Are Rogue American Airlines Gate Agents Just Not Processing Upgrades?

Update: American offers an explanation

Andrew Hazelton, an American Executive Platinum who is reconsidering keeping that status, shared his experience flying Los Angeles – London on American on Friday.

He checked in for his flight and was told there were 8 seats open in business class and he was second on the list. At the time the flight closed he was third on the list and no upgrades appeared to be processed at the gate.

There were four open seats on the seat map. He says he was the last to board and saw open seats in business class as he went back to coach.

Often there are explanations — or at least plausible rationalizations offered by the airline after the fact — but it’s become an almost daily occurrence it seems where I’ll either hear from a reader or see someone mention on Facebook that a flight took off with empty seats up front while they were left on the upgrade list.

I’ve written that there’s a new way to jump the upgrade queue at American, just being at the gate. Gate agents have been skipping over people who aren’t present at the gate when they run the upgrade list. This seems to happen most often at legacy US Airways stations like Philadelphia, but I’m not certain it’s limited to those.

I’ve written extensively about “D0” and the perverse incentives for airline employees. Gate agents start boarding early, before published boarding times. (And where American has instructed agents to board early, they haven’t invested in IT changes to update boarding passes, even mobile boarding passes.)

As a result passengers showing up at the gate on time find that their plane is halfway boarded or more. They may not get overhead space. So passengers have to show up at the gate early if they have carry on bags. And they have to hope their plane is on time, because American is also not very good about updating boarding and departure times. This combines to waste tremendous amounts of passenger time.

A part of these pressures to get things moving early is processing upgrades in whatever manner seems most time efficient to the agents. Clearing people who turn out not to show for the flight and then going back and clearing more people or even going onboard to move passengers up takes up time and risks their D-0 mandate. Some agents just clear people waiting at the gate before boarding begins.

And some agents – it seems – don’t clear people at all. I witnessed something similar (though not identical) myself a couple of months ago. In that case the gate agent did work the upgrade list. Someone no showed. And they let the first class cabin go out with an empty seat rather than working it again. (After the doors closed, I watched a member of the crew moved up from economy into the empty seat.)

American wanted to know flight details and seat information. They wanted details from Andrew Hazelton as well. But judging from the frequency I’m hearing about such things this does seem to be a recurring issue, likely driven by the D0 obsession — where every procedure that honors the customers’ time goes out the window because if they can push back exactly on time they’re likely to arrive on time — that hasn’t even led to a respectable operational performance.

Indeed, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, more than 1 in 5 mainline American Airlines flights has been delayed during the first 9 months of 2016.

Sometimes customers see empty seats, know their on the upgrade list, and resent it. Although they might not have been the next to clear. In this case it sure appear as though an Executive Platinum customer flew in coach Los Angeles – London when his upgrade would have cleared. There appeared to be enough open business seats than where he was positioned on the waitlist. (The seat map can be imperfect when the doors close, but he explains he was last to board and saw the empty seats.) American’s policy is to process properly requested international upgrades into empty seats. They just don’t always seem to be doing that.

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. Interesting. Gary — I assume this would have been a requested upgrade either via SWU or miles (plus cash, if not full-fare J)?

  2. If last to board, why not just confirm the upgrade will it happen as they take your ticket to board you…or as there are only a few people left to board. You shouldn’t need to do this but considering the length of the flight it is wise to do so.

  3. Agree that D0 obsession is customer unfriendly…but did “Andrew Hazelton” ask the gate agent(s) about upgrade clearance/status? Or did he just silently walk down the jet bridge? Can’t be complacent, if customers don’t questions agents in these situations, it just encourages the behavior.

    I was 8/8 on my SWU requests in 2016, as an Executive Platnium, and nearly 95% on domestic upgrades. Incidents like this one (if true) are very much the abnormality.

  4. If one single post clarifies why I’ve moved hundreds of thousands of [E]QMs away from American this year, this one does it.

  5. I saw this happen many times flying JFK to Dubai/Doha/Riyadh as a Delta Diamond with a B class or higher ticket (upgradable fare, reimbursed by clients) and with an upgrade e-coupon in place. While going to the ME, after changing planes in Amsterdam/Paris, and on my return from the ME going to Amsterdam/Paris, i.e. on Delta’s partners, I had the same problem. Sometimes I would get the upgrade, but more often not. And when I didn’t get the upgrade, I was usually sitting in premium economy on that KLM or Air France flight with a good view of Business Class for the duration of the segment, and it often had empty seats. When I could view empty seats, I complained to Delta customer service in writing each time and each time got a content free response (along the lines of “our partner gate agents do their best, but can’t accommodate everyone – and we hope you’ll give us a chance to do better” – and with no acknowledgement or compensation for their screwup. For the last 3 years or so I have not flown SkyTeam to/from the Middle East unless they were my only option. We do have a choice and I made mine. For the record, I haven’t seen this problem on Delta operated flights. And Saudia, while not required to upgrade me – does so regularly. Not hard to guess where I choose to fly. Saudia doesn’t serve alcohol, and I can’t stand to watch heavily edited movies, but it’s otherwise an excellent product. I get lots of work done!

  6. Infuriating. I’ve not had this happen, but I have had a gate agent willfully ignore processing EXPs onto standby knowing that we would bump up to the top and get on the plane before other irate customers already on the list.

  7. I asked the GA about upgrades as none had cleared, she lied to my face that the plane was full, this was not the case and it wasn’t time constraints as I was last to board with still 25 minutes before departure time.

  8. @Matt as I write, the information I presented wasn’t dispositive and I cannot speak to the specific flight but also not the point, I’ve seen it directly myself and see reports of empty seats with customers on the waitlist seemingly every day.

  9. I have a similar experience

    Last week I flew JFK-LAX-SYD on AA

    I’m EXP and used a SWU to upgarde the journey. LaX-SYd cleared months ago. The domestic JFK-lax did not.

    As late as 24 hours out there were 5 business class seats for sale on the JFK-LAX hop.

    The morning of the flight there were 3.

    Within 4 hours of the 5pm JFK departure I was not on the upgrade list at all. Even though I am EXP and used a SWU as far back as 6 months ago to waitlist.

    When I checked in at JFK I immediately popped into #1 positions on upgarde list. As this time agent said there was 1 seat left and I was 1st on list.

    (With 3 seats open morning of flight would I have cleared if I checked in online before I got to Airport?)

    Anyway at gate – asked agent. She was annoyed I ask and shot me down. “We haven’t cleared any upgrades yet” although she confirmed I was 1st on list and there was one seat open.

    So I waited for the plane to board and say by gate. They boarded 1st, business then coach. I waited still. No one was called up to desk to clear and no announcements made.

    Finally I started to board – I asked her again – “we haven’t cleared the seat yet” she said

    So I’m an exp the whole
    Plane has boarded still
    A seat open – in the last one at gate – – and 1st on list. Yet she wouldn’t clear it. So I boarded and took my coach seat

    Once seated I asked the FA who was very polite and friendly and said if no one takes that seat I am
    Number one on list. I shows her the app and she said “yes you are – I’ll
    Watch it for you”

    5 minutes later she came
    To me and said someone just sat in the seat

    Was it a misconnect? Was it an aa employee?

    But why when there is one seat open and I’m
    First on list and the plane is 99% boarded and I’m
    At gate – why wouldn’t she clear me?

  10. This happened to me earlier this year on LAX-MIA (77W). Plane went out with 3 open seats in business and no upgrades were processed. I was #2 on the list. Infuriating. Contacting AA who could not have cared less.

  11. I’ve seen this more on Domestic routes where it’s easy to see the open seats. On some long haul routes it can be hard to tell if the seat if empty or set aside for crew rest but usually only one or two are set aside and usually don’t show up on the seat maps in my experience.
    I’ve also had a couple flights recently where I was 1st or 2nd on the upgrade list and saw 4 to 5 empty seats and then saw them fill up just as the door was closing (apparently tight connections on paid seats).
    It’s certainly not a perfect system.

  12. Another factor that goes into this is that more upgrades are being held back to the gate. Therefore, it becomes an even bigger burden for the gate agents to have to clear the whole list and comply with D0.

  13. AA’s gate agents are awful all around, and I never have a shot at any upgrades. But this goes beyond upgrades. I paid for a standby ticket on an earlier flight and was met with terse agents all around. I was finally handed a boarding pass, they closed the door as I entered. I had been told I’d have to gate check my bag, reasonable to think all the overhead space was full at that point in boarding, just to find about 1/3 of the bins still had space. And not only that but I ended up in a row with 2 empty seats…why the need to wait so long in the boarding process when there were clearly open seats? And this wasn’t some outlier airport, this was at DFW. I absolutely hate AA…one more travel voucher to use and then I’m done with them.

  14. Yes this happens all the time out of JFK,

    Specially to South America using EXP, if you are friendly with the staff and you fly often you can get the seat without a SWU. Just have to know who is the one…..

    Its cheaper to bring few cubans and some booze.

  15. Love you guys, but having gotten into traveling for business a lot in the past few year (prior to the heyday of upgrades and airlines competing) I’ve never had these types of ‘upgrades’ afforded to me.

    It’s clear to me that the legacy carriers are simply competing with the non-legacy airlines and leaving you in the seat you pay for. Is this the policy for how they treat their best customers, probably not, but it’s how it’s working.

    I’ve seen plenty of flights leave for virtually all airlines with business class seats open with people who should be up there still sitting in economy. I say that, because I’ve quit looking at the upgrade monitors LOL.

    For me, I’ve simply started to fly whoever gives me the best value for that trip based upon time(s) and price. I would love to give my allegiance to a specific airline, but they won’t give it to me and I know that from just watching you guys. I’ll simply find ways to amass points and see how to cleverly get the most value from them.

    I’m not holding my breath that an airline will look at me any better than the guy next me. It’s just not worth it anymore. I flew Delta last week, and next week it’s United. It’s rarely AA because I hate connecting in Miami 🙂

    Anyway, I’d look for elsewhere to place your value, because looking for it Airline Loyalty Programs isn’t it.

  16. This has happened to me on several flights recently, albeit shorter ones (LAX-LAS, LAX-SFO, DFW-LAX). I found it INFURIATING and complained to AA’s useless twitter account, but if it happened to me on a LAX-LHR I’d have an aneurysm… and this was exactly the point I was trying to convey to AA…

    If your Agents can’t do the right thing on a short flight, what assurance do I have that they would do it on one that really mattered.

    Sadly, if they are intent on following Delta, this type of non-sense has been going on there for years. It’s well known that once you board, you’ll never get an upgrade. They simply pass it to someone on the UPG list who has not boarded yet; a non-rev, or let it go out empty.

  17. @Tim “With 3 seats open morning of flight would I have cleared if I checked in online before I got to Airport?”

    Yes, you have to check in in order to be in the upgrade list, at least in my experience with International flights, for Domestic I always check in at T24~T20. Probably you missed the upgrade that usually happen around T6~T4.

  18. @Gary, if I said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times…” gate agents are all powerful.” Sometimes they use their power for good and sometimes they are ruled by the dark side. Surely you flown enough to know. No surprises here.

  19. Following up with @Matt who claims flight went out full in J, American confirms it went out with empty business class seats says they were weight and balance restricted. I am working some followup questions about this and other flights.

  20. Requested SWU upgrade from economy to biz on Dec. 4 AA 997 DFW-EZE over a month ago. Checked 2 days before departure to see why it hadn’t cleared when 11 biz class seats were showing open on AA website. Was told they would process SWU’s at gate. Day of departure still hadn’t cleared. The staff person at Terminal D Admirals Club told me they don’t clear SWU’s in advance like they used to. I was 4th on the list. If you can’t clear an SWU in advance – especially when you are 4th on list and 11 seats are open – then it greatly depreciates their value IMO. AA is trying to use the pressure of uncertainty to compel pax to buy premium cabins and reduce SWU usage on longhaul int’l routes. If that is the case, I will go freelance. many AA flights, like AA 997, use the ancient 777-200 angled biz class seats, clearly not worth the $6000 they charge for the fare out of DFW.

  21. My answer to this is really very easy. NO LOYALTY. I don’t have a single upgrade this year as a platinum and had very few as an exec plat. I’m not sitting in economy unless it’s short haul, so I won’t even deal with the issue.
    I only fly the airline with the best (or only) schedule , most direct flight, and in first /business.
    I left Cabo few weeks ago with 3 empty first class seats and full economy. I paid for first, but surely there were three ff’s who could have been moved up.
    I would guess AA has lost 5-10k in revenue from me this year, and I have not flown much this year.
    I agree the airline is being run for the purpose of upgrading employees.
    This makes me mad, but I can’t say I would not do it if I worked for an airline.
    I’m waiting for them to downgrade my paid J/F for a nonrev to take my seat.

  22. Have had this happen to me on numerous occasions. Gate agent always says that I should take my seat in coach (#1 on upgrade list, Exec-Plat, Million Miler) and they will come and get me if there is a seat available but they seldom do. More often than not an employee takes the seat or we depart with an empty seat in 1st. I doubt that AA cares, happens way too often.

  23. These upgrades are a benefit, a perk, they are not a right.
    Is has been said before, if you want F or J then PAY – otherwise stop grizzling.
    You – and for most of you it’s you employer or client who actually pays for your ticket – got the economy seat actually paid for; and that’s about the only ‘right’ you have.
    Oh, and if you self pay, then there are no doubt other airlines you can fly.
    It’s laughable that so many busy ‘high-flying’ executives manage to find time to complain and pursue a missed upgrade.
    Remember: if you want F or J then pay the fare; it will save you a lot of angst!

  24. “Following up with @Matt who claims flight went out full in J, American confirms it went out with empty business class seats says they were weight and balance restricted.”

    A 77W? LAX-LHR? And the implication is that the FRONT of the plane was too heavy – would they have bumped paying passengers? With the range of that plane and presumably a TAILWIND – what a complete and utter load of manure from AA.

    Would love to hear any followup from them, Gary.

  25. Agreed. I’ve ridden many 777’s, and I’ve never heard any one say anything about a weight loading issue that would affect where passengers sat.

    I’ve never heard that on a 737, either for that matter. A regional, yea… 777, someone is full of it LOL

  26. Flying more than 3 hours om AA I NEVER risk upgrade list and just use miles to book an award ticket or 15k upgrade!

  27. I’ve been an AA Exp for 17 years. And this has happened to me a few times.

    The worst was last year on the DFW-Hong Kong nonstop. At least 15 business class seats were showing open on the seat chart and showed availability for sale the night before. I was #9 of 20 on the UG list. When I asked the gate agent about my UG status, she rudely shouted (in fast, heavily Asian-accented English) “No seats! No seats! Business full! Go on!!” (So tactful. So professional. Such excellent AA customer service training.)

    My fellow UGs stared at the 15 open seats in Business as we walked to sit in Main Cabin Extra. We all commented at the way we were treated and shocked that no UGs were cleared. Weight and balance problem? Nope (the flight wasn’t full and the B77W has plenty of range.) Catering problem? Nope. Crew shortage? Nope. She just lied. Pure and simple.

    And the salt in the wound? Just before takeoff, a cabin attendant walked from business class to the back galley carrying at least 10 business class meal-trays draped in a big white cloth. (Hardly subtle.) We all stared in anger. I should have pinched an appetizer (or tripped her.)

  28. I know one instance where the boyfriend of an airhostess got “upgraded” to business. i was seated right up front in economy plus travelling JFK-MAD. The chap was seated much behind but after gates were closed, he was bumped to the first row in economy plus alongside me, right in front of the airhostess seat for takeoff.

    All through the flight, this air hostess brought him champagne and food from business class. 2 seats in business were also empty and covered with a make shift curtain (the top of which was held together by locking it in the overhead cabin locker), giving the appearance that seats were unusable. Once the lights dimmed after dinner service, he was “upgraded” to business class and by landing time, the curtain had disappeared and he was relaxing there.

    So yeah, that happens too! Most likely some folks who were slated for an upgrade(not me, I am usually happy to avoid middle seat) probably got booted out. 2 of my fellow passengers werent quite happy his champagne glass being constantly topped off but did nothing and i think that was smart. The crew and staff have unaccountable power in the jet. They could throw you off on whim and there is not a thing you can do.

  29. I was on an award ticket in F and we received the seats we booked. This particular flight (SAN-DFW) had 25+ people on the upgrade list and 2 seats were empty in F (737). As boarding was almost complete, I heard one FA whisper to the other “30C is one of our pilots. Bring him up her”. And then he sat in F.

    PS.. of our 8 flights with AA on this ticket 7 were late. The others operated by CX and AS were wonderfully on time.

  30. I’ve even had times this year where the they have left me off the upgrade list for a connecting flight as an EXP and watched them upgrade people to first. I sent a tweet to AA and they said that upgrades in the airport are handled by the gate agents. It was interesting feedback as I had not ever been left off the upgrade list before as an EXP on a paid ticket.

  31. Oh yeah…….”[t]his seems to happen most often at legacy US Airways stations like Philadelphia.” I could have told you that….that’s where the American Airlines employees in PHL, who used to be US Airways employees that voted fro Obama, group all EQUALLY in Coach. That’s socialism, kids.

    No like it? Then avoid US Air hubs that are ***still*** US Air hubs. But if you research the flight, it went out full in J. That’s because the Obama crew typed it in as full so that socialism continues, no matter what, no matter the cost.

    Okay, Trump’s in charge now. Socialism ends.

  32. I’ve see this happen particularly when the gate agent is accommodating employees. It’s very annoying and had me questioned my status.

    It does seem to be happening more these days.

  33. I have reached, after 3 million miles with American, the point that I will walk before flying them. I’ve had two BDL-ORD trips where AA flys direct, but instead I’ve taken Delta through Detroit….
    AA, simply stated, sucks, their employees (mostly from US Air and Eagle) are dreaful and could care less, and no amount of incentives will get me back on their planes….In fact I’m giving a dear friend my over 100K miles…just don’t want the aggravation and crapy service.

  34. I’m with Dan and losingtrader. For one, I barely fly enough to get UA silver with no upgrades. I get it: too low on the totem pole. Citi/AA have been hammering me with cc offers, but with stories like this, why should I bother? I’ll book price point, times and non-stops and be loyal to myself.

  35. Are y’all Absolutely sure those seats that went out empty on LA to London were actually available for sale? They could’ve been crew rest seats or broken seats taken out of service

  36. I imagine D0 trumps upgrade processing (at least anything other than running it once) and the agents know it.

  37. Airlines have had a nice run in terms of passenger traffic improvements, higher fares, lower fuel prices and equity price improvements. The next recession will undoubtedly reverse some of these trends. It will be interesting (and fun) to see how these companies react to lower traffic and much higher employee compensation costs when they have to compete for customers again. Companies like AA will have a very hard time. Can’t wait to see ’em squirm. What goes around comes around.

  38. I assume in all these cases we’re talking about SWUs and not mileage upgrades. In the latter case, AA is foregoing $350 in fees for not processing a waitlisted upgrade, correct? Have people been experiencing the same problems with mileage upgrades?

  39. In August this year, I flew SJC to ORD in F as part of my first segment on a J award international flight (ORD-FCE). I was very surprised that there were 3 empty seats in F. I could not believe that were no other upgradable EXP passengers sitting in Y — that’s why there were 3 empty seats. At that moment, I can only deduced that EXPs do not fly on early Sunday mornings anymore. I did not check the upgrade list or if there was one for this particular flight. It just felt strange to see that there were 3 empty seats in F (as an EXP, domestic F are always full when I fly).

  40. @rjb: yes, what goes around will come around. But… that is also true for frequent flyers. Those of us who have gone revenue/convenience instead of loyalty (like me – giving up on DL Diamond by end of this year, and only a mere Plat on AA) – we will all flock back to our old behavior of loyalty/mileage-runs/entitled behavior the minute airlines offer the opportunity again driven by economic factors. Oh wait, that entitled bit has remained true regardless of the airlines policies 🙂

  41. I was just talking about this to a friend of mine yesterday. I am an EXP myself, had the same experience on a flight from DFW to Guatemala City on the 5th of November. I had to ask the agent at the time of boarding if there might be a chance of getting and upgrade and she nonchalantly stated that she forgot to process the upgrades, and then proceeded to upgrade me. This is not the first time it has happened to me but it was the first time happening in a US airport.

  42. Happened to me 2 weeks ago on the JFK-LAX flight. I was in bulkhead so I could see. I got up when the doors closed and there was a still and empty seat with a screenshot of the upgrade list showing I was next. Two flight attendants blew me off but finally someone took me to the purser (it had been a long week ok, and it’s a 6 hour flight, I really wanted that seat!). After ignoring me for 5 mins she finally asked for my name and the goes ‘yes, that’s your seat, they didn’t tell you?’.

  43. Any so-called expert traveler will know that a seat map is not an accurate means to gauging if a cabin is sold out or a seat is actually available.

  44. Oh my, you poor hard done by souls. So much anger, resentment and disappointment. Life is so unfair. How do you poor angels manage to survive with the world against you? I shall cry myself to sleep thinking of the misery, hardship and suffering you have to ensure. Take care little ones, it’s not nice living in the real world.

  45. This just happened to my co-worker and I on our short flight lax-SFO . We are both Platinum and were 3 and 4 on the upgrade list with 5 seats available. When my co-worker inquired about upgrade list she was told in a cold manner “we aren’t processing upgrades!’ Sounds like the D0 rule was in effect!

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