I’ve written recently here and here about Delta’s flagging interest in loyalty to its elite flyers because, well, because it doesn’t have to be loyal any more. With little competition in many markets, and having shrunk its flight schedule and seat supply to starve demand, Delta is filling every seat and charging whatever it wants. So who needs loyalty? Delta’s new theme song should be “We’re in the money!” (listen here as sung by Ginger Rogers in the Busby Berkeley film, Gold Diggers of 1933).
Close on Delta’s heels, American is taking similar steps by raising fares after reducing available seats for sale and by devaluing the once-great AAdvantage frequent flyer program.
For example, my wife, who works for a Research Triangle nonprofit with federal contracts, had to fly on short notice one day recently to Washington (DC) from Raleigh, a distance of just 255 miles. Yet her RDU/DCA fare was $902 on American (a whopping $1.77 per mile).
One could be forgiven for assuming that must be a first class fare, or at least Main Cabin Extra. Nope, Main Cabin Extra seats were extra at $23 (each way) when I checked for her. And in the next section of “Preferred Seats” behind Main Cabin Extra, seats were available for purchase at $14 each way. After paying $902 to fly 255 miles, the best AA saw fit to give her was a seat way in the back of the plane.
That was flying up to DC. On the way back she was in the only available seat that wasn’t designated as a Preferred Seat (exit row was an additional $15), and she certainly was not given a Main Cabin Extra Extra seat near the front of coach.
American’s message is clear: We don’t care how much you pay; whatever it is, it isn’t enough; we can always find ways to charge you more. And more, and even more. Why? Because we CAN! [Cue music: “We’re in the money, we’re in the money!”]
As for the AAdvantage program, much has been written lately about how the devaluation of the miles is imminent. My own experience is that it may have already happened, at least in part. Here are some of my observations after recently testing available AAdvantage awards in Business Class for dates in February, May, and August 2016 to Nairobi, Johannesburg, Madrid, Milan Malpensa, Hong Kong, Sydney, Bangkok, Sri Lanka, and Singapore:
- Most of what is available online through AAdvantage is automatically routed through LHR to British Airways. But BA tacks on absurd fuel charges, even for “free” award travel seats, such as $1500 round trip RDU/NBO. It’s not much better to other locations, either, begging the question of why anyone would ever use BA to anywhere.
- No matter how I formulated the online request, all AAdvantage awards to Africa and to Europe (other than to the UK) are shown on BA through LHR, so you can’t escape their fuel charges. I would have thought that I could book AA direct to MXP, at least, but it is not visible. AA has the award seats walled off except for BA, so you have to call an agent to help.
- There were a few AA/AA (as opposed to AA/BA) flight segments shown to MAD, but they are always AAnytime awards and cost double. All saver awards are connecting to BA and thus charge the fuel premium.
- I could find no saver awards to HKG (100% AAnytime, or double mileage).
- No awards to either BKK or SIN at all; requests always said “no flights these cities” or some such language.
- Award requests to JNB at least processed, but then said no seats available even for double miles in business or first.
- Awards to SYD were available at saver mileage rates, at least.
- AA serves many European destinations direct, of course, as does OneWorld partner Iberia. Yet every request I tried to a European destination automatically routed through LHR on AA/BA.
- It seems the only way you can get the non-BA connections is to call. So I did. The very nice agent tried hard to find award seats on AA flights for less than AAnytime mileage without success.
- Another major irritant: Most of the business class itineraries displayed online had at least one major segment in coach, not business. I had to scroll through many possible itineraries online to luck out with all international segments in business class on both AA and BA, and I had to be very observant on both outbound and return itineraries to avoid a coach segment.
- The nonstop RDU/LHR flights AA178/179 never showed up as having business class award seats available on any date I tried to European destinations. If I were to use those flights for saver or anytime business class, I’d have to fly in the back of the plane between Raleigh and London in both directions.
- Finding nothing online even through London to Sri Lanka (Colombo) and to Nairobi, I again phoned the AA elite line to ask for help. Both Qatar and Etihad are AAdvantage OneWorld partners with robust schedules through their respective hubs in Doha and Abu Dhabi and with lots of premium cabin seats connecting to all over Asia and Africa. Yet the AA agent was not able to use my miles on either Qatar or Etihad to Sri Lanka or to NBO. Instead, she said the AAdvantage “rules” state that award travel to Sri Lanka must be only on Cathay Pacific through HKG, a much longer distance from Raleigh and at great expense in miles. Oh, and the schedules didn’t work for reasonable connections, either.
My takeaway after this frustrating research: Given how the AAdvantage program is already so rigged that it’s all but worthless, will it really matter if it is devalued?
With its frequent flyer program a shell game that we suckers always lose, and its fares rising faster than Donald Trump’s poll numbers, American Airlines, like Delta, now seems to offer little to business travelers.
I said that I would book away from Delta, the carrier I was loyal to for over five million miles (I have a mere million-plus miles on AA). But, hey, if AA is no better, then I’m running out of options. United? Forgedaboutit! UA was so bad that I quit them cold turkey in the mid-nineties even though I was a 1K flyer. It sure doesn’t look like they improved since.
Domestically, Alaska, Southwest, and Jet Blue will get more of my business when possible. Overseas, it will be a lot easier to book away from the big three greedy US carriers, and I will.
In fact tomorrow I fly AA only as far as JFK where I connect to Cathay Pacific to Asia, money that might have gone to American. I’m learning!