Now That Pilots Get Upgraded To First Class Ahead of Passengers, Is Top Elite Status Worth It Anymore?

Over the weekend I shared a passenger who complained on twitter about American Airlines employees being upgraded ahead of them. The American Airlines twitter team responded, explaining that deadheading pilots have priority for upgrades once check-in begins.

This was funny because,

  • The employees in uniform were obviously flight attendants, not pilots

  • They weren’t upgraded (or norevs) in this case

  • Even American Airlines twitter assumed that when passengers aren’t being upgraded, it must be because of pilots – even when it isn’t.

The change to the American Airlines pilot contract, to make pilots more comfortable at work in lieu of upgrading frequent customers, follows United pilots getting this during the pandemic. It’s not unique to American!

Although United at least got something in exchange at the time, which was seniority flexibility that kept all their pilots flying and therefore ready to fly when travel returned. American furloughed pilots, rather than making such a deal, and had operational problems later as a result.

Pilot upgrade priority matters, but not nearly as much as passengers think it does. This customer reaction, though, seems typical: American Airlines Executive Platinum with nearly twice the qualifying activity needed for that status was unable to use their confirmed upgrade benefit on a domestic flight for their only vacation of the year (that’s revenue management, not pilots!), and wound up sitting in back when it mattered to him while a pilot sat up front. And they now question why they give the airline their business?

It is right to question loyalty in this case, regardless of how that pilot got into the cabin. The passenger doesn’t identify him as having been upgraded at the gate. Maybe he redeemed miles for the flight, or purchased the ticket to commute to his duty assignment. We just don’t know. The Twitter team says it was a contractual upgrade, but they’ve gotten that wrong before – in the past few days!

The key takeaway here is simply that elite status isn’t worth what it used to be. For myself,

  • A decade ago I would clear upgrades every time as an American Airlines Executive Platinum. This was true on international flights, using systemwide upgrades, as well.

  • Now I don’t ever bank on getting upgraded. Most of the time I’m not!

  • So if a premium cabin matters on a given trip, I secure it at booking. Or I resign myself to coach.

When I was a Concierge Key member I wasn’t upgraded all the time. I was generally at the very top of the upgrade list, though there were flights were I was one of as many as four “CKs” in back.

My most frequent upgrade, during my brief time with that status, was to the last first class seat in the cabin, assigned to me on the day of departure. That’s a seat that would now go to an employee instead, if a deadheading (not commuting) American Airlines pilot is on your flight on their way to a flight they’ll be working.

That’s not a business decision I’d have made, but it’s also not the major reason Executive Platinums aren’t a frequent thing for me anymore. Others do have better luck! It depends on the routes you fly and when you fly them. But planes are a lot more full than before, first class seats are sold more than before, and they’re sold for less than before too.

  • American Airlines didn’t used to do the kind of buy up offers to passengers that United has been known for over the years. I once wrote about getting a $59 offer from United to buy up to first class and the pitch was how many elites were hoping to get that seat as an upgrade.

  • When they made buy up offers at check-in, these “Load Factor Based Upgrades” were only available when they projected clearing upgrades for all elites on the wait list.

  • Now they pitch first class upgrades to most passengers whenever they project not to sell out the cabin.

I’ve been an Executive Platinum (or Concierge Key) with American Airlines every year since 2012. However I do that without actually trying all that hard for me, based on flying I’d do anyway (they’re still the biggest legacy carrier at my home airport) and easy offers I take advantage of now that AAdvantage status is earned through most partner activity.

I actually believe that chasing top tier status is a mistake and that the sweet spot is mid-tier status that comes with extra legroom seats at booking. American doesn’t have enough of those, and even booking in advance it can be tough to get an extra legroom aisle. But not worrying about status, your incremental investment for it can be spent on other things.

Arguably though at American, if you’re not concerned about where you are on the upgrade list when your upgrade doesn’t clear, Platinum Pro status is the sweet spot since it’s oneworld emerald as well. You can get into Qantas, Cathay Pacific, and other first class lounges when you travel internationally.

Qantas First Class Lounge, Sydney

Take higher status if you can get there but it isn’t something to shoot for, because airlines began taking short-term revenue over long-term long before they started upgrading pilots ahead of passengers.

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. They are deadheading – flying for company business. Most people flying in first class are flying for their company’s business. Why is this a problem? United has forgone the pax revenue here – deadheading is not standby where they wait for a seat to be free, they reserve the seat and it’s not for sale. This is literally another company choosing to reserve a FC seat for their staff and it’s a joke that you guys are complaining about it.

  2. So here I am again to clear up a few things that “some” of the commenter obviously don’t get.

    1: I NEVER filmed the gate agent or even whipped out my phone to threaten them. Period. They asked to see the upgrade list on the AA app that showed seats were currently available and I obliged. Period.

    2: I never took a picture of the pilots badges OR FACES. There is a reason the photo is from the side while boarding.

    3. Thank You to all the people who have commented/sent me messages who agree that there is at the least an issue with SWU’s being worthless, status being worthless, and Pilots wearing uniforms in FC ahead of paying customers.

    I’m not entitled or a “karen” and I fully realize that I could have just paid the insane cash cost or points cost if I had wanted to have been fleeced. I didn’t. I have been fleeced by AA all year long and just wanted to use the Upgrade Instruments provided to me by AA, along with the cash spent.

    My current EP status level and amount of LP’s was ONLY mentioned to give reference me feeling ripped by AA and to answer the myriad of questions I knew would come after said tweet. “Well someone had more status or LP than you” ext. No, no one did. We were #1 and #2 on the upgrade list ahead of 49 others.

    AA needs to really rethink their strategy. At a minimum they should tell Pilots to wear a pullover or something.

    Lastly, two comments really got under my skin.

    One: Someone said a DFW-MIA would “never” be 200,000 miles “outside of a superbowl”. You should look at the CURRENT state of AA redemption. Especially in high season in South Florida less than 69 days out..

    Two: Someone also said that “an EP paying $500 for a main cabin ticket sounds like a Skill Issue”…..Y’all realized that most of us with status are OVERSPENDING on tickets to get more LP’s to Re-Qualify the next year…..Right? I guarantee most EP’s and PP’s are as well. We are all on a hamster wheel. Sometimes we take a break, sometimes we get off, sometimes we ride it faster.

    Anyways, my comments and tweet stand. I did nothing wrong and just pointed out my personal experience with an Airline and its Loyalty Program.

  3. …And this is why most people consider unions to be nothing but greedy, corrupt, archaic shake-down artists. I know of no other industry who would so willingly stick it to their best customers like this.

  4. I have diamond status on Delta. Presumably, the main benefit is to be able to book a flight and have a better chance at any available upgrades on that flight. In reality, I will always book a first class ticket because I do not want to risk having no upgrades available. It is what it is. The status merely affords me a slightly more enthusiastic greeting at the lounge or gate. I suppose increased status would benefit me in the event that my flight were cancelled and the airline were to rebook passengers on other flights by priority. Delta Skymiles also has a benefit where you accumularte free drink vouchers. That is another perk that I will never use, since drinks are free in first class as it is. I never have any more than one glass of wine with a meal in flight anyway. The only perk that I value has to do with having priority in being re-booked on a flight after a cancellation. But in general, my preference is to fly first class and I do not object to paying the price in dollars. The secret to happiness in everything in life is to have low expectations.

  5. This is how the world works now, get used to it. Youre a bunch on entitled men who really believe that you deserve FREE stuff cause you spend money regularly on an airline. What other industry owes you as well? Pay your money for first if you want it, you are NOT entitled to anything. IF you get a free upgrade, it’s a good day. IF you don’t, move on.

    You’re complaining is boring and ridiculous.

  6. @Ricport-
    Unions didn’t do this. Companies giving benefits to employees, how terrible.
    The top 10 highest paid CEO’s all make over 100M per year. Bottom employees make less.
    Marriott gives free rooms to employees so I guess I should get them free too.

  7. American isn’t paying for the upgrade the shareholders are as it is nothing but bad press. Could you imagine taking a client to a restaurant and say you can only have the lower priced options while I eat steak? Upgrades were an incentive to be loyal but if the company has no loyalty to the customer why should the customer have loyalty to the airline? The pilot or any employee is being paid for a service and what use to be common sense (before we allowed the mergers and minimal competition) you would not put there wants and needs above the people who actually pay there salaries. Your job as a company regardless of the industry is to cater to the people who pay your bills not vice versa. Show me a business whose mission statement is to put employees wants over the customers that makes a profit…

  8. DA pilit.
    1. I completely agree with you that this “problem” isn’t something that happens often or is one that airlines want to have because deadheading represents operational inefficiency which no airline wants to have and they generally do a pretty good job of avoiding.
    but we live in the age of social media and camera phones which means everyone captures everything and then broadcasts it everywhere. Perception is not reality but companies do have to deal with it.
    2. It is airlines, not labor, that have to deal w/ the perception of who they are favoring. I am not blaming pilot unions but mgmts that agreed to these benefits because it adversely affects customers. and the airline could change the way revenue upgrades are handled because most deadheading is still booked as coach and allowed to upgrade.. am I right?
    3. I presume from your handle that you fly for Delta – so does this “problem” occur there or does Gary just happen to have a steady supply of complaints from AA passengers?
    4. I also presume that if Delta gives this to its pilots it also gives it to its FAs since DL does nothing to give pilots a benefit that it won’t give to other employees. True or false.
    5. You highlight the main issue in your last post in trying to compare yourself and other pilots to execs. Newsflash and forgive me for being the one to break it to you but you and your fellow pilots are not execs. You are production workers. Just because you get paid exec wages doesn’t make you an exec. You are paid as well as you do because pilot unions have done a good job of helping to ensure that the already tight supply of pilots remains tight.

    and, again, the IRS has rules about what it can give away
    US airlines have avoided having to collect taxes on employee air travel because it is standby – after all chances have been made to sell that seat.
    The issue is as much that allowing employees of any category to upgrade into a seat that a revenue passenger is competing for – even if they are using upgrades which are not “hard revenue” raises the question of taxation of benefits.
    I don’t think you or any one of your pilots wants to go where the IRS could take this if the DOT decides to go after employee upgrades that compete with revenue passengers of any type.
    I presume

  9. @FrankS (and others) – accept the new reality. I’m longtime EP (3 million butt in seat miles on AA) and up until 5-6 years ago I probably got upgraded 90% of the time. That isn’t reality now. Airlines are monetizing first more than ever w initial pricing and upgrade offers. Also frankly with the way you can game LPs it isn’t as hard to get EP. In fact it is only slightly more exclusive than Hilton Diamond status so PLEASE quit with the “I’m an EP” BS as it really doesn’t matter that much.

    I enjoyed the upgrades as much as anyone but no airline is doing it like years ago and that won’t change. If you don’t want to fly AA fine but others have similar policies. BTW Gary is stirring the pot but AA isn’t alone in allowing deadhead pilots in first and frankly that isn’t nearly as common as many seem to think.

    Personally after 40 years of heavy travel I am now retired and off the hamster wheel. I have lifetime status with AA, DL and UA plus lifetime status with most hotel groups including Hilton Diamond and Marriott Titanium. I fly who I want, stay where I want and get so sick of others continuing to whine.

  10. @Tim Dunne-
    Most of the people upgrading are not “execs”. They’re not any more or less important than anyone else on the airplane. And a good portion (most?) of them got their miles from the company or credit card spending, not their wallet.
    Your threat about the IRS rings hollow. This is business travel so there would be no IRS issues unless the IRS is going to charge passengers for their upgrades as well. That thread would be way more involved than this one.

  11. first, I am not threatening anything.
    If you don’t understand how much the feds want to get in airlines’ business and how ticked off customers are for being promised something and not getting it
    It doesn’t matter that airlines don’t do it any worse than any other sector but airlines are the industry to rag on.
    If you don’t understand that reality and think you are above it, then you will be in for a rude awakening.

    And the IRS has also allowed FF programs to not be taxed which is why those same customers that you deride remain loyal to your employer which has done a better job of monetizing loyalty than any other airline on the planet.

    regardless of whether some see it as whining or not, legacy airlines have promised benefits based on loyalty and continue to change and tighten the rules. Many consumers and legislators are not amused, to put it mildly.

    Again, don’t underestimate how much Delta depends on maintaining the status quo out of the prying eyes of the .gov.

    AA doesn’t make much money which is rooted in how their employees treat their customers. DL and UA and their employees should know better.

    and you are still just a production worker.
    and do you get hotel points or does Delta negotiate rates that don’t allow them?

  12. @Tim Dunn-
    I can only imagine the howling if AA/UA/DL pilots started getting hotel points.
    Clearly you don’t understand the difference between positive space business travel and space available leisure travel. The IRS isn’t about to tax them in my lifetime.
    And even some “production workers” get upgrades. This isn’t an elite club for “Execs”. I have status with airlines and hotels that come more from credit cards than actual flights. Gary just got me 100K UA miles with his post about the United MP Business Card. Thanks Gary!

  13. @ Andy
    You are dead wrong. I, like many, PAY for F class. What AA is doing is disgusting! The pilots need to “rest” is a friggin’ joke.

  14. DA pilit
    again, your employer benefits more than any airline in the world from the fact that the IRS does not tax frequent flyer miles. a change to the status quo would be devastating to Delta and therefore to you via your profit sharing if no other way.

    You would do well to note that when even a handful of legacy carrier prime customers are ticked off, you would do well to take it seriously rather than blow it off.

    Your arrogance in responding to this article reinforces the stereotype that Delta pilots are the most arrogant in the industry.

  15. @Tim Dunn-
    You infer that because pilots are deadheading in FC, the IRS might crack down on FF awards. That’s ridiculous in my opinion. But then I’m only a former production worker.
    Over the years a few congressional representatives have had the idea to tax these “perks”. It hasn’t gone well, and I think the important “execs” that have these points had these thoughts quashed very quickly.

  16. you clearly missed the part about giving away products to employees before paying customers get a chance to use them.

    Glad to hear you are “former” but it also explains why a former Delta pilot jumped into a discussion that implicated AA pilots.

    production employee, yes you are.

  17. @Tim Dunne-
    Interesting you say I’m not an “Exec” but just a “production employee”, but still think I’m the arrogant one.
    When I was working, I appreciated all my passengers equally. I treated Grandma in 32E the same as “Execs” in 1A. I appreciated repeat customers and felt they were more than compensated in free travel and upgrades, among other perks. But those were the decisions of management to make.
    BTW, I never said I worked for Delta, you did.

  18. I posted here months ago that this was happing flagship from JFK to CA and was subsequently told by many that I was wrong…more than wrong…delusional perhaps

    Yeah bring the apologies…you know who you are.

  19. On almost every flight I see a lot of Executive Platinum and even Concierge Key members not getting upgraded. I am an Executive Platinum, but I buy first class tickets only. I see the Concierge Key members board first but when I get on the plane, they are not in First. I watch all of the Executive Platinum luggage tags walk on back. I hear the complaints that Executive Platinum perks are near worthless. My wife is a Platinum Pro and she will not buy First Class seats when she travels alone. She gets an upgrade very rarely. The perks are just not there anymore for loyalty. Seeing a pilot in First by a person who never or rarely gets upgraded is just adding insult to injury. If AA raises the bar again to qualify for status that will just make people angry too. With the constant downgrading of First Class meals and service it makes me wonder if they want to be like Southwest and just not have a First Class cabin. This is their way of getting there.

  20. so what does the DA stand for?
    and I’m not talking about how you treated grandma.
    I am talking about your defense of the rights of pilots to get the best seat in the house because of this post:
    “The top 10 highest paid CEO’s all make over 100M per year. Bottom employees make less.
    Marriott gives free rooms to employees so I guess I should get them free too.”

    what companies give executives has no bearing on what you as/were a production employee get. The class envy is great until it turns on you as a pilot, isn’t it?

    Marriott gives away what the IRS allows. You and unions seem to think you can negotiate to endlessly drain your employer’s supply and the IRS says there are limits.

    and beyond that there is the perception issue -regardless of whether it happens once or twice or a million times, crew members in uniform in first class while there are passengers left on the upgrade list is ALWAYS going to cause problems.

    I said before and will say again that the best way is for crew members to put their IDs away and wear a sweater over their shirt on first class – or the airlines will be forced to negotiate that employees can only sit in FC if they are not in uniform.
    No company can repeatedly ignore the concerns of its top revenue passengers and expect to remain the choice for those customers.

  21. @Tim Dunn-
    I guess your idea to wear street clothes solves this for you but it puzzles me. If you don’t see it, it’s not an issue but to me nothing is different.
    And we disagree about the IRS. The airlines are not giving employees anything the IRS doesn’t allow any more than a company that buys a FC ticket for an employee is at risk with the IRS. To think that the IRS will see pilots in uniform and impose taxes makes no sense to me.
    As others posted, the miles are nice to get a free ticket, but upgrades are few and far between, so the best bet is to actually pay for it. The airlines have done a great job of getting people to think they are important elites if they get the coveted upgrade.
    I don’t get these upgrades because I’m no longer a working employee. Having done this job, I’m fine with working pilots getting this (FA’s too), but clearly that’s an issue for some. It’s not about me (or any envy), it’s the consideration of others. And they don’t get this upgrade if passengers pay for it.
    We still get travel benefits but use them less than once a year. They’re not that great. We actually buy tickets or use miles for the class of service we want. Thanks to Gary we get several free trips a year by using CC’s wisely.
    Finally stopped raining so I’ll let you have the last comment. Hopefully, you know your health is more important than your status, and one day it won’t matter if you are an “exec” or how many points you have.

  22. I’m glad you are retired. You clearly struggle to connect the dots.
    Whether someone is in street clothes is about perception to CUSTOMERS.
    The IRS cares because they limit the discounts that companies can give their employees AND allows airlines to provide tax-free travel to employees because they don’t compete with revenue passengers for those seats because they are given away on a standby basis after seat sales end. Allowing first class passengers to upgrade in the same cycle as paying passengers throws that notion out the window.
    What other non-airline companies allow their employees to do is immaterial because those non-airline companies don’t produce airline seats. Their restriction would be on financial services, auto manufacturing, or film production….
    I’m a free agent also. I buy from whatever supplier that gives me the best value. I use credit card benefits but generally not for travel because other credit card benefits yield more value for me. YMMV.

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