The Critical Points: I’m Executive Platinum in Atlanta, but should I actually fly American?
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Each week in his column “The Critical Points” TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn’t agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.
In December 2019, I got a phone call from my Hyatt Globalist concierge with a fantastic (early) holiday present: American Airlines Executive Platinum status. To my amazement, this wasn't a trial, nor was it a "lite" version. It included all of the published benefits, including the four Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs). This was certainly an unexpected gift, and since I hadn't qualified the hard way, I understand why many American elites were irritated. However, I decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and happily took my upgraded status.
However, this has thrown my 2020 loyalty plans out of whack. Being based in Atlanta, I did not requalify for Delta Platinum Medallion status for 2020 as planned, because I avoided mileage runs and wanted to return to life as an airline free agent. I'd simply book the cheapest, most convenient itineraries possible without the blind loyalty to a brand that, from time to time, may induce irrational behavior. However, now that I have top-tier status in a non-American hub, life can be pretty good — which has created a bit of a conundrum.
Should I fly American and enjoy the status, or should I stick to my 2020 plans of being a free agent?
Benefits of Executive Platinum in Atlanta
I flew six American flights to or from Atlanta (ATL) in January, and I was upgraded at the Executive Platinum window (five days before departure) on five of them. On the sixth, I was upgraded 48 hours in advance of my transcontinental flight to Los Angeles (LAX) on an A321. When I've been in the American gate area of Terminal T or D in Atlanta, I've peeked at the upgrade lists of surrounding flights, and so far have seen no more than three people on any of them. Based on these data points, I have a strong suspicion that my upgrade success rate will be above 90% for the year flying AA in and out of Atlanta. Even if I don't score an upgrade, Main Cabin Extra seats are mine if I want at the time of booking.
A potential downside to American in Atlanta is the route network, especially compared to Delta. However, American flies nonstop to nine destinations out of ATL daily: Los Angeles (LAX), Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Charlotte (CLT), Miami (MIA), Washington-Reagan (DCA), New York-LaGuardia (LGA), Philadelphia (PHL), Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) and Phoenix (PHX). This list covers about 75% of my domestic travel needs on a nonstop basis, so luckily connections shouldn't be much of a necessity for me.
Another large upside for me with American and Executive Platinum is free, same-day flight changes. I used this upwards of 20 times last year on Delta because of shifting schedules, and I have already used it twice this year on American. Trying to accomplish this on any other airline would be expensive or require standby options (or both). The same-day change process on the AA app is also incredibly seamless, so it's quick to change your flight for free. This is a big incentive for me to fly American.
Finally, the Admirals Club (not an Executive Platinum benefit) in Atlanta is right across from most of American's gates, and the employees there are arguably the best in the AA lounge network. I have access through my Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, but I have to be flying American or a partner airline to use the lounge.
There are plenty of other benefits to Executive Platinum status — like bonus redeemable miles and perks on Oneworld carriers — but the ones listed above are the most important and applicable to me being based in Atlanta.
Benefits of being a free agent
While flying up front is great (along with the other benefits), free agency has a lot of upsides. It's incredibly appealing to be able to choose the best flight based on cost and schedule rather than carrier. I can book any flight I want rather than choosing a less desirable departure time or choosing to connect with American when another airline (like Delta or Southwest) could get me where I needed to go nonstop.
Out of Atlanta, Delta flies nonstop to almost anywhere I want to go, whereas American has just nine destinations. However, Delta also tends to be more expensive, but most people are happy to pay a bit more for the convenience of a nonstop flight. I also (personally) find the Delta flight experience — from a fleet and staff standpoint — to be more enjoyable compared to American.
Southwest also has a robust and increasing network out of Atlanta, and there are added cost savings when it comes to cancellation fees and checked bag fees. Add the possibilities of an ever-growing network of low-cost carriers with Spirit and Frontier, the one-off routes from JetBlue, Alaska, and WestJet, and the international carriers flying to Europe, Asia and beyond, and I could potentially save some money and time by not flying American.
If I really do a gut check, all other things equal, I'd be willing to give up flying a few, random flights on other carriers and probably give up some schedule flexibility to fly American. I'd most likely be upgraded, enjoy bonus redeemable miles and have the ability to seamlessly change my flights on the day I travel. The current sticking point — and my hesitancy to devote all of my loyalty to AA — has been the increased operational issues that American has endured as of late.
Last year's labor disputes, now looking to be resolved, caused travelers large headaches during the summer. The airline is still without 737 MAX aircraft, and there are larger passenger-experience problems: a fleet of endless configurations, a new, uncomfortable Oasis interior, and legacy US Airways planes still without in-seat power flying transcontinental routes. In my opinion, the airline's ability to recover during irregular operations is not industry leading.
My first month flying American out of Atlanta has been great. I've only had one delay (which was not an ATL route but JFK-MIA), and even today, as I sit in the Admirals Club in Washington-Reagan, my inbound plane is on time, as is my departure — despite terrible weather all the way from Atlanta to DC.
If the reliability and in-flight experiences I've had so far in 2020 continue, I think it'll be a great year of sitting up front and earning a lot of redeemable miles. However, if operational issues begin to bite me and start to impact my schedule, free agency will be a mighty attractive alternative, even if that means ignoring an airline's top tier status.
What do you think? Keep chugging along with American, or fly everyone else?