American or United – Which airline should you fly during this pandemic?


If you choose between American Airlines and United Airlines for a next flight, there is clearly a winner.

In the past two months, I have flown several domestic flights on American Airlines and United Airlines. 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 of the pandemic in the United States. Flying is risky and it is impossible to distance yourself socially, whether or not the airlines leave the middle seats empty. When I fly, I wear a mask, a face shield, gloves and a shower cap.

However, if you have to travel, I want to help you make the best and safest choice and based on my experiences over the past few months, United Airlines is the top airline right now. I am currently Executive Platinum at American Airlines and I only have Gold status at United, so I wish this was not the case, but considering the boarding process and how the refunds and vouchers are managed, that’s the truth.

A safer boarding process

United Airlines embarked its aircraft from back to front during this pandemic. It is not only more effective at first, but at a time when we are trying to minimize contact with strangers, it is much safer. Once the passengers are seated, they will not have a stream of other passengers scrolling to get to their seats.

American Airlines, on the other hand, sticks to its traditional boarding process of dividing passengers into nine groups based on elite status, ticket purchased and other factors. Usually the passengers in the last boarding groups are seated in the back of the plane, so they wait in the aisles, crowd in the middle seats and play to try to find room for their luggage in the compartments while being surrounded by seated passengers.

When I travel with American, I am in the first boarding group and I am fortunate to be regularly upgraded to first class. However, I do not want to spend more time in my seat while the other passengers are boarding and each passenger on the plane is passing in front of me. Instead of boarding with group one, I stay away from the madding crowd and wait for them to announce the last boarding call before entering the jet bridge.

According to my observations, United Airlines staff are also more diligent when it comes to police passengers wearing face masks and wearing their masks covering both mouth and nose more systematically.

Flight vouchers and credits

If you’re like me and had to cancel flights when the coronavirus pandemic hit, you’ve probably received a refund from your airline in the form of a flight voucher. United Airlines facilitates the tracking and use of future flight credits. There is a section in their app under “My Trips” which lists your future flight credits and a simple “Book with Credit” button which automatically applies the credit to your booking. Future United flight credits expire two years after their issue.

American Airlines, on the other hand, always issues vouchers to many passengers who take up to six weeks to be shipped to your home. And do you know what you need to do to use these good papers? You cannot use them when booking online and you cannot use them by phone. You actually need to bring the correct paper to the airport service desk (currently very poorly equipped) to book your flight. When I flew on a weekly basis and only had the occasional good to pay, I kept it with me at all times and it was certainly a nuisance but manageable. It’s a different world today however. Can you imagine in the environment we live in now, taking a trip to the airport just to book a flight?

In addition, when I received American eVouchers, I encountered a multitude of problems while trying to use them. These eVouchers expire one year after their date of issue and should in theory be easy to use when booking flights online by entering the eVoucher number and PIN code. 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 I thought I was ready to go. In other words, until I arrived at the airport to check in for my flight.

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

As someone who has thousands of dollars worth of electronic coupons that I would really like to use before they expire and hundreds of thousands of airline miles, that was not what I wanted to hear. I felt bamboozled. Either way, American Airlines keeps all my money and pushes me to ask for more. Flight vouchers are nothing more than loans that we, as passengers, make to airlines. They should have refunded our canceled trips in cash.

I called the platinum executive office to see if they could help, but no luck there. Only a condescending representative who had no interest in helping me. John informed me that my eVoucher had been refused but he could not tell me why and refused to examine the matter. He also couldn’t process the payment using my half-dozen existing electronic vouchers on the phone. Also, no matter how I paid for my ticket, its system would take up to 30 minutes to process the reservation, so I would probably miss my flight anyway. O’Hare’s friendliest service center agent apologized for the difficulties I encountered and admitted that even she couldn’t figure out how to get eVouchers for her son.

When I checked my electronic voucher balances that same day, they were all still available. Why was it declined as a form of payment? Why was I not informed of the refusal until I arrived at the airport? Can I ever use these eVouchers? These are all mysteries that may never be solved.

For your health and safety as well as your mental health, your peace of mind and your wallet, choose United Airlines rather than American Airlines.


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