American Airlines’ frequent flyer program is changing. Here’s what you need to know

An American Airlines Airbus 321 sits at the gate at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) in Arlington, Virginia, on July 23, 2023.

Daniel Slim | AFP | Getty Images

First things first: American Airlines isn’t changing the requirements to earn elite status at the airline in the coming earning year.

Those thresholds are typically top of mind for frequent flyers as airlines have been tweaking their loyalty programs in recent years as travel demand surges and ranks of elites swell.

And while American increased the threshold to earn its lowest level, Gold, for the 2023-2024 earning year ending Feb. 29, the carrier won’t move those needles for the next earning period. Elite status on airlines rewards big spenders with perks like complimentary upgrades and free checked bags.

American is making a host of changes, announced Tuesday, that will extend some services solely to AAdvantage members.

Here’s what’s changing:

Under the program changes, only American AAdvantage members will be able to fly standby for domestic flights without paying a fee, to hold a flight for 24 hours before booking, or purchase one-day passes to its Admirals Club lounges or Flagship lounges. Currently, all customers can access those services.

“Just being a member is a status,” said Scott Chandler, American’s senior vice president of loyalty and revenue management.

AAdvantage members will also be able to use trip credits for six months longer than nonmembers and will be able to get a partial trip credit when canceling restrictive basic economy tickets, if they pay a fee.

The changes highlight American’s focus on getting more customers to sign up for its loyalty program. These programs generate billions of dollars a year for airlines. Delta Air Lines last year said it would start offering free Wi-Fi on board for members of its SkyMiles frequent flyer program.

Loyalty programs were a lifeline for airlines during the Covid pandemic when travel slowed to a trickle. Carriers earn money when customers spend on co-branded or other rewards credit cards, selling frequent flyer points to banks, regardless of what customers are spending on, from flights to new countertops.

American, United and Delta have all recently overhauled their loyalty programs to reward big spenders, with passengers earning more points and elite status based on how much they spend, not how far they fly.

Carriers have been grappling with a surge in elite travelers, repeatedly increasing the requirements to earn status, and tweaking benefits. Part of that was due to airlines allowing customers to hold onto their status during the pandemic, even though they weren’t traveling.

Delta last year walked back some of its changes, including stricter limits on access to its popular airport lounges after customer complaints. All three carriers are building larger airport lounges to accommodate more people.

American also said it will start allowing customers to earn miles for paying for cabin upgrades and let them redeem their miles for upgrades on partner airlines. For customers striving for elite status, the airline will give them bonus loyalty points after they’ve earned 15,000. Gold status, the lowest tier, requires 40,000 loyalty points.

The rise of airport lounges

Don’t miss these stories from CNBC PRO:

Comments are closed.