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 »

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  1. It’s laughable that many comments state the deadhead pilot needs to be in first class so that he/she is rested for the next flight. It basically confirms that coach comfort sucks. But what is good for the vast majority of the flying public should also be sufficient for pilots.

    It won’t have much impact for me because even as a lifetime platinum I am rarely upgraded and typically number 20 on the upgrade list. I no longer am loyal to any one airline. I go with the most reasonable non stop fare which is not always American. The mileage points one accumulates are not easy to use as the routing on a rewards ticket is often convoluted requiring stops to out of the places.

  2. They’re unsold seats. Passengers are free to purchase them. Dead heading pilots aren’t displacing passengers who bought tickets in first. United does this. Where’s the story?

    Or is this just more anti-Unio/anti-pilot rhetoric?

    More like “View from the Lav”…

  3. As a pilot for AAL, it’s not exactly what you think. If a status pax pays for the upgrade before “we” check-in 24 hours prior, it’s yours. We can’t bump anybody out of F or B. Yes we are required to DH from time to time. It’s very rare to even see an F or B seat open let alone get the upgrade.

  4. As a deadheading pilot. The question to this whole thing is would you rather have a rested pilot in the flight deck or one that is nodding off during his 2nd or 3rd leg hauling passengers. Or would you rather the flight get canceled because your pilot is unfit to fly?
    Cat naps are excellent for a boost for a pilot working 3 to 4 leg trips with a deadhead trying to get passengers to their destinations.

  5. The lack of critical thinking skills here is truly amazing. I will attribute this to lots of new millennials on the site and/or hard-core Bolshevik union types.

    Loyalty, by definition, is and should be a two-way street when it comes to the world of commerce.

    If you ‘punish’ someone for spending lots of money on airline tickets and spending lots of money on affiliated credit cards — by effectively taking away any realistic hope for an occasional upgrade — you kill customer loyalty to the airline.

    It’s simple psychology: incentives / rewards create loyalty, punishment destroys it.

    If I travel 100K miles a year, buy a mix of economy and first class tickets, and spend $100K on the various American Airline credit cards, you are damn right that I ‘expect’ some upgrades in return.

  6. You get what you paid .. mostly people want to pay coach but get the service… The company is doing something good in a time when there’s not pilots in the market…

    The real issue is when they downgrade passengers who really paid full amount

  7. Gary, being “one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel” should probably know and point out that American EP customers will be upgraded (subject to availability) 100 hours before departure, Platinum Pro 72 hours before, Platinum 48 hours before and Gold 24 hours before departure. CK customers even before any of these. All before the window opens for any pilot to potentially be assigned a premium cabin seat. The CK, EP etc customer that buys a ticket inside of 24 hours of departure time is probably not expecting an upgrade on top of the purchase. So really the only thing that changed is last minute long shots.

  8. Space Available upgrades are just that. If you want a Space Positive seat in F or B, it is open to anybody for purchase as long as there are open seats.

  9. If you want an upgraded seat, BUY IT. The pilots essentially did. All contracts are give and take.

  10. Customers aren’t the only ones companies need to seek loyalty from… Pilots can and do switch airlines for better contracts.

  11. @Pilot and Executive Platinum customer – upgrades START during those timeframes but are not usually processed for most at those times, this is not limited to customers who buy last minute tickets being affected. When I was a ConciergeKey I was often upgraded at the gate only on tickets bought a month out, if upgraded at all.

  12. The guy who complained about lack of critical thinking skills here truly lacks critical thinking skills. Pilots are in high demand and there’s a short supply, this gives them the power to extract concessions out of their employers because training a replacement is insanely expensive. Supply and demand, that’s free market for you, the very definition of capitalism. Want to make furloughs freely and have a customer-only focused airline? You can have that! Have fun operating without pilots.

  13. Most ..not all .. in 1st & business class are companies people work for to allow them to be put up front ! The pilot’s deserve to be there especially the hours they put in to get you to your destination safely “ I prefer a rested pilot then one who’s so tired he can’t think straight! As a former Flight Attendant I’ve seen 1st hand they need rest ! I’m Sorry But I rather land safe then in a crash all to have a few hours of comfort & not so great food .

  14. To the people who say they want a rested pilot…..you are saying economy is not worthy of rest, AA should change that. For thoses saying pay for it, since you have so mu h money, pay for my rent as well….not everyone can pony up the money they ask for every week. The airline put a program out that gained passengers. They are changing that at the demand of the pilots. The pilots are very intentionally putting themselves over customers. If saftey is really an issue, they should not fly as there is no commitment a seat will be available or that some magic happens in first to prepare them to fly. If you are fine with losing benefits, renounce you status.

  15. @Denis

    What we have here is a failure to communicate…and it’s 100% on you.

    There is this thing called capitalism (you can Google it). Fewer passengers = less revenue. Fewer upgrades diminishes loyalty, which means you are more apt to lose your best customers (who travel more, spend more on rev tickets and spend more on affiliated credit cards).

    By your logic — hell, let’s put ALL American Airlines employees in first class! Flight attendants are critical personnel. If they need to reposition from location A to location B, why shouldn’t they get first class seats? Same thing for airline mechanics. And don’t forget ramp workers. Labor supply is tight, baby!

    I think you seem to forget, Dennis, that a business which puts customers last will pay a very high price. It’s simple economics and basic common sense. Capiche?

  16. People have choices… and pilots need their jobs… so when people people perceive themselves as second class passengers, they may pick another airline where they feel more welcome and appreciated.
    I work 22 years in the airline business and I saw big airlines going out of business…

  17. If you want to be able to fly first class that badly doesn’t the airline offer an option where you pay to fly first class otherwise you fly in the class you pay for?

  18. I don’t have an issue with this actually.

    A Pilot is critical to a successful flight.

    Be they resting for another shift or recharging batteries.

    Here is your open comfortable seat sir.

    Thank you for your service !

  19. Is it a hatred towards pilots or a jealousy that you never became one?

    I’d much rather have a well rested Pilot than one that’s sitting in a middle coach seat for 4 hours then getting off that plane to fly another.

    You want a seat up front buy it, if not be grateful if you get a free bump up.

  20. Oh no! A company that values one of their workgroups over entitled frequent flier parasites who refuse to pay for their own premium seats

  21. We’re talking one or two seats taken per flight. People act like half of first or business will be full of pilots who took someone’s upgrade seat.

  22. @Debra Bohachevsky: We are talking far, far less than that. Deadheading is rare. Airlines don’t want to pay pilots to fly in a passenger seat.

    Just as load management is dramatically better than in the past, so is crew scheduling.

    The normal deadhead occurs in the case of cancellations due to weather when aircraft and crew are split up. Doesn’t happen regularly.

  23. Pay for an upgrade if you want it. The airlines are giving you a COURTESY of an upgrade if you are one of the higher flying members. You are not entitled to anything. Also keep in mind that the three big airlines (American, United and Delta) all recently revised their loyalty programs making it more difficult to achieve a higher status. In order to get an upgrade you essentially have to have the highest tier and if you are second tier from the top you get upgraded one out of every 5 or 6 flights. I flew on Delta for five years straight about 25 legs of varying lengths from ATL-ORD to SEA-ICN and never got diamond. Best I could do is platinum which is second from the top. My company paid for first/business on all international legs and flights over 3.5 hours. All that matters on the short one for me is an aisle seat. The longer ones I simply won’t go if they don’t give me something comfortable. I am not going to a meeting in another city when I can just remote phone in from the office/home and be comfortable. It is simply the cost of doing business. Come out of pocket or be quiet.

  24. David — you once again have clearly missed the point. Let’s review this again. Please pay attention.

    Fewer upgrades diminish loyalty, which means you are more apt to lose your best customers (who travel more, spend more on rev tickets and spend more on affiliated credit cards).

    When upgrades essentially vanish, people will stop patronizing an airline and begin choosing flights (from multiple carriers) based on time, stops, price, etc. That domino effect has a direct impact on the bottom line of the loyalty program / airline you used to use almost exclusively.

    It’s basic economics. And, no, contrary to your statement — it is not entitlement or privilege to expect an airline to reward its best customers with semi-frequent upgrades.

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