American or United: which airline should fly during this pandemic?

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

In the past few months, I have flown nationally on both American Airlines and United Airlines multiple times each. My flight experiences have been on different routes with different crews, for truly random sampling.

To be clear: I am not encouraging non-essential travel right now when a pandemic breaks out in the United States. Flying is risky and social distance is impossible, regardless of whether the airlines leave the intermediate seats empty or not. When I fly, I wear a face mask, face mask, gloves and a bathing cap.

However, if you must travel, I want to help you make the best and safest choice, and based on my experience in recent months, United Airlines is the top airline at the moment. I’m currently an executive platinum with American Airlines and only have gold status with United, so I wish it wasn’t, but considering the boarding process and how rebates and coupons are handled, it’s the truth.

A safer shipping process

United Airlines has been boarding its planes from back to front during this pandemic. For starters, this is not only more efficient, 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 parading to their seats.

On the other hand, American Airlines sticks to its traditional boarding process of dividing passengers into nine groups based on elite status, purchased ticket, and other factors. Typically, passengers in the final boarding groups are sitting in the back of the plane, so they wait in the aisles, squeezing in the middle seats and tinkering trying to find space for their bags in the overhead compartments while they’re surrounded by seated passengers.

When I fly with American, I am in the first boarding party, and I am fortunate to be constantly updated to first class. However, I don’t want to spend more time in my seat while other passengers board, and have all passengers on the plane pass me. Instead of boarding with group one, I stay away from the maddened crowd and wait until they have announced the last boarding call before entering the plane’s bridge.

In my observations, United Airlines staff is also more diligent in monitoring passengers to wear face masks and more consistently wearing their face masks that cover both the mouth and nose.

Flight Vouchers and Credits

If you are like me and had to cancel flights when the coronavirus pandemic occurred, you will most likely receive a refund from your airline in the form of a flight coupon. United Airlines makes it easy to track and use future flight credits. There is a section in your application under “My Trips” that lists your future flight credits and a simple “Reserve with Credit” button that automatically applies the credit to your reservation. United’s future credits expire two years after they are issued.

By contrast, American Airlines continues to issue paper vouchers to many passengers that take up to six weeks to deliver to their homes. And do you know what you have to do to use these paper coupons? You cannot use them when booking online and you cannot use them over the phone. You actually need to bring the paper voucher to the airport service counter (currently understaffed) to book your flight. When I flew weekly, and only had to pay a bonus once in a while, I only carried it with me at all times and it was certainly a hassle but manageable. However, today is a different world. Can you imagine the environment we live in now, to make a trip to the airport just to book a flight?

Also, when I received eVouchers from American, I experienced a multitude of problems trying to use them. These eVouchers expire one year after the issue date and should, in theory, be easy to use when booking flights online by entering the eVoucher number and PIN. I recently booked a flight to Los Angeles with an eVoucher worth hundreds of dollars more than the cost of my ticket to Los Angeles. He had a confirmation number, a seat assignment, and I thought he was ready to go. That is, until I arrived at the airport to register my flight.

The service desk agent informed me that my ticket was pending and that it 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 take me a credit card!

As someone who has thousands of dollars in eVouchers that I would really like to use before they expire and hundreds of thousands of air miles, this was not what I wanted to hear. I felt cheated. Somehow American Airlines is withholding all my money and tricking me into spending more. Flight vouchers are nothing more than loans that we, as passengers, provide to airlines. They should have reimbursed our canceled trips in cash.

I called the platinum executive desk to see if they could help, but had no luck. Just a condescending representative who had no interest in helping me. John informed me that my eVoucher had been declined but he couldn’t tell me why and he refused to investigate the matter. He also couldn’t process the payment using any of my half dozen existing eVouchers on the phone. Also, however, I paid for my ticket, it would take up to 30 minutes for your system to process the reservation, so I would probably miss my flight anyway. O’Hare’s most sympathetic service desk agent apologized for the difficulties she 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 still available. Why was it rejected as a payment method? Why was I not informed that it was rejected until I arrived at the airport? Will I ever be able to 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.