Things That Tick Me Off: American Airlines

It is time for another entry in the category Things That Tick Me Off where I vent against absurdities or abuses that I have personally witnessed. (It is remarkably therapeutic). This week’s winner is American Airlines. Months ago, Leslie and I set out to arrange for a trip that would use our carefully saved frequent flier miles to go to England and France with the four kids. It was the trip we had been planning for years once the kids were old enough to appreciate it and we saved over 700,000 miles to achieve the dream under American’s SkyMiles program. What followed as a nightmare in dealing with American, which seems to have made the “bait-and-switch” a structuring corporate principle.

The saga with American began months ago when we went online to arrange tickets. Using the Airlines page showing available flights at 30,000 miles, we soon found that (despite flexible dates and itinerary) the system continually reported no such flights. We spent days working with the online system, we then called an operator. What followed was a maddening series of conversations with different operators telling us different things. The only common denominator was the view that American could either get us to London or Paris but never back — no matter how we changed the date or the order of the cities.

Finally, after no less than five such long calls, an operator said that he could get us all into both cities but only on business class on British Airways at a higher miles award. Since BA is listed as one of AA’s partner in the “OneWorld Alliance” we were told that we could book with that airline. However, we were told that AA could not secure six tickets at the business class miles award so that one ticket would have to be secured with 100,000 rather than 60,000 miles. Fine. We agreed. When we called back there was another complication that led to our agreeing to flip the cities and (instead of flying to Paris), we agreed to reverse our plans and start in London. Finally, after weeks of such planning, we called on the designated day by which we had to purchase the tickets. We had arranged for lodging, travel, contacted friends and called to simply approve the transfer of roughly 600,000 miles. Fine, the American Airlines operator said, you will just have to pay $775 per ticket.

At no time in any of these conversations did American state that we would have to pay $775 per ticket and we were floored. We had looked at buying a ticket on BA and found a deal to buy business class tickets at roughly $800. However, AA was now saying that, because BA is a partner, AA members could enjoy the opportunity of spending 600,000 frequent flier miles and then pay the equivalent of a ticket on BA. When I pointed out that is an absurd arrangement, two separate operators stated that it was due to British “luxury taxes” which valued each ticket at over $8000. We noted that this was equally absurd because we could have bought business class tickets at one tenth of that amount. The operators told us that was not how AA or BA viewed the matter and that we would have to pay $775 per ticket. When we noted that no one had ever told us that we would still have to pay the equivalent to an actual ticket in addition to wiping out all of our miles. (Our use of frequent flier miles on Delta and United had only small taxes and fees on prior trips). Nevertheless, we were told it was simply the way flights worked into Britain. When we noted that it was AA that switched us to BA (as interchangeable with AA as a partner), we were told that that was simply not true and months of planning was based on a false assumption (supplied by AA operators).

With a family of six, the added costs amounted to $4650 in sudden last minute charges. After a couple more calls, one AA operator looked at only American flights and found seats in coach. However, it would cost 120,000 miles a ticket rather than 30,000 or 60,000. We would pay an additional 20,000 miles than business class for coach tickets.

For coach tickets, AA’s system advertises 30,000 mile tickets but when you try to book it often says those are not available. They then inform you that you need “anytime miles” which is a way of wiping out your miles. The seats are available. You just have to pay a 400 percent increase in miles. That is 120,000 miles for each return ticket on coach made months in advance.

I wrote to AA and objected to this clearly misleading system and noted that I wanted to write about my experience. AA highlights the fact that BA is a partner when, in all practicality, AA members will have to pay for the equivalent of a full fare ticket. What was most disturbing is that AA’s corporate headquarters dropped the luxury tax claim. Over the course of days of communications, Representative Tim Smith stated “Also, since I see that you work, if not live, in the Washington area, I am wondering whether availability might have been affected by the fact you must fly on a connecting flight to one of our U.S. gateways to Europe (AA does not fly from Washington airports directly to Europe). British Airways does, which is why you may have ended up on them. Our closest gateways to Europe from Washington on American flights is either New York JFK or Raleigh/Durham.” The problem is that we never insisted on flying direct and we always stated a willingness to fly through New York. He later added:

I am not trying to gloss over the unhappiness you feel regarding your experience. We are truly sorry you feel that way. My point in further explanation below was to explain that we feel what you describe is not typical and that millions of AAdvantage awards are successfully used every year, and that a respected third-party consumer organization has found our program to be better than most with excellent availability in most cases. But clearly, just as happens with purchased tickets, award availability books up quickly well ahead of time to the most-sought vacation hotspots during the peak season. We start taking reservations for any flight, purchased or award, 330 days before that flight – approximately 11 months before it actually flies. That doesn’t mean everyone books then, but it does explain the concept of planning ahead.

He then offered to show me the online system, which we had previously used unsuccessfully before turning to AA operators. While Tim was infinitely pleasant, he missed the point of the intense frustration caused by AA operators and policies. We were never told that any use of AA’s partner BA would result in having to pay the equivalent of a ticket. We have used frequent flier miles on international travel for years and never encountered such a confiscatory charge. Obviously, BA is not a true partner, as indicated in AA’s promotions, when you cannot fly it without such a huge charge. This is particularly absurd when AA (and BA) use a fictitious and ridiculous figure for a ticket in charging the tax. AA also never addressed the fact that we were never told of the massive charges until the final day of booking — after our plans were set. Likewise, it never justified the system of multiplying needed miles for the same seats by simply calling the miles “anytime” miles. Finally, while we did not book over a year in advance (a rather absurd notion), we started this process over six months in advance and had a horrible experience.

The main thing that ticks me off is the clearly misleading representations made about BA being a partner and the failure of at least four operators to mention the massive last minute fees. While AA insists that its system is far better than competitors and has been given accolades for its computer system, we had far easier time in booking on competitors like Delta and United. We are now reconsidering the use of our credit cards that produce American Airlines miles if this is the best that we can look forward to.

We are still trying to adjust our plans in light of the latest flights, though we are now facing additional costs due to the last minute changes.

That is why American Airlines ticks me off.

Jonathan Turley

42 thoughts on “Things That Tick Me Off: American Airlines”

  1. Stories like this one make me glad I’m not a frequent traveler and so have never wanted to sign up for any “Frequent Flyer” rewards credit card. That’s why I charge almost everything on Discover Card. Cashback bonus: no blackout periods, no confusing rules. Just cash back. Simple.

  2. nada The republican added the amendment, and there was a voice vote. Your numbers are for the bill which the responders had lobbied for.

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