After deciding this week to avoid flying American whenever I can, it was logical, I thought, to utilize my remaining 184,684 AAdvantage miles for award travel on an upcoming trip to South Africa. Surely, I mused, that would be sufficient for business class on American and one of its partner airlines to Johannesburg.

180,000 AAdvantage miles was indeed enough for the international segments in business class on Qatar (an AA partner), but not enough for American to put me in first class on the three domestic legs of my itinerary.  AA is making me fly in the back of the bus—and on RJs at that—to connect to the international premium cabins to and from South Africa.

Gee, thanks, American.

I should have expected it. The ever-eroding AA experience is why I am leaving the airline to begin with.  The reasons have accumulated, starting with raising fares while simultaneously cutting service.

Trying to be funny a few years back, I penned a blog post called Extreme Fare Class Parsing.  But now it’s no joke.  Airline pricing guys woke up one day and said, “Hey! Why compete with LCCs like Southwest when we can compete with ourselves?  Why, we can carve up the back of the plane into three fare classes on our own planes, and all we need to do it is to tweak our software!”

And so was invented the now-ubiquitous “basic economy” no-frills fare category that distributes flying misery in the coach section with slightly better “main cabin” and, on AA, “Main Cabin Extra” fare classes.  Overnight, the cheapest fares were called basic economy (or something like it) with no seat assignments or free checked bags allowed even for the highest level elite flyer.  Suddenly, only main cabin and above fares let flyer get a seat assignment and free check bags, and those fares went way up.

That was one nail in the American Airlines loyalty coffin.  Another has been the drastic value diminution of American’s AAdvantage frequent flyer program, in which I was a 1981 charter member.  I don’t need to repeat the litany of cuts to the loyalty programs, such as higher mileage award levels; fewer, if any, award seats at the lowest award levels; inventing new, ever-higher elite levels for upgrades that makes it nearly impossible to get into the front cabin, and measuring loyalty based on dollars spent rather than miles flown.  American has done all that.

At one time in the mid-eighties I flew so much that I enjoyed top tier recognition at United, Continental, TWA, Eastern, Delta, Pan Am, and American.  I could expect good service and reasonable comfort for a decent fare on most any domestic flight.

By the time that carriers spiraled into death throes and compacted into the remaining Big Three, I had abandoned United for good after years of being pummeled even as a 1K flyer (then United’s top elite category).  But at least I had American, where I had flown 1.2 million miles and held Lifetime Gold credentials, and I had Delta, with my Lifetime Platinum privileges after flying 5.3 million miles.

Then AA croaked, and it was bought by America West and slammed crudely together with US Airways.  When the dust settled, I found my 34 AAdvantage 500-mile upgrades to be stranded in a state of everlasting uselessness.  So many top tier US Airways and former American Airlines flyers were vying for upgrades that only a purchased first class ticket got me into the front cabin.

I also began to notice that “early boarding” as a Gold wasn’t that early.  These days it is usually middle of the pack, after military and those in need of assistance, families with small children, First Class, and Executive Platinum/Platinum.  Increasingly, overhead space is limited by the time I board, and that’s after I pay a higher fare just to get a seat assignment.

So, why, I asked myself, am I still flying on American?  Surely it isn’t for the miles.  Since the merger, as I said above, the AAdvantage program has become ever stingier, case in point my 34 upgrades in purgatory.

Thus, sitting with 184,684 AAdvantage miles in declining value, I sought to cash in 180,000 miles for a business class round trip to Johannesburg before things got worse.

The online international award requests show mostly American and British Airways connections, with a smattering of Iberia flights, but almost no business class award seats on any carrier’s flights.  And no flights visible on other partners, like Qatar Airways.

The sole option to book international award seats is to call an AA agent, and so I did.  The AA agents I spoke with over a three day period were all super-helpful.  I’d hire any of them.

But not even nice professional people armed with the right company-provided software tools can help you find something that isn’t there.  Their patient searches (one call lasted 34 minutes) came up with zero business class award seats on AA, BA, or Iberia on any dates in the Plan Ahead category for the four-month period of July, August, September, and November.  I am extremely flexible for this particular trip, but flexibility doesn’t work if there are no seats.

I was told “Any Time” award seats were available for some flights (though this doesn’t show up online for international award requests), but even with 184,684 miles, I didn’t have enough for a one way in business, let alone round trip.

After three days of expert searching by senior AA agents, only one option came up: a convoluted itinerary using American and Qatar Raleigh-Philladelphia-Doha-Johannesburg-Doha-Boston-LaGuardia-Raleigh.  But even for 180,000 miles, no first class was available on the AA domestic flights.  It was take-it-or-leave-it, so I took it, and thus I will be flying in coach RDU/PHL, BOS/LGA, and LGA/RDU.

For 180,000 miles, American still denies me a seat in the front cabin on an RJ.  Sheesh.  This experience underscores why I won’t miss flying on American.  Meanwhile, my 34 AAdvantage 500-mile upgrade certificates, some purchased and some earned, sit frozen and unusable in my account, a shrine to my foolhardiness in trusting the contemptible people who run American Airlines.

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