1. Travel and Living

American Or United – Which Airline Should You Fly During This Pandemic?

If you are choosing between American Airlines and United Airlines for an upcoming flight, there is a clear winner.

Over the past couple of months, I have flown domestically on both American Airlines and United Airlines several times each. My flight experiences have been on different routes with different crews, for a truly random sampling. 

To be clear – I am not encouraging non-essential travel at this time when a pandemic is raging across the United States. Flying is risky and it’s impossible to social distance, regardless of whether airlines leave middle seats empty or not. When I do fly, I wear a face mask, face shield, gloves and shower cap. 

However, if you must travel, I want to help you make the best and safest choice and based upon my experiences over the past few months, United Airlines is the superior airlines at this time. I am currently executive platinum with American Airlines and only gold status with United, so I wish it weren’t so, but considering the boarding process and how refunds and vouchers are handled, it’s the truth.

A Safer Boarding Process

United Airlines has been boarding their planes from back to front during this pandemic. This is not only more efficient to begin with, but at a time when we are trying to minimize contact with strangers, it’s much safer. Once passengers are seated, they won’t have a stream of other passengers parading past to get to their seats. 

On the other hand, American Airlines is sticking to their traditional boarding process of dividing passengers into nine groups based on elite status, ticket purchased and other factors. Usually the passengers in the final boarding groups are seated at the back of the plane, so they are waiting in the aisles, squeezing into middle seats and fiddling around trying to find space for their bags in the overhead bins all while surrounded by seated passengers.

When I fly with American, I am in the first boarding group, and lucky enough to be consistently upgraded to first class. However, I do not wish to spend any additional time in my seat as other passengers board, and have every single passenger on the plane walk past me. Instead of boarding with group one, I hang back far from the madding crowd and wait until they have announced final boarding call before I enter the jet bridge.

In my observations, United Airlines personnel are also more diligent about policing passengers to wear face masks and more consistently wearing their face masks covering both their mouth and nose.

Vouchers and Flight Credits

If you’re like me and had to cancel flights when the coronavirus pandemic hit, you most likely received a refund from your airline in the form of a flight voucher. United Airlines makes it easy to keep track of and use future flight credits. There’s a section in their app under “My Trips” that lists your future flight credits and a simple “Book with Credit” button that automatically applies the credit to your booking. United future flight credits expire two years after they are issued.

In contrast, American Airlines is still issuing paper vouchers to many passengers that take up to six weeks to be mailed to your home address. And do you know what you have to do to actually use these paper vouchers? You can’t use them when booking online and you can’t use them over the phone. You actually have to bring the paper voucher to the (currently very short-staffed) airport service desk to book your flight. When I was flying on a weekly basis, and only had the occasional voucher to deal with, I’d just keep it with me at all times and it was certainly a nuisance but manageable. It’s a different world today though. Can you imagine in the environment we now live in, to make a trip to the airport just to book a flight? 

What’s more, when I have received eVouchers from American, I have experienced a multitude of problems trying to use them. These eVouchers expire one year from the date they are issued and should in theory be easy to use when booking flights online by entering the eVoucher number and PIN. Recently I booked a flight to Los Angeles using an eVoucher worth hundreds of dollars more than the cost of my ticket to LA. I had a confirmation number, a seat assignment and thought I was good to go. That is, until I arrived at the airport to check-in for my flight. 

The service desk agent informed me that my ticket was pending and had not been paid for. And unfortunately her computer system would not allow me to use my eVoucher to pay for my ticket. Oh, and her system couldn’t accept miles either. But she could happily take a credit card from me!

As somebody who has thousands of dollars worth of eVouchers that I’d really like to use before they expire and hundreds of thousands of airline miles, this was not what I wanted to hear. I felt bamboozled. Somehow, American Airlines is keeping all of my money and tricking me into forking over more. Flight vouchers are nothing more than loans that we as passengers are giving to the airlines. They should have refunded our cancelled trips in cash.

I called the executive platinum desk to see if they could help, but no luck there. Only a condescending representative who had zero interest in helping me. John informed me that my eVoucher had been declined but he could not tell me why and refused to look into the matter. He also couldn’t process payment using any of my half dozen existing eVouchers on the phone. Also, however I paid for my ticket, his system would take up to 30 minutes to process the reservation so I would most likely miss my flight anyway. The more sympathetic service desk agent at O’Hare apologized for the difficulties I was having and admitted that even she couldn’t figure out how to get eVouchers to work for her son. 

When I checked my eVoucher balances that same day, they were all still available. Why was it declined as a payment method? Why was I not informed that it was declined until I arrived at the airport? Will I ever be able to actually use these eVouchers? These are all mysteries that may never be solved.

For your health and safety along with your sanity, peace of mind and wallet, choose United Airlines over American Airlines.

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