American Airlines

Changes: Elite frequent flyer members will receive one fewer free checked bag than they do today. Photo: AP

American Airlines on Tuesday announced changed policies and a revamped program for redeeming frequent flyer miles, a mixed bag of good and bad news that affects how customers can cash-in reward miles and whether they get free checked bags, among other changes.

American, the newly merged carrier of American Airlines and US Airways, is trying to quickly create a consistent traveller experience for customers, said Suzanne Rubin, the American Airlines executive in charge of the loyalty program.

The changes announced Tuesday were not meant as an adoption of one airline's policies over the other's. Instead, the changes reflect elements from both airlines as well as what airline competitors offer, she said.

In the frequent flyer program, for example, US Airways' Dividend Miles members will notice the elimination of blackout dates for reward travel. Previously, award miles were not able to be used on certain high-demand dates.

Some complexity was introduced into the program. For example, reward redemptions were split into three levels for domestic flights, costing different amounts of award miles depending on how much demand exists for the seats.

Rubin said the airline tried to keep in mind how complicated frequent flyer programs can get.

"As an industry, we've been challenged with complexity," she conceded. She said the airline's website, AA.com, attempts to help customers understand the program by laying out the reward price points for a destination.

With baggage rules, most flyers won't experience changes because there was no change to the rule for the first checked bag. But for foreign travel, the airline added and removed bag fees. For example, customers get two free checked bags on travel to and from South America and on trans-Pacific flights, but they will be charged a fee for the first checked bag when traveling to and from select cities in Mexico, according to the airline.

American also changed baggage allowances for elite members. For example, American's AAdvantage Gold members and US Airways' Dividend Miles Platinum and Gold members will receive one fewer free checked bag than they do today.

"It could have been worse," Brian Karimzad, director of MileCards.com, which analyses reward credit cards and programs, said of the changes announced Tuesday.

"The big fear is that they would raise prices," he added, referring to the amount of reward miles required to purchase a ticket.

He said the main negative is that American made the program more complex, charging different amounts of miles depending on demand for seats.

"For very frequent flyers, they dodged a bullet," he said. That's because they mostly care about rewards involving business-class tickets to Europe or Asia, and American made no changes to the prices for those.

The announcement Tuesday did not revamp how frequent flyers accumulate reward miles or achieve elite status levels. Recently, airlines have started rewarding dollars spent with the airline, rather than miles flown only.

"We are obviously always watching what's going on in the competitive landscape, and we'll continue to study it," Rubin said.

MCT