Even when things are going smoothly, travel planning and making the best use of credit card & points-and-miles benefits can be a challenging task. Compound that with uncertainty, and the entire process can become overwhelming.
As most Middle Age Miles readers now know as a result of our article last week, my account is currently locked by AA:
- Middle Age Miles: Locked by AA – My Data Point with Details & Thoughts (January 15, 2020)
My account status is unchanged in the week since that article – I’m still locked down, but my account has not been terminated. (Philly’s account is still fine, thankfully.) We have a number of travel planning issues coming up, and we’re trying to figure out how to best handle them in light of my lockdown. We thought it would be helpful to post another article to highlight some of the issues we’re facing from the lockdown and give Middle Age Miles readers insight into our thought processes and current strategies.
How Are Things Working During My Lockdown?
Right now, while I’m locked down, I cannot redeem any of my AA miles for any purpose. I can’t use them to book flights, I can’t use them for upgrades, I can’t book any hotels or rental cars on useaamiles.com, and I’m pretty sure I can’t transfer them to another AA member. I believe that I would be able to donate miles to charity; however, there’s no tax deduction for doing so.
In many other respects, however, my account is business-as-usual:
- I can book paid-fare flights
- I can still earn AA miles from, I believe, all channels including:
- Paid-fare flights
- AAdvantage shopping portal
- Customer service bonuses
- AA co-branded credit card spend
- Hyatt stays, through the AA-Hyatt partnership
- I’m still earning Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) and Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) on my paid-fare flights
- I still have Executive Platinum status, and benefits of that status are working, as far as I can tell:
- I can still reserve Main Cabin Extra seats for free
- I still receive the Executive Platinum checked baggage allowance
- I still get a place on the upgrade list, which presumably would clear if I was high enough on the list
- I still receive the Executive Platinum elite bonus on redeemable AA miles when flying on a paid fare
- I still receive free in-flight snacks and drinks when flying in coach
I haven’t tested yet whether I can use free same-day confirmed flight changes, but I suspect that this would also work fine.
I also haven’t tested whether I can use Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs). I’m not sure whether this would work or not.
As for previously-booked award flights that have already ticketed – I suspect that I can cancel them (and get the miles re-deposited into my AA account), but I don’t believe I would be able to change them while my account is locked.
What Happens Next?
We really don’t know. My AAdvantage account could be terminated, or it could be reinstated (perhaps with a mileage “penalty” deducted).
We’ve had no communication, either publicly or privately, from AA, so we have no idea when we’ll have a decision. As it stands now, I am in indefinite limbo.
This is the uncertainty that makes planning quite difficult. Not only do we not know what will happen, we don’t know when. Some people will say that we’re delusional to think that the next step is anything other than an outright termination of my AA account, it’s just a matter of how long AA takes to get to it; we discuss this topic in more detail below.
What Types of Problems Is the Lockdown Causing?
The lockdown is causing planning problems in many areas, some short-term and some long-term, including:
- Previously-booked-and-ticketed award flights – These are at risk. The tickets will be cancelled if my account is terminated.
- Same-day confirmed flight changes – We can’t plan for these, not knowing whether I’ll continue to have Executive Platinum status or not.
- Booking award flights – We already can’t book these, which eliminates one of the key benefits of the Executive Platinum status I worked hard to achieve; that is, the ability to book award flights as placeholders to preserve flexibility for future travel plans.
- Elite status qualification planning
- Where to credit flights for mileage-earning and elite qualification
- Credit card spend – especially planning for big-spend thresholds that I might want to hit, such as earning EQMs and EQDs with the Barclays AA Aviator Silver card
- Credit card keep-or-cancel decisions
- Booking future paid fares – Will I have status to cover seat selection and checked baggage fees?
- Reciprocal Oneworld benefits – Will I have lounge access on international trips?
- Other mileage-earning questions, such as using shopping portals and dining programs
Let’s consider some questions related to these areas of uncertainty. But first, it’s necessary to ponder a threshold question:
Is There a Reasonable Chance that My AA Account Will Be Reinstated?
Of course, we don’t know the answer to this question, and we don’t even know enough to assign a percentage chance to termination vs reinstatement.
To date, there’s not a single data point to my knowledge of a locked AA account being reinstated (in the current wave of terminations/lockdowns). There’s literally nothing in the data to date to give any hope. Obviously, there’s a significant chance of termination here. Some readers/commenters have told me that I’m naive/misguided/deluding myself to think that there’s any chance of reinstatement, in light of the current data. It’s hard to fault them for that view.
On the other hand, to me it defies common sense that AA would terminate people who otherwise are good customers, based on some relatively modest credit card activity that didn’t directly violate any AAdvantage program terms. At some level, a lot of what AA is doing here seems like an effort to weed out “bad” customers (that said, there certainly seem to be exceptions, and a read through the comments of our previous article will show you some). It also seems that if AA was going to terminate everyone whose account was locked, they easily could have just terminated all the accounts at the outset.
We discussed the possibility of reinstatement at length in our previous article, so I won’t re-hash it here. If there are any accounts that will be reinstated, my account should stand a pretty good chance of being one of them, with about $10,000 in paid fares per year for the past several years, a lot more paid flights than award flights, and substantial spend on AA co-branded credit cards. All things considered, we believe that there is a non-zero, reasonable possibility that my account will be reinstated.
Thus, we’re going to formulate strategy and make planning decisions under the assumption that there is a strong chance my account will be terminated, but some reasonable chance that my account will be reinstated.
Obviously, if you don’t believe you have a reasonable chance of reinstatement (for instance, if you received a high number of credit card sign-up bonuses and/or award flights on AA substantially exceed paid flights), then your strategy decisions would be different. In that case, you’d basically want to cut all ties with AA as soon as possible.
Other Factors That Bear on Our Decision-Making
A couple of other factors that bear on our decision-making relate to my high level of investment in the AA ecosystem:
- We are AA hub-captive, by virtue of living in the DFW area. Other carriers, including Southwest, don’t fit our travel profile well at all.
- I have earned Executive Platinum status for 2020, which provides a lot of valuable benefits. We reviewed the value of Executive Platinum status to us in this article from early last year:
- Middle Age Miles: The Value We Get from AA Executive Platinum Status (February 6, 2019)
- I have hundreds of thousands of AA miles in my account (only a small proportion of which were earned from credit card sign-up bonuses, for what that’s worth).
- I have about 1.85 million lifetime miles on AA, which puts me only 150,000 miles away from the lifetime Platinum status that comes at the 2 million mile mark.
As you can see, a shift away from AA (either voluntarily or forced) would be difficult and costly.
Turning now to some more specific questions:
Where Will I Credit My Flights?
This is a huge question, and a full analysis of all alternative Oneworld programs is beyond the scope of this article. I’ve looked a bit at the possibilities, most notably Finnair Plus and British Airways Executive Club.
The Finnair Plus program is interesting, because it’s possible to achieve status that qualifies for Oneworld Emerald (Finnair Plus Platinum) or Oneworld Sapphire (Finnair Plus Gold) without any flights on Finnair. Unfortunately, Finnair Plus Gold level of status looks to be out of reach for me. It requires 150,000 Finnair Plus points within a year, and it looks like most flights we take would earn about 0.8 Finnair Plus points per mile flown (with bonus earning for paid flights in a premium cabin). Thus, I’d be looking at the rough equivalent of 187,500 AA EQMs in order to reach this status. That’s about double the amount I had in 2019. More reachable might be the 76-flight requirement, but there would still be a substantial gap as I had 48 AAdvantage-qualifying flights during 2019. Finnair Plus Gold, which equates to Oneworld Sapphire, would probably be achievable, as it requires 80,000 points or 46 flights. On the redeemable miles side of Finnair Plus, it looks like it’s hard to find value when trying to redeem Finnair Plus miles.
British Airways Executive Club
In the British Airways Executive Club, to reach BA Silver (Oneworld Sapphire) or BA Gold (Oneworld Emerald), you have to fly with BA four times during your anniversary year, in addition to earning the necessary number of tier points. That creates a bit of a challenge for US-based flyers. It would probably be possible for me to get the 4 BA flights, but it might require at least a bit of modified behavior. Otherwise, to qualify on Tier Points, I’d need 600 for Silver or 1,500 for Gold (during my anniversary year; mine runs from Jan 8 through the next Jan 7 each year). A quick review of my flying for the past couple of years reveals that I could reach the 600-point Silver threshold fairly easily, but I’d be nowhere close to the 1,500-point Gold mark. On the redeemable-miles side, we’ve found BA Avios to be a very useful currency, especially for short-haul flights on AA and other Oneworld carriers.
Other Potential Options
We haven’t yet fully researched other potential Oneworld loyalty program options, which would include: Cathay Pacific; Iberia; JAL; Malaysia; Qantas; Qatar; Royal Jordanian; S7; and SriLankan (and as of 4/1/2020, Royal Air Maroc). So at this point, I’m not sure which program I’d pick, although Finnair and BA both seem to be contenders.
What to do now?
Right now, under my operating assumption that there’s a reasonable, non-zero chance of reinstatement, I’m going to continue to credit my flights to AA. I am still getting Executive Platinum benefits. Worst case scenario, at least I’m collecting 1 Hyatt point per dollar of spend on AA. If I do get reinstated, I will need every EQM and EQD that I can possibly accumulate towards re-qualification. And if my account is ultimately terminated, my hope is that I will have enough time left in the year to reach at least a Oneworld Sapphire-equivalent status on another Oneworld carrier. That should be possible if I get a decision on my AA account within the next couple of months.
For anyone whose account has been terminated (and who actually flies AA or other Oneworld carriers on paid fares), the “which program” decision is upon you. Pick a program and run with it, now. At least there’s plenty of time left in 2020 to qualify for elite status with another carrier. And if you have any additional insight into which Oneworld loyalty program works best, please share with us in the Comments!
What Do We Do About Currently-Booked Award Flights?
Currently-booked award flights are at risk. They’ll be cancelled if the AAdvantage account is terminated (including partner award tickets).
As for award flights that were booked and ticketed before an AA account was locked, it seems like most if not all people have been able to actually take these flights, as long as their AA account is not terminated before the flight. But there’s no way to know when a termination may be coming; many people have been terminated shortly before their flight was set to depart, and some have been terminated mid-trip, leaving them effectively stranded until they can make other last-minute arrangements to get home.
If you’re locked and have an award ticket, there are a few options:
- One, just cancel your trip
- If you don’t have to go, and you want to reduce your time commitment and stress, this may be your best option.
- Two, wait it out and hope for the best; that is, that your account will remain locked-but-not-terminated for the duration of your trip and you will be able to travel
- If you take this route, understand that you absolutely must have a back-up plan to return from your trip; there are plenty of accounts of people’s accounts being terminated mid-trip.
- Three, go ahead and cancel your award flights and re-book
- This will cost you money and/or some points from another program, of course. But it is a major stress-reducer, and you won’t have to waste any more time worrying about whether your tickets will stay in place or not.
- This is almost certainly the best option if there’s a trip that you know you absolutely must take.
Our Personal Situation with a Previously-Booked Award Ticket
We’re fortunate that we only have one set of award tickets booked on my account, and the flight is not soon. I used my AA miles to book Philly and me from Europe back to DFW on a late-summer trip. The award tickets booked using my miles are one-way only.
We also have award flights booked to get from DFW to Europe, but they weren’t booked with my miles.
Our short-term plan is to just wait and see what happens with my account. If my account is terminated, we’ll either (a) cancel our outbound award tickets and re-book a round-trip DFW-Europe-DFW paid fare; (b) keep our outbound award tickets and book a one-way return using another mileage currency; or (c) keep our outbound award tickets and book a round-trip flight originating in Europe, where the first leg is our “return” Europe-to-DFW flight in late summer and the second leg is the DFW-to-Europe flight for a later trip.
Our ultimate choice will depend on the options available at the time. If I remain locked, we’ll probably let it run until 21-28 days before our outbound flight and then assess options and decide what to do. In the meantime, we’ll be watching for sales that might help us out.
What Are We Doing About Booking Paid Fares?
As we mentioned earlier, we’re hub-captive to AA and heavily invested in the AAdvantage program. For right now, we’re operating business-as-usual in terms of booking paid flights. For the most part, that means booking AA unless something else is more convenient or substantially cheaper.
On the practical side, one impact that the lockdown is having is on a same-day-change strategy that we occasionally use. As Executive Platinums, one of the nice benefits is the ability to make same-day confirmed flight changes for free. Sometimes we take advantage of this to book a cheaper paid fare on a flight that’s less convenient for us, with the general plan of same-day-changing onto our preferred flight. We’ve had mostly good luck with this in the past. The problem is, with me at serious risk of not having Executive Platinum status at some point in the relatively near future, it’s hard to bank on this strategy going forward. On the flip side, the good news is that if Philly and I are traveling together (and if her account remains unlocked), same-day confirmed flight change is available for free for companions on the same reservation as the Executive Platinum member (this also applies to Platinum Pro members).
Another impact is that I’ll have to pay checked baggage fees if my Executive Platinum status is stripped. Again, though, fortunately the impact is less if I’m traveling with Philly. Companions on the same reservation as an Executive Platinum member (or other AA elite member) receive the same baggage allowance as the elite member. And, if we are traveling together but on separate reservations (for instance, when she’s on a work trip and I tag along), she has a 3-checked-bag allowance, which will cover both of our bags.
One final point on baggage fees – if I have to pay them, it’ll be an easy way to use the airline fee credits from several of our Amex cards. Right now, we’re doing some gymnastics to try to make some productive use of those credits.
Finally, there are seat selection fees. Again, I’m fortunate that many of my trips are on the same reservation as Philly, and if we’re on the same reservation I would still get free Main Cabin Extra seating as her companion. For trips where I’m on a separate reservation, if I’m terminated I can use Amex airline fee credits (or Ritz Carlton Visa travel credits) to offset costs up to a certain point.
What Do We Do With AA Co-Branded Credit Cards?
For the most part and for most people with locked accounts, this answer is straightforward – stop using your AA co-branded credit card; and at renewal, cancel or product-change your card.
There’s no reason to spend on AA co-branded cards when the miles are at risk.
We’ve already implemented this strategy with my Barclays AA Aviator business card, as we wrote about last week:
- Middle Age Miles: Keep or Cancel – Barclays AA Aviator Business Card (January 16, 2020)
One lingering question that we have about AA co-branded credit cards is whether certain card benefits such as free checked baggage would continue to apply post-termination. We believe that the checked baggage benefit is tied to the cardholder’s AAdvantage number, so we do not believe that benefit would be honored.
I have two other AA co-branded cards at the moment – a Citi AA Platinum card, and a Barclays AA Aviator Silver card.
Citi AA Platinum card
My plan for the Citi AA Platinum card is to product-change it after it hits its card anniversary in March and the annual fee posts. There are some solid Citi product-change options, including the Premier, Double Cash and Rewards+. Which one makes more sense for you depends on your current Citi card portfolio. For reasons we’ll explore in detail in a later article, I’m likely to product-change to a Premier card.
Barclays AA Aviator Silver card
My situation with the Barclays AA Aviator Silver card (Aviator Silver) is much more interesting. For one thing, I spent enough money on the card in 2019 to earn a 2-person AA companion certificate. To get it, I’ll have to pay the 2020 annual fee. We don’t believe the companion certificate requires the certificate holder to have an AAdvantage account, so we believe we can still use it. And we have a good use for the certificate in mind. The value of the companion certificate alone should justify the annual fee.
In addition, the Aviator Silver card has 2 benefits that remain helpful. One, it has up to $50 of statement credit for AA in-flight WiFi purchases. We can certainly easily use this benefit. And two, it has a credit of up to $25 per day for in-flight food & beverage purchases. I almost never use those credits now, because I get a free snack and a free drink on each domestic flight in economy, as an Executive Platinum member. But if my AA account is terminated, I can use the credit instead and still have plenty to eat and drink.
All in all, oddly, my Barclays AA Aviator Silver card would still be a keeper this year, even if my AAdvantage account is terminated. Beyond this year, it would be less clear, since I wouldn’t be spending nearly enough on the card to earn the companion certificate again.
As you can see, my AAdvantage account lockdown is causing plenty of practical problems. Hopefully I’m just in the penalty box and will be reinstated at some point, but there’s a substantial risk that my account will be terminated and I will be forever banned from AAdvantage (some would say that this result is a near-certainty).
In any event, this situation is unique and has caused us to think through a myriad of planning and strategy issues. We hope that you’re not locked down, but if you are, we hope that this article is of some help in working through the issues. And if you’re not locked, we hope you stay that way and find this strategy article interesting (or at least entertaining) in the meantime!
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