Why Won’t American Sell a First Class Seat? A Conundrum I Can’t Make Sense Of.

I’m looking at a flight later today that has only two first class seats for sale:

(There’s one confirmable upgrade [A] seat and no discounted first class [P] seats that American will sell.)

11 out of 16 first class seats are open on the seat map:

To be sure, the seat map is not a perfect approximation of availability. There can be people in a cabin without seat assignment. That’s more often true for international flights than domestic, and domestically in coach than first class, but it’s true.

Today there was bad weather going through Dallas, including a ground stop.

That doesn’t come close to explaining this, however.

  • The flight showed up the same way prior to day.

  • I frequently see American Airlines flights where they will not sell any first class seats (“F0”) but the cabin has not been sold to capacity, such as only 12 or 14 out of 16 seats taken.

I really like that American does not release all first class seats as upgrades prior to the gate. When seats are unsold they do not because automatic upgrades when the check-in window opens. That means if I change flights, or buy last minute tickets, I still have a shot at an upgrade. If a flight is delayed or cancelled, I’m the victim of irregular operations, that doesn’t consign me to coach. In fact most of the time under those circumstances I’ve still gotten the upgrade at the gate.

It makes sense why they would not give away the last first class seats the way some other airlines do. It doesn’t make sense why they would not be willing to sell the last first class seats.

I’ve noticed this on departures from Dallas, rather than flights to Dallas, although I cannot say I’ve analyzed this definitively. My assumption then based on little data was that they held a few first class seats back in case of irregular operations, to accommodate paid first class passengers who might have been displaced earlier in the day. Dallas departures might make extra sense, where passengers could be connecting from other flights.

Still, there’s no story I can come up with to explain why 11 seats would be open on the seat map for this particular flight while American is unwilling to sell a first class seat. (By the way, the flight before shows sold out in first but with more than a third of the seat map open).

Does anyone have insight? It’s a situation I’ve been noodling on since this morning to no avail.

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. Last month when the east coast was flooded with cancellations, my PHX to JFK was cancelled. Since I was on a ‘Z’ ticket, I decided to re-route myself and finally came up with PHX-LAX-JFK in F. Revenue ticket in F was not offered for sale but was offered only for mileage award redemption. Supposedly there was only one seat left and lounge agent grabbed it. Can’t get the last seat with money but can definitely get it with miles. Perhaps that’s why AA calls it anytime awards?

  2. AA has a habit of zeroing out both F & Y fare buckets to protect misconnects during IRROPs. That is likely what has happened here.

    In 2006 when the liquid bomb plot happened, my partner was travelling EDI-LHR-ORD-STL with a group of 16 high school students and chaperones. Their LHR-ORD flight was delayed to the point they misconnected in Chicago.

    I had watched availability on the later ORD-STL flights and watched them get zeroed out at some point during the day.

    While AA had said they were rebooked for the next morning, I told them to request standby on the last flight of the day and the group of 17 were cleared 45 minutes before departure.

    While the new AA leadership has changed many things, this apparently has not.

  3. The other likely scenario is that AA has oversold Y (either intentionally or perhaps unintentionally due to IROPs) and the RMS is calculating how many F seats it needs to save for upgrades and op-ups to balance out the seating. I’ve seen this behavior by AA many times before.

  4. Wait, according to your first line, they’re willing to sell 2 first class seats. So why do your headline and your post later say they’re not willing to sell any posts? I can’t make heads or tails of that.

  5. My inventory management experience is getting a little dated so take it for what you will. Back in “my day,” it wasn’t unheard of for revenue management to cap bookings during severe off schedule operations events. So you might see 0 available to book in a less than full cabin. Further, I’m not 100 percent convinced AA shows all of its inventory “cards” to ExpertFlyer, but that’s probably just me being a little too speculative.

  6. Could it be that Y is oversold and the have pulled most of the inventory knowing they will need to roll cabins? I see this allot. Or with the weather, they have pulled avail in anticipation of irops.

  7. I don’t think there’s any great mystery. The Y cabin is oversold (note that there’s not a single seat available even in full-fare Y), and so some of those seats in F will go to upgrades to make room in the back. Probably they have some formula to determine just how many extra coach seats they can sell with minimal likelihood of losing a first-class sale. The only thing that puzzles me is why there’s a seat in A but not in P. They’ll sell an upgrade to that seat for $75 and 15k miles, but they won’t just sell the seat outright for $900 or whatever?

  8. Mate – The seat map, particularly during periods of irregular operations, should by no means be considered an indication of availability. Plenty of pax could easily have been re-booked onto this flight without having a seat assigned.

    This flight is showing “F2.” Did you actually try to buy a full-fare F ticket for this segment and were told “no?” I’ve never seen a flight showing “F2” where you couldn’t purchase 2 “F” seats. They may be brutally expensive, but they’d be for sale.

    Not entirely clear where your post was going. You don’t say you “tried to buy an F seat but they wouldn’t sell you one.” Is that what happened – or was your headline more bull$hit click-bait?

  9. This was all before the ‘off schedule operations event’. And my point is that it is common during REGULAR operations with American, and when economy is not sold out.

  10. I’ve seen this in terms of upgrades (I buy coach exclusively, but as Delta Diamond, frequently travel up front). The last two seats in the front cabin are upgraded only within some small number of minutes of departure.

    My *hunch* is that airlines are required to reserve two front-cabin seats for Air Marshals, but can release them once the boarding process is about to begin. I say this because I once was the very first person down the jetway, but there were two gentleman already on board, which I considered quite unusual. They were well dressed, but I don’t know how to detect a concealed weapon, so I couldn’t be sure.

  11. AA Revenue Management has long had a way to oversell Y-cabin into J/F-cabin space they predict they can’t sell.

    Better to sell an additional 10 $300 tickets in Y and roll cabins than leave with 10 unsold 10 J/F seats. The end result is $3,000 more to AA and the same number of upgrades clear. And, as pointed out, more flexibility in case of OSO.

    That, of course, works if RM predicts correctly, which is at the core of what they do.

  12. Just a guess and not sure it is true for AA (or anyone else), but don’t codeshare partners sometimes get allotted x availability until day y when it all goes back into the operating airline’s bucket? Such that if this particular AA-operated flight, even if purely domestic, is also codeshared as BA and IB, BA may have F2, IB F2, etc. I’ve never read anything confirming this is how things work, but seems plausible (at least on some *A routes I’ve followed in the past). Or that AA must hold x in F for pax connecting from international J until y days out.

  13. I agree with the comments that economy is likely to be oversold & AA have already monetized those remaining First seats for (generally) high economy fares.

    It could be that every seat is actually sold, but Yield Management are still hedging their bets and making available 2 Full First fares and/or one discount/award First – any IDB cost is likely to be ameliorated by the Full fare.

  14. Hey Gary,

    This happened to me the other day from DFW as well and I asked the agent why. She said it was because coach was oversold.

  15. Re willing to sell an upgrade (A1) but not a purchased seat (F0): that makes it look even more strongly like oversold coach. An upgrade gets a passenger out of coach (helping with the oversale and getting revenue for the trouble) without adding to the passenger count on the plane.

  16. But it’s F2, not F0. They are willing to sell 2 F seats. That’s not unwillingness to sell F seats!
    (Plus, some discount fares book into A.)

    They’re just unwilling to sell *discount* F seats. Which makes total sense if they’re going to have to shell out tons of money to bump people.

  17. This is an old thread, but AA also sells A fares (they aren’t only upgrades). They cost more than a P fare. I bought one earlier this year when I was in a bind.

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