Once upon a time, low cost airlines like Southwest offered no-frills service for less money.
My how times have changed.
Not only did the major network carriers (like American, Delta, and United that offer worldwide service via their hubs) get rid of hot meals, pillows, and other amenities, but they continue to find ways to make flying them as bad of an experience as ultra-low-cost carriers Frontier and Spirit provide.
After United launched Economy Plus seating in front of their exit rows, American countered and heavily advertised “More Room Throughout Coach.” Eventually they removed the extra legroom throughout coach.
Brian Znotins, former VP of United’s network strategy, shared with me that when Continental merged with United they shocked the industry by announcing they would launch Economy Plus throughout the combined fleet. Until that point United’s competitors didn’t realize that the extra legroom offering was actually profitable. American and Delta announced copycats of Economy Plus shortly after that.
However American will be the first US network carrier to shrink coach seats to a seat pitch (the space from the rear of one row to the rear of the next row) less than 30 inches. Do you think they’ll advertise “Even Less Room Throughout Coach?” American will even shrink the size of their bathrooms, as if they weren’t small enough to begin with.
Only Frontier and Spirit are stingier than American, at a pretzel twisting 28 inches of seat pitch.
American and United are in middle of implementing a more customer unfreiendly version of basic economy fares that Delta originally launched. They attempt to mimic what airlines like Frontier and Spirit offer. Granted there are still advantages to the network carriers, such as earning miles, getting free drinks, onboard entertainment, more frequent flights in case of irregular operations, and the ability to get free carry-on and checked bags with a credit card. But there are other options available.
As American implements slimline seats with less legroom than ever, and starts charging to reserve most window and aisle seats, once again I have to wonder what their advantage is?
–JetBlue offers generous legroom, free fast WiFi, free TV, and delicious free snacks. Plus you can credit your JetBlue flight to Singapore if you want traditional airline miles that don’t have a set value per mile. JetBlue is also the most generous airline when it comes to waiving their change and cancellation fees and they’ll offer a credit if your fare drops within 2 weeks of purchase.
–Southwest offers 2 free checked bags and has no flight change fees. That means you can always cancel and rebook your flight if the price drops.
Somewhere along the line these low-cost carriers became the best value carriers.
-Delta runs an opaque mileage program that keeps customers in the dark (though their saver award space is better than American’s now). Delta runs the best airline operation (except when they melt down and get bailed out by the Chicago Aviation Police Force) and that’s a good enough reason to fly them.
–United has MileagePlus in its corner, which despite devaluations, is by far and away the best mileage program with the best award availability.
–Alaska has a fantastic mileage program and a well-run airline operationally speaking. They have a small footprint, but that will be growing with their acquisition of Virgin America. They also give credit if their fares drop.
–Frontier and Spirit are cheap. You pay for drinks and for an assigned seat. You will be cramped. You won’t get free carry-ons or checked luggage. You may wait around for days if your flight is cancelled as they’re too cheap to put you on another airline and they don’t have frequent flights. They won’t even honor the 11:29pm next day cancellation policy if you book on Priceline. You may even wind up along the side of a highway on a broken down bus. But you’ll fly on the cheap and you can fly even cheaper on Spirit by buying tickets at the airport.
It was a great airline. Then the guys that ran America West and ruined USAirways proceeded to ruin American.
–The WSJ ranked them as the worst airline for 2 years running. They cancelled the most flights, lost the most bags, and had the most extreme tarmac delays. That’s made worse by their inability to rebook passengers on Delta.
-They massively devalued their mileage program last year and followed that up by wiping out saver award availability on most routes. They charge massive fuel surcharges to travel on their primary Transatlantic partner, British Airways. They have draconian routing rules (Just try to book an award from the US to Australia via Asia or from the US to Southern South America via Central or Northern South America), they limit the total amount of miles you can fly on an award, and they don’t offer any kind of free stopover option on awards, making it even more difficult to use their miles. If you don’t know how to search for hidden partner awards, you probably can’t use your miles at all. Even when you do, it can take many HUCAs before an agent can find it.
-They made their gutting of saver award space worse by increasing their AAnytime award levels by massive amounts. United still maintains one rate that makes the higher award level far more reasonable than American and they give their cardholders expanded saver award space and last-seat availability at the standard level. For example a United flight from Newark to Los Angeles in business class is capped at 50K miles one-way while an American business class flight from JFK to Los Angeles can cost 97.5K miles one-way.
–American couldn’t even be bothered to match Delta and United’s promises to offer up to $9,500 or $10,000 respectively to passengers in order to make sure that someone will always volunteer their seat in an oversell situation. Southwest even announced they would match JetBlue’s policy in ending the overselling of their flights.
-Their elite tiers are completely non-competitive with Delta and United. Lower tiers don’t get free upgrades, they get less free baggage, and they have more fees than elites at Delta and United. AA’s new 75K elite tier is stupidly named “Platinum Pro” and is a joke compared to United’s 75K Platinum offering. While United gives their Platinum members 3x 70 pound checked bags, free same day confirmed changes, free upgrades on awards for cardholders, expanded coach and business saver and standard awards, and free award redeposits outside of 60 days and $50 redeposits within 60 days, American only gives their Platinum Pros 2 free 50 pound bags, $75-$150 same day confirmed changes, no upgrades on awards, a $150 award redeposit fee, and no expanded award availability. Even AA top-tier elites got their confirmed upgrades slashed in half!
-Delta and United waive the airline spend requirements for elite status if you live abroad or if you spend $25K on their credit card, while American does not.
-There are zero weekly nonstop flights from North America to Tel Aviv on OneWorld compared to 7 on SkyTeam and 30 on Star Alliance.
-American won’t check bags onto another airline, even partner airlines, if you’re booked on separate tickets. That’s incredibly annoying when you need 2 award tickets to fly somewhere.
-American won’t allow 20 pound+ strollers or double strollers to be gate checked. And this is what will happen if you try to bring it onboard when you’re told you can’t gate check it…
-American’s flight status on their website and app are very primitive. It’s updated very late and often displays incorrect information in delay situations. United’s app is so far superior to American’s in every way.
-If you do want to redeem for an American flight, you’ll always do better by using miles from partner airlines like Alaska, BA, or Etihad, so there’s no longer much of a point of collecting miles from American. If you do fly on American you should credit your flights to a partner like Alaska.
Delta and United are much better than American these days, but they too continue to degrade their service standards as they get stuck in the middle between no-frills Frontier and Spirit and better value JetBlue and Southwest.
Really the main advantage of the network carriers (aside from their network of course) is their mileage programs. American and Delta don’t seem to get that, but at least Delta runs a decent airline operation.
It’s no surprise that American had to write down expected “other revenues” last month by some $220M less than expectations “primarily due to lower than expected AAdvantage credit card acquisitions as first quarter promotions were not as effective as planned.”
Maybe their customers aren’t as stupid as they think they are?
Customer unfriendly moves like Basic Economy and ridiculously narrow legroom will just continue to chase people away to better value airlines that don’t nickel and dime you to death, like JetBlue and Southwest.