Internal Memo: American Airlines Prioritizes Pilots Over Passengers for First-Class Upgrades

American Airlines pilots now are prioritized ahead of customers for upgrades at the airport when they are deadheading, flying between segments on a trip that they’re working.

Some readers said ‘this is business travel’ so pilots deserve it, but most companies don’t pay for first class on domestic travel, and certainly not companies like American Airlines that lose money in what should be their best quarter (their third quarter loss was due to cash payments… to pilots).

American Airlines gave this to pilots in their latest contract because United pilots already had it. But United at least got something from their pilots in exchange during the pandemic – flexibility in how they scheduled pilots to avoid furloughs and keep everyone flying and current, which benefited their operation and reliability. It saved United millions, while American’s pandemic furloughs wound up costly as the airline didn’t have enough ready pilots to fly their schedule and they had to both scale back flying and delay and cancel flights.

Here’s the full detail, from an internal memo, on how pilot priority for first class upgrades works now at American Airlines.

American clearly isn’t being run for shareholders. Six years ago their CEO bet an analyst that the airline’s stock price would hit $60 by November 2018. It fell to shockingly low levels even before the pandemic and now the stock is near pandemic lows.

I don’t think anyone believes the airline is run for customers? So that leaves employees, but flight attendants are wearing pins saying they’re ready to go to WAR and customer care agents are furious. So only pilots are happy these days? At a minimum they’re flying up front more than before.

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. When ANY business puts its employees before the customers (ALWAYS), the business will eventually fail. Always. The beginning of a terrible end for AA. They lost their concept of customer care a long time back (“our product is the schedule”).

  2. Lazy of you Gary. Posted EXACT same article a couple of days ago 3 million miler w AA and have NO PROBLEM w a dead head pilot getting priority for first. As you know (but still stir the click bait) this isn’t flying to/from their base or on personal travel but the times they are flying between assignments and will then be piloting a plane.

    Guess you are butt hurt it may take an upgrade seat away from you and then you will have to squeeze yourself into a coach seat. So sorry but please just let it go!!!

  3. Gary

    I don’t work for AA but I’m guessing by now you know when contracts are negotiated you start with a total value and divide up pieces and parts, each piece has a cost. So the pilot group paid for that perk it was not free. Of customers paid either thru cash or miles for first class there would be no seat for the pilot to receive. I think you are whining because it limits your ability to get something for free , at least the pilots paid for the upgrade. Sorry not buying at all what you are selling. You are wrong again how it works, stick to miles you are good at that.

  4. In reality it is all going great for everyone!
    Flight attendants are flying 160 hours a month and getting “big bucks” to pay for their crowded crash pads ! And the old ones are getting into their 401k to cover the costs of living! The CEO getting paid millions in bonuses +share options! It is all good and nothing new in this industry where the old tactics of dividing and conquer still. Works.
    Just wait next year by November the apfa union will be released to a 30 day cooling off and a “strategic strike “the shares goes to $5 bucks just to reach an agreement of 25% rise in a 5 year contract and no retro payments.
    This is not for sure but it is what will happen or the big wigs will declare bankruptcy close the airline and start a new one …like I’m saying nothing new in this business.
    Business as usual and tough luck busters.

  5. @30West: When Gary chose to earn status, he sacrificed other earning potential for the promise of various benefits like upgrades. Usually, passengers who gain the advantage of elite status or a cabin upgrade are the most valuable clients of an airline. Most elite passengers do not like their earned benefits reduced or challenging to redeem.

  6. Pilots saying well rested selves benefit customers. Wondering how they got by before. I’d prefer we’ll rested Uber driver who doesn’t have autopilot.

  7. @Ken, I totally understand your point, do you understand the pilots paid for that? That would of been costed out by (LR) labor relations for management as worth so many million dollars of value, then the pilots negotiators would of haggled over the number and eventually both sides came to an agreement as to the price. Then the overall valuation that management had allocated for the pilot contract was reduced by the agreed to amount. That is how labor contracts work. So , either side could of said no, pilots could of said instead of first class all pilots get $20 more per hour of work for example instead or management could of said no we don’t want to negotiate that for the pilot group at any price. So once again Gary is unhappy management agreed to negotiate to allow pilots in first class as a contractual agreement. Unfortunately, the pattern was already set at another major airline. I still say if you are a highly enough frequent flyer you get the seat when booking, do you get upset when the airline emails passengers asking if they want to pay a fee to upgrade and that causes the frequent flyer to “ lose” the free upgrade . Last week AA emailed and yes I upgraded for $65 to first class clearly taking a seat from a FF who would of upgraded the day of for free. I have no status on AA. Sorry that’s the game played in the airline business.

  8. Pilots got the sweetheart deal of the century in this most recent contract. Guarantees that AA will lose money from flying – core business – in a normal month with normal oil prices… AA future profitability contingent upon on fuel dropping 20% and staying there. AA couldn’t afford this pilot deal and thus FAs and other workgroups are going to be left holding the bag. If oil heads north, Isom & Co. are truly up sh*ts creek.

  9. @30West: I agree with you. When you upgraded for $65 to American Airlines first-class, you removed from the seat inventory a seat that could be assigned to a frequent flyer who would be upgraded for free. You also removed this seat from a deadheading union pilot because your assigned seat can’t be reversed. The American Airlines memo says, “If a customer has already been cleared for an upgrade prior to a deadheading pilot being added to the upgrade list, the customer upgrade will not be reversed.” I recommend billing the $65 upgrade to an American Airlines co-branded credit card for an additional AAdvantage mile bonus. Enjoy the first-class service on your American Airlines flight.


  11. So AA is screwing over employees (pilots excepted), screwing over customers, and screwing over shareholders. You gotta love that AmericaWest ULCC DNA. What has me stumped is how the board is just accepting this. Surely they must realize that American is desperately in need of actual leadership rather than the post-merger inept management they’ve had for years?

  12. American values co-branded credit cards and spend. Passengers are, at most, a side concern for American, as their gate agents and flight attendants will happily tell you.

  13. As a 39 year pilot for American, my overriding priority is being as well rested and nourished before flying.

    Sometimes our schedules require long deadheads before flying. It’s much better to rest and eat in a business class seat than in the last row middle coach seat.
    Also being in the front allows us to get to our plane we’re then flying sooner with more time to prepare for that leg.

  14. This topic makes me wonder how many pilot deadhead segment seats are flown daily, on average. (Real deadheads only—not commutes or other non-company non-rev.)

    My hunch is that the numbers would make this rant much ado about nothing.

  15. I prefer that any pilot on any flight I take be as well rested as possible, and to me that means not crammed into a middle seat in the back of the economy section.

  16. I’m deadheading on Christmas day, an AA pilot. I can upgrade my seat on, that is the only place where I can upgrade, and it never, ever, shows business class seats as an option, even though there are 13 empty seats in business right now. I haven’t deadheaded in business or 1st in over four years, and I deadhead a lot. The computer automatically gives me a middle seat in back, I can upgrade to open coach seats, but no option to even request business. Read the memo, if I use the correct website, I can be put on the upgrade list as early as 24 prior. But customers will already have their upgrades, business class will be full of upgrades as always. I hope you got lots of the clicks that pay your bills and get you deferential treatment at the airlines, but your story is deceptively harmful to my airline.

  17. “At time of check-in”, which is no earlier than 24 prior, and only if I manually check in with a certain app or website, I can be put on the upgrade list. Then, only if there are empty business seats, one can be assigned. I fly a lot of flights, deadhead a fair amount, and there are very rarely business seats empty 24 prior. Upgrades are cheap when there are empty seats.

    I deadhead a lot, haven’t deadheaded in business or 1st in over four years. Probably half my deadheads are surprise deadheads, no way to get signed in for an upgrade in those cases. This might put me ahead of other employees, if I’m willing to make a stink about it. Agents control upgrades, and will stand their ground to get a buddy upgraded.

  18. The pilots are repositioning to operate a flight. If you think your single seat is worth more then a pilot that will fly 180 of those same seats, you are mistaken. Crew are more valuable than you, whether you like it or not.

  19. As much as I dislike AA, the writer of this article clearly has continuous beef with this airliner. The issue goes back to the article writer not being offered the highest status. Delta did give the article writer the highest status (invite only), this now the article writer’s sole goal is to bash AA. Pilots got what they deserve and based on what has been published, they paid for it in other ways. Those who wont a premium seat, should BUY a premium seat. Stop complaining about not getting free upgrades.

  20. @Ham123 “The issue goes back to the article writer not being offered the highest status. Delta did give the article writer the highest status (invite only),”


    I have been an American Airlines Executive Platinum or higher continuously for 14 years. I earned ConciergeKey at one point as well. I have never held Delta’s 360 status.

    Airline status has never been ‘given’ or ‘offered’ to me, but rather ‘earned’.

  21. Rather have a first class seat given to a pilot whose earned it as opposed to a freeloading EP whose only seating in the front due “loyalty”. At the pilot has paid for his upgrade with his labor

  22. Potentially runs afoul of the Internal Revenue Code – Section 132(b)(2). Allowing a fringe benefit through forfeited revenue is a taxable benefit

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