Where Is American's AAdvantage Program Headed?

Any discussion of airline loyalty schemes must pay tribute to American's AAdvantage program.

Not only does AAdvantage enjoy the distinction of being the first-launched modern loyalty program, edging out United's by a matter of days, it has also been one of the most innovative. And based on anecdotal evidence, it has done a consistently admiral job of delivering on the key promise of loyalty programs: ready availability of award seats when it comes time to redeem AAdvantage miles.

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But while the program remains a solid one, it's no longer at the front of the pack.

Which could be said of the airline itself. The company that is responsible for much of what we take for granted today in commercial aviation—advance-purchase fares, sophisticated computer reservations systems, hub and spoke route networks, mileage-based loyalty programs—is no longer at the forefront of the industry it did so much to shape.

Sadly, American has mismanaged itself into bankruptcy. And more troublesome still, it looks increasingly likely that American will be acquired by an airline that has done little to endear itself to the traveling public, US Airways.

All of which raises questions about the AAdvantage program's future prospects.

So it was with considerable interest that I tuned in last night to an online chat (archived here) with Suzanne Rubin, president of the American AAdvantage program.

Over the course of an hour, Rubin responded to questions from frequent travelers on a variety of topics.

The first program-related question: "Where do you see the AAdvantage program evolving to over the next 24 months in terms of redemption, accumulation, and flight availabilty?"

Rubin simply cited upcoming additions to the oneworld alliance lineup, SriLankan Airlines and Malaysian Airlines.

In the evening's only real breaking news, Rubin revealed that Qantas would "soon" join Alaska Airlines, British Airways, and Hawaiian as AAdvantage partners whose award seats can be booked online at AA.com. A nice addition, to be sure.

A question of vital interest to members of most major programs concerned American's plans to retain "loyalty with your current elites so they don't feel pressured to leave." Rubin's answer was hardly reassuring: "One of our primary objectives is to continue delivering value to all of our elite members."

In response to a "why switch to American" challenge from a United partisan, Rubin rather unconvincingly alluded to the fact that American had plenty of new aircraft on order, as if that gave American a competitive advantage over United, Delta, et al. And, she continued, "We have announced plans to enhance our inflight experience—further Wi-Fi expansion, new premium amenities and innovative inflight entertainment options (to name a few). ... All very exciting things to look forward to as you travel with us."

And finally, to the question of AAdvantage's future in the event of an American-US Airways merger, Rubin would only say this: "American's primary focus is on navigating through the restructuring process."

The Take Away

If you were an AAdvantage member looking for reassurance that the program has a bright future, you were likely disappointed by the lack of specifics.

For all the happy talk and promises of good things to come, there was little of substance to look forward to. And the specter of a program ultimately owned and managed by US Airways looms as large as ever.

Reader Reality Check

What's your take on AAdvantage, both present and future? Are you more or less committed to the program than you were?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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