PROFILE: American AAdvantage

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This is the first in a weekly series that we will be running to give an overview of the top airline frequent flyer programs in the world today and pros and cons of each.

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American AAdvantage is the oldest of all the frequent flyer programs in existence today (started in 1981) and the last of the Big 3 US “legacy” carriers (along with United and Delta) that switched their mileage earning structure from distance to revenue-based (starting August 2016).

Here is an overview of the program along with some key information that might be useful to current and potential members.  Program website is available here.

Elite Status Levels (based on calendar year earnings):

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  • Gold – requires 25,000 EQM* or 30 EQS* per calendar year (beginning 2017 – min $3,000 EQD*)
  • Platinum – requires 50,000 EQM* or 60 EQS* per year (beginning 2017 – min $6,000 EQD*)
  • Platinum Pro (coming in 2017) – requires 50,000 EQM* or 60 EQS* per year (min $9,000 EQD*)
  • Executive Platinum – requires flying 100,000 EQM* or 120 EQS* per year (beginning 2017 – min $12,000 EQD*)

*EQM=elite qualifying miles, *EQS=elite qualifying segments, EQD=Elite Qualifying Dollars* (Total Base Airfare Spend before taxes in US Dollars).  Beginning in 2017, members will need to have both a minimum # of (EQM or EQS) and a min EQD spend to requalify for status for the following calendar year.

Key Benefits of Elite Status

  • Gold – 1 free checked bag, 50% off cost of main cabin extra (MCE) seating, comp upgrades on flights <500 miles, One World Ruby status
  • Platinum – 2 free checked bags, comp MCE seating, comp upgrades on flights <500 miles, One World Sapphire status (access to One World business class lounges when traveling internationally regardless of ticketed class)
  • Platinum Pro (coming in 2017) – 2 free checked bags, comp MCE seating, Complimentary upgrades on ALL North American flights, One World Sapphire Status
  • Executive Platinum – 3 free checked bags, comp MCE seating, comp upgrades on ALL North American flights, One World Emerald status (access to One World first class lounges when traveling internationally regardless of ticketed class), 4 systemwide upgrades which allow one-class upgrades (i.e. economy to business) on a space available basis on any fare booked, free reinstatement or changes to award tickets, free same day confirmed flight changes

Complete list of AA elite benefits here and OneWorld elite benefits here.

Lifetime Status:

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For those members that have been loyal to American for many years and have flown more than a million miles, AAdvantage rewards those members with lifetime elite status (renews each year unless the member achieves a higher elite level that calendar year via flying).  It used to be easier to attain lifetime status with American as all miles (including those earned through non-flying activity such as credit cards) also counted toward million miler status.  Nowadays, only actual paid miles flown on American count, and even worse for partners, only BASE miles count toward lifetime status (so for example, if flying on a deep discount BA fare, only 25% of the miles flown will count).

  • 1 million miles = Lifetime Gold status plus 35,000 redeemable miles
  • 2 million miles = Lifetime Platinum status plus 4 systemwide upgrade certificates
  • Each additional million miles = 4 additional systemwide upgrade certificates

There is no way to earn lifetime Executive Platinum in AA’s program.  In that respect it is similar to Delta’s Million Miler Program (which will only get you to Platinum but you have to fly 4 million miles to get that).  United’s Million Miler program is probably the most generous, giving members lifetime Gold for 1 million miles up to Lifetime Global Services status when the member flies 4 million miles.

Mileage Earning Structure:

Earnings for flights operated by AA as well as AA codeshares operated by other airlines is based on the base fare of the ticket purchased and the member’s elite status and awarded after the flight is taken.  Non-status members earn 5 miles per US dollar, gold members earn 7, platinum members earn 8, platinum pro members earn 9, and exec platinum members earn 11).

Example:

One-way economy ticket from JFK to LAX, costs $192; minus the government taxes the base fare is $164

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General Member: Earns 164*5=820 redeemable miles (RDMs)

Executive Platinum: 164*11=1804 RDMs

Mileage earnings for flights marketed and operated by other airlines other than AA are awarded based on miles flown plus bonuses for premium cabins.  The same percentage bonuses are available for elite members as well.

Example:

BA business class roundtrip ticket (not an AA codeshare) from LAX to LHR – cost doesn’t matter

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General member: 5456 * 2 + 25% cabin bonus = 13,640 redeemable miles (RDMs)

Executive Platinum: 5456 * 2 + 25% plus a 120% bonus on the base miles = 26,734 RDMs. 

Sweet Spots on Earning – Partner Airlines

Using the previous example, let’s say there is a business class fare sale and you have a choice between flying on American or British Airways in January 2017 for the same price on the LAX-LHR route; the cost of the ticket on either airline is $1500 + taxes and you’re an Executive Platinum member.

AA flight (as an EXP) = 1500*11=16,500 redeemable miles (RDMs)

BA flight (as an EXP) =26,734 miles as we figured out in the previous section.

So for cheap fares, speaking in terms of redeemable mileage only, you’d be better off buying the BA flight.  However, since you’re also trying to keep your elite status, you’d also be concerned about EQMs and EQDs, since you have to accumulate 100,000 EQMs and $12,000 in EQDs to regain EXP status for the 2018 calendar year.

AA flight = 2 EQM per mile flown = 21,824 EQMs

BA flight = 1.5 EQM per mile flown = 16,368 EQMs

As for EQDs…

AA flight =  $1500 EQD (base purchase price)

BA flight = 5456 * 2 * 25% = $2,728 EQD. 

So the choice really depends on your planned flying the rest of the year, whether you think you’ll be short on EQM or EQD.  Personally I’d choose the one with higher EQD as you can always make up EQMs (miles flown) with cheap fares later in the year.

Award Mile Redemptions – Sweet Spots

As with most frequent flyer programs, more often than not you get the “biggest bang for your buck mile” when you redeem for international premium cabin flights.  Most business class international redemptions (at saver level for AA flights) require less than double the miles required for the same flights in economy class.  If you were to buy tickets outright, you may pay 5x or more for a business class ticket than an economy class ticket on the same route:

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That said, even after AA’s redemption devaluation in March 2016, there are some sweet spots on the AA/One World award charts which are available here and here.  Unlike United for example, AA charges the same amount of miles for a One World or other partner airline redemption as their own metal (at the lowest “saver” level).

  • Business Class USA-Europe (57.5k miles each way).  United charges the same on United metal but if you want to fly a Star Alliance partner to Europe you’ll pay 70k miles each way.  **Tip: Avoid British Airways flights or you will pay hefty fuel surcharges
  • Business or First Class USA-Japan/Korea (60k/80k each way).  United and Delta both charge more on this route.  **Tip: Try Japan Airlines first class sky suites available on select routes
  • Economy Class within Europe (12.5k miles each way).  United and Delta both charge 15k miles for intra-Europe flights  **Tip: Using BA Avios for these flights may be cheaper in mileage (based on distance) but may require higher carrier surcharges.

Conclusion:

This is the first of our series of comparing the top frequent flyer programs in the world.  Each program has its advantages and disadvantages, and the one you should choose really depends on a combination of your base/home location, the the places you travel to, the amount of travel you do, and what you redeem your miles for.  We welcome your comments and questions about the various programs and your experience in each.

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