Upgrade Availability and Priority: One Airline is Rational and Everyone Else Is Just Insane (or Else I Am…)

I grew up on United Mileage Plus and so I admit it’s probably just familiarity that makes United’s ways of doing things ‘make sense’ to me, and other carriers’ practices seem odd.

Take prioritizing upgrades, there’s a seeming rationality to status, followed by fare basis, and then final tie-breaker of time added to the list.

In contrast, Delta will treat full fare passengers of any status above their top tier members on a discount fare. At Delta, you aren’t their loyal customer, you’re your fare on any given day. At least that’s how it strikes this United-centric flyer.

And Delta’s program really doesn’t work for me, being based in DC, since at my home airport there are so many folks flying on government fares. Those government fares, in spite of being heavily discounted, are treated as full fare tickets. A government fare flying Silver trumps a higher elite who may even have paid more for their non-full fare ticket.

(Update: [Slaps forehead!] I really shouldn’t have been so surprised last week to learn that Delta’s Diamond members (with 125,000 qualifying miles) ‘only’ clear their domestic upgrades 85% of the time given this rule…)

But what I really don’t understand is American’s different upgrade buckets.

American has two different buckets for domestic upgrades from coach to first class — one for ‘stickers’ and a separate one for miles. Elites using their earned 500 mile upgrades (or Executive Platinums with their unlimited complimentary upgrades) are upgraded out of ‘X’ inventory. Anyone, elites or general members, can upgrade out of separate ‘A’ inventory.

At United there’s one upgrade bucket, and a separate bucket for award first class. It’s almost always the case that upgrades are easier to get than awards, the airline would rather take a paid coach ticket and miles for the first class seat than more miles without the cash for that same seat. I get that. (A couple of years ago there were specific routes, like transcon flights, where that was temporarily reversed — it could be easier to get awards than confirmed upgrades in advance — but that anomaly is long gone).

At American, it’s much much easier to get mileage upgrades than elite upgrades. The mileage upgrade ‘A’ bucket is widely available, most of the time on most flights, even when the X bucket is empty. Looking for some elite upgrade space on a flight tomorrow, I’m seeing several flights with A seats left but nothing in X, and surprisingly seats available in ‘Z’ — award first class.

American would rather let a general member redeem their miles for a first class award seat than give it to an elite. American would rather let that general member spend their miles on any fare (plus a cash co-pay) than give it to an elite.

Perhaps because American only waives ‘close-in award booking fees’ for their elites, we have the answer why awards (for free tickets and mileage upgrades) would be easier than complimentary upgrades — American is picking up the cash co-pay and the close-in booking fee.

But coming from United it does seem odd that American favors its generally members willing to come out of pocket with more favorable inventory than its top tier elites.

I’m going to find it interest (or shocking?) to see how a future combined United/Continental prioritize upgrades since the Continental model has long privileges upgrades for full fare passengers, offering their elites buying full fare tickets the opportunity to confirm upgrades at booking (subject to availability). Because to me and my prejudices, built on my very first elite status experiences when I first started traveling for business lo those many eyars ago, United’s system will always be what makes sense and everything else an illogical abberation.

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. I typically agree with you Gary, but I actually like that AA has 2 separate buckets even as an Executive Platinum. Having A bucket available allows me to use by SWUs on domestic flights (typically connecting to an international one). And yes, you did point out that you are biased towards UA (and I am to AA for the same reasons you gave).

    And needless to say, you also correctly pointed out that the A bucket allows AA to gain some additional revenue or at least get some liabilities off its books when people use their miles.

    X inventory usually only appears around 100 hours prior to flight departure. Prior to that its all A and presumably AA moves some of that unused A inventory to X when its time for the sticker upgrades to kick in.

  2. Ah — now I think I understand what has happened to me on Delta on occasion. As diamond, I almost clear the upgrade list. On the few times I don’t, it isn’t because I was number three on the list and there were only two seats available — it has been because I was number 15 on the list. I have always wondered how some flights could have so many people ahead of me. But if full fare coach go ahead of diamonds — then there are likely to be some flights where a group of people traveling together all got full coach fare for some reason.

  3. Is upgrades handeled the same way for international flights it seems like that has changed as a 1k i use to book and clear one or two weeks out now its not till i get the gate especially frustrating on those asia routes.

  4. @Scotty that’s United inventory management holding back seats much longer than they did prior to a couple of years ago. But route matters a great deal. Wanna clear? Check out San Francisco – Seoul (747, new business)… San Francisco – Osaka… Seattle – Tokyo…

  5. The 85% number for Diamonds is crap. I fly everywhere in the US (including, often, DCA) and have never missed an upgrade except for irregular operations or last-minute purchases. The true number appears to be 100%.

  6. Those government fares, in spite of being heavily discounted

    Gary, that’s not correct. Some of the City Pair fares are indeed comparable to discounted general fares, but others are ridiculously priced. For example, the fare from DCA to CLT — one way — is $697 before tax.

    I’m not suggesting that the City Pair program is a boondoggle. GSA puts the routes out for bid every year, and the benefits to gov’t travelers (last-seat availability; full refundability; no change fees) are very much in the txpayers’ interest. But the fares vary widely, and can by no means be fairly characterized as “heavily discounted” across the board, or even close.

    See for yourself: http://apps.fas.gsa.gov/citypairs/search/index.cfm

  7. @beltway I am not saying these are the cheapest fares in the market, and certainly some are cheaper than others, but compare $697 to the full Y fare on the route — $1357++! So these certainly ARE discounted fares. The particular discount on a given route is somewhat beside the point. In most markets in doesn’t much matter. But for a DCA-based flying NOT flying on government fares there’s quite an anomaly going on here… Silvers on government fares trumping Delta’s Diamonds not flying full fare.

  8. As a General AAdvantage member with little chance of status I have to say that it seems that American is trying to appeal to a larger market segment. If, as a general member, I can never effectively use my miles then I might as well find an airline I can. If they make it easier for me to use my miles then I’ll be more likely to push my business and that of my friends/coworkers their direction too. Seems like a great idea from AA where other airlines fall down.

  9. compare $697 to the full Y fare on the route — $1357++! So these certainly ARE discounted fares.

    Gary, I think you missed the part where I said it’s $697++ one way. According to my math, that’s more than the full Y fare you’re citing.

  10. Ticket price: One thing I am finding lately, is that since I have been using some of the 200-250$ off e-cert that United has been handing out when my video doesn’t work, or I get a bottle of champagne spilled on me, it makes my domestic 400$ ticket 150$, and I am NOT getting upgraded.

    I can only imagine that even as a 1K, I must be getting deprioritized based on actual $$, not only fare basis. I asked a guy in line, ahead of me for an upgrade what he paid. he said, 500$ and was a 1P, not even a 1K. I don’t get it.

  11. My ratio for clearing as a 1K is about 95% and I usually buy the cheapest fares, but it is surprising how often I am the last person on the upgrade list to clear.

  12. Gary,
    I do not like govt fares being Y, but that is a fact. DL in general wants full fare status pax to get upgraded. That is fine, as long as everyone knows.
    DL often rebooks misconnects, SDC to Y – that is changing now, so the large numbers ahead of DM will go away.
    In general I have been 100% as DM on paid fares, but occasional IRROPs have sent me to the back of the bus.

    AA makes most sense to me. The airline HAS to sell seats not give them for free to the top tier first. If some one wants to pay coach + miles to upgrade, go for it. If any seats are left EXP then P then G, paying 0 / 30$ per 500 miles.

  13. @tivoboy – I call BS. No way a 1P would clear ahead of a 1K. A 1K on any fare will always clear before a 1P on a full Y fare.

  14. now that united let`s continental elite members upgrade
    (im platnium) on there flight, i saw first hand (sfo to pdx) a lady who didnt have any status but paid full fare ahead of everyone else i was number 6 on the upgrade list
    needless to say i was ticked off…. on continental i have never had a non status full fare person jump ahead of me at all…

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