American Changing its Upgrade Priority for International Tickets – and Possible Future Changes with the Impending Merger

Domestic upgrade priority on American Airlines is based on:

  1. Elite status level
  2. Whether the passenger is connecting off another American flight
  3. Whether the passenger is full (Y or B) fare
  4. Time of request

Time of check-in does not matter for domestic upgrades. When you check in, your upgrade request time carries over from the list prior to the airport — even though you are asked whether or not you want to be added to the airport standby list for an upgrade.

Prior to August 1, international upgrades were different. If you did not clear an upgrade in advance, the “time of request” tie-breaker for an upgrade was based on time of check-in rather than time of original request.

Getting Status is reporting that American’s international upgrade priority changed on August 1, aligning with domestic upgrade priority, in that time of check-in will no longer matter. When a passenger waitlisted for an upgrade checks in their time of original request will now carry over to the airport upgrade list.

While those ‘in the know’ could improve their chances of an upgrade by checking in as soon as the window to do so opened, I actually like this change since the vagaries of check-in time seem an odd thing to base priority off of (although time of request is also in some ways an odd tie-breaker as well, privileging elites who book early).

I far prefer American’s upgrade system over United’s and Delta’s.

  • American gives its top tier elites (8) confirm ‘systemwide’ upgrades valid on any American flight, including international, each year. These upgrades are valid on any fare. At United such elites have to spend what usually amounts to being a few hundred dollars over lowest fare to upgrade internationally. What can be especially frustrating is when a customer buys a higher fare for the chance of upgrading and then does not clear — 100,000 mile flyers are essentially buying an expensive losing lottery ticket. Delta is even worse, requiring nearly full fare (Y, B, or M fares) in order to be eligible to upgrade or even waitlist for an upgrade.
  • American gives upgrade priority primarily based on elite status. In contrast, United and Delta will prioritize full fare customers with 25,000 mile elite status over a mid-tier fare customer with 75,000 mile elite status. They value fare on a given trip over loyalty.
  • American offers ‘complimentary unlimited upgrades’ only to their top tier elites. Gold and Platinum members earn 2000 miles worth of upgrades (Four 500 mile upgrades) for each 10,000 miles flown, and then choose which flights to request upgrades on (and can buy additional upgrade certificates if they wish). This means that Golds and Platinums have a better chance of getting upgraded when they choose to request one, because they aren’t competing against every other elite every time. So while getting upgraded more than 20% of the time means coming out of pocket, upgrade percentages for lower tier elites can be higher as well.

With the US Airways merger, I’ve expected complimentary unlimited upgrades to come to American. They’d be giving up a revenue stream (the sale of so-called “stickers”). But it seems hard to take away what is perceived (incorrectly, in my view) to be a benefit (free upgrades) from US Airways elites.

This would imply a lower revenue stream related to the first class cabin. American also earns higher revenue from mileage co-pays — American tends to release more confirmed upgrade space which any member can claim with miles, and a cash co-pay applies domestically to all members, even elites (something US Airways does not do either, so domestic upgrade co-pays could go away post-merger, further reducing the revenue premium that American earns from the forward cabin).

It’s the reduction in revenue attached to domestic first class that makes a reduction in the quality of the premium product likely. US Airways does not serve meals in first class on flights under 3 hours and 15 minutes. American serves at least a snack (like a wrap or a salad) outside of regular meal times even on my 612 mile Chicago – Washington National flights. That’s why I’ve written that US Airways elites are hungry.

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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. If this change comes to pass with unlimited upgrades for all, what happens to our stickers currently in our accounts?

  2. @TTF United and American used to offer the ability to convert those to miles. That’s one possibility. Another possibility is that they no longer hold value — which would be an odd solution since they’re currently offering the ability to earn more 500 milers through the Elite Rewards program.

  3. You know, some years back, US used to have the 500 mile sticker/upgrade thing and ultimately did away with it. Why, I don’t know…perhaps they found it not to be lucrative for them and there were other ways to reward elites and/or generate revenue.
    And as for meals, for many of us, they just don’t matter. I don’t have a need to be fed every time I hop on a flight. I eat before I leave home or have something in the airport or lounge if i get hungry in transit. If I were ingesting airline food on a regular basis (as a business traveler, for example) I think i would definitely be fighting weight issues! Not to mention having repetitive menus. I just don’t see why being fed is such a big deal for American flyers.

  4. Gary, you always write that the American system is better than the U.S. system for low and mid-tier elites because, by shrinking the automatic upgrade pool, AA makes it easier for those elites to get upgrades when they want them (by using stickers). I understand that this makes sense for the elite-heavy routes that you run out of DCA to big AA hubs at prime business times. But do you have evidence to actually suggest that, on average, AA low or mid tier elites have it better? I would imagine that there is a big pool of US silver/gold/plat level elites who fly less elite-heavy routes (say, out of smaller home airports) or non prime-time hours and get tons of value out of the current upgrade system. Collectively, I’d imagine that those people represent a big customer base. So while I understand your argument in the context in which you frame it (running DCA to ORD on Monday morning), I’m not sure how applicable it is to the entirety of the population being affected.

  5. @CW, I share Gary’s opinion that sticker is better than unlimited for all.

    I clear many more of my upgrades on stickers (mid level status only) than I likely would if every other platinum on the plane were going for it. It allows me to pick and choose when i want to use them and I believe I have better success getting them when i want them this way.

  6. You mention that the second criterion is whether you are connecting. Does that mean within elite level, if you are connecting, you are ahead of everyone else at your elite level who is on a non-stop itinerary? I’m not sure why that makes sense. Does it apply to each segment on a connecting itinerary or only subsequent segments?

    Also in terms of monetizing F, there will only be a revenue reduction if AA doesn’t sell upgrades for cash at a rate that doesn’t equal the revenue they got from stickers. It would be easy for them to do that, though it could result in fewer upgrades even for EXPs

  7. @CW – my personal experience as low and mid-tier on DL (and UA pre-merger) is that I’ve had excellent luck on non-elite-heavy routes (which is what I mostly am on usually). But that’s just one guy’s experience. That’s the problem whenever this subject comes up, you ask 20 people and will get 20 slightly different answers. And so many variables.

    Without some real statistics only educated guesses can be made, really. (Though there are obvious pros and cons in general, such as the ability to pick and choose when to use stickers)

    I’m not aware of any databases available to those of us outside the airlines. At one time someone on FLyerTalk set up a UA UDU database for folks to fill in all the particulars and their upgrade outcome. Not sure it got much traction. And even if it did, the universe of people entering data would obviously be limited anyway.

  8. @Carl a passenger who is coming off of another American flight has priority within their elite level over one who is not. So if I am flying DC – Dallas – Tucson, I have extra priority for the Dallas – Tucson segment but not DC – Dallas where I am originating. The idea I think is that non-stop passengers likely choose the carrier for that reason, but connecting passengers have more options and it’s about attracting incremental business at the margin.

  9. There will be some elites with better upgrade percentages at US Airways than what they would get free under the American system. True. Others who don’t, for sure, and who would struggle to use all their certs. My emphasis is on ‘when they really want the upgrade’ in other words an elite may have fewer upgrades, but under the certificate system they get upgraded when it matters more to them. I prefer that (price rationing) system over too many people chasing too few upgrade seats overall.

  10. I seriously doubt AA will give up any net revenue from the F cabin. If they move to unlimited free upgrades for all, they will find other ways to extract $ for upgrades, like our friends at United have done so well.

  11. I much prefer the sticker upgrades system.

    I like that it weeds out the people who just want to get upgraded “because they can” versus people who are actually willing to “pay” for the privilege. The free upgrade system that US has dilutes the value of the upgrade IMO, because it’s so easily attainable.

  12. Gary, I feel like you’re almost making the argument that the new American should not adopt the current policy of US Airways to waive mileage co-pays for elites, because that would uphold a higher revenue stream for the F cabin, leading to higher quality up front. Is that what you’re saying?

    I know that I, for one, would much rather have a $25-$150 mileage co-pay waived and not have a meal on short flights than get a snack/meal and have to pay the co-pay. Saving $25-$150 (the range of US Airways co-pays for non-elites) puts you far ahead, dollars and cents wise, than the reverse scenario, even if you need to spend $8 in the airport before the flight for a snack.

  13. American’s food offerings in F are outstanding – which is why I’ll buy a ticket up front about half the time. The ‘snack’ on a recent ORD-SAN evening flight was a chicken salad that included beets, pear wedges, spicy pecans and feta cheese. Bottom line – it was memorable and delicious.

  14. Why not keep both? Golds who put in 500 mile sticker requests would be upgraded ahead of other Golds for instance. There’s really no need to pick one method over the other.

  15. American should leave the sticker system alone, and get rid of the mean face clipped hair flight attendants.

  16. “American gives upgrade priority primarily based on elite status. In contrast, United and Delta will prioritize full fare customers with 25,000 mile elite status over a mid-tier fare customer with 75,000 mile elite status. They value fare on a given trip over loyalty.”

    A couple of things:

    a. As far as UA goes, this is not quite true. ANY elite can get an instant upgrade with a Y ticket. 100000 mile elites can get them with an M as well. So nothing to do with “loyalty” over fair. First come first served.

    b. “Loyalty” is a funny concept. Who is more loyal? A traveler who has flowed 3 times a year on UA BF from EWR-BOM (about 23K PQM a trip with the bonuses, total about 70K miles) or a traveler who is travelling every other week for a year on a 500 mile segment round trip on United (about 25K miles total – and still at the 25K mile elite with PQSs). I would go with the real frequent traveler vs. the higher revenue longer flying traveler…

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