American’s Reciprocal Upgrades are Good, But Are They Enough? What I Would Have Done Instead

American and US Airways announced reciprocal elite upgrade benefits this week — at checkin within 24 hours of flight.

And they let us know the next step is integrating the programs themselves, rather than taking a next step to treat each others’ elites equally while they’re still separate airlines.

Upgrades are built on top of existing processes, available only at check-in when they’re offered to anyone elite or not. They’re free for American elites flying US Airways (all US Airways domestic upgrades are free) and they will come at a cost for US Airways Silvers, Golds, and Platinums on American (since American charges elites below top tier for upgrades).

This is a positive step, one I expect to see benefits from flying US Airways out of Washington National. I often get offered upgrades at check-in, now those will be free for me.

I would have done things differently… better, I think, but there are obviously smart people considering tradeoffs here at the airline and they’ve come to a different conclusion.

So is this upgrade process good enough? How could it have been done better?

Good Enough, For Now

This half-step of first-come first-serve upgrades if available at check-in is absolutely better than what we had before (no reciprocal upgrades). I expect to find this very useful, personally.

But it’s only a half measure, and it’s likely all we’ll see before the two programs actually merge. All they’ve told us is that will happen ‘in 2015’ but they haven’t pegged a specific date.

If they merge the programs early in 2015, this is fine. I wouldn’t spend more on IT resources than I had to either on a temporary solution. We could be 7 or 8 months away from no longer needing a band aid.

But if the process drags on and the airlines don’t combine until late 2015, then the occasional hard to get upgrade within 24 hours of flight doesn’t cut it as a solution for 18 months.

They need to make these airlines the same sooner rather than later, they need to realize the benefits of having each airline’s customers choosing both airline’s flights as soon as possible. And customers need that, too.

What I Would Have Done Instead

There’s no question the challenges in what American is driving towards are myriad. Getting the American and US Airways systems talking to each other from scratch, when the two airlines didn’t even start out as partners, is hard.

But they’re going to have a huge data challenge when they do combine airlines and frequent flyer programs. One of the hurdles is data matching — they have to figure out whose AAdvantage account ties to which US Airways Dividend Miles account when an member has one of each. People have the same names, sometimes the addresses are different (a non-current address or a separate home and business address). Sometimes addresses are even the same (parent and child with the same name).

They could have helped their data challenge while doing more for member upgrades by letting elite members link their accounts and status match. An AAdvantage Executive Platinum could link their Dividend Miles account and become a US Airways Chairmans Preferred member.

A member would just give their Chairmans Preferred number when flying US Airways, and their Executive Platinum when flying American. And then they’d simply combine elite qualifying miles earned during 2014 to determine 2015 status (and combine elite qualifying miles earned in 2015 to determine 2016 status when the integration of the airlines doesn’t happen immediately upon the start of 2015).

This isn’t an original idea, past mergers have let members link accounts and status match. So no doubt the AAdvantage folks had this idea too and decided not to pursue it — I’m sure they had reasons.

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. Certainly I would prefer the solution you described, but it is not without some challenges.

    1) What do you do with US Airways Platinum Members, as there is no equivalent status on AA?

    2) How do you deal with the differential between EQP on American and only EQM on US. Since the earning charts are so different, I think that combining the programs would have been difficult.

    3) The situation of earning too many EQM via Credit Cards (via the Citi Exec and the US Airways Barclays) They would have to exclude one or the other, which might upset some.

    4) Do matched members of the other programs get the SWUs?

    5) What would happen during codeshares when one leg is operated by AA and the other by US?

  2. As an AA GLD, I prefer the approach they’ve taken, and not (just) because if I’m quick with the mouse I can beat out you EXPs. By letting me upgrade my US flights while using my AA number, I can fly codeshares and upgrade on US while still earning miles towards my next 10K set of AA upgrade stickers. If I were flying under a status-matched DM number, that counter wouldn’t move.

  3. Gary, I agree with much of what you are stating, however here’s how it really works in the airline world.

    1. Even though AA/US did not have an existing ‘code share’ partnership, they did have a through checkin and ticketing agreement in place. Those are the MAJOR hurdles for any airline partnership, as EDIFACT messaging standards need to be matched and tested. But once done that’s it, there’s a partnership in place. Code share doesn’t matter one bit, it’s just a deeper level of communication and coordination that happens in the background. So don’t let AA off the hook by telling you that was the reason they had such a tough go at it.

    2. One of the reasons AA and US are having a difficult time with the FF side of the house (and I’d ask your AA sources next time to verify) is the old US FF# format prior to the HP/US merger. Those were Alfa-numeric and US rolled them over in the merger without changing them for those customers. Well, now you have the case where those people holding those old US #s have a high likelihood of matching an existing identical, but unrelated AA FF# since those are also alpha-numeric. So what do you do? Give all US members a new #? That seems most logical and is what pmUA did, but it does add to the complexity.

    3. This all comes down to money. AA is being very, very cheap here compared to DL and UA and I won’t let them off the hook so easy. To solve #2 above AA and US could have just status matched each other the way past mergers did as a short term solution. But instead AA is making puzzling moves, watching as elites grind their teeth.

    Bottom line is this solution is totally inadequate and unnecessary. We are what, 9 months or more into this merger and USdbaAA still can’t figure out the right thing to do when they have a template roadmap (2 actually) right in front of them!?

  4. @Gary — You always make the wrong conclusion that there are smart people working at airlines.

  5. Just tried to upgrade as an EXP on a USAir flight tomorrow. Seven seats left, but in checking in, their website only offered to let me pay $133 to upgrade. What?

    Took the time (:45) to call up USAir, hang on hold, and the clueless agent first said these upgrades “might” be for the future. Read her the AA communique. She went off to a supervisor who told me that although my AA EXP number is in, showing “Emerald”, nothing can be done and maybe I should ask at the gate tomorrow. THANKS! I have a 6am flight.

    Their IT is screwed up, and no apology, no abilty to put me on a list manually, just pass the buck. Disappointing.

  6. @SST i can’t speak to your reservation of course but I have heard reports of success today. Will be interesting when I try later in the month and to get more data points. Sorry to hear day 1 didn’t go smoothly for you!

  7. Tried changing seats again now, post-checkin. Nothing doing. Still $110 to upgrade with 5 seats showing vacant, and no shot at getting on any standby list. They clearly haven’t programmed this option for my flight, as I’m shown with my correct AA status listed and acknowledged.

  8. @SST – if it were me I’d pay the $110 and write to customer relations, but that might be its own aggravation. I’d probably wind up frustrated and disputing the charge with my credit card company which adds its own set of complications on top!

  9. Well, disappointed at the gate “early” this morning. No upgrade for me, although the whole F cabin was upgrades apparently, according to the captain. The gate agent could in fact place me on the upgrade list, and I was the sole one on the list.

    Rubbish. The US IT team has surely blown this marketing round.

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