Anyone who bet that American Airlines would turn its attention to its AAdvantage frequent-flier program after completing its merger with US Airways wins that bet.
The question now: Do travelers lose?
Here are the details on what American is doing, how it will affect you and strategies to help you prepare for the change.
But first, a small reminder: You earn two kinds of miles when you fly. One gets you those sought-after but sometimes elusive free tickets. The other kind is elite-qualifying miles, a status that gets you such special perks as priority check-in and boarding, and free checked bags.
Navigating the new awards chart. The overhaul of American’s awards chart goes into effect March 22. It will include increasing redemption requirements on some of its own flights and those of its partners.
Most economy redemptions, including those in the 48 contiguous states and to Europe, will remain the same. A few, such as those to Asia and Australia (and a special category of off-peak awards to Europe), are increasing a little, and others, such as those to the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America, are decreasing.
The big shifts are for business- and first-class awards.
The amount you need for first-class awards within the U.S. and to South America, Europe, Asia and the South Pacific will increase dramatically. For instance, the miles needed for first-class awards from North America to Southeast Asia will go up from 67,500 miles each way to 110,000 miles, a 63% increase.
Earning miles. The number of redeemable miles — that is, the miles that get you those awards tickets — you earn on American has been generally based on the distance flown, the cabin you fly in or the fare class of your ticket (ranging from discount economy to full-fare first class) and on your elite status. But starting in the second half of the year (the exact date hasn’t been announced), fliers will earn redeemable miles based on the price of their airfare and their elite status.
Regular AAdvantage members will earn five redeemable miles per dollar spent on airfare; elites will earn seven to 11 miles per dollar spent. These earning tiers mean that mileage-earning is weighted more heavily in favor of fliers for whom price is not always the overriding consideration.
Getting elite status. American Airlines is simplifying its qualification requirements for elite status. In the past, fliers could qualify based on the number of miles or flight segments (if you flew from Los Angeles to New York but connected in Chicago, that would count as two flight segments) flown in a calendar year. Fliers could also qualify using an obscure points system that was based on the miles flown and the fare classes of tickets.
Qualifying based on segments remains the same; fliers earn one elite-qualifying segment per segment flown no matter the fare class. But for 2016, American has combined its points and mileage systems so fliers now earn between one and three elite-qualifying miles per mile flown, depending on the fare class of the ticket they buy. (Most economy fares will earn one elite-qualifying mile per mile flown. Business- and first-class tickets will earn two or three miles, respectively.)
Budget-minded travelers will have to fly a lot more to earn the same status as their counterparts in the premium cabins.
Here’s how to prepare for these changes:
If you can, fly sooner rather than later. In general, travelers looking to get the lowest airfares will do better under the current distance-based mileage-earning formula rather than the new airfare price-based formula.
For instance, a $350 round-trip economy ticket from Los Angeles to New York would earn 4,750 redeemable miles today, but just 1,750 to 3,850 (depending on elite status) after the earning changes go into effect in the second half of the year.
Book awards before March 22. Although the changes largely will not affect economy award redemptions, they will affect premium-cabin redemptions. If you wanted to redeem miles for a business- or first-class ticket, book before March 22.
That is true even if you will need to change the dates of your trip. The airline has said it will honor current redemption rates if fliers change flight dates as long as the origin and destination remain the same.
Maximize your credit cards. The changes to how fliers will earn and redeem miles make American Airlines co-branded credit cards even more important to your frequent-flier strategy. Besides earning more miles per dollar on airfare and enjoying elite-style benefits, you earn miles from everyday spending on those credit cards that will come in handy.