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American Airlines Is Making This Major Change to Flights, Starting Tomorrow

The carrier says one passenger perk will be different the next time you travel.

You don't need to be a travel expert to see that flying has gone through many changes lately. Of course, COVID-related safety requirements may be the most apparent differences onboard airplanes recently, but others have affected how routes are scheduled and even how we book tickets in the first place. Now, American Airlines has announced a significant change that will affect passengers on its flights as of tomorrow. Read on to see how your next trip with the carrier could be different.

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American Airlines is overhauling its elite-status program for frequent flyers.

American Airlines Airbus A319 (Registration No. N723UW) taking off at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

On Feb. 28, American Airlines announced that it would be conducting a major overhaul of its AAdvantage loyalty program by changing how customers can earn and redeem rewards towards status with the carrier. The first change that will affect flights goes into effect on March 2, when members will no longer need to redeem a 500-mile upgrade coupon to score a complimentary upgrade on trips anywhere within North America, whether it's a long or short-haul. The airline also clarified that the region for upgrades also includes flights to Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and Central America, according to travel news outlet The Points Guy.

Previously, loyalty program members could only have their seats upgraded on flights over 500 miles if they redeemed enough coupons to cover the distance flown. Now, all elite members will be automatically placed in contention for a complimentary upgrade along with other AAdvantage members. In addition, the airline also specified that any elite customers who have already purchased tickets for future travel would see complimentary upgrade requests automatically added to their reservations after tomorrow.

The 500-mile upgrade coupons aren't going away entirely just yet, though.

New order in airplane. Woman is sitting in mask before fly

According to the airline's press release, 500-mile upgrade coupons will eventually be phased out entirely later this year when they will be converted into 250 loyalty points apiece. At that point, any elite status member who is upgraded will also receive a complimentary upgrade for one companion per trip. However, until then, any elite member will still have to use their 500-mile coupons to have any non-status companions upgraded along with them for the flight.

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Some argue the changes could make it harder for some frequent flyers to score an upgrade.

An American Airlines plane on the runway

Even though the changes have opened the doors for more flyers to get bumped up to a better seat on any given flight, some experts point out that it may make it more difficult for lower-tier elite members in practice. "Of course, offering all elite members complimentary upgrades sounds great—who doesn't like a 'free' upgrade?—but the problem is that you're competing for a finite number of seats," Ben Schlappig, founder of travel and rewards blog One Mile at a Time, wrote in a post. "First-class will almost always be filled up with upgraders, so it's just a function of how you choose to distribute those seats between elite members."

And it's not just the decreased likelihood of a free upgrade that could be a downside. "I can't help but feel like the offer to convert each 500-mile upgrade sticker into 250 Loyalty Points is incredibly stingy. Many people paid cash for those upgrade stickers, and that's a horrible conversion rate," Schlappig writes.

Changes to how elite members can earn points went into effect on March 1.

woman shopping online with credit card

While the complimentary upgrade rules that could affect your next flight won't go into effect until tomorrow, other major changes to American's rewards program went live on March 1. Now, elite members can earn points good towards status by purchasing tickets on the airline or one of its partners such as JetBlue, using a co-branded credit card, shopping online through the airline's commerce portal, and even dining out with the airline's reward program, The Points Guy reports.

"The past few years have taught us that loyalty is not one-size-fits-all—it comes in different forms," Alison Taylor, Chief Customer Officer for American Airlines, said in the press release. "We recognize the path to earning status is different for each individual, which is why we're giving members more ways to earn Loyalty Points—whether by flying, shopping, or using an AAdvantage credit card. We want to make it easier for our customers to achieve status wherever they may be in their travel journey."

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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