American Airlines Bumps Passenger Out Of First Class To Give Seat To Pilot

An American Airlines passenger complained on social media that he and his girlfriend were upgraded on an Embraer E-175 regional jet flight, but his girlfriend was ‘kicked out’ due to a broken seat. She was moved to economy, he says, but then a pilot sat in the broken seat. The American Airlines twitter team responded, “Oh my” but I think the passenger misunderstood the situation – in addition to raising all sorts of triggering questions about his girlfriend being sent to the back while he continued to enjoy first class.

While there isn’t full information about this situation, it’s something we’re going to see more frequently than before. On day of departure, American’s deadheading pilots will have priority over passengers for upgrades. If there was a broken seat that the pilot was in, that pilot will be ahead of passengers upgraded at the gate for a first class seat, and American will need to downgrade the last passenger upgraded. So this is something we’ll see,

  • A passenger moved due to a broken seat, but not their broken seat
  • A pilot in uniform flying on duty (not commuting) in order to operate a flight and having a higher upgrade priority at the gate. That pilot would be cleared into first class before passengers at the gate.

One of the items that pilots got in their new contract this summer was first class deadheading – flying first class when not piloting an aircraft between segments that they’re working on a trip. This is broadly similar to a benefit that United pilots won three years ago.

  • This promotes well-rested pilots. Larger seats are more comfortable and less stressful.

  • However, pilot unions have argued for years that the U.S. has the safest air transportation system in the world without this benefit – as a defense to barriers to entry into the profession which drive up their wages.

This is a union bargained perk, for better quality of life at work. It’s something that United pilots achieved during the pandemic when the airline was trying to avoid pilot furloughs by allowing more junior cockpit crew access to flight hours by reducing minimum guaranteed hours. The union demanded a concession in exchange for not furloughing its members, and this was one of those concessions. American’s pilot deal matches this.

When I was a ConciergeKey member on a coach ticket I frequently would be number one on the upgrade list at the gate for one remaining first class seat. Now, if there was a deadheading pilot on the aircraft, that seat would go to the pilot instead of the ConciergeKey on the upgrade list. It’s a very real question whether the airline is being run for the employees rather than customers, at least for pilot employees.

American Airlines has been successful in selling first class seats like they never have before, so some pilots will still be disappointed to have a low upgrade success rate like an Executive Platinum in recent times.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I wonder what seat it was. I usually avoid the first row, not just because of lack of floor storage, but it seems that those are the ones they would often give to pilots.

  2. Looks like it’s all about leverage. A union advocating for its collective member is a much more powerful voice than individual loyalty members, regardless of status. A reason why unions are either loved or loathed. As for the reasoning, I think we all would rally around having well rested pilots, but I like how you point out that there doesn’t appear to be a major impact this would have on safety as the system already has high safety standards in place which create a better pay environment for existing pilots. If anyone deserves a complementary upgrade for rest merits it would be an Air Traffic Controller who has to work that evening or the next day.

  3. This specific instance aside, would a pilot be permitted to fly in a broken seat if it was sufficiently safe (i.e., it won’t fully recline but is otherwise fine)?

  4. AA flight attendant, almost 32 years here. There is one possibility that has not been mentioned, one that I have seen many times. First class or any class of seat above regular main cabin can be broken in multiple ways. No recline, broken tray table, inoperative entertainment screen, blocked headset jack (pin broken off inside), broken head rest, arm rest missing cover over fold out tray table – and there are others. Gate agents may not know about the broken seat when first assigning them and when they learn about it they may ask the customer if they would rather have their upgrade miles or more expensive seat cost reimbursed and move to main cabin. Pilots, deadheading flight attendants and sometimes other company non revs are sometimes given the option of sitting in the broken seat if they would like, knowing about the break.

    It is very possible this was the case here and the man – who in my opinion absolutely should have given his seat to his female companion – failed to mention that in his complaint. Customers frequently, if ever, give full details when they complain.

    It’s a very real example of what could be the full story. Food for thought.

  5. The complaining passenger should have requested to be moved back to coach next to his girlfriend. I sure a swap could have been arranged to make it so. The lack of cleverness on his part seems to be a problem, wanting to hangout with a pilot instead of his girlfriend.

  6. People calm down. It was a free upgrade to the passenger. She didn’t pay for anything except the seat she ended up in.

  7. Pilot at American here. The contractual implementation of a pilot being upgraded ahead of a passenger does not go into effect until December 2nd, 2023.

  8. I’ve paid thousands for a first class seat on American only to be bumped by a pilot at the time of the flight. And… American only gave us $500 back.

  9. My immediate thought went to what Jets and Actual Crew Member were thinking. If there is such a thing as a seat that is too broken for a passenger but to which a crew member can agree, then in the instance I can see the decision being made as being the least bad one at the time. The alternative would have been to tape off that seat and bump the OP’s GF AND another passenger back to Y to accommodate the pilot.

  10. At most (all?) airlines in the US, passengers are not allowed to sit in seats that are broken. However, pilots and flight attendants are because they can be listed as “Additional Crew Members”. More than likely, this pilot was commuting or deadheading and was placed in the broken seat in order to not displace a passenger (possibly completely off the flight).

  11. To those suggesting he should have given the first class seat to his female companion – really?


    Perhaps he was 6’ 7” and 320 lbs while she was 5’ 2” and 130 lbs. or any of a million other reasons including limited mobility, disability, etc.

    But simply on the only fact we know – gender – he should have given her the seat. Judging people based solely on their gender seems so 1970s.

  12. @Gary Leff you should at least report this accurately – that pilot has gold epaulettes – he is not employed by AA or any of the AA wholly owned airlines or even Republic. He was likely given this seat without any idea of the backstory.

  13. First, the passenger DID NOT pay for the seat, it was a FREE UPGRADE. A paying passenger would never be displaced for any upgrade, including pilots unless it’s a long haul flight and they are required to have the seat for rest which is per their contract on certain long haul flights.

    Second, let’s talk about the real issue here and the fact that the current upgrade policy being offered by American Airlines only favors those who have the highest tier status.

    Prior to the current policy, status holders would use segments in order to upgrade and eventually, those with the highest status would either run out or would save their segments in order to upgrade on flights that were considered more favorable for the upgrade (ie. flights over 2+hours).

    Eventually, those who had lower status would be able to use their segments and take advantage of this privilege or get the upgrades on shorter flights because the higher tier holders didn’t want to waste segments.

    However, as the current policy stands, these individuals will never receive upgrades because American Airlines is basically stating that even though you fly enough to hold Gold or Platinum, you’re not as important as EP or Pro tier holders. I would even have cause to question if American Airlines cares about the Pros either.

    Basically, unless you are EP, you’re never getting the upgrade until American Airlines changes the policy back to how it was in the past.

    Therefore, what American Airlines is basically saying to all those aside from EP tier holders is you or your loyalty to their brand doesn’t matter to them. So, I suggest those of you who have any status aside from EP stats lodging complaints about this unfair policy and consider taking your loyalty to another carrier who actually appreciates all those who show enough loyalty to hold any tier level.

  14. Gary

    Why don’t you ask AA first BEFORE click baiting everyone. I know why.

    First, I KNOW you know that is not really an American Airlines mainline plane is it ? Someone as knowledgeable as Gary knows why.

    So, then why do you bring up American Airlines Pilot contract? If it is not an AA mainline flight as we both know?

    It is all about the clicks fellow readers, not the truth.

    Oh as far as the answer of why an employee (pilot here) is in the seat, its super simple the airplanes FAA approved MEL (minimum equipment list) say a passenger can not sit in a broken seat (yes that might mean recline function is broken) further it goes on to say a Non -rev can be put in the seat
    in certain situations.

  15. I was bumped off an American Airlines flight for a standby American AL employee. I elected to wait until the end of the boarding and when I attempted to scan my boarding pass, it didn’t work. I was informed their policy was after 15 min, they can cancel your ticket. I was boarding 10 min after the boarding call. I spoke with a supervisor who said they shouldn’t do that…no kidding. I also sent a very professionaly worded letter to the company and received no response. Needles to say, I no longer use this air line.

  16. @30west – oh, maybe read what I wrote? This is going to be a more common issue going forward because of the mainline pilot contract.

  17. @Gary Leff

    We did read what you wrote. It’s disingenuous and misleading at best, but mostly downright false.

  18. @Ross – I said a passenger reported being removed from a seat, and that the seat was given to a pilot. That we don’t know full details of the incident. But that it’s something that – going forward – we may see more often because of a change in the pilot contract.

    Tell me what is false with that, please?

  19. Airlines are missing 2 key things that are upsetting to premium passengers. Those are the results of automatically upgrading passengers in advance of time up to the last seat as most airlines do through IT.
    1) If there is an IRROPS, then all the full-fare 1st class passengers will be forced to be downgraded on the next flight as it will have its 1st class cabin full of upgrades already.
    2) When you get upgraded, you give up the great premium seat you chose (and sometimes paid for). If you then have to be downgraded, the only seats remaining will be terrible middle seats at the back.
    I strongly favor upgrades to be processed by the gate agents 15/30 minutes before boarding so they can do it based on the way it needs to be done knowing all the who and what of the flight, without having to upset highly profitable passengers or make fake excuses.

  20. No passenger should get upgraded and then downgraded due to a deadhead situation. If the airline needs to wait longer to ensure any potential deadhead are cleared than so be it. But taking away any seat to someone who has paid or been upgraded for a higher class is a crap business model.

  21. The seat was broken in the system we legally couldn’t put a revenue passenger there. We tried to rectify the situation but would’ve had to take a substantial delay to do so. The pilot was in fact a commuter of another airline and since the seat was ready and available in light of recent cockpit shenanigans the crew felt safer to legally put him there since he was on the jumpseat in the cockpit.

  22. This is very common with Air Canada. I’ve witnessed 2 passengers, that purchased domestic first-class seats getting bumped to economy because 2 pilots needed seats. Their contract requires they get first class when deadheading. The GA even said, “If you guys want to complain, write to customer service”. I’d have given up my seat if they had offered me a voucher. I’m Star Alliance gold so they picked people without status to bump first.

  23. So sad to see the hotdog pilots put before customers. But not surprised. Prima Donna’s all they way. Next they will expect it when commuting… just watch. I hope A.I. replaces them someday.
    25 year retired Airline Emp.

  24. I think all unions and union employees are screwing this nation. There was a time in history where they were needed. Today its all about screwing the non union employees. As Far as American Airlines is concerned, they are a pathetic group of winery ass babies. I would fire the entire company for being incompetent at they’re job and extremely rude to the people that afford them their salaries.

  25. I don’t think Gary misconstrued anything or tried to click bait. He was my merely relaying the information as it’s being presented.

    Once the policy for pilot upgrades is in full effect, those who have paid seats or have already been upgraded will never get downgraded once the list is processed because the list will be considered official at the time upgrades are processed. The only way a person would get downgraded from a free upgrade would be something unforseen such as a revenue passenger who actually paid for the seat had the seat dropped by the AI upgrade system and showed up at the gate with enough time to inquire about or fix the situation with causing a departure delay. After all, fair is fair and the paid revenue seat should always take precedence over any free upgrade because that’s just good business. Now, if a pilot checked in late at the gate after the list had been processed at the correct time, there’s no way in hell a passenger upgrade should be downgraded due to a pilot’s inability to list and check in at least 45 minutes before departure. If s/he cannot do that, they have no claim to seats that have been assigned per policy and procedure.

    “The girl who knows” seems to have given everyone the whole story and based on the fact it was a broken seat, the passenger was not allowed to sit in the seat. However, the jump seat pilot who was non revenue listed did qualify and therefore, took the option of taking the seat. Take note, they didn’t take the first non revenue listed person, upgrade that individual and seat the pilot on their originally assigned seat, they simply gave the option to the non AA employee listed because he was commuting. Sounds fair with all the details.

    So, now that the great mystery has been solved, how about Gary takes the comment made by Hunger Gamer and make a juicy blog post based on a terrible upgrade policy which only favors the chosen few and treats all the others like they no longer matter. A brand is built on loyalty and American Airlines only cares about one level of loyalty when it comes to upgrades, Executive Platinum (&CK)!

  26. i have been flying AA FOR YEARS ,the last 5 YEARS I endured 3 emergency landings.. on my last flight Bkk too Lax…. i had to TRANSFER the AA FLIGHT IN TOKIO TO LAX..It was snowing a bit,,, flight anounced a delay of 2 hours.AFTER 2 hours looking out the window there was still snow on the runway…. i asked too de board but was told that would be unfair to the passengers because pulling out my luggage from the plane would delay departure even more and we would on our way after deicing,,in 20 minutes. Another hour passed we where still on the ground,,, i asked the crew too deboard again,,,, because i figured any further delay would put the crew on overtime….i told them so…. not possible i was told we will be leaving in ten minutes. another hour passed then came the anouncement Flight cancelled because crew is in overtime.ANYWAY AFTER DEBOARDING I HAD TOO WAIT ANOTHER OF BEING TOLD thAT NO ROOMA ARE AVAILABLE IN airport vicinty. IN TOOK ME HALF AN HOUR TO LOCATE A BULLET HOTEL ROOM myself IN ANOTHER TERMINAL OF SAME AIRPORT.. WHICH I HAD TO PAY INCLUDING TAXI
    Never was able to get reimbursed because they make it allmost impossible to file a claim if your not a lawyer. THAT WAS MY LAST FLIGHT WITh AA I FEEL SORRY ANYONE THIS FLYING WITH THIS OUTFIT, UNPROFESSIONAL ALLMOST ALL THE WAY.

  27. There are a lot of doom and gloomers (and pilot haters) here who have no idea how infrequently pilots deadhead.

  28. I was hired by a major airline in 1983 and a worker made a comment first classes for rich people and non-revs (company employees and retirees). Then came mileage programs and business people fly all year, pocket the miles and upgrade to First for their personal travel to Hawaii or abroad. Go back to coach where you belong

  29. “It’s a very real question whether the airline is being run for the employees rather than customers, at least for pilot employees.”

    Come on, you know AA obviously isn’t being run for its customers or its employees. It is being run for the shareholders.

  30. @Gary

    YES the Lead in to the article is flat 100% WRONG. Don’t you get that.

    “American Airlines Bumps Passenger Out Of First Class To Give Seat To Pilot”

    Thats not what happened and 90% of your commenters/readers are not smart enough to comprehend what really happened, because they don’t work in the airline industry.

    But it is what you do to get clicks.

  31. I think this is such complete crap. I was downgraded to Hawaii due to a pilot that was not in unform. He was going on vacation. A pilot can rest in coach like the rest of us. Stop sucking up!

  32. There’s not really a story here, and what little information we get is about another airline that feeds passengers to AA on contract. There’s enough real bad news coming from real airlines to avoid having to write something like this.

  33. Why woul a concierge key would be flying economy in the first place ? That’s not how this is supposed to work . Those level of customers are meant to be big spenders. Yes , I know they can be part of a corporate contract package , but still. Want first , pay first . You don’t need to sweat this “made up problem “.

  34. @ maxpax. Last month I was on an Air Croatia flight (FRA-SPU) and we were advised by the flight attendant to watch our step as we DISEMBARKED. No deplaning in Split . . . it’s disembarking.
    Point 2. Try getting delay expenses for hotel/meals when on a code share flight with ticketing from partner airline.

  35. @Eric – “Why woul a concierge key would be flying economy in the first place ? That’s not how this is supposed to work ”

    I can tell you that there are plenty of CKs flying in back. I boarded with several of them.

    – Maybe they fly business class international for work, domestically coach on their own dime
    – Or flying coach with their family
    – Sometimes there’s no first class available for sale in American’s small premium cabins like A319s, 320s, and 788s

    As for “Want first , pay first” upgrades certainly aren’t guaranteed except when they are confirmable and confirmed in advance. However upgrades are a promise of the program in order to incentivize frequent paid business (and credit card spend, which is far more lucrative to American than flying airplanes).

  36. That’s not an AA pilot.
    AA pilot implantation is only in early December.

    Let’s bash pilots for no reason.

  37. Omg I think I was on this flight. The woman in question was throwing an absolute fit ranting and raving and demanding they kick someone else out of First Class with lower status to accommodate her. She stood in the galley for at least 10 minutes loudly complaining to anyone who would listen. If I were the Captain I would have thrown her off for making such a scene.

  38. First class upgrades for passengers are perks. Regarding pilots, I’d much rather have the safety of a well-rested pilot flying and if that means he bumps someone out of first class, so be it. Consider a not well-rested truck driver, bus driver, or even an air traffic controller, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when I can upgrade to first class if not too expensive, but public safety takes priority in my opinion.

  39. Sounds like quite a few folks need to buy their own business jets to guarantee them the seat they deserve.

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