Reciprocal Upgrades Coming to American and US Airways in a Few Weeks, But How Will it Work?

In a piece about how US Airways and American are offering the same exact flights for different prices, Scott McCartney of the Wall Street Journal gets this statement from American Airlines:

American expects to be able to offer reciprocal upgrade benefits within a matter of weeks, spokesman Casey Norton said.

This doesn’t come as a surprise, they’ve been working on the functionality and want to roll it out as quickly as they can. But this is the first time I’ve seen them put what’s this close to a timeline to it — they don’t say the number of weeks (since they’ll go live as soon as they’re confident the IT works), but they are saying ‘weeks’ and not ‘months’.

This is important as they integrate the airlines and convince their best customers at each airline to fly the other carriers’ aircraft.

And it’s especially important to members because it begins to open up the possibilities of the new combined route network.

For now, it has to be a lot cheaper to fly a US Airways codeshare on an American flight before I will book it because I cannot use my American AAdvantage status to upgrade that flight in advance. And it has to be a lot cheaper to fly a US Airways flight through a US Airways hub, rather than an American flight through an American hub, because I cannot use my AAdvantage status to upgrade that US Airways flight at all.

As McCartney observes in the piece there’s real savings to be had searching for the same flight through US Airways as through American given their separate reservations platforms and the existence of codeshares. The price discrepancies are much greater than you usually see between codeshare flights, and this issue has persisted for months now.

But how will upgrades be prioritized.. and ‘paid for’?

American and US Airways have different upgrade schemes.

American is the only remaining carrier I know of that awards 500 mile upgrade certificates for every 10,000 miles flown on the airline. Only 100,000 mile flyer Executive Platinums receive ‘complimentary unlimited upgrades’ (and upgrades for companions are not complimentary).

Upgrades for Platinums and Golds have to be paid for by earned stickers of purchased if no complimentary stickers are available.

Different members prefer each system — it’s hard to imagine American ‘taking away’ unlimited complimentary upgrades for all elites at US Airways when the two airlines combine. But selling 500 mile upgrade certificates is revenue and helps make the forward cabin pay for itself.

What’s more, since American Golds and Platinums ration the upgrades they earn, they don’t request upgrades on every flight. That means when an elite does request an upgrade they have a better chance of getting it, since they aren’t competing against every other elite every time.

American flyers may prefer the American system, US Airways flyers may prefer the US Airways system and whichever method they go with some members will be unhappy.

But in the meantime they’re going to offer upgrades to each others’ elites, and since they use different systems it will be fascinating to see how they square this.

One imagines the simplest thing to do would be to offer American elites complimentary upgrades on US Airways (probably prioritizing American top tier elites behind US Airways top tier members but about their 75,000 mile members — or possibly prioritizing them togehter).

And for American to offer complimentary elites only to US Airways Chairmans Preferred members, the way they do now for their own 100,000 mile Executive Platinum members.

Meanwhile, US Airways elites don’t earn American 500 mile upgrades at all. So Platinums, Golds, and Silvers might be asked to buy 500 mile upgrade certificates if attempting to upgrade on American.

Of course, since my bet is that the airline adopts the unlimited complimentary upgrade model for all elites (despite the revenue loss associated with such a decision) they could just shift to that model now and offer complimentary upgrades to everyone including their own elites.

… Which will raise the question, if they do, of what happens with accrued 500 mile upgrade certificates? If asked, I would recommend they convert those certificates to redeemable miles as used to be possible in the AAdvantage program years ago.

(HT: Traveling Better)

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. If they do it like you describe above US flyers like myself (Gold) would be PISSED! You mean I have to deal with greater competition for an upgrade but I do not get a chance at an upgrade at all unless I shell out cash? That would be BS.

  2. As an AA Plat for Life, this is encouraging. And given that DCA is my preferred airport, the entire merger has been a happy event from my perspective.

    I do wonder how US/AA “elite rich” the DC area is – after all, the DC folks who are the true transoceanic road warriors who collect miles thousands at a time would seem to preponderate as UA elites, and getting US status from flights within the DCA perimeter would be a tough, thankless, slog.

    So, I suppose my question is what sort of competition for upgrades from other elites will I face at DCA?

  3. Converting a 500 mile upgrade to 500 redeemable miles would be a joke. 500 mile upgrades are worth way more than that in cash value.

  4. I’m DCA based as well and have a very good track record for upgrades on short range flights as a US Gold but haven’t hit a long distance upgrade yet? (I’ve only flown one Long distance on US, and the rest on AA)

  5. @Daniel M – a dozen years ago you could convert each 500 mile upgrade to 2500 miles. About 7 years ago it was 500 mile upgrade -> 500 miles.

  6. A bit off topic, but any idea of the timeframe for when we can move our miles between the programs?

  7. @james nothing has been announced on that or even if they intend to make it possible, so don’t have any info on timeframe

  8. I think your headline of “in a Few Weeks” sounds much more optimistic than the quote of “a matter of weeks”. The latter could extend to 8 or 10 or 12 weeks; “few” suggests no more than 4 or 5.

  9. I would hate to see, as a Ep on AA, to change to a different model all together. I often find it’s useful when I try to go on an earlier flight as I always seem to be placed in first class when I travel domestically. If everyone who has any status with either airline and loses out of the stickers in their aa’s accounts, I don’t want to see like what united has been doing for a few years now. As I ex-1k (from united) that’s one of the big reasons I don’t fly with them anymore. I see long lists of possibly upgrades especially from a UA hub. I go on earlier flights 80 percent of the time on AA.

  10. I’ll be curious to see how they manage the 4 US versus 3 AA tiers. For instance, the AA flyer who had 80K EQM’s last year and is only Platinum versus the US flyer who had the same 80K and now (may) have an upgrade priority on AA. Of course, offering upgrades only to top tiers on AA mostly solves this.

  11. @Daniel M. – if they were complimentary 500 mile upgrades then it’s a non-issue (since all upgrades would be complimentary). If you paid $30/35 for them then getting 500 redeemable miles for that amount is reasonable.

    No matter which way they go with the combination, the airline is going to have a huge collection of elites and many of us need to realize that we will see fewer upgrades as a result. As a person with Platinum on US and Gold on AA I’m curious to see what happens…

  12. @M2 are you stating that you believe paying 6 cents for an AA mile to be a good deal?

  13. @M2, the merged airline will clearly have more elites than either predecessor, but it will equally have more flights and first class seats than either predecessor.

    It will, however, become easier to become elite or earn higher elite status. For example, your 2013 earning for US Plat (75000 miles) and AA Gold (25000 miles/points) should be enough for Ex Plat or the equivalent (100,000) in 201? when all miles accrue to AA. I’d think you would be ecstatic.

    And folks who have bits and pieces on both airlines today, may find themselves earning entry level status when previously diffusing earning between US and AA prevented it.

    My status is lifetime plat, and I have little discretion with respect to carrier for business travel, so my earning is too diffused and travel insufficient to earn anything higher otherwise. I just hope they do not go to a 4 level system, perhaps deeming platinum the second from the lowest, which would knock me down the food chain.

    The only thing that encourages me is that for the reasons described in (2), above, I do not suspect that my home airport (DCA) is tremendously AA/US elite rich (UA likely captures the high mileage crowd with transcons and transoceanic travelers from DC). I’m hoping that I’ll be a fair sized fish in a smaller pond, and likely looking for UG’s on US’s more leisure-oriented routes (CHS, TPA, and FLL, for example.

  14. Anecdotally, as a DC-based UA mid-tier elite, there are tons like me at IAD whenever I fly UA. Also anecdotally, most of the elites I encounter in my work/social life who reside in DC are UA flyers.

  15. Im not sure where all those upgraded seats to first will come from I was number 10 on my last ny to lax flight
    I booked. Many months in advance and I still didn’t clear
    Now we will have significant amounts of elites fighting for the same few seats from two programs
    One was bad enough
    And less business class seats per flight with the airbus 321 to upgrade too

  16. I want to know how they will do upgrade priority within a tier.
    AA does it based on request time, US based on number of miles flown that year. Since I’m always booking flights at the last minute, this hurts me as an AA Exec Plat, but did not impact me as a US Air CP.

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