American, Alaska Airlines outline reciprocal elite benefits, upgrades

Nov 20, 2020

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Despite the pandemic, there’s a lot to look forward to in the airline loyalty world.

From American’s new Executive Platinum rewards to United’s first-quarter Premier status promotion, frequent flyers will have plenty of ways to boost their status — and cash in on lucrative benefits.

On Friday morning, American and Alaska airlines announced another reason why flyers should be excited about 2021. The carriers unveiled the loyalty-focused details of their upcoming West Coast strategic alliance.

In February — well before the pandemic came stateside — AA and Alaska did an about-face on their partner status. They had been planning to effectively “break up” come March. Instead, the two carriers decided to further their relationship by launching a new codeshare agreement, while Alaska applied to become a full-fledged member of the Oneworld alliance (of which American was a founding partner).

Fast-forward nine months and much progress has been made. The airlines launched full reciprocal mileage earning and burning in April, and Alaska is slated to join Oneworld on March 31, 2021.

Now, the carriers are outlining how they’ll handle reciprocal elite status and benefits, so read on for the details.

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Reciprocal upgrade benefits

On Tuesday, Vasu Raja, American’s chief revenue officer teased that reciprocal upgrades may be on their way.

Well, it’s actually happening.

In a call with TPG, Rick Elieson, the president of AAdvantage, said “we’ve been trying really hard to make this more than a codeshare. We’re trying to make something special for customers to make it easier to do business with both airlines.”

With that premise, Elieson explained the details of the reciprocal upgrade benefits, though a start date has not yet been finalized.

Once it kicks in, the perk will be limited to American’s Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro elites, as well as Alaska’s MVP Gold 75K tier. Each of these members will be eligible for free domestic upgrades regardless of which airline they fly.

“We’re starting with those tiers,” he said. “We want to make sure the system can handle it.” Elieson stopped short of saying whether the benefit would extend to lower-tier frequent flyers.

But it’s not just domestic flights. In fact, MVP Gold 75K members will have access to international long-haul upgrades on American Airlines.

Currently, Executive Platinum (and Platinum Pros come 2021) need to use a systemwide upgrade to confirm a higher cabin when flying on AA’s long-haul international flights. According to Alaska, MVP Gold 75K members will need to use a new Global Upgrade Certificate to process a long-haul upgrade when flying American.

American confirmed that every short-haul and long-haul international flight will be eligible, not just those covered in the West Coast-focused partnership, like Seattle to Bangalore and Shanghai.

We don’t yet know how the priority and upgrade waitlist will work. Will an Alaska MVP Gold 75K clear above an AA Platinum member? And what exactly is the timeline?

Either way, AA seems intent to outdo the Delta-Alaska pact a few years back. As part of the latter’s partnership, Alaska elites received upgrades on most domestic Delta flights, but their priority would be after all Medallions — and they’d only clear at the gate.

“We aspire to do something better than clearing [Alaska elites] at the gate. We’re going to see what we can execute against,” said Elieson.

While Alaska is scheduled to join Oneworld on March 31, 2020, the “implementation will lag” for the reciprocal upgrade benefit. Elieson’s best guess is that flyers can start enjoying these perks “in the first half of 2021.”

Elite member airport benefits

Starting in the spring, American and Alaska elites will enjoy a host of airport benefits when flying on the other carrier. This includes priority check-in, boarding, security and baggage handling.

In addition, elites will have an expanded baggage allowance, as well as the ability to make same-day flight changes.

The availability of benefits will depend on the Oneworld tier mapping. Top-tier Emeralds and mid-level Sapphires will receive all of the above perks, as well as lounge access when traveling internationally. (I wouldn’t expect Alaska elites to be eligible to use Flagship Lounges on wholly domestic itineraries.)

Extra-legroom seating benefits

On Oct. 1, American eliminated partner elite seating perks. Three weeks later, AA reversed course and restored the benefit for Oneworld Emerald and Sapphire members who hold status with British Airways, Iberia, Finnair and Japan Airlines.

Well, come 2021, you can add Alaska Airlines to that list. Once the Oneworld mapping is confirmed, top- and mid-tier elites can access extra-legroom Main Cabin Extra seats for free at the time of booking. (All Alaska elites will be eligible for complimentary Preferred seats positioned at favorable locations within the cabin.)

The same will be true for AA elites looking to sit in Alaska’s extra-legroom Premium Class.

Bottom line

Once the AA and Alaska tie-up begins next year, frequent flyers will begin enjoying a host of valuable benefits. Perhaps the most exciting is reciprocal upgrades, though the devil is certainly in the details — and we won’t know more until 2021.

Either way, we’re hopeful that the implementation is as good as it sounds on paper.

American is setting a high bar for its upcoming Northeast-focused alliance with JetBlue. If Friday’s Alaska news is any indication, we’ll hopefully be in for a welcome treat assuming the American-JetBlue pact is approved by regulators.

Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy

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