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American Airlines

American’s Top-Secret Passenger Ratings May Come to Light

American’s Top-Secret Passenger Ratings May Come to Light
Jeff Edwards

Not all Platinum American Airlines memberships are created equal. But the airline has been keeping just who it values most close to the vest. But could things be on the version of changing? A new California law set to go into effect in 2020 will allow consumers to see exactly what sort of personal information companies are collecting about their habits and means. The rules have led to speculation that American Airlines’ long-rumored, top-secret Helix scores used to identify especially valuable customers might finally be exposed.

Not All Platinums Are Created Equal

The American Airlines “Helix” score remains something of a mystery by design. The world’s largest airline has historically refused to confirm or deny the very existence of the ranking system designed to identify the carrier’s most valued customers. Other than the name “Helix” score (which somehow evokes a conspiracy by a cult of villains bent on world domination in a James Bond film), there are a number of good reasons the company would rather not publicize its shadow status program.

It turns out, in the airline’s eyes, not all Platinum memberships are created equal. According to View from the Wing’s Gary Leff, that’s where the Helix scores come into play. The passenger ratings, which change on a daily basis, help certain customer service agents to decide when it’s okay to bend the rules or go above and beyond for specific passengers.

It’s Not All About Status

Perhaps surprisingly, a passenger’s Helix score is not solely determined by a passenger’s elite status. While the customer’s loyalty is taken into account, whether or not the passenger had a recent unpleasant experience with the airline–and especially, whether the specific passenger is at risk of taking their business elsewhere–are said to be important factors in how highly a flyer is ranked on any given day.

While high-status passengers are more likely to have a high Helix ranking, a Platinum passenger who recently dealt with a delayed flight or lost baggage would almost certainly have a higher rating than a passenger with similar status who had a smooth flight with few or no problems. Interestingly, the airline’s most loyal passengers are not as likely to be highly ranked as less loyal passengers who have demonstrated a willingness to fly with the competition.

How Many Eagles?

Insiders report that passengers are ranked on a score of between one and five “eagles.”An air traveler (even with status) who had a relatively trouble-free day in the sky might have a one-eagle score (visible only to select customer service agents). Meanwhile, an American Airlines passenger who has had an unpleasant experience traveling brings valuable business to the airline, and is deemed likely to take that business to the competition, might receive the highest five-eagle rating.

Although there is currently no way to know what one’s individual Helix score is (especially since the airline is loath to even admit such a score exists), new consumer protection legislation set to take effect in California might just offer some insight into the mysterious program. While the California Consumer Privacy Act will give customers the right to see exactly what data a business had collected and archived on them, there is some debate if this means American Airlines will be forced to make passengers’ Helix eagle-rankings available. Consumers might want to look across the pond to the U.K. for answers.

And Now, for the Bad News

While it’s not clear yet how the new California law will affect American Airlines, it is fairly clear that, even if the airline is required by law to give you more of your information, the revelations might not be all they’re cracked up to be. Take British Airways for example.

British Airways employs a similar passenger value ranking system as American Airlines. The British flag carrier also kept that information a closely-guarded secret. Then, new “Right to Access” consumer protections in the UK required companies to show consumers the data that they have collected on them. But, even when they did share that information, it wasn’t always very informative.

Take the case of the FlyerTalker who recently used the new consumer protection rules to file a Subject Access Request (SAR) with British Airways. They dutifully handed over their “corporate customer value” number, but they also included other information that left him with even more questions: like the label “sensitive,” and their assessment that “% LIKELIHOOD OF BEING GAY/LESBIAN/TRANSSEXUAL/BISEXUAL = 98%”

What, on earth does that mean? Why would British Airways collect that type of data? We’re left to speculate. While companies are required to reveal to their customers all of the data being held and archived upon request, those companies are under no such obligations when it comes to interpreting the raw data. The FlyerTalker mused, “How [that score] is required for BA’s operations is beyond me (I guess targeted marketing)… “I’m more offended that they think I’m 2% straight …”

But, despite the confusion, the data did find it’s way to an uncomfortable place: Saudi Arabia. “You’d be surprised at how much random data is out there and how eventually that 98% of being gay made its way to the defense services in Saudi Arabia (a country I once lived in so wouldn’t really want them knowing that at the time) via data sale after data sale after more data sale!”

And a Little More Bad News

There are several reasons that California’s new law might not help frequent flyers to glean their personal American Airlines Helix scores. First and foremost, the scores change so frequently it would be impossible to know what one’s current eagle ranking is based on a report that would be weeks old at best.

The new legal rights for California residents are not as comprehensive as similar protections in Britain or the additional rights for European Union residents. Although American Airlines will likely be required to let customs see the data it has collected, there is some debate as to whether or not the Helix score would fall under the category of data collected or if the airline could successfully claim that the score is simply a proprietary interpretation of that data.

Other FlyerTalkers have pointed out that provisions of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 may shield the airlines from being required to comply with the state law altogether. It may be years before it becomes clear exactly how much authority the state of California has to enforce consumer protections when it comes to the U.S. and international airlines.

Especially for Those Who Don’t Live In California

Those of us who don’t live in California aren’t being left out in the cold. The New York Times columnist Kashmir Hill reports that companies have already started to comply with the new California regulations. In many cases, the firms have adopted the compliance policies for all jurisdictions assuming that many other states will soon copy the legislation – so far, American Airlines is not among those early adopters.

And a Little More on Airline Ratings

American Airlines and British Airways aren’t the only airlines who rate their customers. Both United Airlines and Delta Air Lines have also admitted to employing tools similar to the American Airlines Helix passenger rating system. There is no indication, however, that either of the two big three U.S. carriers assigns a numerical value to a passenger’s worth as a customer.

Cathay Pacific might be the most transparent airline in the world when it comes to tracking passengers and using that data to make decisions on day-to-day operations. The Hong Kong-based carrier, in fact, touts its data collection activities as an important amenity for frequent flyers.

Former Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg boasted that the airline will track 23 categories of elite passenger behavior to help the carrier to better “understand what people like and what they don’t like.” Cathay crew members track high-value flyers in the separate behavior categories, including preferred seat settings, likely dining selections and favorite travel destinations along with other personal details. “It’s everything that will make that journey comfortable,” Hogg explained in March of this year.

Is it enough for a frequent flyer to achieve elite status or should American Airlines passengers be worried about double-secret hidden status as well? Will we have any luck learning how American Airlines really feels about us? There are no secrets in the Flyertalk American Airlines AAdvantage forums where the latest insider information is being discussed right now.

 

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View Comments (6)

6 Comments

  1. DeltaFlyer123

    November 13, 2019 at 4:26 am

    A long time ago, before deregulation, Delta had the almost-secret “Flying Colonel“ list that some of my older colleagues belonged to. They even had plaques on their office walls to show for it, and they got upgrades before upgrades became institutionalized.
    On many trips from Atlanta to São Paulo with an FC colleague, we were both platinum level (highest at the time) and he’d get upgrades while I wouldn’t, even though there were empty seats in first class. I was a heartbeat away from moving over from Delta to Continental, but in retrospect, I’m glad i stayed with DL.

  2. musicman27pa

    November 13, 2019 at 5:18 am

    They could give me a perfect HELIX/FICO or 5 Eagle score… The way they treat customers is horrible…. Cancelling my direct flight from Philly to Aruba over New Years with no notification and rebooking on a connecting flight is inexcusable. Of course Ineeded to ay a premium to top off those points to secure the direct flight. No reimbursement for the top off points, no notice of the change and the only comment was that I should check on my flight every 30 days leading up to it (sorry I am going on vacation not monitoring your disappointments). Then run low on gas from EWR to PHX on a business flight a few weeks later… Sorry but my 1% backside is not booking on AA anytime soon. We are so done and I will used my business and discretionary spend elsewhere. Cancelled my credit card and working on offloading my remaining points.

  3. not2017

    November 13, 2019 at 9:21 am

    Too funny! Let’s do a little click-bait. The only people staying with AA are hub captives. The rest of us have moved to other airlines.

  4. rylan

    November 13, 2019 at 12:33 pm

    I remember when you could view your own ‘customer value score’ on Delta by decoding data in the login page of your account. Was fun for a while to see the comparisons… until they ‘fixed’ it and took that tidbit of info out of the data string.

  5. Ryno1234

    November 13, 2019 at 1:49 pm

    am i the only one that finds it odd that passengers who are having bad days/difficult travels are higher ranked/more valuable than the most loyal and consistent customers? Maybe we should all start hoping for bad travel days.

  6. UAPremierExec

    November 17, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    hotels have been “sorta” doing this for years, including Hilton & Marriott… including tracking how bad of a complainer you are.

    Just ask for your GSR number from any Hilton agent… they might shrug a bit, but you’ll eventually get it. May take a supervisor or manager.

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