For most of my life, I was a Delta guy – both growing up in New York, in law school, clerking in Los Angeles, and then working in New York. I was a Delta elite member for four or five years, oscillating between Silver and Gold Medallion, and it generally worked well for me. Then came the massive devaluation of frequent flyer programs, and, more importantly, I moved to Washington, DC. At that point, it made sense to make the switch to American/US Airways, despite my skepticism about American and how bloggers viewed it with Jesus-like adoration. So about four years ago I did a status challenge with American, and I’ve earned elite status on the airline ever since- either Gold or Platinum- without doing any crazy mileage runs and only taking advantage of a single mistake fare. Last year, I flew 36 segments on AA plus 6 on Oneworld partners. In 2015, there were 14 on partners and 29 on US and AA. So not crazy amounts of flying, but definitely significant. But about midway through this year, I decided to not even try to requalify as an American elite, thinking it was better to be a free agent. There were several reasons, and most were more passenger experience related than about dissatisfaction with American’s mileage program. On the former, Delta just consistently provides a better passenger experience (which I can supplement with Jetblue and AA as needed). On the latter, there just aren’t good frequent flyer programs anymore for people who fly a lot but not a ton. I present my reasons in no particular order.
When I first started flying US/AA, my Amex Platinum got me access into the Admirals Club or US Airways Club. They were terrible, but I had access. AA has slightly upgraded the food at clubs, but they still are far inferior to Delta Skyclubs. After this got dropped as a benefit on the Amex card, I picked up the Citi Prestige Mastercard which included access., but that has now been dropped as well. I could pick up AA’s own expensive card for access, but the institutionalized avocado paste mixed with some spices isn’t worth $450 a year. You can get better food, internet, and outlets in most airports for a lot less these days.
I’ve flown Delta a few times over the past few years, and every time I find myself saying “wow Delta is so much better at flying planes than American.” Now that American is moving out of Terminal C at LaGuardia, one of my main stations, and into the main terminal, the flying experience will likely get even more unpleasant there. The dreaded gate 35X at DCA is brutal. And when I do check a bag into DCA or JFK on AA, I have never had to wait less than 20 minutes – compared to Delta, where bags are always prompt. For some of my worst experiences, check out the time I was sick with food poisoning and AA didn’t care and didn’t process a flight change properly, the time IFE was broken on a flight from Milan to JFK, a three-hour delay from JFK to Zurich with poor communication, the time I found myself crying in Sao Paulo trying to get someone from AA to help me get to my destination, and had no bag for days, an improperly ticketed AA/BA ticket almost stranding me in Budapest, and almost missing my first White House meeting and needing my parents to drive all over the New York metro area due to IRROPS.
I think my blog shows that I’m not a very high-maintenance flyer, and I even flew coach on AA LAX-AKL and thought it was good. But the ratio of good to bad flights on American just wasn’t great.
I am finishing my time as an AA elite member with 28 500-mile upgrade certificates in the bank. That means I’ve been earning these certificates at a far greater rate than I’ve been able to use them. Indeed, I think the only flights I’ve used them on are to Mexico and one last minute from Chicago. From DCA to AA hubs there just are no upgrades ever available for a Platinum, and nearly all the other flights from DCA are less than 500 miles, so they don’t require the use of certificates. Perhaps the worst is that any upgrade I have gotten, even on flights under 500 miles (usually to New York), the upgrade window has been meaningless- which is supposed to be 72 hrs before boarding. Even when there are say 5 seats left in first class the day before a flight, I get upgraded five minutes before boarding. This makes planning hard and on more than one flight I had purchased food to bring on board and then been upgraded.
One big advantage of me sticking with American was its partnership with Alaska, since Alaska has great flights out of DCA across the country. Well, that partnership and the minimal benefits that came along with it are gone. The Hawaiian partnership has been downgraded, and Airberlin is gone in Europe (more on that below). Finally, the Citi partnership also got worse beyond lounges, as the ability for Citi Prestige cardholders to redeem Thankyou points for 1.6 cents each on AA disappeared, which was actually the main way I used Thankyou points. So, being a member of Advantage, and flying American, has gotten less useful.
Redeeming miles on AA has become impossible. Several times I’ve set alerts for 9 months, and not a single flight has become available on routes like DCA-BOS – in either business or coach. For months I tried to find a single flight to Colombia for a random week in January, and zippo. The only transatlantic carriers with regular business class availability was Airberlin, which isn’t an option anymore, and British Airways, which has insane fuel surcharges. Now that Airberlin is defunct, there is no Oneworld carrier in the center of Europe, and connecting through Madrid, London, and Helsinki is very limiting due to schedules (Finnair) and fees (Iberia and BA). LATAM has no award availability, and Qantas is hard to find in premium cabins. Hawaiian used to be a good option particularly to get to Australia, but that’s gone. So, yeah, AA has an award chart and the mileage redemption cost is steadier than say Delta, but if there are no seats available that’s useless. And honestly, mileage earning these days is far more lucrative from credit cards than it is from flying. (Although I would trade those miles for the repealed CFPB Arbitration rule that would have increased access to justice for cardholders but perhaps cut into the marketing budget for credit cards and blogs that sell them.)
I was all set to be a free agent, and had only 15 of my 38 segments so far this year on AA. My travel in Africa was pretty much all on non-Oneworld partners, and I flew a lot of Star Alliance to and from Europe. But for other reasons to be covered in future posts, I found myself with two round-trips booked to Mexico, one on Aeromexico and one on Delta. Turns out, those two trips are enough miles to meet a Delta status challenge to SkyMiles Silver. So, I have been matched to Gold for the next 90 days, which makes me eligible for upgrades on all my Mexico flying. I may have some work travel that allows me to hit the Gold target for the challenge. And I already have a revenue ticket to Europe booked for summer 2018 on Delta, so the Silver benefits will be nice. I still have some AA flying booked here and there, but I’ll be leaning towards Delta at least for the next year.