Breaking Up with American: A Frequent Flying Budget Traveler’s Dilemma

breaking up with American Airlines
Updated: 10/10/19 | October 10th, 2019

I did it. I went back and forth on the decision for a long time. Like someone who just couldn’t let go, I continued with the relationship even though I knew, deep down, it was over.

But there’s always a tipping point when you must face reality — and that point was when I realized I’m just not going to fly all that much this year.

So I did it: I finally split up with American Airlines.

After years of being loyal to them and the Oneworld alliance, paying extra for flights to ensure I kept my status and championing them on the web, it’s time to face the truth: they’ve ruined their once-stellar loyalty program and given me (and basically everyone else) no incentive to fly them over any other (crappy domestic) airline.

A few years ago, both Delta and United devalued their award charts — awarding fewer miles per flight (unless you bought high-priced tickets), requiring more miles when redeeming them for a flight, reducing benefits, and requiring customers to spend a certain amount of money to maintain their elite status. Their message was clear: “We only value you if you spend lots of money with us.”

Yet (in part because of their merger with US Airways) American held out — often increasing benefits. American AAdvantage was a shining jewel in the airline industry, lauded by journalists, insiders, and consumers alike.

I went out of my way to fly American because I felt my loyalty was valued. I was upgraded often, their employees were friendly, customer service issues were often solved swiftly, it was easy to find award seats, and they were often generous in their benefits.

But in the last year, they’ve let their program go to hell.

What’s wrong with American AAdvantage?

  1. They now require elite-qualifying dollars (EQDs), but unlike United and Delta, they offer no waiver if you spend a lot on American’s branded credit cards.
  2. They have upped the cost of award tickets – a lot.
  3. They severely reduced saver rewards availability. It’s basically impossible to find saver rewards these days.
  4. Confirmed upgrades for anyone but the top elites is basically impossible. I can’t remember the last time I got an upgrade.
  5. They have slashed miles earnings on their partner’s flights.
  6. They now prioritize upgrades based on status and spending (take that, million-mile status folks!).
  7. How they calculate EQDs is opaque and not straightforward. One dollar spent is not one EQD earned, even if you purchase full fare business and first class tickets.

The list goes on. There have been so many blog posts written about the demise of AA’s loyalty program that I’ll just link to them here, here, here, here, here, and here. And here and here too.

American AAdvantage was the only thing American really had going for it. It was the sole reason I flew them. Sure, their new 777 and A321T planes are nice, but even when they refurbish their old planes they still have many varieties you never know what kind of plane you’re stepping on. It could be a nice and new interior or it could be something last refurbished in 1987. (And you never want to get on an old US Airways plane — no power, no TVs, and a disgusting interior) Plus, the food in their lounges is terrible (as well as the lounges themselves), their partners are not as great as United’s, and their in-flight service/seats/food aren’t as good as Delta’s. I redeemed miles for a business-class flight from Paris with AA and this is the food I got:

half toasted mushy sandwich meal

What the hell is that? I mean seriously. McDonald’s would have been a better option. (It tasted as disgusting as it looks!)

I fly a lot — over 100,000 miles on over 50 flights last year. (Maybe more. I lose track.) I’m a frequent traveler — but I’m a cheap frequent traveler. I always buy the cheap economy-class tickets and use my status and miles to upgrade.

That makes me a low-revenue flier. I probably spend $6,000–10,000 a year on flights. That’s a lot by everyday standards, but when it’s your job to travel, you’re off to conferences all the time, and have team members to book flights for too, I think I’m actually coming in pretty low. And I also spread that around multiple airlines.

American now requires me to spend $6,000 a year on American alone just to get mid-level platinum status (the kind that gets you international lounge access). I don’t remember the last time I spent that much money on one airline.

And thus the current dilemma: If you are a low-spending but still frequent traveler, does it make sense to stay loyal to an airline in this day and age?

The answer is a resounding NO.

As someone who likes the concept and perks of loyalty, it saddens me to say this, but unless you are spending a lot of money on one airline, loyalty — at least to airlines — is an antiquated concept.

The major airlines in the United States do not value your loyalty anymore. They are only rewarding their high-spending clients with deep pockets — not their frequent clients. Travel 100,000 miles a year, but on just a few cheap tickets? Great — that will earn you a pat on the back. Spend $20,000 on a few high-priced tickets? The red carpet is rolled out for you!

Why? Because (a) they are flying fuller planes so don’t need to cater to customers as much, (b) people are shelling out for perks, and (c) they are assholes and don’t give a f**k….because they know you don’t have any many options, and (d) when X% of revenue comes from higher spenders, why should they care about low spenders?

I used to say that if you can fly 50,000 miles or more, it’s worth focusing on one airline and alliance because the perks are worth the extra price (especially the international lounges). But now, with the heightened spending requirements, reduced benefits, and overall “F U” attitude airlines have, it doesn’t make sense to be loyal to an airline if you aren’t a high spending traveler.

As we get close to the midway point of the year, I realize that, for the first time in a long time, I’ll end this year with no elite status. Most of my flights for the rest of the year are long-haul international flights — the kind I always use points on so I can fly for free in business class. Most of my paid, status-earning flights will be cheap domestic flights. With the new spending demands, I’m simply not going to be able to meet the status requirements – for any airline.

This has changed how I fly.

Now, it’s all about price.

I’m not going to bother spending an extra $20, $50, or $100 for a flight to maintain my elite status. Why should I? Airlines aren’t giving me a reason to.

Just give me the cheapest flight.

I’m flying Alaska/Virgin, JetBlue, and Southwest a lot more. These airlines don’t have baggage fees, they do have friendlier staff, and better in-flight products (hello, free gate to gate Wi-Fi on JetBlue!).

I still believe in collecting credit card points and airline miles so that when it’s time to fly overseas, I can redeem those miles for nice business-class seats. I mean, when you are flying premium, you’re treated well — paid ticket or not!

Additionally, I’ll keep all the airline credit cards since they come with the perks of basic elite status, like priority check-in and boarding and free bag checking. When you’re being charged for bags and required to go all Hunger Games for overhead space, those perks are worth the yearly credit card fee.

Airlines always say that, since consumers fly on price, they have no incentive to offer better service or amenities. And, that’s true to an extent. Most leisure travelers fly only on price. They just want to go from A to B on the cheapest fare and have mostly accepted that service will be terrible.

But when you cut loyalty programs, you make frequent travelers like me also only care about price and you shoot yourself in the foot.

Because now I have no incentive to go out of my way to fly you. And the first rule of business is that is always cheaper to retain a customer than acquire a new one.

So, simply put, in this day and age, there’s no reason to be loyal to any one airline. Collect frequent flier points and miles for premium seats on those long-haul flights (free flights are the best flights) and fly short-haul flights based on price. Go with whatever is cheap!

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