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American reveals elite status changes and exciting loyalty updates

Oct. 14, 2020
9 min read
American Airlines Project Kodiak Oasis 2.0 737 Zach Griff ZGriff - 25
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Most major U.S. airlines announced elite status extensions earlier this year.

Given the unprecedented drop in demand for travel, American, Delta and United — along with their top competitors — extended the status of the elite-level customers through 2021. Understandably, no airline went so far as to announce changes to earning status in 2021 when the elite-status updates were first announced back in April.

But with 2021 (thankfully) around the corner, the wait is over — at least for American Airlines' flyers. On Wednesday, the Fort Worth-based carrier announced changes to its AAdvantage program, including elite-qualifying threshold adjustments and more exciting updates.

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Earning AAdvantage elite status in 2021

American is making it easier to earn elite status in 2021 in two ways.

First, the carrier is extending the qualifying period. Pre-pandemic, flyers had between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of a given year to qualify for elite status.

But 2021 will be different. All elite-qualifying flight activity flown between Oct. 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2021 will count towards your 2021 elite-status tracker. American is giving you an extra three months to qualify for elite status next year.

But that's not all.

The carrier will also lower the qualifying-thresholds across the board. Here's the full chart with the 2021 tier requirements. Remember that any status earned in 2021 will be valid through Jan. 31, 2023.

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MetricGoldPlatinumPlatinum ProExecutive Platinum
Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM)20,00040,00060,00080,000
Elite Qualifying Segments (EQS)20457095
Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQD)$2,000$4,500$7,000$12,000

Relative to the pre-pandemic requirements, American is reducing elite-qualifying miles (EQMs) required by 20%. Elite-qualifying segments (EQSs) and elite-qualifying dollars (EQDs) are lowered by 20% to 33%.

Relative to AA's 2020 requirements — which were reduced from previous levels as the pandemic took hold — the EQMs required for 2021 are increasing by 33%, while the EQSs required are rising by 33% to 58%. EQDs are also increasing by 13% to 33%.

For 2021, American is opting for something in between its “normal” 2019 thresholds and the reduced 2020 ones.

In explaining these new qualifying thresholds to TPG, Rick Elieson, president of AAdvantage, said "I'm a big believer in adaptability over prediction. We're acting on the best information we have. Our thresholds are splitting the difference between 2019 and 2020 levels."

Elieson continued: "if we haven’t [made the right goalposts], we’ll figure out ways to adapt. We want people to have an engaged and rewarding experience with American."

The jury is still out on whether giving flyers 15 months to earn status at roughly 30% below "normal" levels is enough. Of course, we'll have to monitor how travel recovers, especially in long-haul international markets.

For me, I'm traveling way less than 30% of my pre-pandemic levels, so unless travel meaningfully resumes, I'll likely miss the Executive Platinum threshold next year. (Stay tuned for how I fare by following me on Instagram.)

Related: Complete guide to American AAdvantage elite status

Elite-qualifying dollar requirement waiver

In addition to lowering the thresholds and giving customers more time to qualify, AA is rolling out a new way to bypass the elite-qualifying dollar requirement.

Specifically, if you spend $30,000 on purchases on any cobranded AAdvantage credit card during the calendar year, you'll be exempt from the EQD waiver up to Platinum Pro status. Unfortunately, this promotion doesn't apply to Executive Platinum, so those gunning for top-tier status will still need to earn the required $12,000 EQDs.

An American Airlines Boeing 737 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Elieson explained AA's decision to limit the spend waiver to Gold, Platinum and Platinum Pro levels by saying that "when we look at the distribution of elites, Platinum Pro is underrepresented. This will create a separation between Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum."

Either way, this is a great promotion for those who can't hit the reduced EQD requirement — and are big spenders.

The EQD waiver presents a lucrative double-dip opportunity. You can earn EQMs from spending on select AA cobranded cards. So in addition to bypassing the EQD requirement, you'll also get an EQM boost if you choose your card wisely and spend the required $30,000.

Related: Choosing the best credit card for American Airlines flyers

New AAdvantage reward options

With this new rewards program, American is sweetening the deal for Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum members — including the ability for the latter to earn five (yes, five) systemwide upgrades each year.

Beginning in 2021, the aforementioned elites will get to pick from a set of rewards when qualifying for status, similar to Delta's Choice Benefits. This program has been a long time coming, and it's great to see American moving forward with the implementation. Plus, it's even more rewarding than the legacy system where Executive Platinums received just four systemwides each year.

Though the details are light, Elieson offered a few interesting tidbits about the new rewards offering.

For one, American "isn't ready to lay out the full menu. We're working towards providing the full details towards the end of the month [October]."

In terms of actually selecting rewards, they'll be "deposited into the digital Wallet and you can then choose your options. You don’t have to select them right away — you can wait to redeem them. Some people can earn status mid-year and not redeem [the rewards] for 18 months beyond that."

As for the rewards themselves, expect a selection of items. The beloved systemwide upgrades (SWUs) aren't going anywhere. Other choices include Admirals Club day passes, bonus AAdvantage miles, headphones and more.

As to why American is moving away from just offering systemwide upgrades to elites, Elieson said "it is shocking to me how many [systemwide upgrades] go unused. Breakage is not a good thing. I want people to take full advantage of the program... This gives people some flexibility to determine what is important in 2021."

For many, however, systemwide upgrades will likely remain the top pick. And for those who love SWUs, there’s great news.

Among the other choices, Platinum Pros can choose a systemwide upgrade. This is the first time that this elite level will have access to a confirmed upgrade instrument. If you make it to Executive Platinum, one of the choices will be four systemwide upgrades, like before.

However, you can double dip! So theoretically, if you love SWUs as much as we do at TPG, you'll be able to earn a total of five of them by the time you reach Executive Platinum status.

Plus, the legacy Executive Platinum Rewards (for over-qualifying for top-tier status) will be morphed into this new program offering when it launches next year. Details on those awards are still to come.

Related: How to use American Systemwide Upgrades

Top-tier elites will soon have five shots at this Flagship First seat (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Systemwide upgrade and benefit extensions

While American is first to announce elite status updates for 2021, Delta got the ball rolling when it revealed additional loyalty extensions at the end of September.

Unfortunately, Wednesday’s update from American doesn’t include any extensions to expiring systemwide upgrades, companion certificates or Admirals Clubs memberships.

“We don’t have an update now," Elieson said when asked about extensions, though he didn't offer the most optimistic take. "Breakage isn’t something we’re proud of, but at some point, you call it a day.”

Anything’s possible, but my bet is that American won’t be further extending any of the already-extended benefits.

Elite benefits on basic economy fares

AA already announced changes to basic economy, but it’s worth reiterating here.

As of Oct. 1, elites flying on a basic economy ticket will be able to enjoy their perks, including:

This joins the existing elite perks for basic economy tickets, such as your normal boarding group, as well as your normal checked baggage benefits.

Note that American is removing the ability to earn elite-qualifying miles, segments and dollars on basic economy tickets effective Jan. 1, 2021. Though this change certainly stings, being able to enjoy elite perks on basic economy tickets is likely enough to compensate.

Related: You can now apply American Airlines systemwide upgrades on basic economy fares

Eliminating award change fees

In late August, United became the first of the Big 3 to permanently eliminate most change fees. It didn’t take long for the others to match.

American’s no-change-fee policy is one of the most generous. As of Jan. 1, 2021, there will be no change fees for domestic travel, as well as for flights to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean — including award tickets (and Web Specials). You’ll still be on the hook for a redeposit fee should you choose to cancel your award.

As part of the global coronavirus waiver, any award ticket purchased on or before Dec. 31, 2020 will not have a change or cancel fee.

Related: How airline no-change-fee policies stack up against Southwest

Bottom line

American has become the first of the Big 3 to announce elite status changes for 2021.

Qualifying thresholds have been reduced across the board. Plus, you now have 15 months to earn status. If you’re a big spender, you can waive the elite-qualifying dollar requirement for all tiers except Executive Platinum.

As part of the news, AA’s introducing a new way to reward top-tier elites when qualifying for status. Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum members will get picks from a robust catalog. Executive Platinums should be particularly excited since they’ll be able to earn five systemwide upgrades each year.

Now it’s your turn, Delta and United.