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American Airlines and Alaska Airlines are strengthening their partnership yet again. This morning, the airlines shared a new timeline for rolling out reciprocal elite benefits in 2021.
When Alaska joins the Oneworld Alliance in March 2021, American Airlines AAdvantage elite status members will get extra-legroom seats, lounge access and other elite benefits when flying on Alaska. Similarly, Alaska Mileage Plan elite members will get these benefits when flying on American.
However, the partnership will go beyond just the elite benefits guaranteed to other Oneworld elites. By mid-2021, the two airlines will add reciprocal upgrade benefits as well. In addition, elite members can expect to get the same baggage allowance and airport experience on either airline. The end goal: Elite members get the same level of care no matter which airline they fly.
This is another step forward in a partnership between two airlines that had previously planned to terminate their relationship in March 2020. Let’s dive into what we know so far about how these reciprocal benefits will be rolled out and what it means for you, the elite flyer.
New reciprocal upgrade benefits
Who doesn’t love a free upgrade? Perhaps the most exciting development is that AAdvantage Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum elite members will get free upgrades when flying Alaska. And Alaska MVP Gold 75K elites will be eligible for free domestic upgrades when flying American.
The exact timing and upgrade prioritization details are still being ironed out. However, flyers can expect these upgrades will go into effect in mid-2021 — after the initial reciprocal benefits are added in March.
In a call with NerdWallet, American Airlines AAdvantage President Rick Elieson shared that the goal is to make the experience the same for elite members no matter which airline they are flying. So, AAdvantage elites can expect to get upgrades on Alaska’s basic economy-like “Saver” fares — just as they get upgrades on American Airlines’ basic economy fares.
In addition to upgrades on domestic flights, Alaska MVP 75K elites will have access to upgrades on American Airlines new long-haul international flights out of Seattle. The big question mark is how these upgrades work. Top-tier AAdvantage Executive Platinum elites earn systemwide upgrades that let them get a free upgrade on long-haul international flights. However, Alaska’s Mileage Plan doesn’t currently offer similar upgrade certificates to its elites.
» Learn more: Your guide to the American Airlines award chart
Reciprocal access to extra legroom seats
If your upgrade doesn’t clear, at least you’ll still get a better seat. As part of this enhanced partnership, AAdvantage and Mileage Plan elites will receive complimentary access to extra-legroom seats and other preferred seating options at the time of booking.
Again, details aren’t set on how these upgrades will work. And each airline handles these upgrades a bit differently, so it’s not easy to assume how this will be implemented.
Mileage Plan elites get upgrades to Premium Class — an extra-legroom section of economy class that comes with free drinks and early boarding. The timing of the upgrade depends on the elite level and booking class, with some upgrades awarded at booking.
Meanwhile, AAdvantage Platinum, Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum elites get access to Main Cabin Extra seats at booking. Like Alaska Premium Class, American’s Main Cabin Extra offers early boarding, extra legroom and complimentary drinks.
» Learn more: How to earn miles with Alaska Airlines
Airport and lounge benefits
It’s not just the onboard experience that’s getting better for American and Alaska customers, and some of these benefits seem to go beyond what’s required by the standard Oneworld Alliance.
All levels of Oneworld elite status receive priority check-in, access to preferred or pre-reservation seating, and priority on waitlists when flying on standby. But your ability to get perks like lounge access, checked bag allowances and early boarding depend on your Oneworld status level.
In an effort to make the experience seamless between the two airlines, American and Alaska plan to offer all elite members priority check-in, security and boarding as well as reciprocal bag allowances regardless of their Oneworld status level. It is anticipated that these reciprocal benefits will be set up in a way to match the benefits elites would normally get on the airline where they hold elite status.
In addition “select elites” will receive access to airline lounges when traveling internationally. That’s a benefit that’s currently guaranteed only to Oneworld Sapphire or higher members — which is the Oneworld status level that AAdvantage Platinum Elites receive.
What this means for aspiring elites
The intention is clear: American and Alaska are seeking to offer the same elite experience regardless of which airline you’re flying. If that’s implemented, it won’t matter which airline you have elite status with and you’ll be treated the same whether you have Mileage Plan or AAdvantage status.
That means that aspiring elites have a choice between programs on how they want to earn elite status.
For many flyers, American Airlines AAdvantage elite status is more difficult to earn. That’s because AAdvantage status requires members to fly a certain number of miles (EQMs) or segments (EQSs) plus spend a certain number of Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs). For 2021, the requirements are:
Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM)
Elite Qualifying Segments (EQS)
Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQD)
» Learn more: Guide to American Airlines elite status
Meanwhile, Alaska Mileage Plan elite status is earned simply through qualifying miles or qualifying segments. Here are the requirements to earn Mileage Plan elite status:
MVP Gold 75K
Miles if earned solely on Alaska Airlines
Miles if earned on Alaska Airlines and qualifying partners
Segments flown on Alaska Airlines and qualifying partners
This means that flyers who struggle to meet AAdvantage’s elite spending requirements may want to switch to crediting flights to the Alaska Mileage Plan instead.
And that’s possible to do even if you fly only on American Airlines’ flights, thanks to the expanded partnership between the two airlines. However, keep in mind that the cheapest flights may earn only 25% of the flight miles as elite qualifying miles:
However, that may be changing soon. In the press release about these changes, American and Alaska say that they “are working together to offer enhanced mileage accrual — an opportunity to earn even more miles — next year.” So, it’s possible that these earning rates may be improved soon.
The bottom line
While exact details are still slim, this announcement is undoubtedly good news for both AAdvantage and Mileage Plan elite members. American Airlines and Alaska Airlines plan to offer elite benefits well beyond what’s required through the Oneworld partnership. That includes offering elites reciprocal upgrade benefits, checked baggage benefits and extra-legroom seating.
Once fully rolled out, elite members can expect to enjoy the same elite benefits regardless of which airline they fly. That means more ways for both airlines' elites to enjoy their benefits, something that's worth looking forward to.