The First Big Test: How American and US Airways Prepared to Merge Their Frequent Flier Programs This Weekend

In any airline merger, there are a million different things that have to come together and countless decisions to be made. But few of these things have a major customer impact. In the American/US Airways merger, we’re about to see how the first of the major impacts: the frequent flier programs are combining this weekend. If this sounds easy, it’s not. Here’s how this is all coming together.

Dividend Miles and AAdvantage Merge

In this particular merger, American’s AAdvantage program is the surviving program. If you have an AAdvantage number, you keep it. If you have a US Airways Dividend Miles (DM) number, get ready for something new. And if you have both, everything will be merged under your AAdvantage number. But the surviving AAdvantage program has some changes in it, primarily around the way upgrades are processed. So this combination is more complex than it might sound on the surface. We’re talking about hundreds of billions of miles and hundreds of millions of transactions that need to end up in one place while certain parts of the program change. American’s mantra has been “no mile left behind.” Let’s see if the airline can pull this off.

You probably don’t realize it, but we’re already in phase two of the combination of Dividend Miles and AAdvantage. In phase one, which started several days ago, American started freezing the DM program. Enrollments in DM were stopped, and people were no longer allowed to match their DM and AAdvantage accounts. These were small moves but they helped American get the program closer to where it needed to be before the combination could happen.

The second phase just began early this morning, and it’s when the heavy lifting started. American is calling this the “read-only” phase. For Dividend Miles, redemptions were halted at the stroke of midnight and profile changes were disabled. With nothing allowed to change, American can now take a final snapshot of the DM program (the team has taken other snapshots before, so this should be somewhat routine) and import it into AAdvantage.

Before the programs combined, they didn’t really work well together at all. There was a little crossover — for example, DM elites could upgrade on American flights and vice versa — but only much closer to departure and after the AAdvantage elites had theirs processed. Yes you could earn miles on those flights too, but you couldn’t combine miles or do a host of other things. Now with Dividend Miles frozen, the true combination can begin, and travelers will start seeing these things as early as today in their accounts.

Even though the programs aren’t officially merged yet, American will begin advancing status to US Airways elites. The combined activity in the US Airways and American programs will determine status levels, and those status levels (not mileage balances) will start showing up as early as later today. For American or US Airways credit card holders, you’ll start seeing things like free checked bags and priority boarding work across both airlines shortly.

This phase will last until tomorrow night. Beginning after midnight on Saturday the 28th, the migration begins. I didn’t realize that American pulled down the AAdvantage program for a few hours every month for regular updates. That’s happening as usual this Saturday but it may take longer than normal updates. Still, there’s a good chance that by the time the sun rises on Saturday, the programs could be merged. (Hmm, maybe it’ll be sunrise on the west coast…or Hawai’i.)

I should be clear to point out that just because there will be an AAdvantage outage doesn’t mean you as the customer see much of a difference. You can still redeem American miles, for example, but it will just go into a queue for processing once the program comes back up. So this part should have no impact on you.

By Saturday, Dividend Miles should be gone, but before it goes, every member will receive an e-receipt showing all their final activity stats in terms of miles, status, etc. You can use that to make sure that everything shows up right on the American side. For those who were solely AAdvantage members before this, nothing will change. For those who were solely Dividend Miles members, you’ll have a new AAdvantage number fairly quickly. For those who had both, the process may take a bit longer. But once it’s done, you’ll get another note confirming that it’s finished.

Once the new program is live again on Saturday, the third phase is done. The new AAdvantage upgrade program will be in place that day. That means every elite will now be listed for upgrades automatically on flights under 500 miles, and they can use their now-called e500s (stickers) or eVIPs (systemwide upgrades) to upgrade on longer flights, when they get them in their accounts. Free upgrades on US Airways flights will continue until the switch to a single reservation system happens later this year and the US Airways code goes away.

At this point, the airline enters phase four, the clean-up phase. Dividend Miles elites will get their eVIPs in their accounts by Saturday night. The e500s will show up within a couple days after that. I couldn’t get any answer as to whether they’ve beefed up AAdvantage reservations support staffing, but I really hope they have. I’m sure there will be some problems for some people no matter how well it goes. Behind the scenes, the airline will be monitoring everything very closely, but it has put a lot of redundancy in place to catch anything that might fall through. For example…

  • You will be able to login to your account on the American or US Airways site using either your AAdvantage or your Dividend Miles number for some time (even though Dividend Miles will technically be gone).
  • If you put your Dividend Miles number in a reservation, American will be running sweeps to automatically replace that number with your AAdvantage number. American expects people will accidentally use the old Dividend Miles number for awhile, so it will continue doing sweeps for some time.
  • If a sweep somehow misses your reservation, or you enter your Dividend Miles number at the last minute before a sweep can be done, the miles will still be credited. Any miles that come in to the Dividend Miles number will be automatically sent over to the AAdvantage account.

Make no mistake, this is a huge undertaking. It is also the first big system merger that customers will see. Will American pull this off without any major complications? By Monday, we’ll know.

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