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Comprehensive Guide to Airlines’ Pandemic Adaptations: American Airlines COVID-19 Response

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Updated March 16, 2021

This is part two of our six part series evaluating how the six biggest U.S. airlines are responding to the coronavirus pandemic. American Airlines is no different from the rest in that they have seen unprecedented drops in demand for air travel. Therefore, in this post I will detail what American Airlines COVID response has been and continues to be. I will talk about how these changes have effected elite status, cancellation/change policy, lounges, credit cards, cleaning protocols, masks/PPE, CARES Act and any other changes. 

Elite Status:

On April 13, the company issued a statement informing travelers of extensions to frequent flier status and lounge memberships. Part of American Airlines COVID response is extending elite members’ current status level through January 31, 2022. Additionally, lounge memberships and one day passes will automatically receive six month extensions. Aadvantage elite members will also receive a $400 credit for an American Airlines Vacations reservation. 

Another aspect of American Airlines COVID response is lowering the requirements to qualify for Aadvantage elite status for 2021:

Old requirements:

EQDEQMEQS
Gold$3,00025,00030
Platinum$6,00050,00060
Platinum Pro$9,00075,00090
Executive Platinum$15,000100,000120

New 2021 Requirements:

EQDEQMEQS
Gold$2,00020,00020
Platinum$4,50040,00045
Platinum Pro$7,00060,00070
Executive Platinum$12,00080,00095

EQD=Elite Qualifying Dollar EQM=Elite Qualifying Mile

EQS=Elite Qualifying Segment

Elite status earned in 2021 will be valid through January 31, 2023. In addition, all elite qualifying flights taken in the last quarter of 2020 will go towards 2021’s qualifications for elite status.

Effective November 11, 2020, Aadvantage members will no longer have to pay a service charge to book an award ticket through reservations. If for any reason an award ticket needs to be canceled there will no longer be a reinstatement fee to put those miles/points back into the member’s Aadvantage account.

As of Oct. 1, 2020, American now allows travelers with a Basic Economy ticket to purchase products that may enhance a traveler’s experience. Items that may be purchased include: Upgrades, Priority Boarding, Preferred/Main Cabin Extra Seats and Same-day confirmed flight changes.

Since Oct. 1, 2020, Aadvantage elite members will have access to some of the benefits afforded them even if they choose to purchase a Basic Economy ticket. Elite members will maintain perks such as: Priority Access/Preferred Boarding, Upgrade Privileges, Elite seat privileges (Main Cabin Preferred and Main Cabin Extra) and Same-day confirmed flight change benefit.

As of January 1, 2021, “Basic Economy tickets will not earn elite qualifying dollars (EQD), miles (EQM) or segments (EQS) toward future status.”

The expiration date for Aadvantage miles/points has been extended to June 30, 2021.

Photo by Ross Sokolovski on Unsplash

Cancellation/Change Policy:

Effective August 31, 2020, American Airlines released a statement announcing the permanent elimination of change fees for all domestic and short-haul international tickets. This new policy applies to every fare class except Basic Economy. It applies to flights in North America and the Caribbean. Like other major U.S. airlines, American has stated that when changes are made, there may be fare differences that would be the responsibility of the customer to make up. However, unlike the other airlines, American states that if the original ticket costed more than the one that the customer is changing to then the difference in fare will not be forfeited, it will be returned to the customer in the form of a voucher for future travel.

The new policy above also applies to Aadvantage award tickets also.

Starting on October 1, all customers (regardless of ticket purchased) will have the option to standby for flights departing the same day as the original departure to the same destination free of charge. This applies to both domestic and international flights.

To start 2021, American is leaving its previously announced change fee waiver, from 2020, in place. This applies to all ticket fares (including Basic Economy) purchased by March 31, 2021 for any future travel. Aadvantage award tickets are included in this offer. Customers will be permitted to change origin and/or destination airports. However, the customer will be responsible for any difference in fare associated with any changes.

Lounges:

On June 4, American Airlines announced that it will begin phased reopening of some Admirals Club lounges beginning June 22. These locations will offer pre-packaged snacks and some will offer full service bar. Hours may vary from the norm at some locations. There may be some limitations on capacity and what the offerings are inside the club due to CDC guidelines. The company says there will be plexiglass barriers at the reception desk to help protect customers and employees. There will be signs in prominent locations to encourage patrons to continue social distancing. Hand sanitizer will be available inside the lounge for customers’ use. In addition, the company will be installing foot-operated door openers, where feasible, in restrooms. 

There have been several changes to food and beverage procedures to cut down on potential transmission of germs, I have included some examples. Buffet style food will be replaced with individually portioned or pre-packaged options. Bulk dispensers (Milk carafes, water, tea, juice, etc.) will be either replaced with individual servings or move behind the bar to be served by staff. Cutlery will be pre-packaged. Plastic wrap will be used on apples. Disposable, single-use glassware will be used. Touchless menus with signage and QR codes, but physical menus can still be requested.

As of January 22, 2021, at least one Admirals Club location has reopened at each of the following airports (hours may vary from the normal): Austin Bergstrom International Airport (AUS), Boston Loagan International Airport (BOS), Charlotte (CLT), Chicago (ORD), Dallas (DFW), Denver International Airport (DEN), George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX), Miami (MIA), Nashville International Airport (BNA), New York (JFK and LGA), Orange County (SNA), Orlando International Airport (MCO), Philadelphia (PHL), Phoenix (PHX), Raleigh/Durham (RDU), San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Tampa (TPA) and Washington, D.C. (DCA).

Two clubs are open as service centers to help customers with travel assistance, they include: Atlanta (ATL) and Pittsburgh (PIT).

There are still many Admirals Clubs that remain closed around the world.

Credit Cards and Aadvantage Points (Expired):

On April 13 2020, the airline released a statement that all Aadvantage credit cardholders in the U.S. (Citi/Aadvantage and Barclay’s Aadvantage Aviator) and some outside of the U.S. will receive one mile toward progress to Million Miler status per dollar spent on the credit card through the end of 2020.

I got an email in November for an offer on my Barclay’s Aviator Red card. The offer was 10x points for every dollar spent up to $1,000 per month through January 31, 2021.

Cleaning Protocols and Social Distancing:

The new cleaning procedures will improve upon current cleaning protocols. The enhanced regimen was announced in an April 27 press release. An EPA approved disinfectant will be used to clean many of the cabin’s customer touch-points (tray tables, armrests, seatbelt buckles, etc.) and crew touch-points (crew rest seats and cockpit surfaces).

American Airlines states they have utilized an EPA approved hospital grade disinfectant fogging process for three years, but now they are expanding it to be used throughout the whole fleet during the overnight cleaning procedures. The company states that this disinfectant is electrically charged so it is able to provide a 360’ clean on hard and soft surfaces, including hard to reach places such as underneath seats. It kills 99.999% of microorganisms within 10 minutes and provides a protective layer for up to a week. This fogging procedure will be used in all public areas throughout the cabin. 

At the end of August, the company announced an addition to its cleaning routine, an EPA-approved electrostatic spraying solution called SurfaceWise2 by Allied Bioscience. It is a long-lasting invisible protective coating that actively kills viruses. American Airlines is the first airline to use this product.

American Airlines also states that most of their aircraft have HEPA air filters installed which are similar to what is used in hospitals. These air circulation systems help to ensure that the cabin air is changed out completely, approximately every 3 minutes. The airline is also increasing the frequency that it cleans the areas of the airport under its control such as gate areas, check-in counters, baggage areas, and team member rooms. To encourage passengers to follow social distancing guidelines, the company will install stanchions at gates and counters. Additionally some check-in kiosks will be off to allow for more space between patrons. 

The sum of all the initiatives listed above (cleaning high touch point areas, electrostatic spraying and fogging, HEPA filters, mask protocols, etc.) will effectively reduce the risk of transmission of respiratory particles on an airplane to less than 1% according to a study done by Harvard researchers.

American Airlines has announced the creation of the Travel Health Advisory Panel in collaboration with Vanderbilt University Medical Center, to develop and provide the best cleaning practices onboard and in the lounges.

The company did meet its goal of becoming the first and, to this point, only airline to achieve GBAC STAR accreditation by the end of 2020. This accreditation means that the airline has demonstrated a high level of cleaning/disinfecting procedures and has an infectious disease prevention program in place to minimize risks associated with infectious agents. In addition, it means that the company has partnered with individuals and other organizations that are trained and prepared to respond to potential outbreaks and infectious diseases.

Photo by Allie on Unsplash

Masks and PPE:

Masks became mandatory, as part of the American Airlines COVID response, for flight attendants and staff on mainline and regional flights starting May 1. Starting May 11, masks or face coverings became mandatory for all customers to wear when onboard an aircraft or in an area of the airport where six feet of social distancing is not achievable. American Airlines will also begin distributing sanitizing wipes and masks to travelers as supplies allow. In July, the airline announced that all passengers above the age of 2 years old would be required to wear a face covering/mask over the nose and mouth without exception. The company has designated a drawer in the employee area on all American Airlines flights that contains masks, PPE and other cleaning items.

Effective Aug. 19, masks worn by passengers cannot be the type that contains any sort of vent or valve. Additionally, in February the policy will also prohibit bandanas and gaiters.

The company is asking that travelers provide their own face covering and hand sanitizer but it is working to have some available if travelers forget.

As of February 2021, the federal government has mandated that masks must be worn during travel on public transportation, which includes airplanes and in airports.

Beginning in February, passengers that have disabilities that need an exemption from wearing a mask will need to notify the carrier’s Special Assistance team at least 72 hours prior to departure. These exemptions will require documentation from a licenses health care provider and either proof that the traveler has recovered from COVID-19 or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours (3 days) of departure.

CARES Act:

American Airlines announced on April 14 in a press release that it had reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Treasury to obtain a grant of $4.1 billion in direct support along with a $1.7 billion low interest loan through the CARES Act. The company also plans to apply for a $4.75 billion U.S. Treasury loan through a separate program. This financial aid is to ensure that there are no involuntary furloughs or reductions in pay rate for American Airlines’ employees through Sept. 30, 2020. According to the U.S. Treasury the loans come with a 10-year senior unsecured promissory note. Furthermore, the U.S Treasury will have option of obtaining 13.7 million warrants for common stock shares at a warrant price of $12.51.

The PSP program through the CARES Act got an extension in December 2020 and in January 2021, American Airlines received the aid from the program. The program does expire on March 31, 2021 but until then the company can recall furloughed employees. As part of this agreement the carrier will receive total support in the amount of $3.08 billion with $896 million in the form of a low interest loan. In exchange the airline must provide the Treasury with 89.6 million in warrants for common stock at a price of $15.66 per warrant.

Other Changes of the American Airlines COVID Response:

  1. For flights that are fairly full, travelers will have the option to change flights to one with more available seats at check-in.
  2. Customer Service agents or flight attendants may move travelers into different seats to ensure ample space between customers. Also after boarding completion, customers may move seats within the originally booked cabin as long as it does not effect the plane’s weight or balance.
  3. Subject to availability, sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer may be available for flight attendants and passengers.
  4. For flights less than 2,200 miles (usually shorter than 4.5 hours), alcohol will only be available upon request in first class and not available in Main Cabin. Water, juice and canned beverages will be available on request. No first class meal service. Temporary suspension of food or snack purchases. 
  5. For flights more than 2,200 miles (usually longer than 4.5 hours), there will be alcohol service in first class but not in Main Cabin (Extra) except on international flights. All other beverage service will continue per normal protocol in Main Cabin. However, on international flights meals will be served in Main Cabin. Meals in first class and business class will not be served in courses, instead will be served on one tray.
  6. Temporary suspension of hot towel service in first class.
  7. Travelers will get a new disposable cup with each beverage request.
  8. Beginning June 30, the airline began requiring travelers to complete a COVID-19 symptom checklist at check-in to attempt to ensure that passengers had been symptom free for at least 14 days prior to travel. This checklist was created by the new partnership between the airline and Vanderbilt University, the Travel Health Advisory Panel.
  9. At the end of September, the company announced that in the coming months it would be offering preflight COVID-19 testing for certain destinations. The first Caribbean countries to be included are Jamaica, Bahamas and CARICOM (association of 20 countries). Tests will be offered for flights from Miami International Airport (MIA). A negative COVID test would allow the 14 day quarantine to be avoided.
  10. Also at the end of September, American stated that they would also offer preflight COVID-19 test for flights to Hawaii through Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). This option will start on October 15. A negative COVID test within 72 hours of the final leg of your trip will allow you to bypass the 14 day quarantine on arrival in Hawaii. There are three options to do the test, an at home test, in person testing at CareNow urgent care locations and rapid testing on site at DFW.
  11. As of December 9, 2020, American announced a partnership with LetsGetChecked. This will allow customers, that are traveling domestically to any state or territory that has COVID-19 travel restrictions, to have access to an at home COVID-19 test kit prior to departure.
  12. Starting in February 2021, passengers traveling from all domestic airports to eight countries and all international passengers traveling to the US will have the option to use the VeriFLY app to store all of their COVID related documentation in one place. This app does not exempt travelers from the required documents but can make verification faster by having everything in one place. The eight destination countries from domestic airports, included in this program are: United Kingdom, Canada, Jamaica, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Photo by Joshua Hanson on Unsplash

Conclusion of American Airlines COVID Response:

I think the American Airlines COVID response is providing a wide variety of initiatives to help protect employees and travelers while also trying to encourage customers to get back to air travel as soon as possible. I do think that some of the food and beverage service reductions are not great for the passenger experience but I do understand that it is necessary to help curtail the spread of the coronavirus. 

American Airlines website, Newsroom page and the U.S. Department of the Treasury are the sources for this post.

Alaska Airlines Response

Delta Airlines Response

JetBlue Airways Response

Southwest Airlines Response

United Airlines Response

Featured Image: Photo by Miguel Ángel Sanz on Unsplash

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