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American Airlines vs British Airways: In-Depth Comparison

Need some help choosing between flying American Airlines or British Airways? We can help!

Both American and British have a great international presence and are two likely choices for trips across the Atlantic. Both are founding members of the Oneworld Alliance, with American based in the United States and British Airways based in the United Kingdom.

With that, expect all United States based flights to be served by American Airlines and most United Kingdom based flights to be served by British Airways. Outside of these realms it’s all fair game, so we’ll give you details mostly based on across the pond treks and trips from Europe to other parts of the world.

Generally, American Airlines has better pricing, availability and quality of First and Business Classes, while British Airways has better customer service and a better Economy Class in-flight experience.

British Airways offers standard service in the UK and worldwide, while American Airlines offers standard service in the US and worldwide and a far greater number of flights.

Before we give you specifics on pricing, experience and service, we’ll want to paint a brief background on how each airline got it’s start.

American Airlines is the world’s largest airline based on fleet size and number of passengers carried per year – nearly 200 million of them. This was a direct result of merging with US Airways in 2011, but American got it’s original start in 1930 when two airline organizations merged at the time.

British Airways is the second largest carrier in the United Kingdom and carries about 42 million passengers per year. It was founded in 1974 when the British government merged four different airlines into one and was privatized in 1982. It is also a founding member of the Oneworld Alliance with American Airlines.

Tickets, Pricing, & Extra Fees

British Airways self check-in machines at London Heathrow. Milosz Maslanka / Shutterstock

We’re starting with pricing since it’s important to every vacation, no matter the budget. While it’s difficult to gauge exact rates, we’ll give examples of averages. Note that prices will change by month and even by day, but the booking process will always be the same. We’ll also cover added expenses you may come across while booking.

Tickets

American uses a standard booking system, separating options into classes. Main Cabin seating is what we’ll be using for the pricing example, which includes the ability to choose your seat and has no change fees, which is a plus.

We averaged out the cost for several Main Cabin class flights throughout the year and concluded that a round trip along the East Coast of the United States is generally around $240 (£170) , about $400 (£283) cross-country and an average of $1000 (£708) from New York to London for a single passenger with a possible stop at favorable flight times.

Here’s a full breakdown of what each class includes:

  • Basic Economy: includes carry-on and personal item, and advanced seat selection with general boarding
  • Main Cabin: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with general boarding
  • Main Cabin Extra: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding
  • Premium Economy: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding, priority check-in and security, wide seats with more leg room, complimentary amenities bag, free WiFi, and exclusive meals with free alcoholic beverage
  • Business: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding, priority check-in and security, wide seats with more leg room, complimentary amenities bag, free WiFi, and premium dining on international flights with access to the Flagship Lounge and Admiral’s Club
  • First: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding, priority check-in and security, wide seats with more leg room, complimentary amenities bag, free WiFi, and premium dining on domestic flights with access to the Flagship Lounge and Admiral’s Club

British Airways is based in the UK and will primarily offer European flights, trips across the pond and flights to continents around the world. But it’s important to realize that British Airways partners with American Airlines when traveling from one US destination to another US destination. If you’re looking to travel abroad, however, British Airways has many options.

We attempted a comparison of miles traveled to give a price estimate in relation to American Airlines. We concluded that a trip in Economy class from Glasgow to Madrid is equivalent to an East Coast trek in the United States, which is approximately £530 ($750) for a single person.

Similarly, a “cross-country” flight from Lisbon, Portugal to Helsinki, Finland is about £785 ($1107) and a roundtrip transatlantic flight from London to New York will be about £1040 ($1465) for a single person. Understandably, these are not direct comparisons, but it gives you an idea of what you’ll be charged for flying within Europe vs inside the United States with American Airlines.

British Airways also has a breakdown of options available with their flights. Here are all the classes and what’s included:

  • Euro Traveller: Economy class with three pricing options – Basic (hand luggage only), Plus (hand luggage, no change fees), Plus Flex (hand luggage, no change fees, refundable)
  • World Traveller: Economy class with upgrades – Basic (hand luggage with assigned seat), Standard (hand luggage, checked bags and seat selection)
  • World Traveller Plus: Premium Economy class, includes hand luggage, checked bag and seat selection with more perks on board
  • Club Europe: Business class with premium boarding and seating, larger baggage allowance, lounge access, and designated security line
  • Club World London City: Business class on private jet from London to New York; this plane has only 32 seats on board, all with lie-flat capabilities and luxury bedding, amenities and service
  • Club World: First class with premium boarding and seating, larger baggage allowance, lounge access, designated security line, with lie-flat capabilities and luxury bedding, amenities and service

P.S. – When you’re done reading this one, don’t miss the other detailed airline comparisons we’ve created to help you fly better!

Baggage

Brian A Jackson / Shutterstock

American baggage fees for one checked bag are included in the above list, but extra bags are priced as follows: first bag, if not included in ticket price, is $30 (£22), the second is $40 (£29), the third is $150 (£107) and each additional bag after that is $200 (£143). Pricing may vary for international flights.

British Airways has baggage fees for overweight bags at the airport. If you exceed your limit, you’ll be charged $100 per bag (£61). Prepare for any checked bags that exceed 70lbs (32kg) to be rejected. For sports or musical equipment that exceeds this limit, you can ship these as cargo and the price will be evaluated.

Extra Fees

American doesn’t charge for much in addition to your selected airfare, but there are a couple extras you can get. For example, if you’d like to insure your flight and get a refund, fees will be assessed according to the price you paid for the round trip flight. These are usually between $50 – $150 (£36 – £107).

British Airways charges a “carrier used charged” which is like a booking fee. This will usually be waived in the event of a refund or cancellation, but expect to get it when you book anything with them.

Ways to Save

American has the AAdvantage Program, which is a loyalty program with points given for taking flights, or spending money with their hotel, rental and dining partners. The points can be used for flights, upgrades and car or hotel rentals. Their Elite Status reward members get the best advantages if they are very frequent flyers.

British Airways Executive Club is also a loyalty program. Gold Executive Club members will have First Class benefits, while Silver Executive Club members will have Business Class benefits. Both allow you to access the lounges within the airport before your flight, among other perks.

Avios is the points system used for the Executive Club. You can earn Avios by flying with British Airways, or booking hotels, car rentals or vacation with their approved partners. You can spend these points on future trips, but this system hasn’t gotten great reviews when compared to other rewards programs.

For normal passengers who aren’t joining the Executive Club, you can still save on flights and vacations when you book the flight, hotel and car rental through British Airways. It will package a deal that makes the trip more cost effective, but there are no other ways to reduce the cost of the flight alone.

Seats & Flight Experience

Comfort is the next most important factor when flying, especially when traveling cross-country, internationally or over night. In addition to comfort, we’ll cover the flight experience from the technology to the friendliness of the staff and quality of the food.

Classes

Economy Seating

Economy seating aboard an American Airlines flight. TJ Brown / Shutterstock

American’s Main Cabin seating has become noticeably smaller in recent years, allowing for more passengers to board each flight. This was dubbed “Project Oasis” and most vacationers would agree that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Travelers have noticed that the leg room has become smaller and the lavatories have slightly shrunken. It’s possible if you’ve never been on an American Airlines flight before that you can easily compare it with other affordable airlines, but for those who fly American regularly, this was a big change.

American offers in-flight entertainment, but instead of being mounted into the headrest, the screens are detachable, which can be convenient if you’d like to reposition the way you view the screen, but the tech and user-friendliness can be a bit dated.

Coach economy cabin on a British Airways Boeing 777. EQRoy / Shutterstock

British Airways has a similar layout, with Economy Class serving Euro Traveller and World Traveller ticket options. The Economy Class seating will range in pitch from 29″ to 34″ according to the type of plane that’s being used. Short-haul flights will have smaller spaces while long-haul flights will have more leg room.

Cleanliness is usually up to standards and the offerings on board can rival most other affordable airlines, including American. Wifi is offered for a fee on all aircraft, the updated tech in the headrest offers optimal entertainment in flight, and free beverages and snacks are given with each trip (multiple if the flight is long).

You also have the option of purchasing food from the Marks and Spencer menu, which has received decent reviews for plane meals. Overall, your experience should be suitable in Economy, as it would with most airlines.

Premium Seating

Interior view of Business class seats in the Business Class cabin of a Boeing 777-300 from American Airlines (AA). EQRoy / Shutterstock

American has Premium Economy, Business and First Class, which provide roughly the same experience. All promise early boarding, large and cozy seats, and special service from the flight attendants. An amenities bag with sleeping blankets and eye masks, a special menu created by professional chefs and more privacy make the premium positioning worth it.

However, it does feel like there has been a slight uptick in complaints that the flight crew isn’t as highly attentive to the premium seating, along with more reports of people being bumped from first class. That said, it seems that American has been doing more to step up their game in the last year.

Champagne and a meal in the business class of a British Airways Airbus A380. Sunshine Seeds / Shutterstock.com

British Airways gives American a run for its money in the Premium Seating department, though travelers rate American’s First Class higher. A high price will be placed on these coveted seats, but the service especially will be worth the value. The seating itself may not have the same quality and updated design that American has, but the offerings in flight will please most passengers.

Expect attentive staff and delicious food and beverage, as well as a complimentary amenities bag with travel sized essentials. The overall tech and seat design are decidedly outdated when compared to American, plus American’s first and business class seating has more arm and leg room. The food can also be hit or miss, with American providing larger portions per meal.

In addition to First and Business Class, the World Traveller Plus ticket option will grant you a wider seat with more leg room, stationed just behind the Club World seats and before the Main Cabin. You’ll also receive more attentive service and special perks on longer flights.

Staff

American seems to have mixed reviews regarding their flight crew. Some have reported praise for the captains and attendants who have served their passengers admirably, but many have complained about the total lack of customer service and noticeably bad corporate culture.

British Airways has, on average, a friendlier staff and more attentive service. If British Airways takes the cake on one thing in particular over American, it’s that you can expect a smile at the door and a kind send-off while deplaning. On board, the crew will typically be available without complaint and can be more accommodating overall.

Overall Experience

American provides free snacks and drinks with each flight, along with a large menu and beverage list for overnight and international flights. Wifi can be purchased for a small fee in Economy, but will be included with Premium seating. Headrest screens are also available for free entertainment on every flight, but the interior comfort and outdated technology can be a drag.

British Airways also provides free snacks and drinks on each flight, with plenty of other options for purchase. Wifi is also available, though the technology can be hit or miss in both Economy and First Class dependent upon the plane’s style and upgrades. Service will be mostly better than American, but could vary from flight to flight.

Flight Availability

An American Airlines Airbus A321 taking off from LAX. Angel DiBilio / Shutterstock

Both American and British Airways serves most major cities as well as a host of different international destinations. It’s important to note the variation in availability, as well as the procedures for accommodating passengers in the event of a flight change or cancellation.

American transports 200 million passengers annually, while British Airways flies 42 million passengers each year. Despite this huge gap in the number of passengers carried, British Airways has a better record of timeliness as opposed to American’s regular pattern of delays.

Domestic Flights

American serves 95 locations in the US, with it’s main hub in Dallas/Fort Worth and 10 other hubs around the country.

Since both airlines are part of the Oneworld Alliance, booking, cancelling and flight changes should also be manageable with fewer headaches – that is, if their relationships with their many various worker’s unions are in tact.

American has a history of frequent cancellations due to mandatory plane groundings, which accounts for about 4% of their flights. This is a high number in the airline industry.

British Airways, as mentioned above, has a much better record of consistency and timeliness with it’s flights. The company flies to eight destinations domestically in the United Kingdom and serves 24 destinations in the United States.

British Airways is based out of Heathrow Airport, but has hubs in Gatwick Airport, as well as London City Airport.

International Flights

American is, again, the largest airline in the world. It serves almost the entire world with national and international flights departing daily. International destinations include 95 locations around the globe, serving 55 different countries on over five continents.

British Airways flies internationally to 160 destinations worldwide. The primary focus is on Europe and the United States, but it also serves Africa, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, Australia, Pacific Islands and South America.

Safety

a British Airways 747 at Heathrow. Milosz Maslanka / Shutterstock

Statistically, air travel is the safest way to go when compared to other forms of transportation. Crashes are very rare. Even incidents resulting in minor injuries are relatively rare. But no matter what, it’s important to know which airlines have the best safety measures in place for not only yourself, but your baggage as well.

Aircraft Safety

American uses mainly a mix of Airbus A320 and Boeing 737-800 narrow-bodied aircraft. The wider bodied planes in operation are their Boeing 777 and 787 models. Each of these is considered the highest standard of aircraft in the industry, which are reinforced with safety gauges and systems.

British Airways currently has a fleet of 249 aircraft. British Airways uses a mix of Airbus and Boeing, but the majority of their aircraft are the Boeing 777 and 787 models. British Airways Engineering is a new branch of the company solely dedicated to routine maintenance at 70 airports around the world.

Incidents

American, being the larger of the two, has seen more incidents on average. American Airlines planes have been hijacked 17 times, according to the Aviation Safety Network (two of them on September 11, 2001). Also in 2001, American Airlines experienced it’s second deadliest crash when Flight 587 crashed into a Queens neighborhood, killing all on board.

More recently, in 2016, a Boeing 767-300 caught fire before takeoff in Chicago O’Hare due to an uncontained failure. The entire crew and all passengers were able to get off safely, with only a few receiving minor injuries in the panic.

British Airways has one of the top safety ratings of any airline in the world, with only one fatal crash in its history occurring in 1976. Since then, there have only been less than a dozen incidents where minor damage or injuries occurred.

Most recently, in 2015 an engine failure and fire happened to a Boeing 77 in Las Vegas. The plane was evacuated with only 14 passengers receiving minor injuries. In 2018, a different and more alarming incident took place where criminals hacked into the company’s ticketing system, affecting 380,000 transactions. This resulted in a heavy fine from the country and British Airways has since reimbursed those affected and reengineered their website.

Baggage Safety

We suggest you review each airline’s baggage requirements before flying to be sure you are not carrying prohibited items. In the event your bags go missing or are placed on a separate flight, each airline has different procedures.

American has an option to track your bags online. The airline will even reimburse you for the items lost while you’re on vacation when you file a complaint. If the luggage has gone missing for more than three days, a questionnaire must be filled out and their Central Baggage Resolution Office will handle it from there.

British Airways has an entire system on their website dedicated to locating lost baggage. You can click different tabs to report and track problems with baggage, to make a claim or to find missing property. Unless you have filed ahead of your flight and insured the value of the property in your luggage, British Airways will not reimburse for the amount lost or stolen.

In order to prevent this from happening, we suggest you take advantage of their TAG system. This is a digital locator so you can keep track of your own baggage via your smartphone from the time you leave your luggage to the time you pick it up from baggage claim. The price to use this system is £80 ($113).

Conclusion

Again, American may take the slight edge on pricing, availability and quality of First and Business Classes, but if customer service is your top priority, British Airways is the way to go, especially if you’re traveling in Economy.

American is obviously the staple when flying in the United States and North America in general. The food will be better on transatlantic flights and the premium classes will give a much better experience. Not to mention that cheaper flights are easier to find with American.

British Airways receives the nod for friendlier staff, however, their carrier fees can add hundreds to the price no matter where you’re traveling. They will be the best options on flights within the United Kingdom and will have more options for traveling within this range, but the price can quickly jump when going to other countries.

Hopefully in the coming years as British Airways rolls out their new Business Class experience, they will rise above what American is offering and become more of a rival in European travel.

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