American Airlines Will Begin Clearing Complimentary Upgrades Before Boarding Starts

Along with the move to qualifying for elite status based on Loyalty Points rather than qualifying miles and qualifying dollars, American Airlines is eliminating 500 mile upgrade certificates and they are also processing elite upgrades earlier at the airport.

We’re beginning to roll out an enhanced upgrade experience in 2022 for status members at the airport: Upgrades will automatically clear 40 minutes before your flight departure if seats are available. This will apply to all airports within North America. Once your upgrade clears, you’ll be notified on the app or on the gate monitor.

With automatic clearance, you’ll have a more consistent experience and should know the status of your upgrade request sooner.

American Airlines Kiosk Screen

Elite upgrades can start processing in an elite member’s ‘upgrade window’ in the days prior to a flight. Often though elites will be fighting it out for a ‘battlefield upgrade’ at the gate.

However instead of having gate agents process upgrades, once boarding starts, this is being turned over to an automated process a few minutes earlier. This change accomplishes two things,

  1. It helps ensure upgrades are processed correctly. For instance legacy US Airways agents (especially) have been known to call up people for their upgrades to the gate and not upgrade anyone who isn’t there – even though the passenger might be in the club, and would see the upgrade on the mobile boarding pass in their app (‘More consistent experience’).

  2. It reduces agent workload. Last spring they started processing standby passengers an hour prior to flight when planes aren’t going to be full. This ‘Agent Assist’ process makes is easier for American to have just one agent at the gate on domestic flights that are less than 80% full. (Earlier standby clearance also makes it possible to clear standby and then list for an upgrade.)


Clearing upgrades 40 minutes prior to departure means clearing them before boarding begins so passengers won’t have to hold back, waiting to see if they get upgraded, rather than boarding to squat on overhead bin space. In theory an agent should come on board to upgrade a passenger, but that is hit or miss at best and an agent will never be criticized by the airline for not doing so with the explanation that they upgraded someone else that was at the gate in order to avoid delaying the flight.

This new process will apply to flights eligible for complimentary upgrades only. And it applies to the complimentary upgrade process only and not to customers waitlisted with miles or systemwide upgrades. (Elites should switch to complimentary upgrades about an hour before departure when trying to upgrade domestic flights, as a result.)

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. As a lifetime platinum loyalty points have a cash value of zero. 27 certs are now worthless. Sick that I didn’t burn them up.

    As a vindictive individual, reciprocal impact will be rendered.

  2. I hope this works, and it would be nice if it does. Although I’m wondering if there’s a glitch in their system? Last two times through Miami, we were eligible for complimentary upgrades, yet never appeared on the list until we requested to be put in the system. I have a feeling that might have cost us at least one upgrade, as they assigned it to someone else, but we did managed to get a few after we got in the system – but we were already on the plane, so better late than never, I guess. I haven’t seen this problems with LGA, DFW, or CLT, only MIA. We’ll see…

  3. Will we still need to pick up new BP from the GA? Or will my electronic BP change automatically? Been so long since an upgrade…

  4. I don’t like it. Now they will be like Delta. With the certificates, you always had a a better chance on getting an upgrade. On long haul LAX-MIA or LAX-ORD, I was always able to snag a lie flat seat. Now everyone will be going after them. Delta has a similar system and I never get an upgrade with them. Fortunately, I qualified for Platinum so at least I will not have any Gold members ahead of me. And I have a ton of certificates that are now useless.

  5. As a lifetime Gold, I have 6 500 mile certificates in my account. Does that mean I can never use them? What if I wanted to fly transcon and upgrade to next class of service?

  6. @David Simons – my point about Golds was simply that you’re less likely to clear the upgrade, competing against every other gold and every other platinum every time. however you can have the upgrade requested, in fact they’ll change so that this request happens automatically. and if you do clear the upgrade they will give it to you without charging you 500 mile upgrades.

    as a result your (6) 500 mile upgrades will convert to 1500 loyalty points later this year.

  7. @John C

    “I don”t get it. If passengers want to ride in first class buy a first class ticket.”

    Exactly. And this practice of giving away upgrades indirectly creates a dynamic where US carriers remain unwilling to invest in their premium cabins outside of the prime transcon routes. At the same time, elites just get frustrated when they don’t get upgrade, in turn creating sour customer relations. It’s simply not a good business practice to give away the store.

  8. As a flight attendant I personally love when they upgrade after boarding is done and the agent tries to come on and move everyone around and then you have to tell them that no, there is no more room for their luggage in first class. It’s even more fun when they then decline it because, meh, so then the agent tries to go find the next person on the list. So efficient.

    Also the agent assist thing for standbys is nice and all but funny that the control freak agents go and remove all the seats because *they* didn’t personally assign them.

    Always ahead of the game AA

  9. Lowly AA Lifetime Gold. I think Bush was president last time I was able to use a 500 mile upgrade, maybe Clinton. I bought a bunch of 500 mile upgrades a few years ago to have enough in my account when travelling with others to get the upgrade were they ever to be available. Converting them to Loyalty points, which I don’t really need, does nothing for me. I get more loyalty points every month from my credit card. I’d like a refund or at least a travel credit for what I paid for them. Even more sour on AA because of this….

  10. I have given up on getting upgrades. On the long domestic flights, I always get displaced from updates list. I also get moved from the exit tow too. The only time I got an upgrade was on short flights on Embraer planes where first class is meaningless. I am seriously thinking about switching to Delta.

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