If American Plays Games With Upgrades, Flights This Weekend Did NOT Prove It

This morning I wrote about a flight as an example of ‘upgrade shenanigans’ but the facts suggest something else, more unusual.

American has seemed to have gate upgrade shenanigans more frequently than in the past, and I’ve seen several passenger reports of planes going out with empty premium cabin seats with passengers remaining on the upgrade list contra policy either because gate agents didn’t bother or didn’t believe they had time to process the upgrade list properly and still get aircraft doors closed when expected.

However in any given incident it’s difficult for the passenger to know what’s going on or have all of the available data — especially when gate agents aren’t forthcoming with information.

In the case of a Los Angeles – London flight this weekend where several business class seats were left empty with customers on the waitlist, American tells me that the issue with the Boeing 777-200 was “weight and balance… not the gate agents skipping over upgrades.”

Upgrades are important to customers. They are a promised benefit of the AAdvantage redemption program (miles and copay for upgrades) and of the AAdvantage elite program (eVIP systemwide upgrades).

Knowing this, it seems to me that communication to customers could be better here. But an airline certainly shouldn’t play games with weight and balance calculation.

  • Would another passenger or six moved up from coach to business class cause actual issues on a Boeing 777 Los Angeles – London flight? Very unlikely.

  • However there are bright line measures for a reason. What you don’t want an airline doing is asking by how much can we push the envelope each time and each flight, until they get it wrong.

According to an American spokesperson,

It was a very light load in the back too, in addition to cargo, which caused the weight restriction. I can see from the notes the LAX team did call our operations center, to see if those seats could be unblocked. Unfortunately, loads was unable to unblock those once the calculations were made.

I asked about another flight this weekend where a similar issue occurred — Los Angeles Hong Kong where a passenger reports several business seats going out empty with customer upgrades not processed (also out of Los Angeles). I’m told that Beoing 777-300ER was weight and balance restricted as well.

In fact Los Angeles – Hong Kong was weight restricted two days in a row. I’m told that “[i]t looks better this evening.”

Usually I see weight and balance on widebody jets (versus, say, a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320) on short flights where they aren’t loading full fuel. Seeing this happen out of the same airport on long haul flights going opposite directions seems unusual and noteworthy!

I still want American to process upgrades correctly at the gate however I asked whether rogue gate agents weren’t processing upgrades at all and flights where I saw this reported over the weekend turn out not to be examples of this.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. That’s a shame for those who are trying to use SWUs, which are hard enough to clear, because not all of us have the schedule to book multiple international trips to use the SWUs. I understand a weight restricted flight and can’t argue with that. I would like to see more flexibility (extension of expiration date) on SWUs when they don’t clear.

  2. But if those seats were purchased and the cabin filled with paying passengers, how would the airline have handled it? I’m sure there would have been a solution so why wasn’t it found in the upgrade scenario?

  3. So, if someone wanted to buy a ticket and use those seats, they would have been told no?

  4. Oh this is BS BS BS!!!! If so, let the passenger move to Business class after the plane gets to cruise altitude! the weight and balance issue would have MAYBE been for takeoff only and def. not for normal cruise. I know its not normal policy but thats the problem with American. No service culture.

  5. I’m really confused. Are they saying that a weight shift of 180 pounds from coach to business, say row 16A instead of row 14A, would cause harm to the aircraft or make it unsafe?

    That seems ridiculous. We are not talking Amelia Earhart’s plane here.

  6. Let’s see now . . . blame our own employees for not following policy, or save money by having more passengers (stay) in Economy and lay the responsibility on a safety issue . . . Hmmmmmmmm.

    @Gary, certainly you are correct when you say that an airline should not — can not — compromise on safety. That IS first and foremost. But the question then becomes how many times can you cite safety — again, a very VALID issue/reason — before it seems more like a made-up excuse rather than a real concern. And shouldn’t this also happen on other airlines’ flights to a similar percentage?

  7. @Ryan, @Michael, @Jason:

    Do any of you work in airline ops? Are any of you 777-300ER pilots?

    No? Perhaps you should not armchair quarterback. One area where I want no corners cut is anything to do with safety of flight.

    Extreme example – but take a look at the recent crash in Columbia to see what happens when you push operational limits.

  8. This still sounds very odd, and possibly a bad CYA by AA. LAX-LHR eastbound is no big deal for a 772. Must be some pretty heavy “cargo…”

  9. As someone noted above. Were those seats also blocked for sale on the website and at the airport. Next time this happens to someone it would be interesting if they tried to buy an upgrade in cash or see if they could buy a business class ticket at the counter.

    I’d be surprised if Americn turned down 6k bucks for a last minute full fare business class tickets.

    Problem is airlines use safety card like government plays national security card. Sounds reasonable but near infinite room for abuse.

  10. @Bob, did you READ what I said, or are you just (over-)reacting? Did I not say/write, ” . . . an airline should not — can not — compromise on safety. That IS first and foremost.” Oh, I’m sorry — English can be such a confusing language; I had no idea that actually meant “Please crash the plane with all aboard.” (sigh)

    I have been told on at least two occasions (that I can recall off the top of my head) that I had to move seats due to “weight and balance” concerns. This is/can be a very REAL issue, and one cannot compromise on safety — oh, wait! let me rephrase: one cannot f**k around when to comes to safety in the air. (Is that better?) However, I’ve always been “allowed” to return to my original seat once airborne, if I so desired, but my requested seat change has never taken me out of one class of service and into another.

    But to compare the re-seating of, let’s say 500 pounds — two overweight Americans, plus what’s in the overhead and under the seat — with the idea of a flight at or beyond a plane’s maximum range (don’t you think that might be a safety issue?), strikes me as the very hyperbole you claim to decry.

    I would suggest to you that I am not AT ALL “armchair quarterbacking.” That would be far more along the lines of, “Oh, if I were the pilot/gate agent/whomever was in charge, I would have let them upgrade”; or “What’s the harm? After all, a skilled pilot would have no problem . . . ” Yet I did no such thing, did I? (Oh, right; the confusion with English.) Rather, I agreed with Gary that one cannot compromise on safety, but voiced some healthy skepticism about this being a continuing issue. Again, “the question then becomes how many times can you cite safety — again, a very VALID issue/reason — before it seems more like a made-up excuse rather than a real concern. And shouldn’t this also happen on other airlines’ flights to a similar percentage?”

    If that’s “armchair quarterbacking,” I can only presume your fantasy team isn’t doing very well . . . .


  11. Weight and balance is complicated and we can’t draw any conclusions if we didn’t see the calculations. Cargo is the biggest factor here. If the passenger load in the back was light and cargo was not (not an outlandish scenario), then it is perfectly reasonable that they would block seats to ensure proper balance. Also remember that the aircraft must stay within range throughout the entire flight. As you burn fuel, the weight and balance changes constantly.

  12. This happened to me a few weeks ago on DFW-NRT. I was #1 on the upgrade list with about 5 J seats available. I was actually cleared prior to boarding (saw in the app and actually got a new boarding pass in the AC). When my boarding pass was scanned, it did not work, and they reassigned me back to coach with my original seat.

    They said it was weight and balance. My biz seat would have only been two rows in front of my coach seat, which was frustrating, but I understand their formulas aren’t likely that precise.

  13. Where are the Mythbusters when you really need them?

    A 200 pound man moving from 14A to 16A is going to cause weight and balance issues on a 777-300?

    I’d really love to know.

  14. We just had an issue using SWUs from HKG to DFW. We were never added to the upgrade list, which is an AA screwup. I just emailed them about it and got a form response that showed that they did not AT ALL read my email to know what my issue was. However, the form response answers this issue completely, so it makes me realize that it is happening so much that they now have a form response ready for it. Here is what it said:

    “We are sorry you have had difficulty using your systemwide upgrade. It is certainly not our intention to fly empty premium cabin seats, but neither can we turn away full-fare customers who wish to purchase those seats at the last minute.

    If you find you are unable to secure upgrade space in a premium cabin when you initially book your economy class reservation, please check back with the AAdvantage® Executive Platinum Desk, or your travel agent, closer to departure. Our dedicated staff of professionals will do everything possible to satisfy your request. If we are unable to accommodate the upgrade request prior to the travel date, the request will be automatically transferred to the day of departure upgrade list when you check in.

    Still, it is unlikely we will stop holding open some premium cabin seats until closer to departure. This action is necessary to ensure full-fare availability on short notice in our premium cabins. Capacity controls limit, but by no means eliminate, the number of seats available for upgrades.”

    Again, this doesn’t address what happened on my flight, but an interesting take admits they are trying to get as much $$ as possible by delaying upgrades.

  15. Bottom line, the cargo under the deck was more important than the cargo above the deck.

    As an engineer, until they get the scale out and weigh people and their luggage, then recalculate based on where they stow their luggage, it is impossible to say weight and balance issue for one person as they don’t have the accuracy to determine that using their current methods.

    I had a flight grounded in BOG due to weight and balance which lead to pilot hours because they cut it too close at that altitude for the 737, again on the cargo. I was talking to the captain on the bus ride back to the terminal for the 8 hour delay, inquiring how they determined the weight and balance issue, if they use the strut pressures to calculate load and center of gravity, or what they do. Here is what they do: assume X kg per person, where X various by region (insert fat American with massive rollaboard joke).

    For such a gross assumption, to think the location of one person (upgrade) matters amidst such gross oversimplifications, is a flat out lie, for which the representative is too ignorant to understand, which makes them a perfect fit for the job. In order to have the level of accuracy to where the position of one unweighed person makes a statistically significant difference, they would have to either weigh each and every piece of cargo with a known position or weigh the plane once loaded, which would be impossible to have been done given the discussion occurred at the gate prior to boarding. To make matters better, they upgraded the pilot on the way back when others including myself were waitlisted with SWU.

    As others have said, its a bullshit excuse. Here is the AA excuse playbook:
    1) Weather at your airport
    2) Weather at destination airport
    3) Air Traffic Control
    4) Weight and Balance
    5) Pilot hours
    6) Weather in Antarctica which somehow created a domino effect that excuses them from being responsible for over-scheduling their planes without proper contingency plans for common operations disruptions.

    Gary, ask AA how they specifically determine weight and balance, their calculation results for that specific flight, and prove how the position of one person could have made a difference given those calculations with their corresponding uncertainty. Lets not let the facts get in the way of a good safety lie.

  16. It *does* seem pretty unlikely on wide body aircraft that are so well within their operating range even at MTOW out of the same airport going different directions on the same day. Given the reports of the same happening elsewhere, in particular, it’s probably just a convenient excuse that nobody can provably refute since nobody is privy to the cargo details.

    FWIW I know a former US Airways supervisor at DCA that upgraded me every single flight (on US Airways) despite not being elite at all, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the shenanigan culture persists with ex-US employees.

  17. On UA’s app you see how many seats are available for sale in the next cabin. This would have been a non-event if AA had a customer-centric app, as this individual would have known that none of the empty seats were available for sale.

    AA really needs to step up its game with customer information. They should know that it has *huge* ROI!

  18. I’ve been on 3 short haul AA flights in recent weeks that have left with a seat empty up front and a long upgrade list. I doubt this is a weight and balance issue. The empty seats were no shows and the gate agents didn’t come on the plane to pull people up.

  19. Interesting conversation! I wish I could just trust them to do the right things by their customers every time. And yes, safety is the right thing… but come on no more shenanigans either.

  20. Weight and balance is usually only associated during take off. In the past I have been on flights where there FA’s asked people in the back of coach not to move forward (in coach) until after take off.

    Seems like AA needs a system where they give you the upgrade seat but ask for you to say in coach until take off (above 10K feet).

  21. Weight & Balance in a 777-300? Unless there’s a built-in weighing system , or one built into the ground (some airports have this)–something that also measures the “arm” and calculates a load moment , this seems rather absurd for 2 passengers. You are changing the center of gravity by a very,very small increment .
    It’s about like saying the plane will fly faster because the 2 passengers are now in coach, because you’ve moved the CG slightly rearward. (Rear CG =higher cruising speed, but doubtful of any value in the 777 with 2 passengers moving aft).
    I don’t want to be on a 777 where the loading of 2 passengers is an issue.

  22. @James – ha ha SOOOOOO true !!!!!!


    “Gary how many American miles did AA bribe you with for this post?”

  23. I work for an airline. We fly many versions of the 777. Weight and balance is never that crucial on a 777. We are speaking about 200-400 pounds, here. If it was 800-1000 pounds, yes, big deal. Cargo weight can be moved around, easier than passengers. I think there is some degree of laziness here or management has directed staff to not utilize the upgrade list.

  24. Gary, this is embarrassing. Let’s return to hawking credit cards instead.

    Instead of asking hard and natural questions, you are just serving as mouthpiece for disinformation.

    I suppose they were turning the paying pax away, and the plane would have crashed if a couple of FAs walked around within the cabin?

  25. The issue is weight and balance, but not in the way most people here are perceiving it. Of course a 777 can fly with pretty much any kind of load distribution within its limits and two people moving around inside the cabin wouldn’t make the difference between going and being grounded.

    However, the final loadsheet (presumably generated from a CLC facility) had already been prepared based upon the cabin load distribution. Any change in the load distribution would likely result in the trim, etc… changing. Easy to recalculate, but it takes time to recalculate, transmit, cross-check and input the new settings. Not likely that this would happen close to STD with the focus on D0.

    So yes, this would have been a W&B issue but not in the context that upgrading the pax would have caused the flight to be grounded. Just that recalculating things after the upgrade would take too long and it was deemed easier by whoever was in charge to leave things be and take the on-time departure instead.

  26. @Sean M. Let’s assume your reasoning is correct. Since this was an international flight, there was a cutoff time when they could no longer sell the business class ticket. At that point, why didn’t they process all upgrades and do the necessary calculations? Why wait until boarding?

    And what if business class passengers failed to show up? Wouldn’t that also require recalculation?

    I don’t see how this is attributable to anything but poor customer service and laziness.

  27. In 1.6 million miles of flying on United and 11 years of reading FlyerTalk, I have never heard of this being an issue on UA widebodies. AA is falling short here in some way.

  28. @Bags – of course they could have done any and all of what you suggest to both satisfy the customer and get the aircraft out on time. But it would have required someone to be proactive and to actually care about getting it done. If the dispatcher and load controller simply wanted to get the plane out ASAP, W&B is a legitimate excuse to hide behind to ensure an on time departure.

    Any experienced dispatcher and pilot should know multiple “tricks” to get around this perfectly legally, but as I said before they need to actually care.

  29. I was on 193 on 12/4. There definitely were weight and balance issues – we were delayed an hour and a half after boarding on time. The reason this keeps happening out of LAX is that late night flights are forced to take off into the wind because of noise abatement rules.
    The captain announced that they were considering leaving some cargo behind.
    The flight went out with 8+ empty seats in J after they cleared about 10 out of 30 on the upgrade list.

  30. I can see where a super long haul like DFW-HKG could be weight restricted at times but I would think TATL flights less likely. Also if it is weight restricted and it’s so specific why wouldn’t you see a pattern in each cabin where passengers are reassigned seats within each cabin? Seems like an excuse to me but I’m not an expert so it really doesn’t matter what I think I guess.

  31. I think people are mixing up the two components of Weight and Balance, namely WEIGHT (which is a fixed value that cannot be exceeded) and BALANCE (which is a flexible scale that depends upon a wide range of variables).

    Once a person is checked-in to the flight, the total WEIGHT on the aircraft does not change whether he is physically sitting in Economy, Business, First, Cockpit or Cargo Hold. The BALANCE of the aircraft does however depend on how the WEIGHT is distributed on the aircraft.

    An aircraft may be WEIGHT restricted such as the case Jay_dubya refers to above, but once it is within weight limits it makes no difference if they upgrade everyone or downgrade everyone. The BALANCE however will need to be adjusted depending on where the load (pax + cargo) is located on the aircraft. This affects various settings such as the take-off thrust, trim, etc..

    On an aircraft like a 777 in passenger config, you will struggle to find a load that will throw the aircraft out of BALANCE (viz. in a configuration whereby there exists no possible solution to safely operate). However, moving a few passengers from one section of the cabin to another will make small changes in the settings required to safely operate. In the case of a single passenger on a large aircraft, this change is so small as to be entirely insignificant from a safety standpoint (and can be manually captured on the load sheet as an “LMC” or Last Minute Change to comply with the legal requirements). However, the pilot and dispatcher must be willing to make that LMC. If they are not willing to do so for any reason or indeed for no reason whatsoever other than their own discretion, then everything is technically “frozen” as per the final load sheet prepared and signed off.

    Is it a safety issue? Almost certainly not.
    Is it a legality/compliance issue? Yes.
    Could it be avoided? Of course, with a little common sense.

    I spent years dispatching 757s on 6-7 hour sectors and those flights can easily have both weight and balance issues depending on weather. I can count on one hand the number of times we couldn’t find a solution after a bit of effort and creativity. When your aircraft can go out with a single figure underload from MTOW you’ve done your job right.

  32. We can trade theories about weight and balance all day, but the more important question is: Did AA communicate with its customers? Judging by what happened to your LAX-LHR reader, the answer would appear to be NO. That’s a major problem at AA (see: flight delay communication).

    Also, how are they going to make this right? Don’t icentivize loyalty with perceived benefits and then not deliver on them. ESPECIALLY don’t do this and not communicate a reason for why. That will just piss your best customers off and drive them into the arms of another program.

  33. Physics isn’t a theory. Neither is statistics of uncertainty analysis. Their story holds no water and its embarrassing they would think the FF community would buy it. There is a fundamental difference between “uncorrectable” weight and balance issue and “we were too lazy and customer unfocused to make it work” weight and balance issue. We are being sold #1 but getting #2.

    I was on AA126 on Sunday and the gate agents were local rent an agents. My experience went along the lines of the “sold out sold out” story above. I have no faith in the customer service leaving HKG doing anything customer friendly.

    Paging the “leader in thought travel”, call out AA on this and make them confess.

  34. Weight and Balance on a 77W being used as an excuse for not upgrading folks? Completely laughable. I can’t believe some of you are falling for this.

  35. @Sean M. —> No one here has said it better than you, and as with many things in Life, it all boils down to one thing. It is “Human Nature” to resist Inertia. That is, if something requires effort, it’s easier NOT to do it . . . ;^)

    “Is it a safety issue? Almost certainly not.
    Is it a legality/compliance issue? Yes.
    Could it be avoided? Of course, with a little common sense.”

    Ahhhh, yes — common sense; so oftened discussed, yet seemingly more rare than diamonds . . .

  36. “Weight and balance” describes two issues: weight and balance. If the flight was weight-restricted, standbys would not have been cleared onto the flight since that would have added more weight. Since the people wanting upgrades already had a seat on the plane, weight was not an issue.

    American says this was a balance issue, but my experience working weight and balance says even this is far-fetched. The number of customers wanting upgrades would have been known well in advance of departure (through waitlisted segments in reservations), so a final count showing first and business full should have been planned from the beginning. With that known, the distribution of bags and cargo should have been planned to account for the passenger distribution.

    Another way to make the plane less nose-heavy (which I still find hard to believe was an issue on an international widebody flight) is to block seats in coach. Blocking a row or two or three of the front of economy can give a balance benefit too. With the load in coach as light as AA said it was, nobody would have been inconvenienced (especially not to the level of an elite denied an upgrade on an international flight) since everyone could have kept an open seat near them. If coach was so full that this was not possible, then it’s even less likely that balance was a problem.

    Something fishy going on with this flight.

  37. What a bunch of BS. You believe this Gary? I have been on this flight numerous times and biz class was full. I guarantee you that the seats were available for purchase. It’s embarrassing that they can’t even tell the truth that someone made a mistake and should have processed the upgrades. Just own the mistake and move on but now everyone will think they are just dishonest.

  38. Was on LAX-HKG the morning of Dec 6 also. They blocked a bunch of available Business seats – but then proceeded to move probably eight to ten carry-ons into the spaces above those seats. So 200 to 300 pounds of baggage is OK – but not two more passengers.
    Has this upgrade blocking been happening on HKG-LAX, too, or only LAX-HKG?

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