Following a status match last year from American Airlines Executive Platinum to United 1K, I flew both side-by-side. My personal experience was surprising and foretells where I will spend my time next year.
Leaving American for United
It was a hard shift for me, leaving American Airlines, after so many years for United. It made sense on paper. United was willing to give me an Unpublished status challenge for 1K, American had driven their loyalty program into the ground. Then there were a couple of trips to Southeast Asia in short succession where I flew American and Qatar and realized just how poorly by American and opened up the search.
But United was no Qatar of course, few are. I found some new struggles and some of the same old, same old. I want to be clear that my experiences were my own. I am sure some readers have had flawless experiences every flight with either airline and others deplorable but I can only comment on my own.
I feel it’s appropriate to start with the soft product since it is what ultimately led me to leave American for United. Meals in domestic first and in business class on United are a win over American. The whole process starts with a difference in approach. United separates items on the plate differently and the delivery is a better experience on United than American. American seems to heat up a tin of food and flip it onto the plate (or worse, leave it in the foil).
United meals on long-haul flights are hands down better, not because they use superior catering, rather they treat passengers like they have a choice in what they eat. Simple things like wine flights and a peppermill demonstrate an interest in passenger service. American could learn a lot from United on long-haul flight meal service.
Some of their seats domestically are literally the same, especially on the E-175 which has quickly become my favorite aircraft to fly. United is really slowly upgrading their fleet to a more respectable 1-2-1 business cabin layout, and until it’s complete they still fly 2-4-2 configurations in business class, and it’s not rare, I may have to book one or two of those flights before the end of the year. That’s not really good enough. American was one of the last to upgrade their fleet (or so I thought) but they’re all lie-flat seats now.
Standard lounges (Admirals Clubs vs United Clubs) are really pretty even. Some from each carrier are newer and offer more features, others are tired, it’s a toss-up. However, United has stepped up their game in terms of international business class lounges with the Polaris lounges.
Polaris lounges are superior to Amercian Express Centurion Lounges, hard to beat in the US. United’s invite-only Confidential private restaurant at Newark is an interesting concept that seems to deliver, American’s only response has been refreshing limited-access First Class lounges, an insufficient measure.
I flew American fewer segments this year (30) than I did United (45) but I secured upgrades more often on American that on United. I fly from Pittsburgh, a former US Airways hub and still clear more often on American. My final destination is about even direct into hubs (Houston for United, Charlotte/Dallas for American) as it is for stations farther afield.
American upgraded me on several flights to and from Mérida, Mexico even when I spent Iberia Avios. I tried to get a likewise status upgrade from United and was told I would have to spend the miles to upgrade the ticket. American was better at getting me to the front of the plane.
American issues fewer system-wide upgrades for Executive Platinums and makes them tough to confirm in advance, however, they are available from any fare class. United requires the purchase of “W” fares which can be slightly higher (but tend to be a couple of hundred dollars more) than the lowest mileage earning fares – and despite the purchase, you’re still playing upgrade roulette. That’s not a great system for the traveler.
Confirmed same-day flight changes are options for both United 1K members and American Executive Platinums. However, execution is much better on United. In fact, United was so good at opening up space (even if the route had to change) for their elites that I would often book the last flight of the day because it would allow me to easily switch to any of the other flights home. American needs to find the exact same routing, fare class – it makes it really hard to confirm the switch prior to going to the airport and that wastes Executive Platinum members’ time.
United’s EQD accumulation numbers do not match what they quote in the booking process in my experience. That’s not good. I am making a purchase decision based on the numbers I receive in the quote – it needs to match what I receive in my account following the flight.
While most bloggers and frequent flyers laud the Star Alliance network (it is the largest, has the most destinations) United doesn’t really play very nicely with their partners. United flyers earn no status credit whatsoever on partner flights that are not a joint venture. That concept makes no sense to me and really hurts my earning capabilities as a loyal United traveler outside of United’s core markets.
American is a founding member of the oneworld alliance but it’s starting to fall apart. Qatar is looking to leave, (Qantas is pushing them out the door), Cathay Pacific won’t be happy if China Southern joins and may also head for the exit. American has been downright hard to deal with especially in the case of Qatar despite coming to an agreement to discontinue their rhetoric. Losing Qatar and Cathay Pacific from oneworld would significantly devalue elite status with American.
Where Am I Focusing Next Year?
I wrote earlier that if United wants fewer 1K members, I would oblige. American later matched the $15,000 elite-qualifying dollar requirement with two simple differences:
- American, flyers can still utilize a Barclays credit card for $50,000 in spending to offset $3,000 EQDs, United issues no such waivers for 1K (though this would be the last resort for me).
- American counts alliance partner business class flights at 20% of distance flown for EQD calculation which can often reduce the cost of requalification.
When you combine that it should be easier for me to qualify on American, that plays a big factor in my analysis. At the end of the year, I looked back and reflected on what was the same between the two. Both have their problems, American doesn’t try on the soft product, United is trying on the hard product, but pretty slow about it. However, my travel patterns abroad will benefit me more with American than with United.
The grass is always greener on the other side, but in my experience, that wasn’t the case and back home to American I go. Until they make it unbearable again…
Have you tried both carriers? Which one did you choose? Should I just switch to Delta and bury the hatchet? Any other viable options from PIT?