Why I’m Jumping Off the AA Elite Status Hamster Wheel
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In many ways, elite status is like a drug. Once you get it, you’ll do almost anything to keep it. Even highly irrational behavior… like flying in a metal tube for hours solely for the sake of earning elite-qualifying miles (aka taking a mileage run). My airline elite status addiction has been strong for the last decade, but the efficacy of it has been so diluted that I think it’s finally time I stop chasing it. If I get it, great, but times have changed and as of today I’m no longer going to have it as a goal — specifically when it comes to my credit card spend.
My Elite History
At one point in time, I’ve been top tier (or Platinum) with American, Delta and United. I’m currently Executive Platinum with AA, Platinum Medallion with Delta, Mosaic with JetBlue, Alaska 75k MVP, Virgin America Elevate Gold and Spirit Uranium (just kidding on that last one). Yeah, I know, I’m a little promiscuous when it comes to my airlines, but most of the statuses are from promotions or matches — except for American Airlines, where I’ve maintained Executive Platinum for the last five years the hard way, flying and with a little help from some hefty credit card spend. In 2016 I accrued 154,000 EQMs — 134,000 from flying and 20,000 from $80,000 in credit card spend.
But 2017 may be the last time I’m Executive Platinum because as of today I’m de-prioritizing it — meaning I’m not going out of my way to make sure I cross 100,000 EQMs and $12,000 in EQDs. Especially since AA is making it extremely difficult for me to earn Elite Qualifying Dollars and penalizing me for booking first and business class (more on that later, but it makes no sense).
When I became Executive Platinum in 2012, things were great: you got 8 EVIPs (systemwide upgrades) for crossing the 100,000 EQM mark and the award chart was super lucrative.
However, a lot of things have happened since those days, most notably the merger with US Airways, which led to many of US Airways’ policies and senior management team, including CEO Doug Parker, carrying over to AA. In one sense, the merger was actually a good thing because it stalled many of the negative loyalty program changes that United and Delta were instituting (such as introducing devaluations and adding elite spend tiers) so we had longer to maximize the program. However, now that a lot of the same negative changes have happened, Executive Platinum is far less valuable than what it used to be. Over the last three years American has significantly devalued the program:
- Stealth discontinuation of Explorer Awards
- Routing rules changed resulting in no domestic stopovers
- Systemwide upgrades for Executive Platinum getting slashed from 8 to 4
- The major devaluation of the AAdvantage award chart
- Disappearing saver award availability and huge fees on most transatlantic partners, like British Airways
- Fewer upgrades from coach to business and in the future just premium economy to business
- The implementation of Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) and the wonky way that American calculates them. Because I book through Amex Travel (and enjoy changes with no fees due to their special fares with AA), AA classifies my flights using the Special Fares chart, even though I’m paying the same amount as a regular flyer and buying business/first class. I’ve lost out on countless EQDs because of this. For instance, I recently had to pay 27,800 Membership Rewards ($556) for a one-way business-class flight from Miami (MIA) to New York (JFK). While a cash fare would have netted me around 500 EQDs (as taxes aren’t included in EQD calculations), I only got 218 EQDs based on the Special Fare chart. Year to date I’ve spent $6,083.42 and only gotten 4,117 EQDs, which is INSANE since I purchase almost all business/first class and these “special fares” aren’t even cheap. At this rate I’ll need to spend $17,730 to hit the $12,000 minimum for Executive Platinum. I could spend a boatload on their co-brand cards to earn EQDs, but as I’ll explain below, there’s an opportunity cost to spending on AA co-brand cards and giving up more valuable earn on other cards.
What’s Pushing Me Away From American
And while AA is simply getting in line behind Delta and United with devaluations of redeemable miles and the elite program, there are three other factors that are driving me away from the airline:
1) A sub-par premium cabin experience on board and in lounges makes flying other airlines (like JetBlue Mint) a much more enjoyable experience. Plus, a more lucrative credit card environment for earning and redeeming means that there is a much higher opportunity cost to spending on AA co-brand cards.
While AA has been retrofitting planes to become fully lie-flat, it still has a way to go, especially with its 757s. And even though it may have lie-flat seats in many planes, the 767 seats are extremely tight and don’t offer IFE, and the 777-200s retrofits have a faulty product where you can feel the person moving in the seat near you in many seats. While the 77W is a nice plane with solid seats, the soft product is lackluster at best with poor-quality food (in my opinion) and a laughable wine list.
2) Operationally, AA lags behind the competition. For 2016, its on-time arrival percentage was 79.4% versus United at 81.7% and Delta at 86.5%.
To me, time is money, and I’ve had no shortage of mechanical delays severely disrupting my travel with American over the past several years, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. I was excited to fly the AA 787 AKL-LAX last summer, but there was a sudden 15-hour mechanical delay, which forced me to use miles last-minute and fly United back via SFO. In my experience, when arriving early with AA they almost never have a gate ready. There was even a time recently when the ground staff opened the wrong door and our flight from Miami to JFK was let into international arrivals/customs and immigration! That was truly an experience to remember.
3) Poor quality lounges — while they’re renovating many of them and serving fresh guacamole in a handful, they still are far inferior to Amex Centurion Lounges, which are what I use at my home airports MIA and LGA and also behind Delta’s SkyClubs. Even in airports without a Centurion lounge, I’d rather get to the airport late and use TSA PreCheck and board the plane instead of hanging out in a lounge and eating carrots and processed cheese. I personally attach zero value to Admirals Club access.
The Loss of Appeal and Competitive Advantage of AAdvantage Credit Cards
Another reason why I’m moving away from AA is because the great credit cards arms race that’s currently going on allows me to earn vastly more points and miles than I ever had before — in more valuable programs than AAdvantage. Spend categories are increasing, like 5x on airfare with the Amex Platinum card — why would I want to earn 2 or 3 AA miles when I can earn 5 more valuable (in our monthly valuations at least) Membership Rewards points?
With huge credit card sign-up bonuses and spend categories expanding, why should I hustle to get an elite status that awards me four paltry upgrade certificates that usually can’t be confirmed at the time of booking when I can just redeem my ever-growing stockpiles of travel rewards? I can use them on carriers like Lufthansa to fly in first class for just 140k Aeroplan miles or 220k United miles round-trip, versus AA trying to charge way more for their inferior product!
The Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN and its effective value of 2 cents per point (via the 50% point rebate) also means I’m “buying” biz-class seats for cheaper than what AA charges for award seats, PLUS I’m earning miles on top. A $600 round-trip flight from New York to Miami equals 30,000 Amex points versus 50,000+ AAdvantage miles for the same award.
Devaluing AA miles and increasing earn rates on other cards makes the opportunity cost too great to put, say, $80,000 of spend on co-branded cards (200,000 AA miles, or $3,000 per our valuations) vs $80,000 on the Amex Platinum (400,000 Membership Rewards points, or $8,000 per our valuations):
- Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Silver Card with $40,000 x 3 points per dollar = 120,000 AA miles
- Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite with $40,000 of spend x 2 points per dollar = 80,000 AA miles
- Amex Platinum with $80,000 spend x 5 points per dollar = 400,000 Amex Points
What I’ll Miss
If I don’t requalify for Executive Platinum the #1 thing I’ll miss is getting AAdvantage award change and reinstatement charges waived. As an Executive Platinum I can book an award and change it as many times as I want and then cancel and redeposit up until departure free of charge. This is a lifesaver because I change my plans often and since there are no fees, I can book multiple options and then have the flexibility to change plans. If I drop to Platinum Pro I won’t get that anymore and will need to pay $150 every time I redeposit miles. That could add up quickly, but still isn’t worth spending thousands just to get it.
It’s Not the End of My Relationship with American
This isn’t to say I will never fly American — in fact, I have several flights booked in the near future because it’s my preferred carrier between NYC and Miami. I can fly on lie-flat 767s between JFK and Miami, and their lack of Wi-Fi is actually a good thing because I can catch up on TV shows that I otherwise don’t have time for on the ground. Having “me time” is a luxury.
I don’t want to end on a negative note; there are things that I like about AA, like many friendly flight attendants who I see often and know on a first-name basis, especially on the JFK-MIA route. AAdvantage is still a solid program in the scheme of things — far superior to SkyMiles, where you can’t even use miles for international first-class redemptions, but lags behind United, which has a far better website for availability and lower taxes/fees. AAdvantage has simply gone from a great program to a decent one.
I think AA has cut too far to the bone with its loyalty program, and smart travelers — including the premium ones the carrier is trying to get — have way better options out there. I love that JetBlue is expanding its Mint product and I prefer Mint suites (rows 2 or 4) even over American Flagship first on a transcontinental flight. JetBlue has far superior food, service and privacy compared to AA in my opinion. Even though United Polaris is far from completely rolling out its hard product, the soft product (pillows, food, pajamas, etc.) is way better than American’s. AA’s food, on-time arrival rate, baggage system and overall hassle are all contributing to the problem.
Deep down, I’ve been hell-bent on getting Executive Platinum because it’s ingrained in my head that I need to have top-tier elite status. I would think, “Well, I’m The Points Guy” and I need to get this. I thought I’d be inferior or lose credibility if I wasn’t a part of that club. But I’m pretty sure my smart readers will respect that I’m changing, because the game is changing as well as my personal situation (and the fact that I spend a lot on credit cards through the business and can afford to redeem for pretty much any flight I want). And I hope this is a wake-up call to all airlines that even though there have been mergers and fewer airlines to choose from, we still have an option to fly carriers that offer a better experience and value. And when it comes to credit cards, consumers have plenty of great products that offer a mix of points and perks — offering 2x on a single airline purchase or access to a subpar lounge just isn’t going to cut it anymore, at least not for me.
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.