American Airlines launched AAdvantage, the first major airline mileage program, in 1981. Today, it boasts over 67 million members, and I am one of them.
I have been flying American (and its Oneworld partners) for most of my adult life. The upshot of my loyalty to the company is that I have earned AAdvantage Platinum status for life.
This two million mile threshold delivers a number of benefits, like mileage bonuses, free Main Cabin Extra seats, and access to Oneworld business class lounges.
While these are surely nice, what really matters to me is being able to redeem my hard-earned miles for long haul travel in American’s premium cabins. Sadly, this is where the AAdvantage program has gone from one of the most rewarding programs to one of the least.
AAdvantage has undergone several major changes over the past three years, most notably, becoming a revenue-based mileage program like Delta and United.
I think most aviation journalists and frequent flyers understood the rationale – reward high-paying business customers rather than those, like me, who fly a lot but do so on cheaper economy or premium economy tickets.
Disappointingly, American Airlines then went about devaluing its award chart, particularly premium-cabin awards where mileage redemptions increased, in some cases, drastically.
The airline has also been widely criticized for having limited award space across their network but especially on AA metal to desirable destinations like Europe and the South Pacific.
The most recent change has been the adoption of the so-called “Dynamic Award Pricing” which makes award pricing much more variable based on demand, open seats, time of year, destination, etc. The airline is essentially aligning award pricing (largely) with cash pricing.
The question is, does dynamic pricing help or hinder travelers like me who want to make the most of my miles? Is this simply a further devaluation of the once-mighty AAdvantage program? I decided to dig a little deeper to find out.
My Own Study: This is what I found
On December 26, in a post-tryptophan haze, I began searching for award space from my home base in Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to six destinations: Sydney (SYD), Auckland (AKL), London (LHR), Paris (CDG), Amsterdam (AMS), and Johannesburg (JNB).
These are undoubtedly sought-after destinations, but I decided to give myself the widest possible window, starting at 250 days and ending at 331 days out, the maximum period searchable for any AAdvantage award. This also coincided with off-peak travel (i.e., not the North American summer travel season). The results were both startling and depressing.
First, here’s the good news.
If you are willing to sit in coach, there is plenty of availability. To LHR, CDG, and AMS, awards start at 20K miles (American’s Economy Web Special), with CDG not showing a single blackout date.
LHR and AMS had a few days blacked out but all flights to these European destinations were non-stop from (and back to) DFW.
For just 80K miles then, you and a loved one can spend the fall in Europe, though you will need some extra recovery time to kick the coach-induced jetlag.
If your dream is an African safari, it appears you are in luck! American’s search engine showed full availability for DFW-JNB-DFW across all three months, mostly via LHR.
These coach awards were all available at 40K miles each way. With coach tickets to JNB at this time of year averaging around $945, a redemption of 80K miles is decent, though far from great value, especially when you factor in the $370 or so in taxes and fees you will pay for the mileage redemption.
If the South Pacific is calling you, availability is also good but be prepared for long connections.
First, even though Qantas serves DFW-SYD on their A380, there is zero availability in any cabin at any award level. This is not a huge deal, as I have flown via Los Angeles (LAX) many times, and there is availability at both the 30K and 40K award levels with, on average, 10 days blacked out each month.
The SYD-DFW return flights (again via LAX) had awards starting at 33K miles. So, if you have some flexibility and 63K miles in your account, head down under to Australia where the locals will gladly throw a few shrimp on the barbie!
However, if you are keen to catch an All Black rugby match or pop into Hobbiton, be prepared for a road warrior experience!
Awards to AKL in September start at 40K and while I found very few blackout dates, flights were either via LAX or San Francisco (SFO) with further connections in either SYD, Brisbane (BNE), or Nadi (NAN – yes, you will have to go through Fiji!).
October is a little better with some flights directly from LAX to AKL, but if November is your month of travel, it will involve a plethora of stops, again through either SYD or NAN. On the return, all flights will be through SYD or NAN to LAX, except for 15 days in October where there is some availability at the 33K level directly to LAX.
Now for the bad news.
If you want to really enjoy your miles and fly in business class to any of these destinations noted above, I suggest you grab the airsickness bag.
If you are used to spending 57.5K miles to Europe using the old MileSAAver award, those are now few and very, very far between.
For DFW-LHR, each month had six days blacked out with very limited 57.5K awards available. Those that were open were all via Boston (BOS) in coach, connecting to LHR in business, with the odd flight out of Raleigh-Durham (RDU) available at the 57.5K award level.
However, if you want any of the non-stop flights, either on AA or BA, your one-way redemption starts at 87K miles (just eight open dates, all on a Monday or Tuesday) but increases quickly up to 280K miles.
On average, you will spend 162K miles, one way, and it was a similar story for the LHR-DFW return.
Fifty percent of all flights to and from LHR over the 82-day period were 140K mile redemptions with the most expensive flights, at 278K miles, reserved for Saturday and Sunday departures. To SYD, awards start at an eye-watering 175K miles.
In the diagram below, I have plotted the mean mileage redemptions for both non-stop flights and those with at least one connection to the listed destinations. The data are telling.
While I was surprised to find AMS pricier than both LHR and CDG, with no awards under 100K miles each way, I was simply stunned at the redemption levels to the South Pacific.
To SYD, you will end up cashing in an average of 604K miles for the return journey while your New Zealand adventure will set you back 552K miles, on average.
It is worth noting that the AKL data are somewhat skewed by eight days in September where 80K mile awards are available, although all of these route DFW-ORD-BNE-AKL on Qantas.
Finally, if you desire a flatbed to South Africa, September is out! However, October and November do have some availability (20 days in total), and these are some of the best awards in the AA system: DFW through Doha (DOH) to JNB on Qatar for 75K miles in their best-in-class QSuites, with return flights available on Etihad via Abu Dhabi (AUH), again at the 75K-mile redemption level. However, flexibility is the key to securing these awards.
The frustrating thing about all of this is just how few seats have been sold as revenue tickets or gone to mileage awards.
I found a common pattern, exemplified by the DFW-LHR route on Sunday, September 20. American operates four flights to LHR, AA50, AA20, AA78, and AA80 (the first three are 777-300ERs with 52 seats in business class while AA80 is a 777 with 28 seats in business class with one set aside as a crew rest seat).
On this particular day, mileage redemptions varied from 267K miles (AA78 and AA80) to 319K miles (AA50).
Of the 183 business class seats available on those four flights, just four had either been sold or allotted to AAdvantage awards. FOUR. That is a whopping 2.2% of the total inventory, yet the lowest one-way mileage award available on that day was 267K.
I conducted the above analysis on one-way awards and wondered if you could get better value searching for return flights. The answer is not only no, but the new dynamic pricing search engine seemed rather deceptive.
For example, I searched for DFW-LHR-DFW departing September 1 and returning September 14, a two-week trip departing on a Tuesday. The result showed non-stop availability at 101K miles, but clicking on any of the 84K mile outbound flights changed the lowest award to 126K miles.
Now comes the “buyer beware” part: these awards are “Web Special” awards that cannot be changed and also incur fees if you decide to cancel your trip. If you need a bit more flexibility, that flight will cost you 357K miles!
I decided to click on the Web Special and, lo-and-behold, the cheapest non-stop return suddenly became a 145K mile award!
This happened repeatedly as I searched across the inventory. I found another midweek October trip advertised at 121.5K miles, and while I did manage to find this fare, the outbound was via BOS with the return through JFK.
The non-stop flights from DFW-LHR-DFW ranged from 284K miles to 386K miles, again, all Web Specials. When I chose the 284K mile award, the returns suddenly jumped to 317K miles to 376K miles.
The DFW-SYD-DFW and DFW-AKL-DFW all returned similar results. For example, the lowest mileage award I found was 515K miles through LAX on AA73 to SYD (October 1).
Again, this was a Web Special, with the regular award coming in at a whopping 730K miles. None of the 30 seats on the outbound and inbound flights were sold. NONE.
So, how devalued (or expensive) have American Airlines AAdvantage miles become?
I think the answer is, quite simply, VERY.
If you are happy flying coach, then there are some good value awards out there. There is also upside to dynamic pricing, with reduced prices on awards to Canada and some low domestic awards that the airline rolls out often starting at 5K miles one-way.
However, if you want to stretch out and enjoy American’s much-improved business class product, especially on their long-haul routes, you had better get ready to burn an exorbitant amount of miles.
In fact, redemption levels are now so high for business class awards that, in many cases, it would be better value to buy a revenue ticket! That hardly feels like a reward for being loyal.
To make my point, I searched business class fares across the entire 82-day period for all destinations discussed in this article. Average fares to Europe this far out are great value, averaging $4,032 to LHR, $3,560, to CDG and $3,650 to AMS.
If you were able to snag a 125K mile award to LHR (the average award available but with multiple stops), that would value the redemption at 3.2 CPM, very good value (see below).
However, all the non-stops to Europe fall below this “value threshold” with the DFW-AMS-DFW route coming in at 0.89 CPM, terrible use of miles according to the valuation displayed above.
Flights to AKL and SYD come in slightly above 1.4 CPM, at 1.49 and 1.68 CPM, respectively. This is because business class fares to AKL and SYD are stratospheric, averaging $8,235 (AKL) and $10,138 (SYD) over this period. As I would never be able to afford that, my only choice would be to burn over 550K miles to visit New Zealand or Australia.
The only awards that remain great value, as I noted above, are those on partner airlines like Qatar, where 150K miles gets you to South Africa and back. With business-class fares averaging $4,682 over the 82-day period, that values these awards at 3.12 CPM, feeling much more like a reward for company loyalty.
The AAdvantage program is, in many ways, still very good. American has some of the best partner airlines in the world and using those hard-earned AAdvantage miles to get to Africa or the Middle East is still great value.
However, like Delta and United, American Airlines has now adopted a “the price is the price” approach, making loyalty to the airline a far more expensive and less rewarding endeavor.
If you are ready to make some memories, chances are those possibilities will involve either travel in coach or emptying your mileage account.
About the author: Dr. Mike Slattery
By day, Mike Slattery is Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies and Professor of Environmental Science at Texas Christian University, USA. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, England. From South Africa, Mike is an internationally trained geographer and environmental scientist who has written more than 95 scientific articles and a book on a range of environmental issues. He is also an AvGeek with a particular interest in (and an extensive collection of) airline menus. Mike’s work takes him all over the globe to landscapes as diverse as the cloud forests of Costa Rica to the game reserves of southern Africa. According to flightmemory.com, Mike has flown more than 1.68 million miles, equivalent to being in the air 143.3 days or 7.1 x the distance to the moon. “I’ll never understand how an airliner gets off the ground, but I sure love being in them!” He lives with his family in Fort Worth.