American Airlines Makes Changes To How Upgrades Work

Starting June 9th American Airlines is making some minor changes to how complimentary upgrades work that most AAdvantage status members are going to like. Upgrades when traveling on an award ticket will now be available to all status members and will come with higher priority than before.

  • All members with status will be able to receive complimentary upgrades on award travel. This will no longer be limited to Platinum Pro members and above.

  • Award travel will no longer be prioritized below paid travel for upgrades. Whether you’re traveling on a paid ticket or an award ticket you’ll be sorted based on status and rolling 12 months of Loyalty Points earned.

  • Companion upgrades will work properly for passengers on the same reservation – if upgrades don’t clear before the airport you’ll no longer need to have someone at the airport link the lower status member’s request with the higher status one. Both passengers are supposed to have the higher status of the two companions for upgrade processing, but until now this ‘breaks’ at the airport and needs to be restored manually. That should no longer be the case.

American Airlines AAdvantage members with status receive complimentary upgrades, if available, on U.S. domestic flights as well as flights between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Central America. Each elite is eligible to upgrade a companion for free as well.

Now that all awards for travel entirely on American are fully revenue-based it doesn’t make sense to differentiate between how you’re paying for award travel, with cash or with points.

Complimentary upgrades is how most first class seats not being sold for cash are awarded. Before the pandemic 75% of domestic upgrades were complimentary, 20% were confirmed in advance, while 5% were paid day of departure.

These changes all make sense to me, but it does mean that lifetime elites no longer very active in the program are pushed even further down the upgrade list.

  • A 2 million miler lifetime Platinum relying on their million miler status (rather than earning it anew) and buying a ticket fell behind all of the current Platinums earning their status, because those members had more Loyalty Points in the past 12 months.

  • But they were still ahead of Platinums who had redeemed miles! Now they’re behind those members, too.

So while American’s upgrade changes make sense, it underscores further how badly American needs to update its uncompetitive lifetime elite program.

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. Love the decision. Always felt that award tickets should be upgraded depending on availability

  2. Good news. This simplifies the program. I’m all for a more straightforward awards and upgrade process.

  3. As an AA Platinum for Life, I have been stabbed in the back by American. Now they are twisting the knife.

  4. Thank you Gary for this very important update
    I couldn’t agree more on all your focal points especially with regard to lifetime elites where it still remains a slap in your face make that a black eye
    So thanks kinda sorta American
    Signed A lowly 6 million mile lifetime platinum kicked to the curb

  5. @ Gary — I see this as an improvement for someeone who is LT PLat and only books AA with miles. Before, I was ineligible for complimentary upgrades, but now I will be eligible. This will be good where the upgrade looks to be a slam dunk, like maybe the occassional ATL-CLT, ATL-ORD, ATL-MIA or SFO-LAX.

  6. Even less likely now to be able to purchase a J/F ticket close in. It’s all but impossible now on many routes, since elite members can also upgrade companions.

    That aside, I understand why this is a ‘win’ for most AA members.

    Unless I’m missing something though, it’s another huge slap in the face to solo travelers by AA. Every time a complimentary upgrade is awarded to a non-status companion, the solo traveler gets knocked another peg down on the ladder. I get it that most people travel with a companion and won’t understand how discriminatory this policy is to travelers who consistently fly solo. It’d be nice if AA would offer some token to the solo travelers when they’re impacted by this.

  7. This is interesting because just yesterday I read a WSJ article regarding AA’s treatment of business travel (basically deprioritizing it heavily, as has been reported on this site and elsewhere). But a point which stood out was in a section citing Vasu Raja:

    “The customers [AA] treats like royalty when they catch a 5 a.m. flight for a work meeting and the customers trying to redeem their miles for a family trip to Hawaii are often the same people. It shouldn’t matter so much why they are flying, [Raja] said—their experiences should be similar.”

    So these changes to move away from differentiating on paid vs. award and enhancing the companion functionality do seem to be very much in line with that strategy as articulated above.

    Now whether it is a good strategy or not, who knows, guess we’ll see!!!

  8. As a lifetime Platinum, I have given up any hope of complimentary upgrades. It’s simply not realistic to expect an upgrade in todays environment. My loyalty to AA has also diminished and now I’m a free agent able to shop for best fare whereas before I would have defaulted to AA even if they had a higher cost.

    When I do fly on AA, It is nice to have the free seat selection, early boarding and free bags. That means something but the upgrade opportunity was lost years ago.

  9. The award upgrades were limited to only EP and above. As a PP, it was the main thing really motivating me to push for EP so I could start getting upgrades on award flights. Guess that motivation is gone now. Overall, I would guess this will net me less upgrades. I fly most of my flights using miles, but when I did pay, I was at 100% upgrades. Not sure I’ll see anywhere near that level anymore overall. Might have to pull out the AA card more often now. Guess that was the point…

  10. Now to be truly competitive, American Airlines needs to never let mileage award points expire and I’d use them more.

  11. @ Catherine T — Upgrade priority has nothing to do with being able to buy J/F close-in. That problem is totally the consequence of poor revenue management decisions regarding when upgrades are cleared. I agree that it is ridiculous that there is no space to buy a ticket or move to a new flight when things go sideways on the day of travel if you are a paying J/F passenger. Delta is MUCH better at managing this situation.

  12. One needs to acknowledge that loyalty programs are designed to drive future business, not reward past business….. A Platinum LT member who doesn’t fly much anymore has little long-term value to a carrier. Their future spend is limited. A 29-year old has way more spend potential then a 59-year old.

  13. @Joe that’s absolutely true; I just think that the traditional function of LT status was to serve as a carrot to lock travelers in with a carrier and keep them loyal during their flying years. I.e. dangle the prospect of big X-million-miler benefits in front of that 29 year old and you get 30 years of CLV from them. So in that regard it did drive future business.

    That being said, it is a different world now; airline execs seem to generally think on a by-year or by-trip basis, and in some cases (AA) are pretty much giving up on business travelers altogether. So the day of seeing the customer relationship as a lifetime one may simply be coming to an end, for better or for worse.

  14. It’s increasingly punitive the lower in the status pole that you go to issue upgrades to companions on award tickets. I am surprised AA would not retain the idea that paid tickets should trump award tickets, given how greedy for current revenue they seem. But of course no one is getting upgrades anyway so this is a lot of ado about not much of anything.

  15. I vote for changing the the gate screen upgrade list so that it only shows the Top 5. What is the point of me knowing I am number 18 out of 37 on a DCA – CLT flight? With 1 seat available… Just show the top 5 and all of us other losers will know that we have zero chance.

  16. @Ehud Gavron English is not my native tongue, but i’m sure reading/hearing many years that ‘complimentary’ is broadly used for something that’s and added bonus, usually free.

    Nice joke in the link, but jokes aside.. was it initially used erroneously and got accepted by popular use? (like many informal words in Spanish that later were recognized by the ‘Real Academia Española’ as accepted words)

  17. Gary is right and Ehud is not. To give a compliment means to bestow “an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration” (Merriam-Webster). Then, in turn, something given “with our compliments” – free of charge – means, colloquially, that it is accompanied by such an expression.

    Thus something given in a “complimentary” manner basically means that it is given as a compliment – a gift to express respect or admiration, with no payment expected in return.


  18. Lifetime Gold member here. I have been prioritizing AA flying since I joined the program in 1986. I do t even look at the upgrade board anymore – it’s a joke. I have received exactly ONE upgrade in the last 10 years. I have status now for free “better” seats, I guess….

  19. So basically AA is finally catching up with how DL treats their medallions.

  20. So happy! Just got upgraded on my miles booked red eye flight from PHX to TPA on Thursday, June 8th. Looks like they are starting a few hours early!

  21. Absolutely no reason or need that Lifetime elites should be prioritized over elites that are current customers.

    This is a strange bone to pick, but it is Gary we’re talking about, so why should I be surprised

  22. If you want 1st class bad enough… BUY IT! Problem solved! The most wealthy are the cheapest and most stingy, also most entitled at the airport. It’s annoying

  23. It still means that you can “buy” your way up front rather than using the product. So long as you use the credit cards and not fly, AA doesn’t care about the “Frequent Flyers” of it’s product, only about the credit card spend, Citibank and Barclays own American Airlines.

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