MIAMI – Today in Aviation, American Airlines (AA) introduced one of the first frequent-flyer programs in the industry, AAdvantage, in 1981. A year later, AAdvantage became the first loyalty program to partner with a foreign airline, allowing members to earn and redeem miles on British Airways (BA) flights to Europe.

As a member of the AAdvantage® program, members earn miles when they fly on AA, oneworld, and other participating airlines, as well as over 1,000 partners. Members then can use miles to redeem tickets, upgrade service class, or get free or discounted car rentals, hotel stays, goods, and other products and services through the program’s partners.

The most active members are named AAdvantage Gold, AAdvantage Platinum, AAdvantage Platinum Pro, and AAdvantage Executive Platinum elite members, with benefits such as separate check-in, priority upgrade, and standby processing, and free upgrades depending on the volume and price of travel booked.

In addition, individuals who accumulate 1,000,000 miles earned on American receive lifetime Gold status. Individuals who accumulate 2,000,000 miles earned on AA receive lifetime Platinum status.

The status requirements range from 25,000 to 100,000 flown elite qualifying miles or 30 to 120 flown elite qualifying segments plus US$3,000 to US$15,000 elite qualifying dollars.

AAdvantage cards. Image: American Airlines

Origins of Frequent-Flyer Programs

Following the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, increased competition prompted airline marketing experts to devise new ways to reward repeat customers and foster brand loyalty.

Texas International Airlines is widely credited with coming up with the first mileage-based frequent-flyer program in 1979. The airline would merge with Continental in 1982, but it is remembered in frequent-flier lore for pioneering the modern mileage program.

In 1980, another carrier, Western Airlines launched a Travel Bank program. Western was to be acquired by Delta Air Lines (DL) seven years later.

American Airlines Boeing 727-223 in August 1981. Photo: Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

AAdvantage Program Launch

As for AA, the original concept of a special “loyalty fare” was tweaked and extended to include free first-class seats and companion upgrades, as well as discounted coach tickets. And so, one of the most, if not the most recognizable major frequent-flyer program, AAdvantage, was launched on May 1, 1981.

American Airlines’ SABRE machine reservations system was used to seed membership by looking for repeated phone numbers. A total of 130,000 frequent flyers and 60,000 members of the carrier’s Admirals Club were pre-enrolled and sent letters with their new account numbers.

The name of the program was chosen by AA’s promotional agency and is consistent with the names and logos of other AA services. Massimo Vignelli designed the logo.

American Airlines Boeing 777-200ER in the classic bare metal livery. Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

And Everyone Followed Suit

United Airlines (UA) unveiled the MileagePlus program less than a week later after AA, and other airlines followed suit in the months and years that followed.

Delta launched its own mileage program in 1981. It was formerly known as Frequent Flyer before being renamed SkyMiles in 1995. When Alaska Airlines (AS) launched its program in 1983, it was dubbed Gold Coast Travel before being renamed Mileage Plan in 1989.

In 1984, Air Canada (AC) introduced a mileage program, and in 1987, Continental merged its program with that of Eastern Airlines to form OnePass. Finally, Southwest Airlines (WN) launched The Company Club, a mileage scheme, in June 1987, and renamed it Rapid Rewards in 1996.

American Airlines N824AW Airbus A319. Photo: Mateo Skinner/Airways

Expansion, Changes of the Program

As airlines competed on the features of their frequent flyer services, AAdvantage liberalized its laws, formed alliances with hotels and rental car companies, and offered incentives such as extra free drinks.

In 1988, AA and other carriers began offering triple miles. As a result, the number of miles required for awards increased. At the time, the miles, which had previously had no expiration date, were given a three-year expiration date, which was later shortened to 18 months, after which an account would be closed if there was no activity.

In 2005, AA joined the ranks of other major US airlines in launching an online shopping platform that allowed customers to receive AAdvantage miles while shopping online.

In 2016, AAdvantage started crediting miles based on the cost of the flight rather than the distance traveled. This move was followed by an increase in the number of miles required to qualify for an award.

40 Years Later

AAdvantage is still leading the way 40 years later with new alliances that give members more customized options in a platform that has never been easier to use.

“AAdvantage continues to be the easiest airline loyalty program for customers to engage with,” said Rick Elieson, President of the AAdvantage program via AA’s website. “Throughout our first 40 years, it’s been our privilege rewarding members for their continued loyalty to American with innovative benefits, unique partnerships, and an evolving program that’s built for every customer.”

During the first year of the pandemic, the program provided members additional flexibility by eliminating award ticket change fees. AA also automatically extended elite status through Jan. 31, 2022. In addition, AAdvantage offered members a three-month head-start on earning elite status as well as an additional path to earning elite benefits by using AAdvantage co-branded credit cards.

Finally, for the rest of 2021, AAdvantage members are set to benefit from enhanced reciprocal perks with AA’s new alliances with JetBlue Airways (B6) and Alaska Airlines (AS). According to AA, members can also expect new ways to earn miles with new home, auto, and business partnerships.

AAdvantage Elite promo. Photo: American Airlines


When the AAdvantage program first launched on May 1, 1981, it was by invitation only, with incentives including a first-class ticket to any American destination. Today, the program has 115 million participants, 144,000 of whom have been participating since the program’s inception.

Though members continue to be rewarded for their loyalty to AA, membership is now available to the general public, and members can receive and redeem miles on the ground as well as in the air.

Featured image: AMERICAN AIRLINES N919NN BOEING 737-800 / oneworld Livery. Photo: Luke Ayers/Airways