American Changing How Elite Upgrade Priority Will Work

American will be eliminating ‘through passenger’ priority for upgrades. The date this change will take place is speculated to be March 11.

American’s upgrade priority for domestic flights (which 18 months ago also became priority for international flights) has been:

  1. Elite status level
  2. Whether the passenger is connecting off another American flight
  3. Whether the passenger is full (Y or B) fare [and they haven’t already received a complimentary confirmed upgrade]
  4. Time of request

There are several things unique about this process.

  • Unlike United and Delta, elites on full fare ticket don’t have a pass to trump the status of other customers. So a full fare American Gold doesn’t receive higher upgrade priority than an Executive Platinum the way they would if flying Delta or United. (It prioritizes loyalty over the course of a year above fare on a given flight.)
  • Prioritizing ‘through passengers’ gives priority to someone connecting off of another flight. Flying DC – Dallas – Phoenix, an elite would have a ‘through passenger designation’ for Dallas – Phoenix and trump all similar elites originating in Dallas.

The logic of this second criteria, giving priority to connecting elites over elites originating in a city, must be that the airline has a ‘lock’ on local elites. American doesn’t need to give Dallas-based elites the same level of upgrade priority in order to win their business — they win the business by virtue of offering non-stop service. But airlines compete fiercely over connecting passengers. Most passengers are indifferent to whether they connect in Dallas (American) or Houston (United) for instance.

US Airways never used this criteria for upgrades — nor did any other airline that I’m aware of.

Now the only tie-braaker, for other than full fare elites, will be time of upgrade request.

This criteria makes less sense to me. It privileges those buying tickets earlier. Perhaps there’s more competition for early purchase business, but it’s not obvious why an airline would want to give upgrade priority on this basis — other than it’s a relatively easy algorithm to manage.

Check-in time, which has been used at some other airlines but isn’t currently used at American, is similarly not a factor that makes sense to me to use for upgrades since it seems especially arbitrary.

The new changes, though, is simply that upgrade priority for passengers connecting onto a flight will be going away in a few weeks.

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. Fare should have priority – down to the fare bucket, just like on Delta and United.

    Enough of the gamers on cheap fares getting upgraded ahead of mid to high fare travelers.

  2. @greg – don’t united’s and delta’s revenue requirement for status address that? And you’re in favor of United Silvers on a full fare ticket trumping a 1K on non-full fare mid to high fares?

  3. I usually don’t fly on fare purchased last minute, but I think the best upgrade priority criteria would be (a) status level, (b) fare bucket, and then (c) something more arbitrary to break the tie, such as either time of request or check-in time.

  4. I don’t think prioritizing through passengers on the upgrade list was an intentional decision by American. They have always prioritized through passengers on the standby list (which makes sense – it’s easier to tell a Dallas-based passenger to go home and try again versus someone connecting in Dallas who has nowhere to go) and when they created an upgrade list, they just used the same algorithm as the standby list. While I benefit from the upgrade rules currently in place – I rarely originate from an airport that others are connecting at, I can understand the rationale for modifying them.

  5. Glad this one is gone.

    But I always thought the US system was fairer, ordering the list not by fare nor request time, but by prior-12-month EWMs earned. (Even though that would hurt me as a lifetime GLD often a bit below 25K annual).

  6. so long story short : a mileage runner EXP based in a non-AA/US hub who bought 330 days ago with dirt cheap N/O/S fares have very very high upgrade priority

    meanwhile … the PLT road warrior buying last minute high H/K/M fares (but not full fare) based out of DFW/ORD trying to use a sticker is completely screwed

  7. @Gary – What’s important is within the elite tier having fare prioritized.

    A gamer mileage running EXP on a cheap fare shouldn’t be trumping a higher fare EXP.

    Shareholders should demand this.

  8. Of more concern is acquistion of domestic aircraft with only 8 instead of 16 (or more) first class seats.

  9. @Gary -And yet AA doesn’t implement it, to the detriment of its best customers. Will be more glaring as they attempt to monetize the cabins further, which is inevitable.

  10. As an Austin based Chairman (soon to be EX-P), this is great because I connect mostly in DFW or ORD.

    By the way the check in time based system rewards those flying through as well as they are allowed to check in earlier (because their arriving flight is earlier) than those originating from a hub.

    Side related note: I really despise the United boarding procedure, as an elite you pretty much have to line up in the Group 1 35-45 minutes in advance and then you also have to deal with gate lice who are in group 3 or later but are blocking group 1 area. My experience in boarding for US/AA and Delta is much better than United.

    Gary perhaps you should do a post on boarding procedure among the major carriers, your best and worst experiences.

  11. don’t know how to feel about this. as an AA plat who frequently books at least 60 days out and requests the upgrade at time of booking, i have been consistently frustrated when i check in for a flight and confirm my upgrade request at the admirals club only to have the AAngel inform me that there was no record of said request. if this becomes one of the main criteria for upgrade possibility, i sure hope they get their systems in order. i’ve complained to AA several times only to get a boilerplate email in response.

  12. As someone has already said, this wasn’t an intentional policy but just a side-effect of using the same mechanism as used for standbys. Importantly, the through priority only ever applied for upgrades cleared at the gate – not for those cleared before the flight went to airport control.

  13. I’ll miss this one. As a resident of Hooterville, I’m always on AE to DFW or ORD. I like this little bump as it has helped me on several occasions. And for those shouting about the fare, you have no idea what the price of a cheap ticket from a Hooterville is when you have to add that AE segment. I often pay double or more to get to LAX or SFO what you pay from DFW. And that’s adding a 55 minute flight to DFW. Either those ERJs are expensive to operate, or AA knows I’m gonna pay regardless.

  14. There is no perfect system, but rewarding higher fare buckets doesn’t make much sense either. We are (most of us) booking the fare that is offered at that time. It’s not like we are negotiating the price. And frankly, people that lock in a fare several months out are valuable since they are paying far in advance.

    What would make sense, (and bite my tongue) is if they gave upgrade priority within status class for those flying on choice plus fares. They would just need to tweak choice plus to make it more attractive to EXP’s, such as making miles flown on those fares eligible to accrue stickers for companion upgrades.

  15. @Matt You would be surprised how many don’t have to book the lowest fare offered.

    But the Choice Plus makes sense to discriminate appropriately and reward higher fares.

  16. My understanding is that AC uses connecting pax as a qualifier in upgrades. Although the upgrade priority has always been a little opaque with them.

  17. Key points have already been made, but are worth emphasizing:

    – The ‘through;’ designation only mattered for upgrades cleared at the gate. Upgrades in advance (such as system-wide or mileage upgrades that clear at booking or subsequently or segment upgrades that clear during the 100-, 48-, or 24-hour window) have never taken “through” status into account and so this change will not affect those at all.

    – The “through” status may not have been an intentional choice for upgrade priority anyway. Certainly AA never advertised it; if they were trying to reward the loyalty of connecting passengers, they would have touted it. Further, it never affected the first leg, which wouldn’t make sense if the idea was to reward connecting passengers.

    – It’s far from clear that time-of-request is not a good basis or that fare bucket is. People who book higher fare buckets are usually last-minute flyers who may not have as much choice in airlines, while those booking far in advance have given the airline a free loan of the cash and likely have more flexibility in which airline they fly. People know that upgrade priority is determined by how far in advance they book the ticket, so they have an incentive to book early (and loan AA the cash) rather than waiting.

  18. There seems to be a lot of elitism against the “lower fare ticket” – Why are so many opposed to that being a deciding factor?

    Not everyone is getting a low-cost fare just to mileage run. I book destinations that fit my budget and enjoy being EXP cause I plan my trips months in advance usually going at off peak season where I risk rain and the worst weather in that city. The time when no-one wants to go!

    I have booked as much as 9 months in advance. Committed to a date and fare thats not refundable. I bet AA does good when someone like me needs to change that ticket at USD$250 a pop + going rate.

    So when someone buys a ticket at the last minute at 3 times what I paid for – perhaps by their job (not out of their pocket) and they get an upgrade before me? Im pissed. Sure. You win some you lose some.

    I get it’s a fine line to accommodate both, but the one who pays out of their own pocket and not say a companies? Thats the loyal one.

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