Can you fix American Airlines’ loyalty program?

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Joyce Zaritsky’s case is almost certainly impossible to solve. But you know me – I’m a sucker for seemingly intractable problems.

I may not be the only sucker. Zaritsky is upset because American Airlines recently changed the benefits of its “loyalty” program (that’s right, I can’t use “loyalty” without quotes, because, as I’ve repeatedly said, the loyalty only goes one way).

She says American sprung the revisions on her without any notice and wants me to undo them — at least for her.

Just this once.

And what’s one more windmill to tilt at, at least when it comes to the loyalty program scams we all seem to love, and love to hate.

“I’m a frequent flier with American who has gold status because I have been commuting every 2 or 3 weeks between Miami and New York for the past year,” she says. “Each time in the past I made a reservation and purchased a ticket and I was able to obtain an exit row seat for no extra charge.”

But the last time she tried, American said nuh-uh.

“I was informed that I had to pay $19 extra for each leg of my trip if I wanted to reserve such a seat,” she recalls.

Zaritsky wrote to American’s “customer relations” department (oh, there I go again with the quotes — sorry!) and got a response that the policy had been changed. Now only those with Platinum or above status could reserve these seats without paying extra.

“But who was notified?” she wonders. “Were anyone of us told? I think not.”

Um, actually, American did mention something about this. It issued a press release in April in which it touted “new options” for members of its loyalty program. Some of the changes are outlined here.

But it turns out the news release, like all other news releases about unpopular changes in loyalty programs — and indeed, all of the notifications sent to American’s customers, for that matter — was deceptive in that it played up the “benefits” (oh, enough with the quotes) while downplaying the cuts.

That led to Zaritsky’s confusion. If she’s seen this, she might be forgiven for not knowing her gold-level benefits would be downsized.

Thanks, American.

Of course, that does nothing to change the fact that American did announce these reductions, albeit in a less public way. You have to dig deep in its terms and conditions, or try to make a reservation and — gotcha! — there it is.

Unfortunately, mileage programs are not regulated in any meaningful way. So American could promise you the Sultan of Brunei’s 747, and there’s nothing the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Transportation, or the Congress of the United States could do to rein it in.

Sigh. I love writing about loyalty program scams.

Oh, you don’t think this is a scam? Well, think about it. According to Zaritsky, American offered her these confirmed reservations — and let’s face it, it’s the least they can do for a good customer — in exchange for her business. And then one day it quietly pulled the rug out from under her, deleting this perk.

In my book, that’s a scam.

Zaritsky would be happy if I could find her a confirmed seat on her next flight. That might be doable. Zaritsky would also like me to undo these changes at American. That might not be doable. I think American has made up its mind about these changes, and what choice do we have, anyway? If you live in Phoenix or Dallas, the answer is pretty much no choice.

Fortress hubs. Gotta love ‘em.

So, should I saddle up Rocinante one last time and perhaps help this gold passenger get her promised benefit, or is this a lost cause? Should I urge American to reconsider its changes, or is the airline better off slowly killing its loyalty program?

And really, wouldn’t that be better for everyone?

Should I mediate Joyce Zaritsky's case with American Airlines?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • mwalters49

    The OP is incorrect. American announced this change over a year in advance. Back in late 2012, American announced More Cabin Extra seats (the seats with 6″ of extra legroom, which includes the exit rows). They made it clear at the time that the seats would normally be complimentary to Platinum and Executive Platinum flyers and that for 2013 only, they would also be free to Gold flyers as a way to let the Gold members try things out.

    I just did a quick email search and found several emails throughout 2013 from American that all make it very clear that this perk for Gold status expired on December 31, 2013. I’m not sure that it’s reasonable to expect much more than a year’s notice from American about these changes.

    You should not help the OP and reward her for ignoring many clear emails from American making clear that this benefit was only for a limited time.

  • Marcin Jeske

    Time to punish disloyalty by switching airlines… she should try US Airways; they fly the exact same routes now!

    Seriously though, benefits change… it sucks. Evaluate whether American still gives the best value and act accordingly. While the holy war against loyalty programs is overkill, it is important to make flying (and all business) decisions based on what the airline offers today, not what they promise to offer tomorrow. From the OP perspective, American just raised their prices by $19 per segment. Are there better options?

  • FQTVLR

    Many membership and loyalty programs change regularly. Period. My spouse is a member of AA’s program and received numerous email about the changes even though he has not flown this airline in over 5 years. As a “Gold” level flyer the OP probably received these emails too and chose to either skim them or delete them. She needs to deal with it and move on.
    All loyalty programs are one-way programs –not just airline programs. Intelligent consumers realize that and choose programs where they see a benefit for them. (One at a major grocery store comes to mind.) And all such programs change over time. Too bad, so sad. Change is a fact of life and no amount of whining that a change is unfair to someone is going to stop a company from making those changes. I belong to DL’s frequent flyer program and have seen major changes to the program over the last 2 years. Not happy, but that is the way it goes. But I realized years ago that change is one constant in life.

  • backprop

    So the question is whether to mediate with AA and get the OP a benefit that nobody else of her level gets, just because she didn’t read?

  • TonyA_says

    Save Rocinante for a better fight.

  • Meredith Putvin

    And while they did announce these changes, all of these programs do have a “subject to change notification.” Plus we all know the airlines are notorious for squeeze blood from stones in the terms of fees.

  • Blackadar

    This just matches American’s policies with US Airways. It’s bullcrap – Gold level status should be able to book these seats – but that’s the policy. There’s really nothing to mediate here because they won’t change the policy.

  • Adam Lake

    These alarmist “oh my good look what they did to a loyal customer” type things are getting old. Gold status is the most minimum level status they offer. When you factor in the Million Miler club ontop, there are basically 5 classes of more loyal customer higher than gold.

    Do companies who wine and dine their customers spend as much money on their 6th tier best customer as they do their first? No.

    American still has one of – if not the best – loyalty programs for reward tickets and higher tier status upgrades. If they offered the same benefits to gold as they do Executive Platinum, there’d be no value for the higher tier.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I’m a frequent flier with elite status on SMI/J’s sham airline. I no longer view my “perks” as “perks.” They’re totally unpredictable and hey, if I score that upgrade (hah!never these days) or that “economy plus” seat, I put it in the win column.

    No point in whining about it, or “mediating” it.

  • BillCCC

    Things change. Move on.

  • SoBeSparky

    I saw this notice many times last year. When the MCE program was announced, the seats would be free for Gold Aadvantage members for free in 2013. No good deed goes unpunished. So the OP gets used to a temporary free benefit, and demands it be made permanent?

    When is a scam not a scam? When the accuser did not research the subject to any degree before making the accusation.

  • Alan Gore

    Actually, US Air dominates in Phoenix. But with a merger in the works, would there be any point in switching American to US Air?

  • P.j. Zornosa

    I have flown 2.4M program miles with Delta.This “translates” to 1.9M miles with Delta. No chance for waiving requirement for Lifetime Gold. Lifetime Silver means nothing to the airlines. Delta won’t even let Million Milers use the “Gold” line to check in! Now it seems AA is following. Yes, AA did inform her but it still is dismaying that they remove perks in one level to make it “look” like the next Elite level up is more prestigious. “Don’t pour sewage on me and tell me it is raining”.

  • David Brakebill

    Another thing they’ve done recently is to change what “benefits” you get with a particular “loyalty” or “affinity” credit card. Used to be that with the basic Citi card ($50 annual fee) you got all the perks…free first checked bag, priority boarding, 2 miles per $ for AA tickets, etc Now you have to upgrade to the $95 a year card to get these benefits….talk about nickel & diming!

  • SoBeSparky

    A “basic” AAdvantage card from Citicorp always charged a fee, many times with the first year fee waived. I cannot recall a free AAdvanage.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Please let the OP that UA and DL have also both changed their loyalty programs recently. I am enrolled in both and received emails to that effect. Of course, if you just read the announcement screen in the email, without clicking on the link to actually read the terms, you would end up being very surprised in a few months’ time.

    This hearkens back to the point I brought up on Saturday, in that people are only reading headlines, bullet points and the first couple of sentences of any article and concluding that they are now well informed.

  • FQTVLR

    You are spot on Jeanne.

  • BMG4ME

    It comes down to whether American make a lifetime commitment to offer these seats for free to Gold customers. If so, yes mediate. Otherwise don’t. As for killing off the loyalty programs no it would not be better for everyone.

  • http://www.kansaskeith.com Keith Murray

    How is this a scam or a change? American Airlines had not offered the “Main Cabin Extra” legroom since way back when it eliminated “More Room Throughout Coach.” So it decided to implement it again and call it Main Cabin Extra. It said at the time it would be available as a complimentary feature to “Gold” members only on a trial basis. In fact the trial was even extended a couple times. Then, when American did what it had said it would do all along, someone starts to scream. If you touch this one with a ten-foot pole, you are misguided.

  • emanon256

    Things that may result in a more pleasant experience than trying to convince an airline to change its loyalty program:

    Tugging on superman cape
    Spitting into the wind
    Pulling the mask off the ‘ole Lone Ranger
    Messing around with Jim

    I voted no.

  • omgstfualready

    A scam is a fraudulent business scheme. You cannot throw that word around with such reckless abandon. It can easily be viewed as libel. The terms of the agreement, no matter how one-sided, are fully disclosed and are not a condition of being allowed to enter into a travel transaction.

  • Poley King

    Gold still gets it at online check in for free. US airways is even worse choice seats that are nothing more than a non choice seat and they charge all elite levels for the seats.

  • Poley King

    I wouldn’t even use the word change. Nothing changed except the end date for the better

  • Poley King

    It’s too easy to be bottom tier. Finally there is a chance to grab these seats now that more than half the ticketed passengers are no longer eligible for free before online check in

  • VoR61

    Loyalty programs are sorta like reaching out to pet someone else’s (e.g., the airlines’) dog. Sometimes they lick your hand and sometimes they unexpectedly bite. Approach with caution ….

  • omgstfualready

    Exactly. If it isn’t in a cute meme then it is too long to bother with reading.

  • omgstfualready

    Equal and fair are not the same and people need to be aware of that. If I’m being treated fairly that doesn’t mean I’m being treated equally in relation to another person.

  • Bill___A

    This is useless endeavor. The decision has been made, it applies to thousands of members, they are not going to make the change for one person, particularly not in a public forum.

    As far as calling it a scam…I think that goes a bit far.

    Businesses are continually tweaking their activities. They have made allowances for this in their agreements, which allow for program changes.

    Do you really think they could promise the Sultan of Brunei’s 747 and then renege on it without consequence? I think not. Like it or not, these changes are all done in accordance with the law, as far as I can see, and they do state that benefits can change, and that happens.

    I don’t like the changes in benefits any more than the next person. However, I have not seen any evidence of the airlines doing this without fully complying with their terms and conditions that they have set out.

  • TonyA_says

    Reading is optional. Whining mandatory. And, thinking is priceless.

  • JenniferFinger

    Chris, I don’t see what you can do. Even though she missed the announcement somehow, American Airlines will take the position that they did announce it and too bad for her.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Question for Chris: With all your industry contacts, why do you steadily take the letter writers’ word for verifiable things like “they never told me the terms were changing”? Doesn’t that hurt you when you contact the companies asking for help? I’d think that any that were paying attention would be perturbed by your lack of checking on basic facts like that.

    You had another letter last week where somebody claimed Expedia never showed taxes on a hotel room and took them at their word which was also totally incorrect.

  • Scott

    I must be missing something, but this was announced by AA a long time ago and in advance (when they announced Main Cabin Extra seats to begin with!) This poster doesn’t really have a leg to stand on, and she should familiarize herself with the benefits of each status tier a bit more.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    It doesn’t hurt. When someone says they weren’t notified or that a tax wasn’t disclosed, I don’t necessarily blame them. Maybe the disclosure wasn’t adequate. It’s something that is normally cleared up when I contact the company, and quite often, the company tries to improve its disclosure as a result.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Hmm. Tried to upload a meme I created. Disqus isn’t playing nice with me today. I’ll try again later.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    So, was that cleared up for you in this case when you contacted the company? Because the only place I see it clearly stated that people were directly contacted well ahead of time is here in the comments. You mention a press release in the article, but you criticize the wording of it and you never make it clear that members were directly contacted–in fact, you quote the OP claiming that she was never contacted.

    I must say this disappoints me, Chris. I had expected you to say you didn’t have resources to check all these things out. But you seem to be saying that you knew the OP wasn’t telling the truth but let it slide because it made for a more exciting article. If I’m misreading what you’re saying, please correct me.

  • jfhscott

    And so should Mr. Elliott prior to calling it a scam. Terrible factchecking.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    This is a “can this trip be saved?” – so I haven’t contacted the company yet on behalf of this customer. I don’t plan to, based on today’s discussion. It’s a windmill, I’m afraid.

    But to your point, I can’t verify everything a customer claims; it’s just not possible. I wish it were.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Oh the whining .. UA did the same to us elites when they merged with Continental. The travel news has been full of devaluation stories for years, both hotels and airlines … if you want to make the system work for you, you gotta stay on top of things. Airlines owe you nothing, it’s their program and your responsibility to pay attention to what’s going on.

  • andygoblue

    The previous poster was being facetious b/c no, there is little point other than potential nuances of the US Airways program vs. current AA program that might work in your favor, until both programs are fully merged.

  • TonyA_says

    How come the LW isn’t thankful to AA? Little is said about how many direct flights (about 20 daily) AA has from NYC to MIA. That is a godsend for commuters.

  • jim6555

    I can’t believe that AA is willing to upset some of their best customers over petty policy changes like this. Ms. Zaritsky needs to stop flying American and move her loyalty to another carrier that will give her the perks she wants. By showing an American mileage statement, she should be able to get immediate gold status on Delta or United.

  • emanon256

    I don’t think AA views Gold as their best customers. Gold is the lowest level and easy to get. It’s not a petty policy change. The Platinum, Executive Platinum, Concierge Key members were having trouble getting these seats because the Gold members could reserve them. Now that Gold members can’t, there is much more availability for their “best” customers. Ms. Zartisky can go to UA or Delta, but she would not have to connect rather than fly directly. And as gold, she still wont get much better treatment at the other airlines either.

  • jfhscott

    I don’t think so. Her AA Gold status would match to Silver on United, which provides economy plus on no better terms than American Gold. And on Delta she would be status matched to Silver Medallion which earns only a discount on “economy comfort”. Ms. Zaristsky’s problem is that she is a good customer, but by no means among their best, and providing extra space upon booking to Aadvantage Golds was, from the beginning, a temporary measure. Perhaps American should never have provided her the ability to secure economy extra upon booking at all – she would not feel she is being “downgraded” now.

  • bodega3

    Exactly. Thank you Judy!!

  • Carchar

    Gold status on AA is like Silver status at UA, the bottom elite tier.

  • evantorch

    Somewhere, sometime, another oil embargo or “pipeline blockage” will slam into these arrogant behemoths. Or labor issues will strike them again. Or the NLRB.
    When they come to Congress, hat in hand, as they have twice in my lifetime, then Elliot readers, will you keep silent?
    You see how they repaid us?

  • DReinig

    I fly frequently for business and have silver status on United (I keep just missing getting gold each year!). I am supposed to be able to book the exit row seats at check in for free. However, over the past year I’ve been finding they are already full – by off duty pilots and stewardesses. They used to have to fly stand by and get assigned a seat at departure, but now they are taking up the exit row seats! This doesn’t seem right!

  • Annie M

    “Loyalty” programs are a PERK, not a requirement and suppliers can change them on a whim. This woman is certainly not in the top tier and it seems that loyalty program are now trying to placate their very best clients, not those at entry levels.

    Am I the only one who, when an announcement is made about a change to a loyalty program, I actually read it to see how it affects me? It isn’t acceptable to me to hear “I didn’t know”.

    Another one who wants to be an exception to the rule. If she wants to be a big player, she should start booking first or business class to get extra perks and stop whining about having the pay for an exit row seat or be satisfied with a regular seat. Besides the exit row seats don’t have seat backs that recline, I’ve never understood the draw of them.

    As you you can see by the poll, it seems your regulars understand what this is- another request from someone who wants to be an exception to the rule.

  • jpolich

    Instead of accepting this reduction in benefits, youall might try sending an email to American like this one that we sent:

    Email AA Customer Relations — Confirmation

    I was dismayed to learn that you have revoked the ability for Gold members to reserve premium economy seats at the time of booking. Here are footnotes to your revised Web site:

    **Gold members receive a 50% discount when reserving a Main Cabin Extra seat in advance, or can enjoy them complimentary within 24 hours of departure (if seats are available). †For tickets issued on or after April 8, 2014, for travel on or after that date, Gold members traveling on American Airlines operated flights are eligible for one free checked bag; for tickets issued prior to April 8, 2014, Gold members are eligible for two free checked bags.

    I suspect that I am not the only customer who had been directing much of my flying to American precisely because of this ability to select those few somewhat comfortable seats in what is otherwise a cattle car coach. This is particularly true of flights over a couple hours– such as connections from our home in Phoenix via DFW or ORD to NYC and our frequent flights to Heathrow and elsewhere in Europe. We never allow ourselves to be victimized by booking long haul flights in basic economy. Your decision to kill this benefit (among others) for Gold customers (and we are also Million Millers and Premium Credit Card holders) eliminates the sole reason we have flown American in recent years. And it foretells further gutting of the AAdvantage program by American and abandonment of its frequent travelers.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    not really. Well, in Texas, but few other places.