An American Airlines plane in San Francisco.

American Airlines has finally decided to take advantage of the problems many United Airlines fliers have experienced since the merger with Continental Airlines was completed on March 3. In an extremely rare move, American is now offering conditions-free top-elite status match to United’s most loyal customers.

Having read and heard about many United customers’ troubles after the carrier adopted Continental’s reservations system — and having encountered some problems myself — I e-mailed American spokesman Tim Smith on March 16. Smith has been the best PR person to deal with at any airline since I started writing my column in the Washington Times in 2008. I asked him whether American had any intention of capitalizing on United customers’ dissatisfaction by stealing some of them away through a status-match offer.

He involved his colleague Stacey Frantz, who works directly with American’s AAdvantage program. She said she couldn’t comment on “marketing strategies,” but it was apparent from her and Smith’s messages that American wasn’t considering such a move at the time. More than a month later, however, it decided to follow my suggestion — not that I’m taking any credit.

When the promotion first started last week, elite United fliers at all levels were eligible, but on Friday, American decided to limit participation only to United Premier 1K members, the highest published level. A memo was sent out to customer service agents on that day. So if you are a 1K, you can get Executive Platinum status on American.

The carrier is not advertising the promotion, so you need to call AAdvantage Customer Service to request an e-mail outlining the offer. Status is valid through February 2013, and all you have to do is submit proof of your current elite status with United. On the rare occasions when American has offered matches in the past, it has extended challenges, meaning you had to fly a certain number of miles during a certain period to qualify. There are no conditions this time. Challenges to Executive Platinum have been even rarer than to other levels.

But is Executive Platinum better than 1K, and is American better than United? Let’s review.

Executive Platinum advantages

This is truly American’s top elite level. Concierge Key, the unpublished super status that George Clooney’s character had in “Up in the Air,” is awarded only by invitation to very few hyper-frequent and high-paying travelers. In contrast, United’s Global Services status has been given to so many people — albeit still “by invitation” — that it has somewhat devalued the 1K level.

Executive Platinum members are the only ones eligible for complimentary domestic upgrades that clear as early as 100 hours before a flight — at United, all elite fliers are, and lower-level elites on full-fare tickets trump 1K members on discounted fares. United also aggressively sells domestic upgrades at check-in for as little as tens of dollars to non-elites, while elites linger on waiting lists. As a result, the upgrade rates for 1Ks have gone down significantly.

As for international — or systemwide — upgrades, American is much more generous than United. Executive Platinum members get eight of those so-called eVIP certificates each year, compared to six for 1Ks. More importantly, on American, they are valid on all published fares, while United excludes its five lowest booking classes — S, T, L, K and G — requiring at least W class. That means you need to pay hundreds of dollars more on W class, and if your upgrade doesn’t clear, you’ve wasted your money.

American has the best domestic First Class soft product. It’s the only airline to still use linens and menus during meal service, as well as pillows and blankets on transcontinental flights. United used to have linens, pillows and blankets before the merger with Continental, but it lost them. The food also tends to be better on American. Many of its domestic planes have no in-flight entertainment at all, though wi-fi has been installed on a big part of its fleet.

As an Executive Platinum, you get Emerald status on the global Oneworld alliance, which gives you access to First Class lounges on foreign Oneworld members, such as Cathay Pacific and Qantas. The Star Alliance has only two levels, instead of Oneworld’s three, so United Gold, Platinum and 1K members get the same access to Business Class lounges.

American has dedicated agents working on the Executive Platinum phone line, and they are not only the best trained agents in the airline industry, but also the ones given the most authority and discretion to help customers in any way possible, even if that means sometimes bending the rules. United’s so-called 1K Desk is not really a dedicated desk — those agents service all callers, but 1Ks get priority in the queue.

No one knows if any of the above might change as a result of American’s Chapter 11 restructuring or in a potential merger with US Airways, but this is where things stand right now. For me, American’s main disadvantages are the limits of Oneworld, whose size is about half the Star Alliance’s, the hefty fuel surcharges imposed on award tickets with British Airways flights, and those old McDonnell Douglas planes American still flies. In addition, if you live in a United hub, it might be hard to give up nonstop flights to many destinations in favor of connections on American. That said, American often offers very low fares out of United hubs, while United does the same out of American hubs.

Premier 1K advantages

United offers 1K members so-called regional upgrade certificates, which can be used to confirm an upgrade on North and Central American flights at the time of ticketing — just like using miles or systemwide upgrades. Unfortunately, this year, United reduced the regional certificates from eight to four a year. It also eliminated the two upgrades million-mile fliers used to get annually. It’s worth noting that the Executive Platinum exclusive perk of complimentary upgrades on American compensates for the lack of certificates to a large extent, though those can be confirmed only within 100 of departure.

United offers instant upgrades without requiring any “instrument” to 1Ks on domestic M fares — all elites get the same benefit on the higher Y and B fares — as soon as the time of ticketing. The inventory is controlled separately and is not the same as regular First Class availability (it books in PN class).

United waives same-day confirmed changes on domestic flights for 1Ks, while American doesn’t for Executive Platinums. United also waives award booking, change and redeposit fees on tickets issued with 1K members’ miles — regardless of who the passenger is. American does so only if the Executive Platinum member is the passenger.

United allows stopovers on round-trip international award tickets. American permits those only in U.S. gateways — the city where you leave or arrive in the United States.

The biggest advantage United has is its membership in the Star Alliance, which has 25 member-carriers, including some of the best in the world, such as All Nippon, Asiana, Singapore, Air New Zealand and Swiss.

The biggest problem with United is that its new management doesn’t value long-term loyalty nearly as much as American’s — or United’s previous leadership team, for that matter. Unfortunately, my prediction in 2010, based on warnings from departing United executives at the time, came true after the merger was finalized. The current management apparently cares much more about making a quick buck. It prefers to sell an upgrade seat from Seattle to Washington Dulles to a non-elite flier for $99, as reported on FlyerTalk by a passenger who took advantage of that offer, rather than give the seat to a 1K member who spends tens of thousands of dollars on United a year. So much for complimentary upgrades.

At the end of the day, the choice is yours. If I’ve missed anything on either airline, feel free to let me know.

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