iStock_000008006561_LargeIn my last post, I described how America’s three major carriers—American, United and Delta—seem very similar because they tend to quickly copy anything a competitor does that looks successful.

But there is one significant area where they are not the same, which is the basis for their frequent-flier programs. Last year, Delta announced it was moving its SkyMiles program to a dollar-based program from a mileage-based program. It did not take United too long (within months, in fact) to announce a matching move for MileagePlus.

American did not match the move, saying only that it was focused on integration with US Airways. So this leaves American in the unusual position of being the only major U.S. flag carrier with a mileage-based program. In fact, the only other U.S. carrier of significance with a mileage-based program is Alaska Airlines.

So there it is. AAdvantage now has a unique value proposition for its consumers: the only program with a broad national network that is mileage based.

Now clearly, Delta and United both thought long and hard before switching their programs to be spend-based. Undoubtedly, there are spreadsheet models showing how much more the airline would earn, or how much more loyal its most frequent travelers would be with a spend-based program.

But as the last mileage-based program, AAdvantage needs to think about a different calculation. It needs to focus on who are the customers who will value a mileage-based program, and go after them with gusto. If AA executes on this right, it should own this segment of travelers.

And then American should figure out what else this segment values, and give it to them. AA should adapt its aircraft, technology, gate areas and other customer touchpoints to align with this segment.

Then maybe we could say good-bye to the Sky of Sameness. 

Topics: Glenn Hollister, Rewards Programs, Airlines, Travel, Frequent Flyer, Mileage