American Elites Don’t Get Complimentary Upgrades on US Airways Award Flights. You May Be Shocked What They DO Get Charged For.

Yes, I know that complimentary upgrades on award tickets is not a benefit of American AAdvantage status.

It’s not a benefit of US Airways status (except for elites who selected this as their ‘special dividend’ award).

And yet I’m actually surprised. What I experienced tells us a lot about the new programming and how US Airways works and treats elite frequent flyers.

See, US Airways aggressively offers to upsell customers to first class. If there’s a first class seat available when you check in, there will be a paid offer to buy that seat.

And the paid offer is available even when you’re traveling on an award. I’ve bought up to first for $50 on the US Airways Shuttle between DC and New York LaGuardia, for instance, when I know there’s bad weather and congested airspace and I expect to be sitting on the tarmac for an hour or more in addition to flight time (I don’t really consider the buy up to first class worth it for a 40 minute flight alone. Heh.).

I did this recently on a Briitsh Airways award ticket, 4500 Avios points one-way and then a paid upgrade.

But I recently had my first travel using an Avios redemption on US Airways since American and US Airways introduced reciprocal elite upgrades available at check-in less than two weeks ago.

And at the time, when this was first announced, I guessed that the upgrade process on US Airways would be:

  • If there’s an upgrade seat available for sale, you can buy it.
  • If you have elite status with American, the price is zero.

That’s how it works for paid tickets. I didn’t expect that US Airways IT systems would differentiate between paid and award tickets for this process.

It turns out that they do, and that American elites don’t get the upgrade seat free, at least if my experience is indicative.

I make my British Airways award booking on US Airways, and one nice thing is that my seat assignments populate into US Airways premium seats… often seats that US Airways would charge for. That’s my experience, anyway.

And then I change the frequent flyer number on my reservation. US Airways phone agents usually won’t do this for you on a British Airways award booking (which is weird), so I do it myself — either at check-in or in advance using the Finnair website.

Checking in for a flight recently there was a first class seat available for sale – and despite having my American elite number in the booking, I was asked to pay. No complimentary upgrade on this award ticket.

I didn’t want the bulkhead on this regional jet anyway. I didn’t pay for the seat. But I grabbed a screen shot, because it was interesting to see the result.

And it’s interesting to be reminded that US Airways charges for many of the ‘better’ coach seats, and the charge applies even to their top elites. I find this policy ludicrous, and hope it doesn’t carry over to American when the two airlines integrate next year.

Remember that these aren’t even actually better seats, such as having more legroom. US Airways does not currently offer extra legroom seats in coach.

In the graphic above they are proposing to charge $26 to a 100,000 mile flyer for a coach seat without extra legroom on a regional jet, on a flight of just a few hundred miles.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Us airways’ system was not functioning well this weekend..i had the same issue yesterday but after a few hours it got resolved and i was able to choose uogrades for free…so it is probably a temporary thing but it worked for me this weekend…twice

  2. I decided to go for CP instead of EXP in Jan – had 4 cards with US, and many more US miles than AA miles (and AA allows date changes for free anyway)
    I got 2 pairs of CP upgrades instead of 8 VIPs (no longer transferable without an inquiry from AA, it appears)
    I did get upgraded on US with Avios from DCA to LGA as a CP
    I entered my US number at booking (made from family account) and 5 days before flight – I was in front ((AND the flight was delayed)

  3. I just got off a flight from PHL – BOS using 4500 avios. Agent recognized my status with AA and tried to upgrade me but computer wouldn’t let her overwrite. I appreciated her effort and pulled out one of those “appreciation certificates” to which she exclaimed: I won $1,000 from the last AA elite who gave me this”. She printed out my boarding pass, wrote 3F (first class) over 5D (bulkhead coach), walked me to the plane and told the flight attendant: he’s sitting in 3F.

  4. Incorrect, I was able to go to the gate at CLT this weekend on an award ticket on US airways booked with Avios. I had a US airways agent change my FF number during the week and the agent at the counter told me to use the kiosk – it took a while but the machine said there was space in First and asked if I wanted a free upgrade – no brainer so I clicked yes and that was it

  5. From my experience on ANA, United, and now British Air award tickets on US Airways as a Chairman and Platinum:

    – the system blocks out the first class upgrade if there is one
    – Asking an agent at the airport has yielded a 50% success rate. Some say no way and let the seat go empty. Others find a way around it. I have had the best success at the US Air Club.
    – I have found the best success when I ask, “I am a Platinum member and I forgot to get on the upgrade list, would you please add me to the upgrade standby list?” In my experience when added to the standby list when there is a seat available right away a F boarding pass spits out automatically.
    – I have NOT found success when I ask, “I am a platinum member and I see there are open first class seats on the flight, could you let me know what type of upgrades are available?

    Your Mileage May Very. An agent can definitely make this happen, although they probably have to get creative on their side to make it happen. The “default” upgrade path will get caught as verbtten by the system edit checks.

  6. @Jonny – I was confused too. This wasn’t the best written post I’ve ever read. 🙂

    But, after reading it a second time, I get it.

  7. @Leslie – If you book an award ticket you’re doing so with the ticketing carrier using the ticketing carrier’s FF program. After booking, however, you may have better status on another alliance airline and switch your FF number to that airline to get the benefits of higher status. It’s not well supported but can be made to work.

  8. Gary, you’re making this into a “OMG look how US Airways is screwing American elites,” but you do realize that even US Airways elites don’t get complimentary upgrades on award tickets, right?

    That’s simply the dividend miles program policy, and has been for as long as I can remember…no discrimination against AA elites in this regard, this policy is universal (the only exception is once you cross the 85,000 mile/year threshold, upgrades on award tickets are one of the “special dividends” at that level).

  9. If you want complimentary upgrades on Award tickets, I believe Delta does that. It also lines up with what you keep preaching about along the lines of ‘a high value customer is a high value customer whether on a cheap or expensive [or award] ticket’.

    I know you’ll never consider switching, but they ARE offering the free upgrade you seem to be coveting when you wrote this post.

  10. @Andrew wrote “Gary, you’re making this into a “OMG look how US Airways is screwing American elites” that isn’t my intention at all. I thought something might work out but it doesn’t, American doesn’t offer their own elites upgrades on awards and I note in my post that US Airways doesn’t offer upgrades to their own elites unless they opt in picking that as a special dividend award. The exception you mention is precisely something I mention in the post 🙂

  11. Meanwhile, water makes things wet.

    Seriously, this has been the SOP on US. If the new AA is keeping thing status quo at US, then this should not be a surprise.

  12. I live in a city serviced by American Eagle. Bought tickets to Spain on U.S. Airways, with all flights codeshared as U.S. Airways flights. However, the U.S. Airways website wouldn’t let me check in there because my first flight was operated by American. When I checked in on American, I was not offered an upgrade nor mentioned as being on the upgrade list. (I’m Platinum with AA)

    Settles that. Won’t book on U.S. Air anymore.

  13. @Tim A – you cannot add yourself to the upgrade list when flying American on a US Airways ticket. Can only be done by an agent at the airport. Did it myself a couple of weeks ago DC-Dallas-DC and cleared both flights.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *