Pilots Now Officially Higher Priority Than Customers At American Airlines

Under the new American Airlines pilot contract, for the first time, deadheading pilots receive upgrades ahead of customers to available first class seats at the gate.

Officially, in American Airlines computer systems, these pilots are coded with a higher priority even than top status Executive Platinum and even Concierge Key members.

Unsold first class seats now go to employees who are not piloting an aircraft between segments on a trip they’re working. That’s different than commuting to and from their base if they live in a different city than where they’re assigned to start and end their trips.

This is broadly similar to a benefit that United pilots won three years ago. Only, unlike American Airlines, United Airlines actually got something in exchange.

In fall 2020, after the first round of taxpayer subsidies to airlines ran out, Delta and Southwest didn’t furlough anyone. American and United did. But United didn’t want to furlough pilots. They need to keep flying in order to stay current and it’s costly and time-consuming to run pilots through simulators and get them takeoffs and landings.

United wanted to spread out the limited amount of flying they were doing across their pilots. To get the union to agree to this (yes, it’s an odd world where the company has to give something to the union to avoid furloughs), one of the concessions was that United pilots would have top upgrade priority for available first class seats at the gate.

United got something important in exchange for this concession. They avoided pilot furloughs, which meant they had sufficient pilots to fly their schedule as travel returned. American did not, and suffered mass flight cancellations as a result. That was costly. They also had to scale back their schedule, which mean reduced revenue.

American lacked the foresight to even just copy United. And then they gave the benefit to the pilots anyway, as a me-too in negotiations. United got something in exchange and benefited from the concession, American did not. And now, officially, the airline is being run for pilots ahead of customers – at least along the dimension of first class upgrades at the airport.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Comments

  1. As someone who loves to get first class upgrades, I think this pilot benefit is perfectly reasonable. It’s not all pilots in all situations so it probably wont happen all that often.

  2. I was on a united flight recently PHX to IAD. 3 pilots upgraded, upgrade list 20+. Seems odd to get a perk for a job that you signed up for, and take that perk away from someone who pays part of your salary…..

  3. I see nothing wrong with this. If top status customers want to fly in first class, pay up instead of relying on upgrades.

  4. An incredible career opportunity What other job at a public company places you on a pedestal, way ahead of customers and shareholders, all without even requiring the lowliest of college degrees?

  5. Without pilots the planes don’t fly, without passengers the pilots don’t get paid. FLY NAVY!!!

  6. It is not the end of the world. Pilots have flown first and business class for as long as I can remember. It must not have been official policy until now. All will be well. I doubt that upper, super-dooper, deluxe platinum status folks will be made to sit in economy.

  7. I expect airlines to screw passengers, that’s been their M.O. for years. What I didn’t expect are the reactions of your readers. Wow, I should start a company that doesn’t care about its customers, it seems your readers would love me.

  8. I don’t have any issue with deadheading pilots being assigned to F class . They are on duty while deadheading . Commuting is a completely different story . The only hiccup would be if pax seated in F are downgraded to accommodate pilots but I don’t think they have that privilege .

  9. I think Gary’s post is less about a “First World Problem” because, let’s face it, all our flying is first world stuff. It’s more about how passengers (and we’re talking here the loyal ones) see their benefits whittled away, one little slice after the next. I’ve been an AAdvantage member since shortly after the program’s inception, and looking back I can only shake my head and want to start crying. Those of you saying “simply pay for that First Class seat if you want to sit in First Class” are right. Except, we were promised certain perks if we flew often enough with a particular airline, which meant spending money with them and not somebody else. But things have gradually shifted and changed, and the airlines are no longer keeping their promises but continually change the rules. My upgrade average as an EP has been reduced from the 90% to 95% range into the low 60s, upper 50s. And that is what is so maddening about the whole thing, this gradual theft by the airlines of what was promised.

  10. I find it arrogant that a pilot feels coach is so uncomfortable that they demand first class over paying customers, many of whom are travelling to work. The union took from the company and now aee taking from passenger who pay to supportthe airline.

  11. We didn’t need more examples of AA top management’s utter ineptitude but they give us one anyway.

  12. American is realizing that the “loyalty“ of frequent flyers, it’s not worth much. The demand of frequent flyers is very inelastic, and they will continue to fly American whether or not they get upgraded. The bluff of switching to a different airline has been called.

  13. If you want a seat in F, buy it. The buy up offers and the price for a domestic F seat are usually reasonable. Expect with status you get an early boarding group (overhead bin space), a free checked bag, and extra points.

    The idea of a free seat upgrade has largely dissappear led by airlines monetizing the app buy up offers to fill the front of the plane. A lot of people with status forget that FF programs arent there to reward you, but are a marketing program from the airline to get more money out of you.

  14. I waited onboard in SEA for one hour on the fully loaded plane with Alaska Airlines for 2 pilots deadheading to JFK who were seated in First. I didn’t mind them in First but I minded waiting one hour in an economy middle seat. What’s next on the pilots wish list of perks?

  15. Steven…
    With all due respect Sir the “bluff” as you call it can work 2 ways. I present as evidence TWA, Pan Am, Braniff, Frontier, Eastern, Midway, Aloha and a host of other domestic carriers. Internationally I present as evidence SwissAir, Alitalia, Olympic, Sabina, SAS, Jet Airlines and a host of other International carriers.
    Picard

  16. @Steven I wasn’t bluffing. I used to be 1K then AA EXP after CO took over UA and now I’m just someone who pays for F with either miles or cash. This past year I have flown first / business on every US airline including AS and B6 I only tend to book F on DL more because I enjoy the sky club at LAX and their schedule is good for LAS. It’s ironic since I used to and still mock DL for their sky pesos.

  17. Pilots fly for work on the companies dime just like you. When we land … we have to usually go straight to the office … just like you. If you were on that pilots next flight and you knew they just deadheaded 3-4 hours … wouldn’t you hope they were kept comfortable ? It’s fair and reasonable 100%. Should be CONFIRMED!

  18. The pilots contribute way more to the airlines than a passenger on a coach ticket hoping to score a F upgrade. Keep the whining up. Every company gives their employees perks unavailable to the general populace. Are you gonna bash walmart for giving their employees discounts? Are you gonna bash amazon for giving employees prime membership?

  19. Suspect most here don’t appreciate the difference between deadheading, commuting and non-revving.

  20. How many people here are crying over *potentially* losing complimentary upgrades? You didn’t pay for them! You are losing something that you were never guaranteed! God, so many whiners. If you wanted first class, pay for first class!

  21. “I don’t have any issue with deadheading pilots being assigned to F class . They are on duty while deadheading .”

    Like many customer seating in Econony. If the seat in Eco is not worthy of pilot butt’s, why should it be of paying customers.

    All this points to the need to increased autonomy… right now. he technology is there…we just need to force the FAA to move the needle.

  22. “How many people here are crying over *potentially* losing complimentary upgrades? You didn’t pay for them! You are losing something that you were never guaranteed! God, so many whiners. If you wanted first class, pay for first class!”

    You pay for it through the loyalty you have accumulated the year before when you did not expect a higher elite-pilot tier to be created just above yours.

  23. By the way and to add a bit of juicy beetle juice: while you pay to seat in FC either via cash or accumulated loyalty, the pilots will get paid to sit in FC. If a pilot is on duty, he gets paid.

  24. so AA is giving something (which is really not even that much) to their pilots . AA could have just as easily paid them a higher salary. you all sound like a bunch of whiners, including gary . pay to sit up front or go buy a seat on another airline. that’s the free market as you so often like to site.

  25. Do all of you non paying whining “customers” want well rested and safe pilots operating your flight? Your operating crew might have arrived in on a deadhead as well. Pilots should absolutely be comfortable and able to rest on deadheads.

  26. I don’t see the problem. These pilots are travelling for business (travelling from their base to another city to pick up a flight that they will be operating). A lot of people who travel in first class are travelling for business and a lot of them have their seat paid for by their company. No different than an accountant who’s firm paid for their business trip.

  27. This wouldn’t be an issue at all if economy class swats were still comfortable and reasonably sized. They are not. I fly weekly and am EXP. Loyal customers are no longer valued at American.

  28. This wouldn’t be an issue at all if economy class seats were still comfortable and reasonably sized. They are not. I fly weekly and am EXP. Loyal customers are no longer valued at American.

  29. You guys are so silly. I want the pilot flying my plane to be as rested as possible if my life is on their hands. Get a life and Gary stop trying to create drama the way you always do.

  30. Why the continuing Kabuki theater that AA passengers are anything more than a means of milking more subsidies from the taxpayers? AA is all about credit cards, fees including fees to hopefully upgrade out of a 29″ pitch seat, miles shopping programs, high-value freight, and $600+k post-military pilot salaries.

  31. Gary,
    You didn’t get the facts straight. AA negotiated to keep their pilots current and trained which enabled them to man the operation when it turned around. They chose, unwisely, to not use that mechanism the Union gave them. That’s on AA.

    Dan C.

    United got something important in exchange for this concession. They avoided pilot furloughs, which meant they had sufficient pilots to fly their schedule as travel returned. American did not, and suffered mass flight cancellations as a result. That was costly. They also had to scale back their schedule, which mean reduced revenue.

    American lacked the foresight to even just copy United.

  32. I don’t see the issue. They aren’t kicking paid First Class passengers out of FC, are they? You paid for a coach seat expecting an upgrade … well that’s too bad. You want to fly up front, then pay for it. I’ll gladly watch a pilot get the well deserved comfort they need to fly us safely.

  33. Deadheads happen when you get bad weather that causes crews and planes to not be where they are supposed to be. A friend of mine is an AA pilot. Sometimes, he’s supposed to be in City B overnight, but his flight from City A to be got canceled.

    So, he will deadhead on the first departure from A to B the next morning, to the fly a plane from B to C.

    This is not the same as when my friend was commuting from Chicago to Miami. AA reduced the amount of 757/767 flying out of O’Hare in 2009, and his seniority forced him to commute. Commuting crew have priority over employees flying for leisure (non-rev), but that’s about it.

    But, pilots have the upper hand, when it comes to contracts right now. AA still has a lot of regional jets parked, because its regional carriers lack pilots.

    Fed Ex pilots are getting $250K signing bonuses and guaranteed promotions to mainline within 18 months, if they fly with an AA regional carrier.

    I think AA is losing 500+ pilots each year for the next 5 to 7 years, because of mandatory retirement. That’s due to the hiring surge in the 1980s after deregulation.

  34. I’m just glad I have the capacity to maintain an overall general lack of respect for the people complaing about “whiny” pilots, just as they don’t respect the pilots who get them to point B safely day in and day out. I’m only a Platinum so I just buy my F or B class seats smuggly knowing I’m keeping the real stitch and bitchers back in coach and not getting that free upgrade.

    ****Looking at you Minos****

    You’re not special.

  35. Pilots traveling to operate a flight should be in FC. This policy is a safety enhancement.

    Deadhead to a layover or return to base is a benefit, not a necessity.

    The policy does not include a differentiation between these scenarios. Customers are justified in being upset at losing an upgrade to a pilot being moved to a hotel or domicile.

  36. Your life and safety depend on the quality of skill operating the equipment…….the pilot.
    I have no problem with making them comfortable. They are top dogs!

    My dad was a pilot…..

  37. These pilots are not commuting to work. They ARE on duty. It’s not uncommon for a pilot to deadhead 5+ hours (Miami to Denver, for example), and then commence duty in the flight deck. Proper rest is a real issue with pilot fatigue being a factor in previous accidents. Obviously it’s more restful in a premium cabin. Ask yourself, “do i REALLY want this pilot who’s been squeezed into a middle coach seat with the crying baby next to him piloting MY flight?”. No margin of error in this game. It’s not a perk. It’s common sense.

  38. The old slogan that the customer always comes first does not apply where unions rule the roost.

  39. Talk about misinformed people!!

    As a retired pilot, I think what the pilots got is great. It is NOT for them to commute to/from work. It is for deadheading only!

    Deadheading is not a productive activity for pilots. Yes, they get full pay for deadheading However, most would prefer to work the flight. The deadheading is the result of inefficient scheduling. It’s up to the company to minimize that. If they do that, the “problem” goes away.

  40. The vast majority of these gain status on work trips on company’s dime so what’s the difference.

  41. What @JNS said. It will be interesting to see how long before FAs demand the same.

    Upgrades are on the fast lane to extinction. I have zero expectation of getting an upgrade so status means very little to me. It’s quite freeing.

  42. All those people saying ‘as long as they dont bump revenue passengers for pilots, you should go back and watch that video of United dragging the doctor out of his seat and off the plane. And then look into why they did that to him

  43. These days virtually all of the major airlines have, in the junior ranks of their seniority lists among the traditional mix of ex-military aviators and longtime civil pilots, folks who took their first flight 5~6 years ago… and then hustled, worked hard for an uncertain future, took personal financial risks (it’s not always the proverbial mommy’s and daddy’s money btw) to succeed in their careers.

    Just imagine the road not taken had one made different choices, starting out c2018, instead of choosing a career in envy blogging, lol

Leave a Reply

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