American Airlines announced today its AAdvantage program changes for 2021. These changes reflect the times and how airlines are adapting to woo flyers back to the skies while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
The thresholds for earning elite status in 2021 are being reduced from the standard levels, and flyers will have 15 months (instead of the normal 12) to reach these elite status requirements. In addition, members can earn a waiver of the already reduced Elite Qualifying Dollar (EQD) requirements through credit card spending.
AAdvantage elite benefits will also be more flexible in 2021: Instead of earning predetermined stated benefits, top elites will be able to choose from a menu of options that are best for their situation.
Let’s dive into the details of the AAdvantage program changes for 2021.
Reduced requalification levels for 2021
American Airlines already reduced the requirements for qualifying for AAdvantage elite status in 2020. These lowered thresholds gave existing AAdvantage elites the chance to elevate their status and new American Airlines flyers achievable thresholds to entice them to switch their airline of choice.
American Airlines is now also reducing the requirements to earn elite status in 2021. However, the requirements are a notable increase from 2020’s requirements. To earn elite status in 2021, AAdvantage members will need to earn the following:
Elite Status Level
Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs)
Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs)
Elite Qualifying Segment (EQSs)
These elite status requirements are at least 20% off — and up to 33% off — the pre-COVID standard elite qualification levels.
Just a reminder that American Airlines flyers need to meet the Elite Qualifying Dollar (EQD) requirement plus either the Elite Qualifying Mile (EQM) or the Elite Qualifying Segment (EQS) requirement to achieve AAdvantage elite status.
» Learn more: Guide to American Airlines elite status
Get a head start on 2021 elite qualification in 2020
If the 2021 requirements seem a bit steep, there’s a bit of good news. American Airlines is giving members a head start on (re)qualifying for elite status. All elite qualifying flight activity earned in the fourth quarter of 2020 will count toward 2021 elite status qualification.
That means members will get 15 months to meet the 2021 qualification requirements, instead of the normal 12 months. AAdvantage President Rick Elieson confirmed to NerdWallet that they will retroactively count all flights taken since Oct. 1, 2020 — not just flights starting with today's announcement.
This opens up an excellent opportunity to “double-dip” on your flights through the end of the year. Members can use flights in October, November and December 2020 to qualify for higher elite status in 2020 while also getting started toward requalifying in 2021.
EQD waiver for 2021
Are the reduced 2021 elite qualification requirements still a little high for you? Well, there’s more good news. In addition to lowering qualification requirements for 2021, American Airlines is also giving members the option to earn an EQD waiver through credit card spending.
For purchases that post to 2021 statements, AAdvantage members who spend at least $30,000 on an eligible AAdvantage credit card won’t have to meet the EQD requirements for Gold, Platinum or Platinum Pro elite status. Members will only need to earn enough EQMs or EQSs.
Note that AAdvantage isn’t allowing an EQD waiver for Executive Platinum, its highest elite status. AAdvantage members will still need to earn at least 12,000 EQDs in 2021 to earn Executive Platinum elite status.
Elieson further confirmed to NerdWallet that all Citi and Barclay credit cards are included for this EQD waiver. Also, you won’t have to spend all $30,000 on one credit card. American Airlines will combine all spending from credit cards toward the EQD waiver. That means you could spend $10,000 on a Citi-branded card and $20,000 on a Barclay-branded card to reach this spending threshold.
Earn EQMs from credit card spending
If you’re looking to earn the EQD waiver, there are two credit cards that you may want to focus your spending on because these cards also grant cardholders EQMs for reaching spending thresholds.
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®: Cardholders who spend at least $40,000 in purchases in a calendar year earn 10,000 EQMs.
AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver Mastercard®: Cardholders can earn 5,000 EQMs after spending $20,000 on purchases and another 5,000 EQMs after spending an additional $20,000 on purchases.
» Learn more: Which American Airlines credit card should you choose?
New rewards options for top elites
American Airlines is also giving its top elite members a choice of rewards in 2021.
Under the current system, AAdvantage members earn four systemwide upgrades upon reaching Executive Platinum elite status. It’s only when Executive Platinum members hit higher EQM thresholds do they receive a choice of benefits:
Other than these threshold benefits, AAdvantage members have no choice between which benefits they receive.
American Airlines is changing this starting in 2021 by offering elite members a “curated menu of rewards” for Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum elites. Details are slim at this time. However, choices will include systemwide upgrades, Admirals Club day passes and bonus AAdvantage miles.
American Airlines hopes to finalize and announce the menu of reward options by the end of October 2020. This will give flyers plenty of time to assess the options as they plan which airline to be loyal to in 2021.
Elieson assured NerdWallet that this change is about providing more flexibility to elite members — and not a way to take away awards. Executive Platinum elites who value systemwide upgrades will still have the opportunity to get four systemwide upgrades under the new setup.
» Learn more: How to access American Airlines Admirals Club lounges
The bottom line
After years of incremental devaluations, longtime AAdvantage members were likely waiting for the “shoe to drop” when reading through this list of changes. But, as far as we can tell, there’s nothing but good news in the AAdvantage program changes for 2021.
The elite status thresholds for 2021 may not be as low as some may wish. However, the thresholds are still achievable — especially with a 15-month earning window and the EQD waiver through credit card spending.
While we will have to wait to see how the choice benefits are arranged to be sure, American tells us that this is just a way that it’s adding flexibility, rather than a stealth devaluation. Now, it will be interesting to see how other U.S.-based airlines respond.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card