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American Airlines vs United: Which is Best?

American Airlines vs United: Which is Best?

If you are trying to figure out if American or United is generally a better option, you are in the right place!

Over the years, I’ve used both for domestic US flights due to their wide array of flight options and generally competitive pricing. I’ve also been a member of both of their rewards programs. With this experience, I’ll hope to shed some light for you on how to compare these two airlines.

To this end, I’ve compiled a detailed analysis of these two giants in the aviation industry. We’ll delve into aspects such as pricing, service, international and domestic routes, pet policies, safety record, and much more.

TL;DR: I find American to have better pricing and more routes for domestic US flights, whereas I prefer United for flying international due to it’s better routes and partnerships.

Main Differences Between American Airlines and United

These are the main differences I see between United and American:

  • Fleet Size: American Airlines has a larger fleet size, with about 873 airplanes, compared to United’s 812.
  • Hub Centers: American Airlines has its hubs in cities like Dallas, Charlotte, and Miami, which gives it a strong presence in the South and Southeast US. United, on the other hand, has its hubs in cities like Chicago, Houston, and Denver, giving it a strong presence in the Midwest and West Coast.
  • Alliances: Both are part of major global alliances. American Airlines is a member of the Oneworld Alliance, while United is a member of the Star Alliance. This impacts their respective partnerships and code-share agreements.
  • In-flight Services: American Airlines is known for its high standard of in-flight entertainment with an extensive collection of movies, music, and TV shows. United also offers a wide variety of entertainment options, but American Airlines often edges them out in terms of selection and quality.
  • Loyalty Program: American Airlines’ AAdvantage program is often considered more rewarding than United’s MileagePlus, particularly for frequent fliers, due to its more generous earning and redeeming opportunities.
  • Customer Service: Both airlines have faced criticism for their customer service in the past, but United has had some high-profile incidents that have somewhat tarnished its reputation. American Airlines, while not perfect, generally receives fewer complaints in this area.

Pricing & Fees

American Airlines: Affordable and Inclusive

American Airlines fares are generally more affordable compared to United Airlines. For instance, a typical roundtrip flight from Miami to New York City in June might cost around $262 on American Airlines. This price includes a carry-on and at least one checked bag.

Moreover, American Airlines’ ticketing system is quite straightforward, segregating options into classes (see American Business vs First Class). Their main cabin option, for instance, includes no change fees, advanced seat selection, and one free checked bag.

Also Read: American Economy vs Basic seat fares.

United Airlines: More Expensive with Fewer Perks

On the other hand, a similar flight on United Airlines could cost around $590. This price also includes a carry-on and at least one checked bag. However, United charges extra for some things that American includes as standard. For example, Economy Plus, which provides more legroom and in-seat charging power, costs an additional $70 per person, per flight.

Destinations: Where They Fly

American Airlines: A Leader in Domestic Travel

American Airlines, thanks to its extensive network, offers services to more than 350 destinations worldwide, making it one of the leaders in domestic travel.

It operates more than 6,700 daily flights to 50 countries, reaching a total of 350 destinations. American Airlines hubs are spread across the U.S., including Charlotte, Chicago-O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami, New York-JFK, New York-LaGuardia, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington-National.

United Airlines: An International Force

United Airlines, on the other hand, is slightly ahead when it comes to international travel.

The carrier operates 4,500 flights per day to 300 cities on five continents, including 200 U.S. cities. United’s U.S. hubs are located in Chicago-O’Hare, Denver, Guam, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, and Washington-Dulles.

Customer Experience

American Airlines: Consistent, Yet Uninspiring

American Airlines offers a consistent experience, but it often lacks the wow factor. The airline has been criticized for its lack of a clear strategy and its relatively bland international network. The inconsistency in their service delivery has been noted as a significant drawback. Some travelers have reported excellent service, while others have complained of a lack of empathy from staff members.

United Airlines: Improvement Needed

United Airlines, in contrast, has its own set of customer experience challenges. While it has made significant strides in improving its onboard experience and premium capacity, it falls short when it comes to service.

I personally feel that the level of service provided by United is slightly below my experience with Delta and roughly similar to my experience with American.

Additionally, I’m not a fan of their generally spotty and miserly Wi-Fi offering.

what is main cabin on american airlines

Pet Policies

American Airlines: More Accommodating

American Airlines allows passengers to bring small pets on board for a fee of $125. Fully-trained service dogs can fly for free when accompanied by their owner. Small pets must be at least eight weeks old and must stay inside a carrier for the duration of the flight.

United Airlines: More Restrictive

United Airlines, however, charges $250 for passengers to travel with one pet. The airline only allows small cats, dogs, or even rabbits to travel in the cabin if there is enough space. Pets must be at least two months old and must remain in their carrier for the duration of the flight.

Safety Records

Both American Airlines and United Airlines have had their share of safety incidents. However, it’s essential to note that air travel remains the safest mode of transport when compared to other forms of transportation.

American Airlines: A Mixed Safety Record

American Airlines, being one of the oldest and largest airlines, has experienced a number of safety incidents. Notably, two of its planes were hijacked during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

United Airlines: Similar Safety Concerns

United Airlines has also had its fair share of safety incidents. It too had two of its planes hijacked during the 9/11 attacks. The airline has also had incidents involving engine failures on its aircraft.

Of note, for 2023 United Airlines ranked as the 14th safest airline, while American came in slightly lower at #19 according to

On-Time Departures and Arrivals

United Airlines and American Airlines have comparable on-time records, however, there is a slight difference between them.

According to the 2022 Cirium’s annual On-Time Performance Review, United Airlines ranked third with an on-time arrival rating of over 81% out of nearly 750,000 flights. American Airlines, on the other hand, landed in the fourth position.

The Official Airline Guide (OAG)’s annual Punctuality League report for 2021 also demonstrates a similar trend. It showed that American Airlines had an on-time performance level of 85.1 percent, while United Airlines was slightly behind with an on-time performance level of 83.5 percent.

It’s important to note that on-time performance can be influenced by various factors including weather, air traffic control staffing, and airline crew and aircraft scheduling. In both reports, United Airlines displayed a slightly lower on-time performance than American Airlines.

MileagePlus vs AAdvantage Rewards Programs

If you are looking to build status and accrue miles, here’s how I see the key differences between American Airlines and United’s rewards programs:

  • Earning Miles: With United’s MileagePlus program, members earn miles based on the distance they fly, the type of ticket they purchase, and the class of service. On the other hand, American AAdvantage has partnerships with other travel providers for earning miles.
  • Value of Miles: NerdWallet estimates that the miles you earn with American AAdvantage are more valuable than those earned with United MileagePlus.
  • Minimum Spend Requirement: The MileagePlus program has a minimum spend requirement for elite status, while AAdvantage does not.
  • Redemption Options: The MileagePlus program offers a wide range of redemption options, including free flights, upgrades, and hotel stays. On the contrary, American AAdvantage program has more blackout dates and higher fees compared to United.
  • Airline Alliances: United is part of the Star Alliance, while American Airlines is part of Oneworld. This affects the partnerships and airlines you can earn and redeem miles with.
  • Elite Status Program: Both have an elite status program with benefits like priority check-in and lounge access. However, the conditions and benefits of each can vary.
  • Fees: American Airlines AAdvantage program has more blackout dates and higher fees compared to United’s MileagePlus program.

American vs United at a Glance Summary

Here’s a summary of how I see the tradeoffs between American Airlines vs United:

Criteria American Airlines United Airlines
Fleet Size American Airlines has one of the largest fleets in the world, with over 800 aircraft United Airlines also has a large fleet, with around 800 aircraft
Destinations American Airlines serves over 350 destinations worldwide United Airlines serves over 300 destinations worldwide
Hub Locations American has major hubs in Dallas/Ft Worth, Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Phoenix, and Washington D.C United has hubs in Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, and Washington D.C
In-Flight Entertainment American Airlines offers seatback screens on many flights, WiFi, and a wide selection of movies, TV shows, and music United Airlines offers personal device entertainment, WiFi, and a wide selection of movies, TV shows, and music
Rewards Program AAdvantage program offers miles for flights and other purchases, with various elite status levels MileagePlus program offers miles for flights and other purchases, with various elite status levels
Alliances Member of Oneworld Alliance Member of Star Alliance
Customer Satisfaction According to JD Power’s 2021 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, American ranked 8th In the same study, United ranked 9th

Other American Airlines Alternatives

I always like to compare the entire near-peer ecosystem, so here are some of American’s closest competitors.

  • Delta Air Lines: Delta is known for its superior on-time performance and customer service. This means passengers are less likely to face flight delays and receive better service, enhancing their travel experience. Further Read: Delta vs American Airlines.
  • Southwest Airlines: Southwest’s top advantage is its flexible policies on baggage and change fees. It allows two checked bags for free and does not charge any change fees, making it a more pocket-friendly option for many travelers.
  • Alaska Airlines: Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan is renowned for its high value per mile and easier access to elite status, which can potentially offer more benefits to frequent flyers compared to United’s MileagePlus program. Further Read: American vs Alaska Airlines.
  • JetBlue Airways: JetBlue provides more legroom in coach compared to other U.S. airlines, including United. Additionally, they offer free in-flight entertainment and snacks, making the flight experience more comfortable and enjoyable. Further Read: JetBlue vs American Airlines.
  • Spirit Airlines: Spirit is a low-cost carrier and its competitive pricing strategy is its top advantage. For budget-conscious travelers, Spirit offers a more affordable alternative to United. Further Read: Spirit vs American Airlines.
  • British Airways: If flying international to Europe, British Airways competes with American on some key routes. The main advantage here with British Airways is with their much better in-flight service (free booze anyone?), including better meals and comfort perks across all classes. Further Read: British Airways vs American Airlines.

Other United Airlines Alternatives

Similarly, United shares many of the same competitors:

  • Delta Airlines: Known for its excellent on-time performance and superior customer service, Delta Airlines poses a significant challenge to United. Delta’s reliability and dedication to customer satisfaction often surpass that of United. Further Read: Delta vs United.
  • Southwest Airlines: Southwest’s flexible baggage and change fee policies set it apart from United. Southwest offers two free checked bags and does not charge fees for flight changes, providing a more customer-friendly experience.
  • American Airlines: American Airlines has a vast network that rivals United’s, serving numerous domestic and international destinations. Its AAdvantage loyalty program is also often deemed superior to United’s MileagePlus.
  • Alaska Airlines: Alaska’s high-value Mileage Plan is a key advantage over United. The airline’s award-winning loyalty program allows members to earn and redeem miles with more flexibility than United’s MileagePlus.
  • JetBlue Airways: JetBlue stands out for its extra legroom and free in-flight entertainment. These amenities provide a more comfortable and enjoyable flight experience than what is typically offered by United. Further Read: JetBlue vs United.
  • Spirit Airlines: While Spirit is a budget airline, its competitive pricing strategy can be an advantage over United. Spirit’s Bare Fare model allows passengers to customize their flight experience, often at a lower cost.

In a Nutshell: American vs United?

After a thorough comparison of the two airlines, it’s clear that each has its pros and cons. If price and affordability are your primary considerations, American Airlines is the clear winner. However, if you’re looking at extensive international travel options, United Airlines has the edge.

In terms of customer service, both airlines have room for improvement. United Airlines, especially, needs to step up its game to match up to its competitors.

When it comes to pet policies, American Airlines appears to be more accommodating than United Airlines.

Safety-wise, both airlines have had their fair share of incidents but are continually working on improving their safety records.

In conclusion, your choice between American Airlines and United Airlines will depend on your specific needs and preferences. Whether it’s pricing, destinations, customer service, pet policies, or safety, both airlines have their strengths and weaknesses. So, weigh your options carefully, consider your priorities, and choose the airline that best meets your travel needs.