Why You Can’t Upgrade an American Airlines Ticket That’s Priced Without Fuel Surcharges

As I was booking working on booking a confirmed upgradable ticket for myself on American Airlines to Europe (lowest paid fair plus Executive Platinum ‘eVIP’ systemwide upgrade, using Expertflyer to find ‘C’ inventory which is business class upgrade space), it occurred to me to share something that’s probably totally obvious for many of you: You can’t save money with a ‘fuel dump’ on an American Airlines ticket you intend to upgrade.

And that brings us to a bit of a roundabout explanation. Some of you won’t need it. But a bit of the basics.

Back in March, 2010 Airfare Watchdog ran a post on forcing airfare pricing to drop so-called fuel surcharges, often saving hundreds of dollars on an international ticket. This was a popular trick discussed in online forums, but the broader world’s attention was caught by the Airfare Watchdog post. The simple trick that had worked so well for a couple of years was shut down in a matter of hours.

Now, initially I didn’t believe that Airfare Watchdog could have brought so much quick attention to the issue, and I certainly didn’t think that the United IT folks could work so quickly (since United was often the carrier on which the trick was most frequently used).

It turns out that the extra attention was enough to make it a priority to get things fixed, and knowing some of the people involved in the outside company that assisted in plugging the hole I do know that my initial reaction was wrong, the Airfare Watchdog post was what escalated the issue and that it was indeed plugged in a very short time.

Airfare Watchdog took a lot of heat for posting the piece, since the attention meant that the pricing trick was killed. And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the website has since pulled the piece, as though it almost never existed. Matthew from Live and Let’s Fly quoted much of it in a contemporaneous post-mortem.

In simplest form, folks would book a segment from the US to Canada at the end of an international itinerary. That would cause fuel surcharges to drop out of the price of the itinerary. And most folks wouldn’t fly that final segment, just tossing it.

It’s somewhat related to the concept of throwaway ticketing and hidden city ticketing to reduce the cost of your airfare.

Roughly speaking, when an ticket is issued on ticket stock of a carrier that doesn’t have an interline fuel surcharge agreement with one of the airlines in the itinerary, and the tables haven’t been properly updated in IATA’s system to handle the split, the pricing engine may drop the charges when pricing the ticket.

You don’t need to understand what that means to know that some combinations of city pairs tacked onto the end of an international ticket can reduce the price of that ticket.

Now, how does this issue get intertwined with upgrades?

In general, the fares that you’re reducing by dropping fuel surcharges aren’t upgradable. Most airlines won’t allow you to upgrade the cheapest fares, or if they will they are going to charge a hefty cash co-pay on top of spending miles, sometimes over $500 each way. Tickets that you’re squeezing a couple hundred bucks in fuel surcharges off of tend not to be trips you’re adding $1000 onto for an upgrade (plus miles). So it’s a non-issue.

Delta gives international upgrades to their top elites that only work on nearly full fare tickets. United excludes the bottom coach fares. With United the upgrade process can be done electronically online and without manual intervention.

When you’re putting together a ticket like this, you really aren’t looking to draw attention to it.

Which brings us to American. They give upgrades to their top elite members that are valid on any paid fare. So you can imagine finding the cheapest fare, dropping the fuel surcharges, and then wanting to upgrade.

Except that with American, international upgrades are done manually. By actually re-ticketing.

And that means drawing real live attention to your ticket. You want these things done automatically by a computer, not by a human. American’s upgrade process pretty insures that your fuel surcharge trick won’t work. I mean, you could get lucky and it won’t be noticed. But odds on you’re going to have a problem with that ticket, you’re going to have an itinerary that includes an extra segment at the end that you’ve paid for and you’re going to get questions about what happened to maybe $450 in fuel surcharges and how would you like to pay for those?

Anyway, for those familiar with airfare pricing tricks this may have been obvious but it sort of struck me this morning (I explicitly was not trying to put together one of these tickets, I do want to upgrade!).

And for this not familiar, it probably seems utterly bizarre.

But I still thought it worth sharing.

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. Leaving aside the upgrade issue, can you still earn miles on the segments that you do fly? Would you still earn elite bonuses?

  2. I really feel the fuel surcharges increases the price of an Airline ticket… So it’s a nice post… Thanks…

  3. Why we love and hate our favorite bloggers: This is only more attention to whatever opportunities may have remained, with no clear and immediate purpose, just because you were musing about this. An “AFWD lite” moment? 🙂

  4. Now why on earth do you feel compelled to draw more attention to this? Thanks for nothing.

  5. Amen, Aktchi — never mind that this precise issue comes up once every couple of weeks in “the thread”.

  6. @AKTCHI @xajn I was VERY careful not to publish anything here that wasn’t explicitly written not just in forums, not just in threads, but in a FAQ! I was also very careful not to write anything that folks from the airlines haven’t told ME, there are no secrets revealed here I assure you!

  7. Lame. You call out how fast things get fixed when posted, and then spend all this time talking about it, continuing the circle.

  8. @ai totally false, if you think that then you have no idea what I’ve posted vs what’s actually ‘hidden’, what airlines do and don’t know, etc.

  9. Are you really that ignorant or really that stupid, Gary? With all the exposure lately we soon might just reach a tipping point where airline X will decide that the _broad enough knowledge_ of the possibility of dumping is a deterrent enough to start fixing their system. NOW, not later when a leaked dump on a blog – understood by many – results in huge loss of revenue due to the wide public knowledge about dumps.

    Now, before you say: it’s extremely unlikely that dumping would go away however it is well withing the realm of possibilities that the airlines make it uneconomical to dump their tix. We know how it would be possible, they know it just as well (if not better). All that lacks right now is the will to dedicate resources for a fix that (from their perspective) might never be needed.

    You and other bloggers are prodding at that notion right now…

  10. Thank you for the edits, Gary! We all know where you lead, USA Today and NPR follow… Can you please remove my earlier comment – I should have contacted you offline.

  11. It appears I’m late to the party and DR has already started to take care of things, but for what it’s worth, thank you for your efforts to be careful Gary. It’s a fine line between sharing and not sharing too much.

  12. @Weasel I removed a link to something a person wrote, that person asked that it not be linked to, that’s all I did.

  13. Gary – it would be helpful if you expanded on the “you don’t know what you’re talking about” point you used to respond to commenters ‘ai’ and ‘Frank’. If you know more, please say what it is. Otherwise you shouldn’t use this additional knowledge, as a response to a commenter’s post, it reads like a rude put-down.

  14. I’ve gotten away with it before with AA, but it’s very rare. Once they put you on hold to call the rate desk, you’re sunk. It’s the reissue that messes it up.

  15. I appreciate your insights and sometimes it is worth the read for the people watching. Amazing how people read your blog to learn new tips–but are quick to condemn if you say something they already knew as they don’t want others to learn anything. Don’t you suppose it is more likely people google ways to avoid fuel surcharges than read this blog? Fuel dumping has been widely covered so ease up on Gary please

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