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When it rains, it pours. Bad things come in threes. There’s a litany of sayings out there that could apply, so pick your favorite because United eliminating published award charts for travel on its own flights after Nov. 15 isn’t all that is happening right now in the frequent flyer world.
Bad news, or at the very least, big changes, are brewing in the American Airlines AAdvantage world, too.
While American Airlines has not announced any formal changes or pulled its award charts, all evidence points to AAdvantage utilizing dynamic award pricing in a similar vein to its main competitors Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus.
We reached out to the airline to figure out what is going on, and were officially told:
Our AAdvantage program is designed to provide travelers with value and rewards and we are always researching ways to enhance earn and redemption opportunities like discounted awards through web specials. We have no other changes to share about our program at this time.
Logic tells you where two of the biggest three programs go, the third will follow, and American has already show a propensity for this, be it with baggage fees or revenue-based mileage earning and elite status qualification. However, there’s more than just logic at play.
Here is what we found:
The AAdvantage Search Calendar Is Changing
When performing some test American Airlines award searches, some searches still display in the normal AAdvantage calendar and others do not. Here’s the traditional search results window (all screenshots taken today):
And here’s the new search results page that is displaying on some routes, both international and domestic:
Note the calendar coming soon image on the upper right-hand corner. But also note that there are not designations for things like “Web Special” or “Saver” or “Anytime.” There are just prices for each cabin, which now also include premium economy. If you don’t use an award chart, words like saver and anytime become unnecessary.
AAdvantage Award Prices Vary Widely
American Airlines doesn’t have to say it has officially and completely introduced dynamic award pricing for it to already be in play, at least to some extent. AAdvantage introduced “Economy Web Specials” a few months ago with awards starting at 5,000 miles each way (sound familiar?). But where some prices get lower, you can bank on some (eventually) getting higher.
You can’t yet see a calendar view of award prices on routes with the new search screen, but you can still on those with the older interface, and this screen is as good of an example as any. Award flights on this example domestic route may cost 5k, 6k, 6.5k, 9.5k, 12k, 32.5k or whatever-k American says they cost. It varies, dynamically.
Web Specials Aren’t Always the Cheapest Fare
When award charts are deemphasized, logical pricing assumptions leave with them. It is logical to assume that a more restrictive Web Special economy award will be the least expensive award flight when it is available. But it’s not always. As an example, take Aug. 9 on Houston (IAH) to the Los Angeles area (LAX) on a ho-hum routine domestic award.
The Web Special price is 18,500 miles, requires a connection in Phoenix and goes to Orange County (SNA) instead of Los Angeles (LAX) but is included in the same line-up of results. The old-school saver award is bookable for 12,500 miles for a nonstop flight. This isn’t a new issue, but it is one to watch out for.
You aren’t going to know that if you don’t click on each option individually to check. Further complicating things is that if your city is on the monthly Reduced Mileage Awards List and you have an eligible American Airlines cobranded credit card, you will pay even less than 12,500 miles — potentially as little as 6,500 miles each way (less for flights under 500 miles). However, these discounts won’t appear online, so you need to call to book.
Premium Economy Award Prices Are Totally Unpredictable
On American Airlines flights where premium economy is offered, the award price is simply unpredictable. It might be basically the same as the business class award price at well over 100,000 miles each way, or it might cost exactly the same as economy.
Again, make no assumptions about award pricing right now as unpredictable is the only constant.
What’s a Saver Award?
Let me be clear: As of today, American Airlines is still using saver award pricing based on its published award chart. There are still 12,500-mile economy saver awards, 25,000-mile first class domestic awards, 57,500-mile saver business class awards to Europe, etc. But here’s the thing: Some routes on the new calendar simply don’t seem to show what we know to be a saver award. We checked months of availability from Houston (IAH) to London Heathrow (LHR), which solely displays results on the new calendar and there was not one single day of anywhere near 57,500-mile business class pricing on American-operated flights — even in the dead of winter.
The lowest we found was 110,000 miles each way, with many dates at 135,000 (or more) miles each way. We cross-checked on ExpertFlyer to see if we were missing anything, and the business class results were the same.
However, Houston – Edinburgh (connecting via Philadelphia) displays results on the old calendar and still has 57,500-mile saver business class awards on certain dates.
Is this all one big coincidence based on too small of a sample size? Was this route previously available for business class saver awards? Maybe. But maybe not.
Book Your Premium Cabin AAdvantage Awards Now
Everything in this article until now has been a fact, but here comes our opinion. We don’t have confirmation that American Airlines is switching to dynamic award pricing, but we have a lot of facts that support that argument. And when an airline changes to dynamic award pricing three things generally happen.
- Economy off-peak awards get cheaper.
- International business class flights get (much) more expensive.
- Partner awards become an even better value.
As we are seeing with post-Nov. 15 pricing with United, expect American Airlines-operated international business class awards to go up significantly in award price if the program does away with award charts. If you look at Houston – London as a canary rather than a fluke, business class prices on all the dates we tested are over 100,000 miles each way.
To put this into actionable terms, if you have been thinking about a big, fancy trip on an American Airlines-operated flight and you can book the award now, I would strongly encourage you to do that. There’s 0% chance in my mind those prices go down and a strong likelihood these awards get more expensive.
Partner awards already represent some of the best value using miles, and at least for the near term, that is likely to only become more true than ever as US programs move away from award charts. So, it may cost 240,000 American Airlines miles to fly on American Airlines to Hong Kong in business class in some award-chart-free future, but perhaps a business class flight on partner Cathay Pacific will still only cost 70,000 AAdvantage miles when awards are available. I’m far from convinced that partner opportunities will remain at that level forever, but it may be a refuge for a (hopefully long) period of time.
Note that in our tests, partner awards were shown last on the search results on the new interface, even when they were cheaper and offered the only nonstop routing (such as Houston – London on British Airways). That means scrolling through dozens, or even close to 100, other results to get to those options.
The last of the three largest US frequent flyer programs to have a published airline award chart is making every signal that they may be moving away from that chart without actually saying those words. Hopefully, those signals are wrong and American AAdvantage decides to make having a published award chart a competitive advantage (because it would be). But there’s also the reality that American Airlines is known for playing follow-the-leader with United MileagePlus and Delta SkyMiles. That happened when a spending requirement was added to earning elite status, with basic economy fares and more. If American does follow United and Delta in introducing dynamic award pricing, it certainly won’t be the first time the program followed the others in implementing changes that are bad for travelers. For now, I’d plan for the worst and hope for the best.
Featured image by Robert Alexander/Getty Images
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