Attention: this information is now out of date.  The AAdvantage program described below has changed effective January 1, 2016.

Hopefully my previous post helped you understand the basics of the AAdvantage program.  I want to get into some more advanced topics, and the easiest way to organize it, I figured, would be to pose a series of questions that I’m often asked, with my responses.

Is status with American really that important?
Only if you want to skip security lines, board planes first to ensure there’s room for your carry-on up top, check 2-3 bags for free, get free upgrades on domestic and international itineraries, reserve exit row and other premium seats, standby on earlier flights for free, have many different fees waived for you, have rebooking priority when your flight is cancelled, or access to Business and First Class lounges on international itineraries.  If none of that interests you, then it’s probably not worth it to qualify.

How long does my status last?
To make things confusing, there are two “years” in terms of status: membership year and qualifying year.  There’s really no easy way of describing this generally, but I’ll try my best:

Qualifying years run from January 1 – December 31 of Year 20xx.
Membership years run from March 1 of  Year 20xx+1 – February 28/29 of Year 20xx+2

I know, I’m sorry.  Here’s the specific example.  It is January 1, 2012.  I currently have no status.  If Gold status is my target, I have until December 31, 2012 to earn it (via EQP, EQM, or EQS).  That’s my qualifying year (Year 20xx above).  Here’s where it gets funny: I’m actually qualifying for the following membership year, from March 1, 2013-February 28, 2014.  Does that mean my status doesn’t kick in until March 1, 2013?  Absolutely not.  My status begins as soon as I earn it and lasts for the duration of the current calendar year and the following membership year.

So, if I fly nonstop for the first 10 days of the year and earn Executive Platinum status on January 10, 2012, it’s good until February 28, 2014 (unless I re-qualify).

Another interesting bit: American has a “soft-landing” policy that isn’t documented, but exists.  If I’m Executive Platinum and don’t re-qualify, I won’t drop to no status, only the next level down (Platinum).  So in the above example, I’m guaranteed Executive Platinum until February 2014, Platinum until February 2015, and Gold until February 2016. (American got rid of the soft landing policy in 2014, conveniently right as my Executive Platinum status expired)

Moral of the story: the earlier (and higher) you can qualify, the better.

Ok, I’m in, but am also impatient.  Is there any way to earn status more quickly?
Absolutely.  Now, a quick review:

EQP = Elite-qualifying points, dependent on the fare class you purchase
EQM = Elite-qualifying miles, 1 earned for every mile you actually fly
EQS = Elite-qualifying segment, each leg of a trip you fly (2 for a non-stop round-trip)
RDM = Redeemable miles, bonus miles from credit card promotions, bonus miles from status, etc.

There are two ways to earn status more quickly: a Gold Challenge or a Platinum Challenge.  These challenges are based on the number of EQP you earn in 3 months.

Gold Challenge – $120 fee, 5,000 EQP to complete
Platinum Challenge – $240 fee, 10,000 EQP to complete

You have 3 months from the start date you choose with American.  Challenges can be started on the 1st or 16th of a month.

Of note: if you begin a challenge before June 16, you’re earning for the current membership year.  So if I begin a Gold Challenge June 1, 2012 and succeed, I only have Gold status until February 2013. If I begin the Challenge June 16, 2012 and succeed, I’ll have Gold status until February 2014.  So map out your challenges carefully!

Fare Classes
First Class, Business Class, and Coach/Economy/Cattle Class, right?  Wrong.  Those are cabin classes.    Fare classes are different.  They allow airlines to maximize revenue for every seat on a flight.  Let’s say we’re on an American 150-seat Boeing 737-800.  When you go to buy a ticket, there are actually a variety of tickets that American has to offer you, some coming with added benefits (change/refund privileges, First Class, etc.).  Fare classes on American are as follows (borrowed from American’s website:

Fare Purchased Booking Class Points Per Qualifying
Mile Earned
First Class A, F, P 1.50
Business Class D, I, J,R 1.50
Full-Fare Economy Class B, Y,W* 1.50
Discount Economy Class H, K, M, L, W, V 1.00
Deep Discount Economy Class G, Q, N, O**, S 0.50

Confusing, right?  Try this: imagine two groups of buckets (labeled with the letters above) filled with tickets, each ticket having the same price as the rest in that bucket.  Now, according to how American’s Revenue Management office thinks that flight will sell (based on competition, fuel price, etc.), they will price a roundtrip O fare at (examples) $230, a Q fare at $260, L fare at $400, Y fare at $800, and F fare at $1900 (all prices before government taxes and fees kick in).  Once that fare is published, people will begin purchasing tickets.  Let’s say I want 4 tickets in deep discount economy class.  I walk over to the O bucket for the DFW-LAX flight, and grab 4 tickets at $115 apiece.  I then walk over to the return leg area and look in the O bucket, but there are only three left, so I have to move to the next higher bucket to get my 4th ticket, leaving me with 3 tickets at $230 and 1 at $245.  This is overly simplified, but gets the point across.

Now, that data is fed into American’s pricing algorithms, which may tell them that since the O bucket was emptied/sold so quickly, demand for the rest of the tickets is now higher, so for the next person coming along, a ticket from the Q bucket may cost $270.  That’s the reason flights tend to get more expensive the closer it is to departure date: none of the cheaper buckets have tickets left!  American could lower the price of a bucket, sure, but industry trends and the pricing on the route might dictate that anyone who needs to book it at the absolute last minute would end up paying the higher price anyway, because at that point they’re no longer date-flexible, and are willing to pay a price premium for that (as opposed to the person buying the 3 O and 1 Q ticket, who are willing to adjust their dates for a financial incentive).

The reason I explain the above (which hopefully wasn’t too confusing) is because the fare class in which you book your flight directly impacts the number of points you earn.  The above table displayed the points multipliers that apply to the various fare classes.  For most, if you’re booking a cheap ticket, you’re only going to get [miles flown]*.5 for your EQP.  So, my warning to you: it’s great to get status via a challenge, but make sure that 1) you have expensive flights planned or 2) enough cheap flights to get you the points at .5 EQP/mile flown.

How can you tell in which fare class you’ve booked?  Depending on the website you use for booking, it will tell you.  Otherwise, if you can’t find it, go ahead and place the itinerary on hold, call American, and ask what fare class it’s in.  Don’t buy the ticket over the phone (unless you’re Executive Platinum), otherwise you’ll pay a $25 fee.

Status Matching
If you have status with another airline, American will sometimes match their status to the equivalent level in the AAdvantage program, provided you satisfy a certain number of flights within a certain amount of time thereafter (other airlines do this as well, I was given status on Continental before a flight to Costa Rica and ended up getting upgraded to First Class on the way down there for free!).

Easiest way to see if you qualify is to call AAdvantage Customer Service at 1-800-882-8880 and they’ll let you know pretty quickly if you qualify or not (their status match programs are mostly unpublished and tend to come and go).

Can I earn miles more quickly?
It depends.  If you’re talking about earning EQMs more quickly, then yes, but they’re pretty limited.

There are (as far as I know) two ways to earn EQMs more quickly on American: double EQM promotions by American Airlines or by spending $40,000 in any year on Citi’s AAdvantage Executive card.  Since the annual fee for the AAdvantage Executive card is $450 and the spending requirement is so high, I’ll focus on the former.

Every so often, American will run either targeted or systemwide double-EQM promotions, where you earn twice as many EQMs than you would otherwise for a given flight operated and marketed by American.  There have been a few in 2012, which helped me achieve Executive Platinum status.  Some of these even stacked with other offers to give you triple EQMs (it’s why flights between DFW-San Francisco and San Francisco-Chicago were so crowded earlier this year).

These promotions are great for accelerating qualifying miles and getting the status you want.

Wrapping it all up…
Status, as I’ve shown you, has some great benefits for the frequent traveler.  The key thing to take away, if any of this has seemed beneficial to you, is that you need to plan out your qualification strategy.

If you don’t typically travel a lot, but have a whirlwind travel schedule coming up soon for work or play, it may be to your benefit to take a Gold Challenge (you’ll be flying anyway, might as well get status for it).  If you typically travel for business in expensive coach or paid First Class seats, then you’ll want to focus on earning EQPs and the double-EQM promotions won’t mean as much to you (unless they run a double EQM and double EQP promotion, like the one that expires December 31, 2012).  If you’re flying to a lot of non-AA hubs, then it may make sense to try and qualify via segments and take more layovers than you’d need (flying Dallas to Chicago to Milwaukee instead of one of the few nonstops between Dallas and Milwaukee).

There’s a science to this madness, and hopefully you understand more about the AAdvantage program now.  Please post questions to the comments and I’ll answer the best I can.

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