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.
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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 United was willing to give me an Unpublished status challenge for 1K, American had driven their loyalty program into the ground.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 all airlines prohibit hidden-city ticketing, only United seems to go after their customers which is the wrong approach (even if they have the right to do so).
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?
I’m only American platinum out of Ord. Swapped from United this year. I’ll atick with American. More upgrades. And free main cabin extra for whole family on booking.
At least you have plenty of options, I’m jealous of your abundance of choice in Chicago.
United I’m around 0% as a 1K in upgrades. It’s very bad to all cities. They are far more aggressive selling buy ups than DL/AA. Incredible how little they care.
Also , United has downgraded meal service BIG TIME! Snacks now served instead of meals on most flights. Long haul business class is going to pre plated garbage in a few months. Kirby ruined American and now he is doi g the same at United.
I’m United 1K and I’ve had exactly the same poor experience. My home base is Houston so no practical alternative to United. We can all thank the idiocy of the feds and FTC for permitting the competition destroying mergers.
“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.”
This isn’t quite right – you will earn miles w/non-JV partners, but they often have a declining earn scale (in economy) based on fare class. But this is also true w/the JV partners, so…
As you noted, the biggest UA scam is no PQD on non-016 tickets, even on the JV partners.
You’re correct, I should say: “earn a comparable amount” of EQMs, EQDs.
I feel bad for the flyers based in the US and fly mostly on domestic. It is just sad to watch them complaining, yet try to rationalize their loyalty and tolerate the miserable airlines. Once you stop being loyal to an airline, it is such a relief and travel becomes more fun.
Thank you for your condolences, Ken.
I believe the issue is simply revenue. I was a 1K for four years and found it difficult to redeem the international upgrade certificates. I was constantly waitlisted and rarely upgraded. I switched to American now that i am in tampa….BA to London is direct but the equipment is not special. The comclusion is simple….unless you qualify for Global Services, your best travel days are behind you. The old Continental customer service model which was spectacular, has been replaced with ‘you have to break eggs to make an omelet’ approach. With lifetime status on United, i will never be denied the basics. My approach to flying now is the best seat for the best price where in the old days, i would.move heaven and earth to fly continental.
Should we not offer condolences to European fliers who must tolerate a so-called business class on their intra-Europe flights. By any standard North American carriers’ domestic F/J is a superior product in both hard and soft product.
As for the subject at hand I had several years being 1K and ExecPlat and found AA superior as UA went downhill after its merger with CO but now AA is being plagued with a similar decline following the US takeover. Bottom line, mergers don’t benefit the better carrier of the two involved and Gresham’s Law seems o prevail.
I hear ya! Was very loyal to US Airways and Dividend Miles program for years. Went with the flow to AA . The Admirals Clubs are overcrowded and not maintained, FC seats and leg room have shrunk, meals (if you’re on a 3+ hr flight) are garbage.
Jumped ship a year ago forward Frontier.
I know. I know…..everything’s extra. I’m cool with that. Fares are cheap enough that I purchase a whole row (3 seats) for less than I would pay for one FC seat on American. Bring my own food on. Eat when I want to eat. Have my own music and/or entertainment on my phone. Life is good!
Two things specific to transcon flights are keeping me on AA, despite the well-known deficiencies of their operation.
1- While upgrades can be difficult, they are much more accessible than UA: mileage upgrades on AA are 15k + $75 vs an obscene co-pay on UA that often puts it close to the cost of just buying it outright; and they’re eligible for comp upgrades. Yes, they’re difficult to get, but I’ve had success using both methods, in addition to occasionally getting decent biz class fares on these routes.
2- You didn’t mention Flagship lounges in the lounge section. Flagship lounges are accessible on transcon business, while Polaris is not. While Polaris may be a notch above Flagship, I’d certainly take Flagship over a regular United Club.
And bonus third transcon AA “benefit”: when traveling on a paid business class fare as an EXP, it’s not all that uncommon to be op-upgraded to F.
I’ll also add that AA’s previously atrocious food offerings (in biz/first) have improved significantly with their recent catering upgrades.
I have LOTS to complain about on AA, but for these and many of the reasons you’ve pointed out related to EQM/EQD earnings, I’m probably stuck with them short term.
1 – Agreed.
2 – I mentioned “first class” and should have said Flagship, however, those don’t compare to Polaris in my experience.
I’m no UA apologist but a bit of a fact check is in order…if you are a UA elite, you don’t pay the mileage co-pay on non-scheduled-flatbed routes (EWR-PDX, IAD-SFO, etc.) And there is a declining scale if you are buying higher economy codes. Appears you are solely referencing JFK-SFO/LAX on AA.
My problem with American and Delta are Economy Plus —- they have tiny little sections so as I buy my last minute ticket and get screwed out of the upgrade atleast on United I find myself in an aisle seat in economy plus.
American is the best with upgrades no doubt. But their service and raking with them is just that bad that I’m sitting coach on United
I’m a United 1 mm/*Gold for life as a result of being 1K for many years. I finally quit United in 2012/13 after a series of unbelievable operational lapses, employees who could care less and one of the worst travel experiences of my life when a United gate agent in FRA had me detained by German police as a “security threat” because Lufthansa tagged my bag on the wrong flight and I was insistent in asking United to try and get the bag on the flight I was booked, ticketed and traveling on. Since then, I travel 200,000 miles a year and only about 5,000 miles a year on United. And I live in a United hub! I’m sure United doesn’t miss me. I don’t miss United.
How about Delta?
I have regular customers in DEN, IAH, DFW, CLT so I would be committed to connections, none of which will be convenient. I also have some trust issues with the way they have changed their program that maybe I just need to get over.
Problems with Delta are the following:
2. Small Int’l J cabins and getting smaller
3. Very poor international travel experience, especially on the ground. Skyteam sucks at lounges
4. Very confusing and poorly executed Comfort+ upgrade program – Dumbest thing I can think Delta has ever done.
I totally agree with the Delta problems. But I still find myself flying them and am an internationally based Diamond. Ultimately their execution of getting me from A to B with the least drama is a real value. Partner earnings are pretty straightforward, just stick with the main partners which solidly cover Europe, Asia, and South America. Though that does leave some gaps in Africa and Middle East. They are kind of like the Toyota of air travel.
I think this is also depends on where you fly out from. I’ve been flying out of SNA and LAX for 2 decades now. Compare UA and AA, it’s like do you prefer biscottis or pretzels. They are just what you prefer. AA used to be much smaller in the West Coast until merger with US Air. I used to be partial for AA, but after the US Air merger, I feel AA has let down on a lot of elite members on services. AA Ex-platinum member hotline, is a joke now. I had to wait 30 minutes for them to call me back. Prior to US Air merger, it was almost instantaneously. I had AA help desk call me usually prior to my arrival to airport when my flight had any issue. Now, after merger, never.
I like that you can pre order meals on AA when traveling confirmed First or Business, something I believe neither United nor Delta offers.
It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it really annoys me that I purschase a premium cabin fare and because of where I’m sitting someone with a last minute upgrade gets the last of what would have been my choice. All I get from Delta is an apology and not what I really wanted.
I just flipped from United to American. It was painful because United flies 65% of flights out of my home airport (SFO) but I found the upgrade situation to be significantly better. I’m upgraded almost every time as an Exec Platinum out of SFO. Almost never on United.
United is disgusting. They are basically a crap southwest now relying on crap thinjets for everything. A3xx, 737, 757, CRJ and E17x series. Its getting old. The toilets are getting smaller, the seat pitch is getting criminal, the pay-for food (bistro) is WORSE than the free stuff of decades past, the delays, lies, gate changes, equipment changes, re-seating, no upgrades and blackouts for upgrades are just disgusting.
I like flying Boeing for the sense of safety but Boeing needs to step in and block the technical ability to shrink bathrooms, reduce seat pitch past a certain point and remove bathrooms (a 737 with 190 people and only 2 bathrooms in economy should be illegal).
I’m so sick of going back to a plane designed in the mid 1960s. It was meant to be a little regional jet. Not EVER for use on 6 hour flights. Utterly disgusting.
If Untied would use the 787 on long domsetic flights or lobby Boeing to make a MoM 757 replacement (short widebody) we could go back to air travel stinking a lot less.
I hope Oscar Munoz ends up in prison one day. A cell would be an upgrade from what United offers in Economy-Minus.
Wifi never works reliably either. Its truly a shameful and sad experience and makes US Airlines look like the tirds they are (American, Delta and United are hated by the entire world and are embarrassing to the USA). On top of that Boeing’s good reputation is being tarnished by helping these scumbag airlines unsafely stuff people into planes never designed for this.
Food, beer, wine and booze are disgusting on United now days. Brutally overpriced and low quality and the food is extremely unhealthy.
I hate being based out of SFO because Im forced to use Untied/United but they haven’t killed or injured me and I am thankful for that – but thats it. I hate Oscar Munoz and I hate Jeff Smisek for betraying Continental and building a garbage airline.
Status on United only gets bare minimum treatment.
American’s program is mediocre and getting worse. I do give them kudos for Main Cabin Extra availability but upgrades are sparse especially if you have to fly a 319. Food service is awful and FA’s are not often forthcoming with drinks in MCE. The big benefit of United is the Star Alliance as Swiss and Lufthansa work for me.
To me, they are roughly comparable in quality, but UA does offer the ability to find upgrade space at booking online, and for international, I am often able to find it if I am willing to make a connection. And UA has more of the routes I need.
If your focus is on International Business Class, then there is no comparison between them. American is the clear winner. Criteria #1 is the seat. With AA, you are guaranteed a lie-flat direct aisle access seat no matter what. With UA, you are most likely in a B777-200 with 2-4-2 seating or an old Continental 2-2-2. The 2-4-2 remains the most unforgivable of all business class seating configurations. Polaris seats are in the same classification as unicorns. Good luck spotting one.
For partners, Lufthansa is not far removed from the 2-4-2 mess. British Airways is quite dated, but the configuration is still superior to Lufthansa (unless you enjoy playing footsies with the stranger seated next to you).
For “soft stuff”, UA has recently announced they are downgrading the food service. That puts an end to any differentiation that might have existed there. AA offers Bose noise cancelling headphones while UA offers a brandless, painful, noisy headphone, The one redeeming quality of United is the addition of the cool gel foam pillow. If not for bumping knees with your neighbor all night, it would be a winner.
As far as lounges, AA Flagship lounges and UA Polaris lounges are both a great step up. Like all things though, UA quickly screwed up both the management of the lounges and the rollout. Clear advantage to Flagship here.
The other benefit of American (oneworld) is the ability to access first class lounges as a oneworld Emerald. This is not the case as a Star Alliance Gold (1K). If you fly to HKG, SYD, HND/NRT, LHR and soon SIN (QF), that definitely gives EXP another leg up on 1K.
I just can’t stand that UA stopped letting 1K/ gold for life into their lounges if you fly domesticly. What’s up with that? Plus the star Alliance lounges in Europe and especially in Turkey are amazing and UA sucks everywhere. Just saying.
Based on where I live it’s UA or DL. Ihave been a 1k for a long time. Granted UA has had its ups and downs. My experience with UA’s service has been reasonable. In the last year I found upgrading hard especially months out but easier close in although that’s still a gamble. However, prices for my routes with DL are more expensive and so not interested in qualification with them. For me, on-time flights, how the airline deals with delays, getting on board first, and sleeping flat on long-haul internationally are priories.