New Restrictions on Systemwide Upgrades Would Kill Top Tier AAdvantage Status

JonNYC tweets about American considering a change to their systemwide upgrades that are provided to Executive Platinum and ConciergeKey members: that they would only be usable by the member themselves (and presumably other passengers on the same reservation) and could no longer be gifted to family or friends.

Is American Ending the Ability to Gift Systemwide Upgrades?

Jon doesn’t write about such things just to stir the pot, he’s clearly been told this is an idea on the table. One Mile at a Time says American has “no plans to change their systemwide upgrade policy.” Although that’s not inconsistent with considering such a change going forward (having no plans is not the same thing as won’t solidify plans).

In fact, he’s confident enough that it’s an idea on the table he suggests writing to American to let them know your feelings about it.

Gifting Upgrades Isn’t Why Upgrades are Hard to Get

Obviously the biggest issue for people with confirmable upgrades is being able to use those upgrades. If American made this change they would tell you it’s in order to make the upgrades easier to use. And a limited number of upgrades would go to top tier elites themselves rather than the friends of other top elites.

However it’s disingenuous in the extreme to suggest the challenge in using these upgrades has anything to do with too much demand. In 2016 they cut the number of systemwide upgrades they give at 100,000 miles in half from 8 to 4. Fewer systemwide upgrades in circulation didn’t make upgrades easier to get because upgrade inventory has gotten far less generous.

The challenge using these upgrades has nothing to do with the number of upgrades available and everything to do with offering fewer premium seats on the fleet, and refusing to allow those seats to be taken by confirmable upgrades.

Suggesting the issue is too much competition from other elites — putting member vs. member rather than member vs. stingy revenue management — would be scapegoating in the extreme.

Also fighting back against the narrative that this is about making sure that Executive Platinums and ConciergeKey members themselves get upgraded and not friends and family of other top elites is the fact that they just increased the upgrade priority of companions.

The truth is it’s all about breakage, making upgrades cheaper to offer because more of them would go unused if they cannot be given away. And by the way they’d be taking away benefits and scaling back costs at the same time they are requiring more revenue from a customer to earn these in the first place.

Gifting Upgrades is Important for Customer Loyalty

Eliminating the transferability of upgrades focuses too heavily on the spreadsheets and misses the loyalty drivers of the program. Currently if you can’t use them yourself you can at least give them away. If you fly exclusively domestically you can still give them away.

Most importantly giving your loved ones a better experience is often more important than having that experience yourself. Hyatt has their ‘Guest of Honor’ benefit where a top elite gifting an award night also gifts their status for the stay and I don’t understand why the importance of this isn’t better understood.

You spend your travel year with a brand, you’re the best ambassador possible for the brand, you want the people who matter most to you t have the same experience that you do. You want to be their travel hero. Flying business class is nice. Being able to give that to a best friend, or a child, or sibling is even more important because it reaffirms the value of your loyalty in a meaningful social context.

Systemwide upgrades are the most valuable benefit of 100,000 mile elite status. For me, though, most of my paid travel is domestic since most of my work travel is domestic. When I travel internationally I use miles. And I’m certainly not going to risk traveling internationally on American Airlines in coach with their 10-abreast seating on Boeing 777s and 9-across seats on 787s. So I’m not going to buy coach and waitlist for an upgrade. As a result I wind up giving away my systemwide upgrades.

If I can no longer do this, the most valuable Executive Platinum perk will have zero value to me whatsoever.

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. @gary – If you haven’t noticed over the past years that AA is not concerned about customer loyalty then you’ve completely missed the boat. This change to upgrades shouldn’t come as a surprise, it’s just one more degradation of service in a long line of them…

  2. AA wants to be a lcc domestically and hasn’t quite figured out what they want to be Internationally.

    AA considers their loyalty program a burden and they are trying to reduce it with small cuts and incisions. It is all about increasing AA’s opportunities access people’s wallets.

  3. This is the AA zeitgeist.

    As somebody who will never be gullible enough to be an AA high Elite again, this will benefit me by making it easier to score an empty J award seat or mileage/fees upgrade, at the expense of AA’s better and more loyal customers. Works for me, but the fact that AA thinks this sort of thing works for them is beyond me and is the sort of reason why they’ve lost so much business from me.

  4. I applaud this and other VFTW posts in taking AA to task and agree with the comments critical of AA. But I would just add that this is the price of oligopoly. AA simply doesn’t need to compete in the way that many businesses in other industries do. Like others, I’ve drastically cut back flying on AA, especially never flying it on international business class trips. But it simply doesn’t matter for such a protected airline in such a protected industry.

  5. How is it that a business buys another business, then tries its hardest to drive customers and revenue AWAY from the combined entity?

    If I were a shareholder, I’d be concerned that the AA Executive Management is ALLEGEDLY attempting to sabotage the company deliberately.

  6. I’m literally waiting for the board to fire Doug Parker and correct many of the draconian policies he has implemented that chase elite customers away from AA. They can’t decide what they want to be in terms of a top airline or LCC. The domestic fleet is going the LCC route while they have these beautiful planes flying internationally. The LCC route is not the way to go to compete with the best. They need to figure this out quickly or they will continue losing money flying customers.

  7. @Steve, look at the AAL stock price since 2016-2017, compare the chart to the price of Jet Fuel, and rethink that. I don’t think American’s shareholders are feeling the glee about that oligopoly.

  8. Gary, How about some press on:
    How RPU’s & GPU’s on United are largely un-usable.
    How premium cabin saver awards on United seemingly no longer exist.
    How united/expedia spat will devalue Chase points / United transfers completely.

    The American situation is all speculation.
    It is a fact that United upgrade instruments are next to impossible to use, and premium cabin awards can rarely be found with the exception of routing through China or Cairo.

    I would argue that 1k status on United has already become worthless.

  9. A change in airline management won’t do a whole lot of good for travel consumers.

    The circumstances in the industry and the economy are such that cutbacks from what consumers get out of these programs is under fire and it’s become a game of consumers mainly paying more to get less than what was included before, all at the consumers’ expense.

  10. “…. is full speed ahead and it’s become a game of consumers mainly paying more to get less ….”


  11. Surprised? No. In 2018, 1 of my 4 SWUs expired unused. Will I be able to use/gift all of my 4 SWUs for 2019? Probably not. Seems tough these days to even use one on an unspecial 737-800 domestic FC product. And, like you, Gary, I’m not in the game of roulette where I buy an international coach ticket on AA and just hope my SWU clears. I guess that AA figures that since they don’t have nearly as many premium seats (be that MCE, PE, or Business) as UA, that the best way to fix that problem is just to make the few premium seats they have less available to all but paying passengers, screwing any EP loyalty in the process. Good luck with that American. Really, good luck

    Gary, I’ve got to disagree with you on one point. I don’t think SWUs are the most valuable benefit of EP anymore–and haven’t been for awhile.

    For me, the best benefit of EP by a mile is the ability to change/add/delete segments and reissue award tickets multiple times, saving hundreds of dollars each time. Yes, even that has become more difficult with AA’s “married segments” strategy for awards, but it’s the one thing that has kept me flying enough to keep EP. And now that I haven’t flown AA since mid-December, I intend to maximize that benefit through 1/31/2020 as I work to burn up every one of 1.3MM miles on international partner awards….and keep changing them until the trips are as perfect as they can be!

    After 2.5MM miles on UA and countless years of 1K, I switched to AA six years ago. I was happy with that move for a couple of years, but the past 3-4 years–all downhill. So, starting 2019, I’ve moved my business back to UA. Yes, UA has its problems, especially its suboptimal international product. But like you, Gary, most of my travel is domestic. And for me, the abundance of Economy Plus seats on every one of those domestic flights is making the departure from AA easier every day.

  12. The reality is that these are damn impossible to use on a confirmed basis, even on < 500 miles (I tried). And I am OK with that, if they invest in the product, which is far more important than the frequent flyer program (something Delta understood far ahead than others). Instead they're focusing on crappy experience AND crappy frequent flyer program…a recipe for disaster.

  13. What an absurd headline.

    No, this relatively minor change, if it comes about, will not “kill” EXP or CK status.

    SWU’s aren’t even the most important EXP benefit. First class lounge access & award fee waivers are both more important.

  14. Goodbye AAdvantage/AA – i have this year decided after > 10 years as ExPlat to move over to another OW program as with the increase of MQD this year and no additional benefits added to the level a no-brainer to jump ship.
    At least I will still be a low level Gold for Life with AA.

  15. I know several ex plats on the fence regarding their future loyalty to AA. Something like this would certainly clear their path to move to another airline. I realize everyone threatens that, but these upgrades are prized and in most cases the only reason they continue this arduous quest.

  16. I went from Plat Pro to Gold over 2018. I don’t care anymore, and will use my lifetime Plat status with FlyingBlue/DL to score prem econ and a seat in the lounge.

  17. I too have considered moving my points to another OW airline — but which has a “better” loyalty program? None that I’m aware of. Still, for international travel I generally avoid AA even when the hard product is superior. I’ve just been burnt too many times the past 6 months with annoying maintenance issues & serious mis-connects. Next week I’m flying MIA-JFK-HKG on CX rather than AA via DFW.

  18. @MillionMilerMan I am 3.7 million and multi year AA ExPlat who finally had enough of AA and switched to UA for 2018. I agree with your view on UA deficiency in international hard product. It lags AA. I have been pleasantly surprised with the overall level of service on UA domestic, which surpassed anything I experienced on AA in the previous 2-3 years. Now 1K and happy to be rid of AA which is hard to do being based in Dallas.

  19. One more thing to consider: While AA is seemingly trying to gut its AAdvantage program, this loyalty program is the only component that brought AA any profit last year (if @Gary’s articles are on point).

    So if AA loses money by flying passengers annually and only makes a profit from its loyalty program, why sabotage the program and drive customers away? Why are they appearing to damage their only successful profit center?

    One can interpret these actions as slow sabotage – allegedly.

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