Comparing American Airlines to Other Carriers


How good is American Airlines vis a vis other US airlines and also like-airlines from other countries? This—and its inverse—are questions many travelers ask me, from foreigners traveling to the US for the first time, to Americans wondering which of our airlines is the best or worst choice, given their questionable reputations.

As I tell people who ask me directly, I’ll try to make this post less about passing judgment, and more about giving information. American is a better choice for some travelers, and a worse choice for others. I trust you to decide which of these categories you fall into.

American Airlines Business Class on an overnight flight

Now, if you’ve suffered flight delay with American Airlines or have otherwise had a bad experience with the carrier, I’m not sure if this article will change your mind. However, if you have an open mind, you might be surprised about what flying the largest airline in the United States is like.

Is American Airlines Great? That Depends On You

Over the next few paragraphs, I am going to discuss a few situations in which American might be the right choice for you:

  • You need to fly a route that American serves nonstop
  • You are loyal to oneworld, the alliance to which American belongs
  • You are a member of AAdvantage and want to earn miles
  • American serves the route you need to fly with an aircraft superior to the one its competitors use
  • You plan to fly American in business or first, and are pleased with its offerings

For some travelers, of course, flying American Airlines is a rather utilitarian decision. If American offers a low price (especially on a nonstop flight and/or one with convenient times), most travelers are going to choose it.

The Finer Points of American Airlines

American Airlines Route Network

Whether you’re curious, in general, about how many destinations American flies to, or simply want to know if American serves your destination: American serves more destinations nonstop that any other US carrier, though there are some caveats. Namely, the majority of its direct flights are from hubs such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago O’Hare, Philadelphia, Miami and New York-JFK. (TIP: If you get delayed, in one of these busy hubs or anywhere else in the sky, AirHelp can assist you with compensation!)

American Airlines Alliance

Which alliance is American part of? That would be oneworld, which is generally regarded as the second-best of the “Big 3” airline alliances (the other two being Star Alliance and SkyTeam).When you fly American, you can either take advantage of your current oneworld elite status (namely, the upper Sapphire and Emerald tiers) or use your travel to help you qualify as a oneworld elite for travel next year.

American Airlines Frequent Flyer Program

Is American Airlines good? Its frequent flyer program isn’t bad. In addition to offering competitive rates (I recently redeemed just 60,000 AAdvantage miles for a one-way business class flight from New York to Tokyo), American AAdvantage makes it easy to accrue miles even if you don’t travel. However, you should keep in mind that while bonus offers from co-branded AA credit cards are common, it’s very difficult to transfer points currencies to AAdvantage.

American Airlines Fleet

Wanting to fly an American Airlines Dreamliner? It’s likelier on international flights, but there’s also a chance of flying this ultra-modern plane on certain domestic routes. Additionally, American flies a variety of other ultra-modern planes, including the Boeing 777-300ER and the Airbus A319, A320 and A321. Some American flights might require travel on older aircraft like Boeing 757s and 767s, or the Airbus A330, though thankfully the ancient MD80 has been retired.

American Airlines Classes of Service

I did a review of America’s Business Class Service. In general, American’s international business class (at least on the 787 and over the Pacific) is better than I expected. Other classes of service are more mixed—first class isn’t great, neither within the US nor over either pond, while American economy can be a miserable experience indeed, especially if you don’t select the “Main Cabin Extra” seats with extra legroom, or pay to upgrade to Premium Economy.

American vs United vs Delta

As a general rules, when it comes to American vs Delta vs United, I find that most travelers tend to prefer Delta, while United get the lowest marks across the board. As far as the “Big 3” American carriers are concerned, AA tends to be right in the middle of the pack, although any one of the factors I mentioned above can tip it more into favor than Delta (or, if these are negative for you, put it below United).

Realistically, American is not the best US airline, though it’s only rated as the very worst under a relatively limited set of circumstances, such as if your 737 has one of the maligned “Project Oasis” interiors. All things considered, you experience flying domestically within the US is likely to be similar on all American carriers (especially in economy); internationally is where the airlines try (but often fail, in my opinion) to differentiate themselves.

American Airlines vs Foreign Carriers

Is American Airlines good compared to foreign carriers? This depends on which countriescarriers you’re talking about. Not surprisingly, American tends to pale in comparison to East Asian carriers, from five-star airlines like ANA and Singapore Airlines, to its own oneworld partners such as Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. American is probably better, meanwhile, than mainland Chinese carriers, though that isn’t saying much.

Outside of Asia, American fares better compared to its foreign competitors. This is certainly true in Latin America, whose carriers like Aerolineas Argentinas and LATAM are uniformly mediocre. In Europe, it’s more of a toss-up, depending on whether you’re talking about premium carriers like KLM and Finnair, or SWISS and Lufthansa, which have premium reputations but whose equipment leaves something to be desired, to say the least.

The Bottom Line

Is American Airlines a great airline? While flying the airline is a mixed bag (or maybe, a game of roulette), there are many strategic reasons to fly American Airlines and collect its frequent flyer currency. Flying American Airlines is also a vastly different experience for domestic and international travelers, and depending upon the type of equipment that serves your flight. In general, I’d advise you avoid believing both the horror stories and the accounts of effusive praise about American Airlines that exist online. Having balanced and realistic expectations will help ensure you enjoy your flight to the fullest, even if it’s not an objectively great one.

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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