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American's Flex Awards: Good, Bad, or Ugly?

Frequent Flyer Q&A
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on August 4, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: American, frequent flyer, Frequent Flyer Q&A, mileage earning, Tim Winship.

In reference to American's recently introduced Flex awards, our reader Bob wrote in:

The 12,500 mile one way deal sounds good doesn't it? Have you tried to find a round-trip for 25,000 air miles? Try it. Pick a destination and dates for a round-trip where you use a total of 25,000 miles. Elect that your days are flexible. If you can get a trip, let me know the secret.

When I try, I can find a one way for 12,500, but never a 12,500 back, or a total 25,000 round-trip. In effect what they have done is increase the miles for a round-trip from 25,000 to 37,500.

Check it out, I'm leaving American.

Dear Bob—

First, for those who aren't familiar with them, Flex awards allow AAdvantage members to book awards on a one-way basis, for half the number of miles required for a round-trip, and to create an itinerary combining restricted and unrestricted awards, first and coach class.

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If you read my blog posts related to frequent flyer awards, you know that I've been a long-time critic of the airlines when it comes to award seat availability. But in the case of their new Flex awards, I would argue that American has made an important contribution toward alleviating the problem, if not solving it.

The bottleneck you allude to—finding an available award seat on one leg of a round-trip, but not on the other leg—is an all-too-common source of frustration for frequent flyer program members trying to redeem their miles. In many cases, it results in a would-be traveler abandoning his trip altogether. Other times, travelers are forced to settle for inconvenient flights, in order to work around spotty availability. And still other times, consumers hold their noses and pay twice as many miles to book an award with no capacity controls or blackout dates.

Now, back to Flex awards. Flex awards don't increase the number of available seats to mileage-redeemers, but they do make it easier to overcome the existing limitations. To be specific, when faced with the situation you refer to, Flex awards afford the following options:

  • Use miles for one leg of the trip, and purchase a ticket for the other leg.
  • Redeem 12,500 for a restricted ticket one way, and 25,000 miles for an unrestricted ticket the other way. (It's true that the round-trip now costs 37,500 miles. But under the previous policy, a member would have been required to use 50,000 miles for a round-trip with one blacked-out leg.)
  • For that same 37,500 miles, an AAdvantage member could also put together a round-trip combining coach in one direction (restricted coach, at 12,500 miles) and first class in the other (restricted first class, at 25,000 miles).

Again, the underlying problem of limited award seats remains untouched. But as an AAdvantage member, you have much more flexibility in mixing and matching award types, and therefore a better chance of booking an award trip on the right flights, at the right price.

There is a school of thought that suspects American of introducing Flex awards as a way of mitigating the effects of making fewer seats available as AAdvantage awards. Given the airline industry's track record of giving with one hand while taking with the other, such suspicion is entirely rational. But so far, there's no evidence that American has tightened up award availability.

Flex awards are a reason to stick with American, not to abandon them.

 
 
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