MIAMI— I like American Airlines – a lot. I have flown them since the late 1980s and, as an AAdvantage Platinum member (lifetime, in my case), I enjoy the many benefits associated with elite status: upgrade priority, complimentary Main Cabin Extra seating, two free checked bags, access to oneworld business class lounges, to name but a few.
I especially like the changes American has made since the merger with US Airways, specifically to their international Business Class product. For those who have flown their 777-300ER, the fully lie-flat seats with all-aisle access and walk-up drink and snack bar are a significant upgrade to the angled lie-flat (or sloping-slab) seats of the older cabins. The food seems much improved. There is a noticeable spring in the step of the flight attendants.
On my recent transatlantic flight from DFW-LHR, the flight attendants could not have been nicer. And with more to come, such as improvements to the Admirals Club and the continued rollout of the 787 Dreamliner, what’s not to like? Well, there is one thing, actually, and that’s the availability of AAdvantage miles seats.
I think most people stay loyal to an airline because of the quality of the frequent flyer program. I know in my case, that’s absolutely true. By any metric, American’s program is a generous one and the miles rack up pretty quickly, especially with the 100% elite mileage bonus and the long list of featured partners, such as car rentals and hotel stays, with which to earn miles. Getting to actually use those miles when you want to use them, however, is where the fun (or rather, frustration) really starts.
Take yesterday, for example. I spent more than three hours online, and the better part of 45 minutes on the phone, trying to get a single seat from Dallas to Johannesburg to see friends and family next March. South Africa is originally home to me, and it’s the place I want to use my miles more than any other, preferably in a premium cabin given my lanky 6’5” frame. Deep vein thrombosis just doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. I figured being six months out with a little wiggle room in terms of dates, there should be some inventory among the wide seats, right? Wrong!
Searching online showed I can get from DFW to LHR in Business Class but all with connections through multiple gateways (e.g., PHL, BOS, EWR, IAH, DCA) on British Airways at American’s MileSAAver rate of 50K each way. To go on any of the direct flights to LHR – i.e., AA50, AA78 or AA80 – required an AAnytime award of 110K each way, surprising given that AA50 was booked 5/52 and AA78 1/35 in Business Class, respectively. Having decided that connecting is a hassle but certainly not a deal-breaker, I pushed on for inventory into South Africa. I found none, besides one seat on BA55 (their A380) the day before I could leave and, similarly, one seat on BA54, but two days after my return window closed. I tried on Etihad and Qatar over the phone giving myself an even wider window, but to no avail – no inventory, neither into the Middle East nor onward to South Africa.
I then looked at mileage awards to any European gateway with a view to buying a revenue ticket onward to South Africa. I could get to FRA through either PHL or CLT on a US Airways plane, but not back home. Now I like Germany, but not that much! Ultimately, it turned out that none of the European cities had inventory from the U.S. except (1) at American’s highest award level of 110K each way (135K on weekends), and/or (2) through LHR, as noted above, which is actually one of the great rip-offs in the mileage industry. How so? Well, for those of you who have redeemed miles to travel through LHR you’ll know the sticker-shock when it comes time to actually cash in those hard-earned miles: taxes for the DFW-LHR return flight, on top of the 100K miles you’ll actually use, are $814 (versus $129 if you went through say Paris). In the end, I even tried to humor myself with a delay in the trip until June, widening my travel window to the entire month. Umm, no.
Now, I understand the business model for mileage awards and the dynamics of supply and demand. But when American asks “Where will your miles take you?” it turns out, not very far, unless you book 330 days ahead, are willing to cash in double the miles to go on direct flights (220K midweek), or have substantial flexibility in your travel dates. Now, how much are those revenue tickets to South Africa again?