Here's why some passengers won't be happy about American's new award ticket policy
American was the last of the big 3 U.S. airlines to extend elite status. Though AA took eight days longer than Delta and United to announce this news, at least it came up with some innovative and unique perks announced alongside the sweeping extensions.
For one, all current elite members will get up to $400 in credit to a future American Airlines Vacation package. At the same time, AA is also bringing back a perk that was discontinued about 10 years ago — the ability to earn Million Miler status from credit card spend.
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But it's the third "perk" that may actually be a stealthy devaluation depending on how you redeem your miles — and the timing of the announcement may ruffle some feathers with loyal travelers.
As part of the announcement, AA will now waive all award redeposit and change fees for trips booked by May 31 for travel through Sep. 30. That's great for all those looking for some more flexibility during these uncertain times.
RELATED: Can I cancel or change my award ticket due to coronavirus travel waivers?
But it's what happens after May 31 that's the center of my attention. AA announced that if you book award travel after June 1, you can make free changes and redeposits at least 60 days in advance. If you’re trying to change plans within 60 days of departure, there will be a new change and cancellation fee chart, as below:
|Elite status tier||60 days or more||Between 7 and 59 days||Less than 7 days|
Note that all of these fees are waived if you're choosing to redeem more miles for a higher class of service on the same flight — which matches the current policy. In addition, an American spokesperson has confirmed that this new fee structure applies to all awards, including Web Special tickets (which previously couldn't be changed at all).
On the surface of it, this is great news, since the previous award change and redeposit fee was $150, regardless of status (except for Executive Platinum members who could always make free changes and cancellations). Come June 1, as long as you adjust or outright cancel your award itinerary at least 60 days before departure, you won't be charged any fee.
That's great for most travelers; it's a very consumer-friendly move by the airline.
But when you dig deeper, you may consider this a big devaluation — depending on how you use your miles.
How this differs from the current policy
Prior to AA's announcement, the airline has allowed MileSAAver awards to be changed without fee, as long as the origin, destination and airline(s) remained the same. This made MileSAAver award tickets incredibly flexible, allowing you to adjust your date, time or connecting point for free — as long as you kept the same award type and carrier(s). Similarly, AA waived the change fees for AAnytime (standard) awards, even if you made a change to the origin and destination. These fee-free changes could be made anytime before scheduled departure.
Related: Complete guide to airline elite status during the coronavirus outbreak
When it comes to reinstating miles for a canceled award, the fee was previously $150 for the first ticket and $25 for any other redeposits done at the same time into the same account.
Unfortunately, for award tickets booked on or after June 1, all AAdvantage awards will be subject to the new fee structure, both for changes that would currently be allowed for free and for redeposits of two or more tickets that would currently be processed at a discount.
While this is certainly disappointing — and a silent devaluation — for those who enjoyed fee-free changes to MileSAAver and AAnytime awards, this move likely paves the way for AA to completely abandon traditional award charts in favor of its dynamic pricing model called Web Special awards. AA's been saving its best deals and award availability for its Web Special awards for a while now, but this move may be the nail in the coffin for the legacy award charts.
Related: How to redeem miles with the American Airlines AAdvantage program
How this impacts travelers
If you're an advance planner and need to redeposit your miles more than 60 days before departure, you'll enjoy the new fee-free redeposits. In fact, this new policy effectively makes all AAdvantage award tickets completely flexible and refundable at least two months prior to departure. This is a notably positive update, as long as you have advance notice of the need to change or cancel your ticket.
It's also a positive for Web Special awards, as these previously couldn't be changed but could be canceled and redeposited for a fee. With these updates (which kick in June 1, 2020), AA will allow those awards to be changed for free if you modify your itinerary 60 days or more before departure.
Plus, if you're an AAdvantage elite member, the redeposit fee is being lowered across the board — regardless of how far in advance you cancel your award ticket. And you can still redeem miles to move to a higher class of service. This is great if last-minute, premium-class awards open up and you have the additional miles to move to a higher cabin.
Unfortunately, the discount for two or more reinstatements is being eliminated. This is a massive change for family travelers. Consider this: A family of four without status can currently cancel an award ticket at the last minute and pay a total of $225 to reinstate those miles. Under the new policy, that'll set them back $600. Using a credit card with trip cancellation or interruption coverage could help recoup these fees if you need to cancel for a covered reason, but that's a hefty jump.
Finally, this is a major shift for travelers who had made fee-free changes to MileSAAver award tickets in the past. Here are some practical examples that will no longer be free for most American travelers within 60 days of departure (as of June 1):
- Shortening your connection: Under the current policy, you could book an itinerary with a longer-than-desired connection. Then, if a better routing opened up with a shorter layover, you could change to it for free — even if it was a day or two before departure.
- Removing a stop: You can also adjust an award ticket to include fewer connections — like shifting from a two-stop to a one-stop itinerary or a connecting flight to a nonstop one — if the new routing opened up at the MileSAAver level.
- Changing your date: You're also able to change your date under the current policy, extending (or cutting short) a trip as needed.
- Adjusting your time: You can currently book a flight that leaves at 6 a.m. and then change to a 9 a.m. or 6 p.m. departure if those work better for your schedule.
For MileSAAver award tickets booked on or after June 1, 2020, only Executive Platinums will enjoy these privileges within 60 days of travel without incurring a fee. All other elite members and non-elite travelers will be on the hook for additional costs.
American is adjusting its fee structure for changing and canceling award tickets starting June 1, and whether this is a positive or negative change depends on how you typically use your miles. It's great that all AAdvantage members can now change and reinstate award tickets for free at least 60 days before departure, though it's unfortunate that date, time and routing changes will now incur fees for most travelers within two months of departure.
However, what stings even more than the potential devaluation is the timing of it. American's press release about the elite status extensions is all about being grateful for the airline's frequent flyers during these trying times, and these fee changes even appear under the bolded heading "Making travel more flexible" in the release. While certain aspects of the fee structure allow for greater flexibility, the airline is also removing some notable flexibility from its policy.
Note that this change is also happening under the cover of other positive news. The coronavirus has caused travel to come grinding to a halt. Airlines will probably need to spend the next few months (and possibly years) convincing passengers to get back in the air. As such, American couldn't have chosen a worse time to announce changes that will negatively impact some travelers.
Sure, these changes may be positive for a segment of AA flyers. But, why upset some of your most loyal customers at a time when you'll inevitably need all the business you can get?
All photos by the author.