I Was First on the Upgrade List and I Didn’t Clear!

I’m driven nuts by upgrade issues like American Airlines agents not handing out upgrades to passengers who aren’t waiting in the gate area or not bothering to process upgrades at the gate because they’re too busy (so first class seats go out empty while passengers on the upgrade list sit in back).

Most of the time though what looks like shenanigans turns out to have a perfectly logical explanation on closer inspection. For instance a year ago there were some weight and balance issues that meant business class seats went out empty on Boeing 777-300ER transpacific flights.

Here’s an upgrade list where I’m number one, one person’s upgrade clears, and it wasn’t me.

On first glance anyone might think that I got hosed, maybe the gate agent knew the person second on the list? In fact,

  • This list was processed correctly.

  • Agents rarely intentionally manipulate the list, it’s not worth their job to do so, getting caught would have serious consequences.

There are plenty of reasons why a passenger might appear to get ‘passed over’ for an upgrade. For instance I’ve been added to a flight after upgrades have already processed. So I’m added to the list and show up above people whose upgrades have cleared. There are no first class seats left.

In this case I was flying with my wife who was 8th on the list. Knowing that we wouldn’t clear together we opted to keep the row of coach we had to ourselves (there was no third passenger in the row) rather than one of us taking a seat up front. I simply told the gate agent to skip me. I remained on the list, while she cleared the person who was second.

Sometimes I see reports of two passengers traveling together and the person with lower elite status clears ahead of the one with higher status. Shenanigans, right? Except it may be on closer inspection that the two passengers had originally been on the same reservation, and both passengers were treated as having the higher status. The reservation gets split, and the lower status passenger — retaining their sponsor’s status — clears first. Again, the system working as-designed even though the facts appear strange.

My point is this. Sometimes mistakes are made. Sometimes agents don’t handle the upgrade list the way they’re supposed to. Overall this is rare, but it matters a great deal when it happens to you.

However it’s a good idea to approach these sorts of situations with humility. Most of the time there’s a logical explanation which the gate agent will not know. If you’re convinced, perhaps because of chatter you overhead, that something nefarious happened then your best bet is to follow up with customer relations later, succinctly share the facts you’re aware of, and ask them to look into it.

Never make a scene with the gate agent, or take the issue up with a flight attendant who isn’t in a position to resolve it for you. (This is another reason by the way why I strongly prefer my upgrades to be handled in advance!)

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. I had my wife at #8 on the upgrade list LAX-AUS two weeks ago while I was #1. I asked the agent to process her upgrade and not mine. We could have switched boarding passes but I wanted to be able to get a free lunch in coach. Bet there were some dirty looks when #8 all of a sudden cleared ahead of everyone else.

  2. I don’t understand the annoyance with people getting upgraded who aren’t in the boarding area… That person could be delayed and on an inbound flight, AA could be boarding 30 minutes early as they sometimes do or that passenger could be in AC, no matter what the reason, I don’t see why being at the gate should be necessary. Now if seats go unfilled thats annoying.
    I was recently number one for an upgrade and someone appeared ahead of me on the list, AA boarded 30 minutes early, I showed up 10 mins past scheduled boarding time, all groups had boarded, one spot in FC, the guy ahead of me had cleared. After waiting a bit I politely asked the FA, she checked came back and said the guy had checked in, but if he doesn’t show they’ll move me there. Sure enough guy shows, they shut the door 5-10 mins early and we depart. If I was that guy, and I cleared and I showed up and someone else was in my seat simply bc I wasn’t at the gate when AA started their boarding 30 minutes early, I would be pretty darn annoyed.

  3. I got screwed out of an upgrade, Friday 1/12 AA606 DFW-CLT.

    T-1 hour, Expert Flyer was showing J2 and 2 seats open on the seat map, 4A & 4C. Between then and boarding, EF still showed J2 but the seats were filled in on the seat map. Nobody on the upgrade list cleared. When I boarded, 2 college age adults were sitting in 4A and 4C marveling at how the tray table comes out of the seat. EF showed J2 all the way up until we pushed back. My gut feeling was the GA put her son and a friend in those 2 seats.

    I emailed customer relations to simply ask if the proper procedures were followed and they replied by saying “it appears that the upgrade procedures were not followed, and you should have received one of those seats” and deposited 10,000 miles in my account.

  4. Another thing I see on the JFK-SFO flight that I’m often on is that the list shows people on the list for Y->J and J->F queues. So someone might be 10 on the priority list but their upgrade clears because there are seats in first whereas I’m #1 on the list awaiting Y->J. I’ll usually get the seat that the other person just vacated, but it may take a while.

  5. Several possibilities on AA based on my experience last year when I was EXP:
    (1) When I was using my system-wide upgrades for domestic flights, or at the end of international flights, sometimes I did not even show up on the upgrade list. But was upgraded before the waiting list.
    (2) Also, when I had an 8 hour delay out of Mexico, I was upgraded over the whole list through some sort of special priority on the DFW-LGA leg. This is a leg that I did not expect to be upgraded on because of the larger number of EXP that spent way more than me on the list (in other words, there is no way I was going to get the upgrade based on published rules) and there was only one open seat.

  6. I am Plat and waiting for an upgrade for tomorrow. 3 seats left 24 hours to go and yet nothing. And they say 48 hours which is total B.S.

  7. If this was UA, that seat would have been TOD’d long before getting to the gate and nobody would have gotten the upgrade

  8. Very clever of #2 on the list to grab your upgrade by the subterfuge of booking his ticket under the name “Other Gary”.

  9. Wow. It sucks that this happened but nice AA gave the 10k and admitted it. You can’t always get employees to follow the rules and that’s what service recovery is for.

  10. @laxjeff – Complete D and unethical move. You even cheated the airline out of the coach F&B by going back to coach (when your wife wouldn’t have gotten one w/o being EXP if the gate agent processed as he/she should have). I bet you also take the aisle and window on WN flights hoping no one sits in the middle……

  11. @ BB – So the guy let his wife be upgraded in his place and sat in what was her coach seat with an AA lunch (*gags*) as the consolation prize. Who cares? Are you an AA bean counter? If so, you can deduct the cost of @LAXJeff’s meal from the $40 I paid for a useless 500 mile upgrade.

  12. Yeah, @laxjeff, so unethical taking a sandwich and a $2 mini bottle of scotch from a multi-billion dollar company.

  13. Scott : this is an important point. While I couldn’t give a rats ass about American (even though I am lifetime gold), the multi billion dollar size has nothing to do with the ethics of it. Ethics has to do with right and wrong, proper and improper. Your rationale justifies stealing anywhere. So while I agree with you implied outcome, I object to your LACK of ethics.

  14. Excellent point.. You sound like the guy I just heard chastise both the gate agent and an FA who was seated in First Class bc he “paid” for it and was somehow angry at an FA got a seat in first? Even though there was no one on the upgrade list. The FA was pretty good she said “sir I have worked for this company for 43 years….”
    I agree you want a seat in first, buy it but to let it go to waste bc no one bought it, is a shame.

  15. To Rusty:
    If a flight is full in Y but has some seats in F/J, AA will try to sell those till the very last moment. I have a flight tomorrow together with another EXP. There are 4 seats in F available but our upgrades did not clear yet.

  16. I was on the LaGuardia to Washington shuttle last week with six seats open F and the gate agent was preparing to close the door. I asked him if he was planning on clearing the upgrade list and he said there was no time. This was approximately 12 minutes prior to scheduled departure . Several of us gave him the stink eye and he told us to just sit wherever you want. The flight went out with empty seats in F and Mostly full in back.

    An upgrade on the Shuttle is no big deal but it’s sad that AA can’t even accomplish basic customer service responsibilities. Nor do they care! My expectations for AA are so low.

  17. Pay for first and throw away the anxiety meds.

    Better yet, pay for first and take MORE anxiety meds then have a few drinks.

  18. @steve, I hear what you’re saying… On the other hand, we all know that the gate agents hold the power, so if they agreed to it, I think calling it unethical is a bit of a stretch.

  19. “The reservation gets split, and the lower status passenger — retaining their sponsor’s status”

    IME, that has not happened. When I’ve split a PNR, the lower level passenger assumes their own elite status (if any). Have I not been treated correctly?

  20. That’s probably a Garcia.. and probably bribed the agent!
    That’s sadly a true probability because is very common to do thing that way here in the third world.

    if I trigger some liberals with the uncomfortable truth, then lucky me!.

  21. The app helped me from getting hosed. Asked if they would come get me if I boarded, I got assurance they would. (And I’ve had positive experiences before)

    I board as I’m #7 and the are 5 open seats. I see #9 clear— I pop out of my seat as the gate agent is on the plane. She said “I know I told you to board, but I didn’t know it was on miles and co-pay and we don’t have time to collect the co-pay” (t-8).

    I say that is unacceptable , repeatedly (but not raising my voice) half worried I’m going to get tossed off the plane. A supervisor happens to come on board. He tries the same explanation and I said well I’m also entitled to a free upgrade so if you don’t want my co-pay give it to me for free. That worked surprisingly. number nine was sent back and I got upgraded.
    Hard to believe that they would need a credit card imprint even though it was all set up on the waiting list.

    So for miles and copay, I guess never board if you want an upgrade.

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