Data Shows How People Actually Upgrade to First Class on American Airlines

Fifteen years ago most of domestic first class cabins were filled with upgrades. On average about 10% of domestic first class seats were sold for cash. That’s changed.

  • The cost of first class came down. You don’t often see first class fares that are 8 times the cost of coach anymore.

  • Airlines introduced fixed buy up offers to first class. Whatever the coach fare, there’d be a first class fare a fixed amount more expensive. As a result first class might be just 50% more than coach.

  • Then carriers started monetizing the seats they didn’t sell outright. For instance as a non-elite on United I’ve been prompted to buy first class at check-in for very low amounts (less than $60) and even told how many elites were waiting for an upgrade as an inducement to buy.

Upgrades are far tougher than they used to be. American Airlines monetizes about half their domestic first class cabin. But how are the upgrades that still exist obtained? JonNYC shares some data from American.

Unsurprisingly most domestic upgrades are part of the electronic upgrade system.

  • Complimentary for ConciergeKey, Executive Platinum, and Platinum Pro members
  • Complimentary for all members under 500 miles
  • Otherwise supported by ‘500 mile upgrades” (formerly known as stickers) that are earned through flying or purchased.

About 20% of upgrades are confirmed – with systemwide upgrades given to Executive Platinum and ConciergeKey members and to million milers starting at the 2 million mile threshold (and each million thereafter) or with miles, generally 15,000 miles and $75 for most domestic tickets.

Confirmed upgrades can be reserved at time of booking, if space is available – in any case generally earlier than electronic upgrades are processed. And confirmed upgrades are actually reticketed – and protected in the higher class of service in the event of irregular operations.

Finally 5.6% of upgrades are ‘day of departure’ or what used to be known as ‘load factor based upgrades’ – upgrades offered for a price to customers at check-in. Generally American hasn’t monetized the way that United has, selling upgrades at check-in instead of giving upgrades to elites.

Just as notably, perhaps, are the things not on this list.

If you’re going to try a more unconventional approach the one I recommend is,

Disguise yourself as a mimosa: Alcoholic beverages are complimentary in first class, so if you dress up as a cocktail, you can sit down without anyone realizing you’re actually a human who belongs in coach.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. “as a non-elite on United I’ve been prompted to buy first class at check-in for very low amounts (less than $60)”

    As an elite the cheapest I’ve ever seen is $109 and that was for a DEN->SLC 1 hour flight on a regional jet…maybe they know I’ve been in first class before and think that means I’ll pay more to be back up there.

  2. Depending on the time of week/day and destination (hub/nonhub) my EXP wife is upgraded about 70% of the time. As a PLAT using my 500 upgrades, it is about 20% of the time, although if we are traveling together AA makes sure they upgrade me when they upgrade her.

    NWA / DL upgrades were much harder to get, but my days as Gold at TWA seemed to always get an upgrade.

    Thank goodness for MCE however, just happy to get a cocktail and 2 inches of extra leg room.

  3. Would be interesting to know how that 75% breaks down: complimentary versus used actual 500-mile upgrades.

  4. I think that you’re actually supposed to whisper “revenue management” rather than say it. I’m not sure if that’s attempting to be conspiratorial or sultry.

  5. Dress nicely say you are on your honeymoon whisper revenue management
    and drop a 20 in their hand works like a charm every time;)

  6. I booked LAX-JFK, and requested an upgrade using miles. I was told that I was on a waitlist.
    I cleared 24 hours before departure, and assumed they needed the miles and fee for the upgrade when I checked in. When I got to the desk, however, I was told that I was upgraded using 500-mile certificates.
    First, I am ONLY Platinum — I gotta figure there were plenty of Executive Platinums (or even Platinum Pros) on my LAX-JFK flight, so not sure how I have jumped them.
    More importantly, I was ASKING to pay $75 and use 15,000 AA miles. Why on Earth would they use 500-mile certificates (and $0 in fees) instead?

  7. Gary-
    I’m looking at booking 2 one-way award trips on KLM with Chase points. JFK/AMS/CDG then AMS/JFK return. If i get off in AMS on initial leg will KLM cancel the separate one way return award?

    Thanks for your help,


  8. I’d love it if AA made it easier to buy up to F after purchase. If I buy the ticket through my work Travel Agent it can’t be done online.

  9. I remember getting complementary upgrade to first class by the ticket agent just because I was cute. Those days seem to be over. I was spoiled. So I still ALWAYS ask for first class with an impish smile but now they laugh at me. I don’t know why, I’m still cute.

  10. Article makes it seem so MFcomplicated, like there’s some secret code. You know how I do it? C’mere, lean in closer…i book a first class ticket. Shh! I know, CRAZY, right? Lmao

  11. We only need first or biz class for long haul where the upgrades starts from $800. Is that upgrade fee can be at $300 then it would be great.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *