always rainbows and unicorns. However, this is my opinion on the U.S. carriers and how they operate their businesses.

  10. I tend to stick with AA for my US flying as well, unless others are cheaper by some margin. Good rewards program, as you say.

    Oh, and there are always seat back screens on Transatlantic flights on the busy routes!

    • NomadicMatt

      Yeah, I think they have upgraded many of their 777 crafts but they are slow to upgrade the whole fleet.

  11. I absolutely agree with Matt. I’m also a Star Alliance girl and Air New Zealand was by far the best airline I’ve been on. Domestically, Air Canada gets a bad rap, but I always have my own working TV & I typically get good service.

  12. You know matt… I enlisted to the AA advantage simply because LAN dominates in S. America. Lan just bought a colombian carrier which makes them the majority there and are mergind with TAM (brazilian carrier). I personally hate American because their planes are older than my grandmother.

    I always make sure to book with LAN and get my miles with AA… LAN has much newer planes and on every flight I have been on they have tv’s. Who wants to sit on a plane for 8-10 hours with no entertainment?

  13. If you are flying to India through London, Kingfisher is excellent, no complaints. I flew from Munich through London to Bombay for $400

  14. Unfortunately, I disagree with you. AA is not the best airline in terms of customer service. Why? With my experience with them, staff at the airport were not friendly!!! Maybe with their mileage rewards, I agree with you that as being part of the OneWorld alliance, privileges are excellent. Despite some issues during my last travel with AA, well, I will still fly with AA if the opportunity comes again – for domestic flights not with international routes.

  15. Donovan

    Thanks for this article. I’m making my first flight in thirty years in the fall (USA to Paris), and American’s reviews on Skytrax made me fear that I had made a bad choice. (They’re rated an overall 3.4 out of 10 and complaints about AA staff attitudes on there are legion). But when I called them to sign up for Advantage, the woman was incredibly nice. And hearing good words about them from such an experienced traveller like yourself leads me to believe I could have done worse.

  16. I think a lot of our choice is dependent on where our home base is. Different airline options from each hub can dictate which airline you fly on. I prefer any international carrier over our domestic choices. Seems I am the only one that has United FF. Using miles to get to Europe this summer and am bummed there will not be seat back TV’s on the 747 :(

  17. earl phillips

    Worst. Airline. Ever. Actually took our luggage off the plane while refueling. We were going on a cruise, so had no chance to go back to the airport to retrieve. Was lied to about when/where we’d get it back, then they make it SO hard to put in a claim! VERY rude on the phone when calling to find out what happened. Will NEVER fly AA again & will tell everyone I can to avoid them as well.

    • Earl, I agree with you completely. I have taken American for many yrs., but no longer. If they are the best then God help us. I once had my suitcase show up totally trashed (they did send a new cheapo suitcase as a replacement). The last time I used AA was this past August. The people at the call center were rude. One of them sounded like she was drunk or on drugs.
      The counter personnel were crass and treated the passengers like we were cattle. On boarding we had this very annoyed flight attendant who literally yelled at us over the mic. She was rude to several passengers.
      On other trips the flight was almost always late or else there was a gate change. This last trip on my second leg the flight was delayed, but the counter personnel were rude and gave no information except that it was delayed. Several of us tried to find out when we would be on the way and the staff just snapped at us. There were no announcements about the flight status.
      It was the proverbial nail in the coffin for me. I will not fly with AA again. I hope they go under and out of business. This last trip did it for me!

  18. American Airlines does have the best domestic service in my opinion. Their service in domestic first class is simply astounding. On a two hour flight from Dallas to West Palm Beach I received a full meal in first class along with warmed nuts and cookies. It was also on a 737-800, so there was a TV at the front of the cabin playing short NBC programs. The flight attendants were also very friendly and attentive.

  19. dylan

    I am a PhD student who has been flying around the country for the month of January. I had a round trip ticket to Florida, but could not make the first leg of my trip because I had a new scheduled interview in another state. Once with a different airline, I did not show up for the first leg but could return for the last part of the trip. When I showed up to the airport, they told me that I was not in the system. When looking further, they said my ticket was forfeited b/c I did not show up for the first leg. Now, understanding this was my fault, it was the treatment that happened after that made this experience horrible. They lectured me on being irresponsible, laughed when I cried b/c I wanted to get home to my daughter, and told me that I could buy a new ticket. I said there was no way I would give them another dime. When I went to Jet blue, they said that they never heard of such a rule and would have allowed me to get on the plane. I had to buy another ticket for $700 and take a cab to the next airport for $150. I am a grad student (and a single mom) who had to take out loans for these trips/interviews. I could not believe how rude they were. I will NEVER fly with them again. If I ever acted like they did at work, I would have been fired (and rightfully so). I also had to cancel the first leg of a future trip because of the same situation above (new interview in a different state). They charged me $125 to cancel the first leg. Wow! This experience was very traumatic and I could not believe how they laughed at me when I was crying b/c I needed to get home to my daughter. Terrible, terrible service.

  20. shawnm

    I have never been treated as poorly as I was on my arrival to DFW airport. Upon arrival we were told that we needed to wait in line to receive our hotel and meal vouchers. While waiting in line for over 3 hours, I tried to ask questions about the procedures and what needed to be done to expedite maters. I was told that I “had to wait in line.” The supervisor on duty refused to make eye contact with us while waiting. AA employees were sent home while more than 1000 people were still waiting in line. Only 3 ticket windows were open even though there were AA employees at other desks that were not seeing to customer needs. There was no communication at to purpose, status, or expected outcomes of waiting in line. WE were just told to “wait in line.” When I FINALLY reached the front of the line and tried to speak to the supervisor on duty, she informed me that there were no hotel vouchers and that meal vouchers were only available for locations in the airport. This was completely contradictory to what we had been told 3 hours earlier. When I questioned the AA employee about why AA declined to provide information and why we were lied to, she called a police officer over. I was told to either leave the line or to lower my voice. I guess it was within policy for an AA employee to yell at me, but when I demanded that AA honor the statements that they made to me, I needed a police escort so that AA did not need to honor their obligations.