American Airlines Will Start Giving Customer Upgrade Seats To Pilots Instead

American Airlines pilots approved a new four year contract that increases pay by more 20% immediately and more than 45% during that the four years of the agreement. The deal includes many “quality of life” (work rule) concessions. 73% of pilots voting were in favor of the new deal.

One of the items that pilots got in their new deal is first class deadheading – flying first class when not piloting an aircraft between segments that they’re working on a trip. (That’s different than commuting to and from their base if they live in a different city than where they’re assigned to start and end their trips.) This is broadly similar to a benefit that United pilots won three years ago.

  • On the one hand, this promotes well-rested pilots. Larger seats are more comfortable and less stressful.

  • On the other hand, pilot unions have argued for years that the U.S. has the safest air transportation system in the world (defending barriers to entry into the profession) so it’s hard to suggest this is somehow needed for safety. It’s a union bargained perk, for better quality of life at work.

When I reached out to American to comment on the change, they merely referred to their earlier published statement on the contract.

In a deal to keep pilots flying during the pandemic, United Airlines and its union agreed to avoid 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. United gave pilots positive space first class deadheading with priority at the airport for available for class seats ahead of revenue passengers on the upgrade list. American’s pilot deal matches this.

In 2020 upgrades on many routes were easy. There was reduced travel demand, and reduced premium cabin travel demand. Now that travel has returned, upgrades are tougher than ever. Many United 1K members report that upgrades “do not exist” at that level, which is equivalent to American’s Executive Platinum.

Even when I was a ConciergeKey member on a coach ticket I frequently would be number one on the upgrade list – while flying in economy. Although I also sometimes did clear upgrades for that last available seat. Now that seat might go to a pilot instead.

It’s a very real question whether the airline is being run for the employees rather than customers, at least for pilot employees. Pilot unions won huge barriers to entry into the profession with the 1500 hour rule. Combined with early retirements and not hiring during part of the pandemic, a real pilot shortage occurred which gave pilots leverage in negotiations. Small cities are losing air service because of this shortage, too.

American Airlines has been successful in selling first class seats like they never have before. Some pilots will be disappointed to have a low upgrade success rate like an Executive Platinum in recent times. However their AAdvantage cash cow, having re-oriented its status program to drive revenue especially through the credit card program, relies on the promise of upgrades to drive activity which earns “loyalty points.” American needs more premium seats – on economy-heavy Airbus A319s, A320s, and 787s – both to sell and to ensure the continued success of its $30 billion AAdvantage 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. I don’t think the flying public should get ANY first class seats. It’s only FAIR that the precious union members — pilots, employees, even relatives of American employees — get ALL of the first class seats on EVERY flight. It’s SCIENCE (just like Covid)…or something, according to the left-wing lunatics.

    So I don’t want to hear any whining from you privileged, entitled people who buy tickets and pay the bills. You..are..irrelevant. Obey the union. Obey your master. Never question authority. You will sit in the cheap seats and you will like it, or else.

  2. Hello Gary,

    You are correct in that the airline business model continues to deliver challenging and suboptimal, short-term, reactive business decisions that leave the industry players and business model most ripe to exposure and for unraveling. The dominant business model that the air transportation industry has developed and deployed for the last 50 years or so is, for better or worse, primarily structured to optimize asset utilization and organizational efficiency. This is not a ln all-bad set-up at its core as the industry now flies fully loaded (vs. half full in the 1970’s) airplanes and thanks to airline economic thought leaders like Peter Belobaba at MIT delivers great economic value to its customers via tools like revenue management and dynamic pricing. However, each and every demand shock (Covid, Great Recession, etc) and supply shock (oil prices spikes, etc) exposes the vulnerability and antiquity of the standard business model and it’s attached businesses practices such as these that you have referenced. The farther that the airlines turn away from their core economic responsibility to minimize the economic disutilty of air travel, the more they position themselves for repeated trips to bankruptcy courts and taxpayer bailout hearings. It’s a painful cycle that has been on repeat for far too long. The soon-to-be market introduction of small gauge, low cost, extremely high frequency air mobility machines (VTOL, EAVs, etc) and business models will transform the air transportation industry fundamentally and permanently. This change is coming soon and some estimates have their market introduction as only 500 to 1,000 days away. The air transportation business will likely fragment a la the 1980s and be reset with new players and livery stickers. Unfortunately for the big carriers and their employees they will have neither the customer focused reputations, nor the organizational flexibility, nor the cash to pivot to these new business models unless they demonstrate that they can quickly and radically infuse organizational change in its commercial business operations and business model. It’s an extremely interesting moment of phase change for this industry similar to the energy industry. The big difference for us in aviation? We don’t, as of right now, have the cash, customer responsiveness or corporate flexibility to maneuver our existing air transportation industry organizations to next generation relevancy without fundamental change that hasn’t happened in 50+ years and is extremely unlikely to happen in the next 500 days. I appreciate your article and the forum that you provided for the sharing of all opinions. Thank you.

  3. Unions are a relic of the past, before anyone with a cell phone camera became a major “news outlet”. Now it’s just a power grab for the few. Benefits and perks rooted in the ability to blackmail a business as opposed to skill, market, and performance based compensation. Their agreement makes it harder for others to become pilots, “barriers to entry”. The only reason they do it, the ONLY real reason, is so the union has more power. It’s not for consumers, not for safety, not for public good, and certainly not for the business. You want more people to have better, higher paying jobs? The answer isn’t to pay the paper boy $100k, it’s to open the doors to training and opportunity so people can earn those jobs instead of letting unions keep people out. They use to be an instrument of good but now serve one purpose – a criminal organization vehemently opposed to accountability with a singular focus to demand as much as they can without any consideration to the impact.

  4. I’ve thought for years that flight crew members, especially when in uniform, should be given priority for exit row seats. They are trained on how to react in an emergency, how to open those exit doors, and how to evacuate a plane. I can understand pilots given priority to first-class seats when actually getting ready to work a long-haul flight but if just flying to get from one place to another it’s silly.

  5. Never fails to amuse me how some idiots just HAVE to make something political that has nothing to do with politics.

  6. How about the airlines do away with all loyalty programs, status, perks, etc, and let everyone travel in the same cabin? Would this not be the most equitable way to distribute the air travel experience?

    (T.I.C. obviously)

  7. I can only hope that AA bumps the “upgrades” in F before they downgrade my USD purchased FC (regardless of the coding) ticket . . . even for irregular opns and deadheading crew.

    On another subject . . . BREVITY

  8. It’s not class warfare…it’s economics.

    Deadheading pilots are WORKING, not just riding. When they get to destination, there is a 50% chance they will be operating a connecting flight. In order for that flight to depart on time, the pilots have to be ready. If a pilot is in row 32 as opposed to row 3, there will be at least another twenty-minute delay before that pilot can run for the next gate. The airline, and by extension YOU the passenger, wants an on-time departure. In survey after survey, that’s what is important.

    The interesting thing that hasn’t changed…if you want a F/C seat, make a reservation for one. The idea that the union or it’s members are “arm-twisting” the company is as ludicrous as saying passengers are too cheap to buy a F/C seat and expect free sh*t.

  9. The whole loyalty program has become hollow:
    – greater restrictions to crowded lounges
    – useless standby lists that drop your name lower in the ranking
    – inflated cost of cashing in miles or points for fewer & fewer available seats
    – hostile cabin crews
    – flare ups for seats with non-revenue PAX (don’t f*** with my BF)
    – accelerated expiration of miles/points
    – hotels not living up to program privileges
    – jumping from credit card to credit card for a block of pants

    Feel like I’m chasing my tail so airlines employees can rub my nose in it!!!

  10. I cannot believe pilots are not upgraded in the first place. For all anti union sentiment, take a look at the toll a pilot goes through everytime they fly. There is a reason their life expectancy is below par with others in their age groups. I figured pilots were already upgraded since they are ….. well pilots and earned the right to always sit in first class.

  11. If you really want that seat you can buy it- for free upgrades by all means let the pilots have it – they are on their way to work treat them with respect and let them be rested when they fly you home next time

  12. I don’t think many of you realize this is for company positioning only. The pilot’s are on company time. These deadheads are usually last minute which forces pilots into a middle seat in the last row of an airplane. So there they sit on a 3+ hour flight in a middle seat last row and then they have to operate a 3+ hour flight after that. This is more about safety than it is anything else. How do you feel after sitting in a middle seat in the back of the airplane on a long flight?

  13. Deadheading pilots get priority on the upgrade list the day of travel (ie. Standby upgrade list). As an EXP, I typically get upgraded the day or multiple days prior. I rarely show up on that list and that priority will continue. In the event that I’m just unlucky and make the standby upgrade list, it very common to be bumped by a higher ranking elite member joining the ranks last minute, so ultimately I’d rather have someone who will be responsible for 200+ people’s safety be prioritized.

  14. Gary, here’s how to end the pilot shortage if you’d care to report on this and champion it. Pilots are mandated to retire at 65. Why? What if we made it a choice. Retire just as is now, or continue flying by undergoing quarterly physicals. 65 is the new 50. Why have an age limit when you can have a quarterly physical that says you are in good shape and in good health? As a retired Captain I would have stayed. And with staying I bring exceptional experience forward while continuing to bring along new hires in their training that is so critical. Experience is everything. I’ve been thru Sully bird strikes that took out all 3 on my engines on a 727 and many more experiences I can pass along the experience of how to calmly focus and handle them. There would be no pilot shortage. It would end and stop taking the experienced people away from the regionals as fast as is now occurring; and experience wins out for everyone, while a quarterly physical will determine when its time to retire.

  15. First of all, I really appreciate the pilots and don’t get me wrong for making this comment but I think the the pilots should be granted the emergency exit row seat on all flights. Those first class seats are for passengers who pay for those first class seats and the ones that are eligible via upgrading from a full fair coach seat ( when available ) . Also, I don’t think it’s fair that non-rev employees should be denied those seats just because the flight crew is deadheading, it’s hard enough to even get to those nice seats since all seats are “first come first serve” when listing for F / Y class unless the traveling employee choose not to list for first class. Now because of their ( Pilots union ) special negotiation tactic it’s permanently screwed any other non-rev employee ie: managers down to ramp personnel from enjoying those seats when going on personal vacations! Now the new slogan’s going to be “marry me and fly permanently stand by in coach!”

  16. Well, too bad they are prioritizing employees over good customers, but I tend to look at the math. AA has ~15,000 pilots and 6,700 flights per day. Of course pilots likely live near the hubs so may be taking seats to get to hubs, and , of course, some would fly from hubs and pilot back to hubs, so hard to imagine this affecting more than an average of 1 FC seat for every 2 flights or something like that. It does displace 1 same day EP on upgrade list, but, as pointed out, many EPs are upgraded 4 days prior to flight before pilots get a chance.

  17. lol. People bitch about how sub-par domestic first is. How much the food sucks etc… YET, when the pilot(s) who fly said plane get to sit in it, you all bitch and complain? You realize that if ‘you’ wanted that seat, then go buy it. Why are you complaining about a seat you didn’t buy and didn’t get upgraded into?

    I say, put them in it.

    Here’s another item to consider.
    That pilot may be headed to a trip to fly, and as an airline pilot myself, I can tell you that we can and DO show up unrested and have to call fatigue because of it. Sorry, my job is not worth your on-time departure. if I am not 100% qualified to go, I don’t go. and there is NOTHING you can do about it Mr. 8A or 22F. Tough.

    Yet, you will continue to bitch being clueless to the effects flying has on people. .

    I ask you to go fly across multi time zones then drive all night long. see how fresh you feel.


  18. Gary only affords to sit in the way back, next to the stinky lav

    Can’t hear you from up front Gar

  19. Gary,
    I hope you realize that we’re talking about a very small number of seats. Most top tier passengers will not notice any change in the number of upgrades.

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