American and Qantas were drumming up excitement for their enhanced joint venture back in the fall, and that included talk of reciprocal upgrades across the two airlines. AAdvantage President Suzanne Rubin told the Sydney Morning Herald that reciprocal upgrades with Qantas “is certainly a topic of conversation.”
When I spoke to Suzanne about program changes for 2016, she offered that American actively talks to partner airlines about doing reciprocal upgrades, but those talks rarely bear fruit.
Suzanne Rubin says that American is looking at “all kinds of benefits” for the future and while she wasn’t prepared to say which ones were likely to come to fruition I mentioned things like upgrades on award tickets and also reciprocal upgrades with partner airlines. Those are hard, she says they’ve had conversations about reciprocal upgrades with most of their partners but haven’t been able to offer them outside of British Airways and Iberia.
Talks about reciprocal upgrades have apparently gotten serious enough that the CEO of Qantas is openly talking about them.
Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce telling Australian Business Traveller at a join Qantas/American Airlines briefing that he is “absolutely looking at that (upgrades on American Airlines flights)”.
Qantas International CEO Gareth Evans had more to say: “We’ll continue to investigate all of these opportunities to better align the product offering (between Qantas and American), so when American Airlines passengers travel on Qantas and vice versa, they’ll have the same experience.”
American introduced a new meal service on their Sydney flight and pajamas in business class in order to better align their product to the Qantas service on the route.
The enhanced joint venture isn’t approved yet but reciprocal upgrades would be an actual consumer benefit the airlines could point to in making their case.
That said most of the time upgrades using miles from one airline for travel on another haven’t just been hard to put together — when they’re offered, it’s usually limited to full fare tickets.
There are exceptions. For instance:
- Continental and Northwest. They offered reciprocal upgrades to each others’ elites. Northwest, of course, had an ownership stake in Continental.
- Copa and United. Continental, now United, used to have an ownership stake in Copa — and until last year Copa effectively rented MileagePlus as its frequent flyer program.
- United and Lufthansa. While United upgrades on Lufthansa have become more restrictive, it’s been possible for United members to request upgrade certificates for travel on Lufthansa at less than full fare.
But when American, British Airways, and Iberia offered one class upgrades it was from full fare. Star Alliance upgrades are limited almost entirely to full fare tickets (redemptions are also generally done on a segment-by-segment basis rather than one-way journey).
So I’d have to guess that if this comes to fruition it would be similarly restricted. But it will be interesting to see it develop. On international routes Qantas tends to release upgrade seats quite late rather than making them confirmable close to booking. They do upgrade consistently, however. A full fare business class passenger may find themselves with an opportunity to upgrade to first class on the Airbus A380 — provided, however, that American’s elites are prioritized in a similar fashion to Qantas’ elites, rather than being below Qantas customers in the upgrade queue.