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American Airlines clarifies elite boarding perk

New fare bundling structure lets you pay for additional options

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Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Cathleen McCarthy
Cathleen McCarthy is a journalist whose articles on travel, commerce and consumer topics have appeared in dozens of publications. She writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Cashing In,
One of the reasons I have valued my Citi American AAdvantage card is that it got me priority boarding. Boarding late often means there's no room left in the overhead bin for my luggage. So I was miffed when I heard from American that my card no longer gets me on the plane first. Is this the beginning of the end for all those great AAdvantage card perks?  -- Dave

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Dave,
You probably got the email American sent out to AAdvantage cardholders stating a "clarification" of that particular benefit. Apparently, the airline has been in the habit of boarding cardholders along with elite AAdvantage members and first- and business-class ticket holders. That's actually quite unusual for a co-branded airline credit card, as I'm sure you know.

It turns out, that's not supposed to be a perk of the card, according to American. Apparently the airline has been issuing tickets to cardholders for Priority AAccess. Priority AAccess not only means you can board with first class, but also use their much shorter and faster-moving lines when you go through security -- a pretty sweet deal for a non-elite passenger flying coach class.

That email was American Airlines' way of letting you know you're going to see "Group 1" on tickets you purchase with your AAdvantage card from now on, instead of Priority AAccess.  Any flights booked or charged after Nov. 14, 2012, show the revised code. I'm guessing that passengers who pay the big bucks for premium seats or jump through hoops to get Executive Platinum status started complaining.

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Boarding with Group 1 will probably get you onboard in enough time to claim space in the overhead bin, though. You just won't be allowed to jump in front of the elites to avoid standing in the aisle while first- and business-class passengers stash their bags. At least for now, you'll still get to enjoy the other benefits of your card, including first bag checked free and 10 percent refund on mileage awards every year (up to 10,000 miles). 

It's possible the downgrade in cardholder boarding is connected to the airline's recent move to bundle travel perks into fare pricing. American announced last month it's changing the way it structures its paid fares. One of the choices you'll have is whether to purchase extra perks when you book your flight.

Travelers now have three options, which American calls Choice, Choice Essential and Choice Plus fares. The first is what you'd get now if you booked an economy fare, except that you can still take advantage of AAdvantage card perks allowing your first bag checked free and Group 1 boarding. Choice Essential fares cost $68 more round-trip and come with benefits matching what you're already entitled to as an AAdvantage cardholder -- first bag free and Group 1 boarding. As a cardholder this means you're entitled to an extra bag checked free. Unlike the basic fare, Choice Essential also allows you to change a flight (as long as it doesn't affect route or destination) without being charged the usual $150 change fee.

For an extra $88 -- $20 more than Choice Essential -- Choice Plus fares get you a 50-percent mileage bonus and the ability to change your flight or fly standby on the day of the flight without paying fees. It also gets you one premium beverage -- meaning any drink you'd normally pay for -- in each direction.

The airline plans to start displaying these options whenever you book a paid flight (for now, the structure doesn't apply to rewards flights). None of the Choice fares will get you back your Priority AAccess boarding. Other than boarding, however, all Choice perks are in addition to what you get as a cardholder -- so it's your choice. (Sorry.)

See related: Airlines launch slew of elite-level perks for frequent fliers, Upgrading your card to get more rewards can pay off

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Published: January 8, 2013


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