American is Limiting Reaccommodation Options for Travelers When Things Go Wrong

American, Operations

The gap between what travelers can expect from low-cost and legacy airlines has been narrowing for some time, but there has long been one key area where legacy airlines could deliver far more: reaccommodation during irregular operations.  With so many more flights and the ability to sign tickets over to another airline if all else failed, it was much easier for travelers to get where they needed to go when things went wrong with their originally-scheduled flight.  Unfortunately — and unsurprisingly — we’re seeing this advantage begin to erode.  A couple weeks ago, American put a policy in place that restricts the ability of agents to put people on some other airlines.

The actual policy isn’t nearly as draconian as was explained over at View from the Wing.  In fact, the impact here is mostly limited to non-elite, domestic coach travelers who would be better off if they could fly Delta or United to their destination.  But that’s still a big enough group for me to bother writing about this.

I spoke with American and got the full scope of what was happening.  This was driven by the fact that American had no set policy for when agents were able to put travelers on other airlines.  It makes sense to have a policy, but the problem is this one is too restrictive.  It also rewards the people who need the help the least.  Here’s the rundown.

AAdvantage LevelCabinReaccomm Allowed
Concierge KeyAll CabinsOk to put on non-partner airlines if it gets to destination faster than other options
Exec Plat/oneworld Emerald
Plat Pro
AllLong-Haul First Class
AllTranscon 3-Cabin First Class
Platinum/oneworld SapphireAll CabinsOk to put on non-partner airlines if American and its partners can’t get to the destination within 5 hours of original schedule
Gold/oneworld Ruby
AllBusiness Class
AllShort-Haul First Class
No StatusCoachCannot use non-partner airlines

Before I analyze this, let me make a couple of things clear.  American’s agents are allowed to reaccommodate anyone on joint venture partners, oneworld partners, and codeshares on non-oneworld partners in that order of preference.  So if you hear people saying that American won’t allow reaccommodation on “other airlines,” it only refers to those who are not partners.  (That is also why this has much less of an impact on international travel where partners are more plentiful.)

Further, the options in the table above apply not only to the traveler but to any others in the same reservation.  (People booked on a separate reservation, however, are screwed.)

One other thing to note is that this is a policy that is made for exceptions.  American itself pointed me to a bunch of potential exceptions where it would allow re-booking on non-partners.  This is just a sample and isn’t an exhaustive list by any means.

  • Unaccompanied minors
  • Customers with disabilities
  • US Military on orders
  • If next American option requires an overnight stay and no hotels are available
  • If American could avoid having to pay European compensation for excessive delays (EC261)
  • Situations such as traveling for a funeral, weddings, surgery, starting a cruise etc

The trick is that for any exception to be made, it has to come from managers either at the airport or in reservations (or from higher-ups in corporate for bigger events like a computer meltdown).  So in practice, we have no idea what the true impact of this policy will be since we don’t know how liberally managers will operate.  All that being said… I still hate how restrictive this policy is.

As I said at the beginning, one of the big benefits of flying with a legacy carrier is that you have a lot more options available to you if things go wrong.  That is still the case since American will have more frequency in any given market compared to an airline like Spirit or Frontier, but this policy certainly cuts the options down.

While top tier elites won’t care since they see no difference, they’re already the least impacted.  When there is a flight problem, those top tier elites are getting rebooked first and are most likely to find space on other American Airlines flights.  It’s the huge number of people who fly American only once a year and have no status that are already at the back of the bus and now have fewer options available when it’s their turn to find a new flight.

Internationally, it’s not as big of an issue, but domestic travelers can really benefit from being able to move to United or Delta when things get ugly.  Now they can’t do that if they’re regular coach travelers with no status… unless an exception is made for some reason.  Chances are, the ability to get an exception will vary greatly depending upon the manager and the location.  So this may be a policy, but it’s clear as mud for the casual traveler.

I have no doubt there can be abuse of a system where no policy exists.  From what I understand, both United and Delta have policies of their own that guide when people can be reaccommodated on non-partners.  And of course, the last thing any of these airlines wants to do is put someone on another airline.  But couldn’t American have at least made it so that non-elites in coach could get put on another airline if it would be a delay of more than 12 hours?  Or if an overnight stay could be avoided?  I still might not love that policy, but it would certainly be better than what’s there now.

Instead, we’re left with a policy that reminds the casual traveler how unimportant they are to American.  I can understand this policy applying to Basic Economy since that is a pure price play.  But if someone is going to pay for a regular coach ticket, then getting to the destination as soon as possible should be a basic benefit, even if it involves flying other airlines.

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43 comments on “American is Limiting Reaccommodation Options for Travelers When Things Go Wrong

  1. How will they rebook Unaccompanied minors to other airline? IIRC, American won’t even accept UM if the reservation involves other airline. What if the rebooking is required in the middle of the trip, who will be responsible to transfer the UM to the other airline?
    Not to mention UM service requirement/fee varies widely from ariline to airline. Eg, United only allows UM on direct non-stop flight.
    My real point is, this indicates how not thought after this so called exception list is. They just pulled things together in the last minute so they can convince you it is not as bad as it looks like.
    We can wish that eventually they realize how customer unfriendly this is and adjust to more reasonanle guide. Then I had the same wish about many many many other things on US3….

    1. Wany – This isn’t a specific exception list. These are just examples of when they would consider putting people on another airline, if feasible.

  2. “But that’s still a big enough group for me to bother writing about this.”

    Understatement of the year; I’d definitely agree that “non-elite flyers in domestic coach” is a pretty damn big group.

    “I think I will put all my travel on a single airline so they’ll stop treating me like last week’s garbage.” – No Traveler Ever. Speaking for myself, I’d much prefer Elite status to be a reward, not the only way to get an experience that is at a minimum acceptable level.

    I think changes like this show how much many airlines take passengers for granted. They seem to forget that today’s loyal elite flyers had to start somewhere, and if they keep lowering service levels for more-basic travelers, the airline will never earn any loyalty at all.

    Erasing the difference between the “full-service” carriers and the lower-cost ones for basic flyers buying basic tickets is definitely a short-term gain, long-term loss, because it totally $hits all over the brand. Airlines bemoan the fact that many travelers, more often than not, pick based solely on price, and are unwilling to pay for better service; moves like this certainly make sure that trend is never going to reverse.

    1. On another note, this is a marked contrast to how Southwest does it. I prefer Southwest because they have the attitude they actually want my business (as opposed to just a means of filling seats.) The no luggage/change fee thing is a big part of that; it demonstrates that they prefer to make money by making sure that the fare is usually all I pay, as opposed to low-balling on the ticket, and making up for it elsewhere.

      The Big Three appear to be going with: “Well, peasant, I guess we’ll give you a marginally better seat than Spirit for that fare we extracted from your grasping, cheapskate, fingers.” I don’t get the impression they want my business at all; just that they’ll grudgingly transport me if I insist on bothering them with that task, one which distracts them from serving my betters.

      As a result, I put my money where my mouth is; when I have a choice, I prefer Southwest, even if they end up costing me a little extra.

      1. ..and SWA will never put anyone on any other airline – so if you’re stuck in Baltimore for three days around a holiday, you’re basically forced to abandon SWA and pay a walk-up fare on another airline – at the last minute, top dollar and probably no chance for availability of seats. Talk about being held hostage, but then again, this article points in that direction for all domestic carriers…..just a matter of time – Thanks as usual to AA for picking the worst scenario and setting the precedent for United and Delta.

        1. That isn’t true. It has been a while but years ago Southwest put me on another airline when a flight was canceled. Not sure if they still do it but did do it in the past.

          1. Then someone at Southwest put your ticket on a corporate credit card as WN does not have any ticketing agreements with other carriers.

            WN didn’t even allow for that when they had to ground half their fleet when the roof flew off of one of their planes.

            You got incredibly lucky. And I would say that 1 out of hundreds of millions still counts as as never.

        2. I realize that SWA generally does not shift passengers to other carriers. But SWA also does not pretend to be anything they are not. I don’t expect them to put me on another carrier, any more than I’d expect a comfortable seat on Spirit.

          The Race to the Bottom the Big 3 seem to be engaged in does not bode well for the value of their brand.

  3. I would totally understand if AA said that they limit re-accommodation based on the fare paid for the affected flight. That makes sense and would likely prioritize based on business vs. leisure at that. Instead this move further alienates the coach passenger from the “elite” passenger. Fliers with status already have access to private booking agents and such so they can get better services as-is without this. As Cranky says, the Elite doesn’t care as nothing changes, but this devalues every ticket AA sells to a non-status flier. It’s a slap in the face to the 100’s of people in the back of the bus that AA desperately needs for the economics of their airline to work.

    AA was my go-to alternate airline. Don’t fly them enough to get status but those were expensive walk-up fares. I’m sure I was quite profitable to them on a limited basis. If I’m going to get screwed because I don’t live in an AA hub and avoid layovers they can go earn someone else’s business. Good luck to them.

  4. Doug Parker has done an admirable job of eroding any remaining value in AA’s brand or the customer experience. In terms of getting to Europe, AA really only has one single partner with a meaningful route network – BA. I vastly prefer Iberia or Finnair but, with each having just 3-4 TATL flights, there’s not much value there. As a Chicago flyer, if I’m trying to get to Europe, this policy means that I may get the privilege of flying BA metal and then being forced to connect via LHR? No thanks. While everyone loves to complain about United (and some of it is unfortunately justified), there’s no denying that Star Alliance is better integrated and has many, many more partners – at least to Europe. I don’t have strong loyalty to any airline as Southwest, AA, and United all have immense Chicago operations. This makes United even more appealing if the cost difference is just a few dollars.

  5. Working at an airport people ask me if it is worth flying an ULCC. I say the legacy airlines will protect you better if things go wrong. My airport had a Norwegian flight delayed for 3 days with pax just sleeping in the terminal. The race to the bottom continues for airlines with AA taking a leap down with this. While I am the exception, there still are pax like me who not only look at ticket price but aircraft type, Premium Economy if it’s not too much and seatback IFE. Flying sucks now.

  6. This just adds to the burden stress and grief of American employees at the airport. It means they will get yelled at by more people than before since they can’t protect them. The big shots just sit in an office somewhere and don’t care what’s happening to passengers and workers at the airport. It would be a different story if they had to go to a large hub and be screamed at by passengers that are delayed and can’t be protected on other carriers.

  7. First, no one likes a devaluation. I also suspect to some extent, this is common practice today among all legacy carriers, this just makes the rule more formal. Too many times YMMV (your miles may vary) and HUCA (hang up call again) result in an inconsistent experience. At least this sets expectations.

    However, AA still has more flights and more hubs so should be able to re-accomodate better than most ULCC’s.

    I don’t think it is unreasonable that delays under 5 hours stay on AA (or partner) metal for entry level premium fliers. Changing airlines can easily be a few hours between ticketing time, different schedule, terminal change, etc. So the marginal difference of 1-2 hours vs. the high cost for AA is an understandable business cost savings — though it does devalue the product.

    Coach having no other choice stinks. But again, I imagine many non-status coach fliers today aren’t getting interlined all that often.

  8. I guess those flying out of or to small regional airports will be royally screwed. I thought that AA had not agreement with Delta, but that they recently reached an agreement to accommodate pax. Am I making this up?

  9. What AA doesn’t seem to understand is the more complicated their product, policy & procedures are, the more challenged their airport agents are. Because the “customer service” group is so confused by their own product, they cannot focus on providing “customer service” and instead are focused on policy & procedures. (Looking at AA’s performance on the monthly DOT consumer report, “customer service” at AA seems to be an oxymoron.)

    1. Exactly. Just as many pax will – as Cranky has already pointed out – misinterpret this as “no flights on other airlines,” so too will many employees. Does the average AA employee really know that Finnair, LATAM, Qantas, etc. are partners? Does the average pax? Both doubtful.

  10. “But that’s still a big enough group for me to bother writing about this.”

    Brett, I would hope so because that group represents probably 75 to 80 percent of the pax on a given aircraft. It’s interesting how the lines have been so blurred such that so-called “low cost” carriers such as Southwest and Jet Blue (neither of whom are really “low cost”) offer better service and comfort than the “full service” carriers such as AA, UA and DL. At least for the group in question. Yeah, if you’re a Diamond or Global Services or Exec. Platinum, then you thumb your nose at the likes of WN and their Rapid Rewards program. But if you’re an upper middle class individual who flies domestically once or twice a month (not enough to gain status on the US3), then WN’s generous rewards program and 32″ pitch do look great to you. Because it’s far better than seat 32B on AA.

    I think many bloggers have lost sight of this rather typical customer perspective.

    1. “Brett, I would hope so because that group represents probably 75 to 80 percent of the pax on a given aircraft”
      When Scott Kirby was at American he stated the number was 87%. After moving to United he was asked the same question and said it was 85%.

      So yes it’s a huge percentage of the plane. And the airlines should be focused on giving those pax a GOOD experience to win their custom (or their family or friends’ custom) next time, not regarding them as pond scum that won’t show up again. Some of them will become frequent fliers but not with you.

      Of course the best thing to do is minimize the number of cancellations and misconnects in the first place by running a good operation. That reduces the costs of having to rebook. Delta is the king of the skies on this and has been for years, but United has also improved. Sadly American is slipping here and it’s hurting, and it’s going into a downward spiral.

  11. The term I use for the airlines’ disdain for the coach passenger (as well as all domestic passengers for that matter) is “UDP” as in “unprofitable domestic passenger.”

    A UDP gets told to fend for himself or herself when flights go bad.

    A UDP sees the value of a 1K or Executive Platinum diminished so much that it’s less valuable than a simple Premier or Platinum was 20 years ago.

    A UDP finds that the clubs formerly used for business (when not confiscated for international fliers) are so jampacked that they can barely find a seat, much less find a place to work (are you listening United as in Chicago “C”, Dulles, EWR and SFO “60s” Clubs). I’m sure American and Delta are the same.

    A UDP finds that the little touches that made flying bearable have been taken away by the Commander Jeffs, the Doug Parkers and the Richard Andersons when things go bad (we know you are trying Oscar but it takes a long time to reverse the damage of the past 20 years).

    Yes, I know that American is keeping rebooking options for high mileage frequent fliers. But for how long? When is this just another amenity that goes away for UDPs in the rush to count pennies?

    The ultimate problem legacy carriers have is that their brands used to mean something. They are racing so hard to find and serve the lowest common denominator that they’re cheapening their brands to a level that will bound to affect their long-term appeal. We’re at a race to the bottom and until airlines start charging for breathable oxygen, we won’t hit it.

  12. In the US airline race-to-the-bottom (aka How Much Can We Follow The Lead of Allegiant and Spirit), American Airlines takes a decisive lead!

    But there may be some hope. When AA said that seats on the 737MAX would have 29″ pitch, the public outcry made them bump that up to a whopping 30″. So spread the news of this latest AA policy, my friends. If AA gave an inch then, they may well do the same now.

  13. Sounds like American should just be honest and say “we really don’t want to be in the business of transporting domestic coach passengers. They’re real pesky, especially when things go wrong. From now on, we transport elites and cargo ONLY!” Problem solved.

    1. Already happening. Just watch an AA boarding at LAX, PHX, JFK, MIA, ORD, CLT, or DFW…. A very high percentage of the pax are elites and cargo.

  14. One has to wonder if the preferred seating fee is refunded after you’re re-accomodated. American is really starting look like a piece of work. Time to burn those disAAdvantage miles and then burn the credit card.

    1. I flew on AA several times late last year for the first time(company paid for travel) to accumulate around 7,000 AAdvantage miles. I hated flying on them. The interiors on the Mesa CRJ-700’s seemed tired and worn, they weren’t accepting credit cards, only cash on the Mesa flights, the terminals at PHX were horribly overcrowded at the mainline gates especially. AA may have been a decent airline in the past but their product has been so devalued and debased so much that I would rather walk than step foot on one of their aircraft ever again and this new restrictive reacommodation poilcy just reinforces my view of them that if you are not a high value Elite passenger you are a lower form of life than pond scum.

  15. Oddly enough, the only time I’ve been re-booked on a different airline I was flying Spirit. Flight cancelled, I was reaccommodated on US Air (in First, no less…).

    Had a big delay and missed my connection on the way home, of course…

  16. Many years ago it was so easy to re-accommodate delays and cancels – “Rule 240” with a green pen on a paper ticket and everyone was happy (except finance).

  17. I think it is time for Congress to codify Rule 240 into law and perhaps even enact EC261 or something similar in the USA.

  18. I wonder what the rules are for non-elites being transferred to another nearby airport if flight is cancelled. FLL is the closest airport. If my flight is cancelled, will I be automatically put on a flight out of MIA?

  19. Another disgusting “enhancement” that, thanks to AA, will quickly be adapted by United and Delta. How clever to disallow protection for the lowly coach/non-status passengers except to partner airlines. What “partner airlines” do AA, UA and DL have domestically?…..right, none.

  20. Air travel is very odd in this respect. I completely understand that people want to be moved from airline A to Airline B if there is some type of issue, but it’s one of the few industries that this is expected.

    If McDonald’s Ice Cream machine is broken, they don’t give me a coupon to Dairy Queen.
    If my Levi’s have a ripped seam, I’m not expecting a pair of CK’s to replace them.
    If Apple Music has a glitch I don’t get a free month of Amazon music.

    Airline regulation was the only reason we even have ticketing agreements among competing airlines. Perhaps if it all goes away, it will give some airlines incentives to improve their performance.

    WN’s been chugging along for quite some time with not ticketing agreements.

    1. The government is why we have ticketing agreements? Errr… wha? If the law is the reason airlines have them, why do some airlines not have them? What law would you be referring to.

      The reason travelers expect this is because if I pay for my Wendy’s with a gift certificate I bought six months ago, it won’t cost me five times as much to go buy the same thing from Burger King at the last second.

      It’s not unreasonable for passengers to expect airlines to bear the cost when the airline utterly fails to perform due to factors within their control. If the airline has workable options on their own metal, great, but if the next available seat isn’t until days later… well, the airline really hasn’t left the customers with viable options. Can you imagine a family having to choose between missing, say, a couple additional days of work vs. $k’s to get the family home at the last minute, all because an airline didn’t maintain their plane properly? That’s not really a choice at all.

  21. If you book a flight with American, odds are pretty high that something will go wrong. What commonly happens is that there is no plane but you sit in the airport for several hours before anyone bothers to tell you that. Where the chart says “can’t get to the destination within 5 hours of original schedule,” I have to laugh because getting out of the origin within 5 hours of original schedule is challenging enough.

    1. George – This isn’t the official chart from American, so I would contact them directly to get the official chart for publication.

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