Understanding, Aligning — and Gaming – Domestic Upgrades on American and US Airways

As the merger between American and US Airways continues apace, systems are being updated and policies are getting aligned.

One area where we’ve already seen some alignment is domestic upgrades, with American elites eligible for complimentary upgrades on US Airways (as US Airways receive) albeit only at check-in, and US Airways elites eligible for upgrades (paid, except for US Airways 100,000 mile flyers) at check-in only if Ameircan would otherwise sell a first class seat to a non-status member.

There’s been some speculation that the US Airways processes for upgrade have been aligned a bit with American AAdvantage policy. But before we get there, we need to look at how America’s domestic upgrades work.. and how US Airways upgrades have worked and how it’s been possible to game the US Airways system to jump the upgrade queue in certain circumstances.

American AAdvantage domestic upgrades are prioritized based on:

  1. Elite status
  2. Connecting passenger
  3. Whether or not full (Y, B) fare
  4. Time of upgrade request

A few things about this.

  • Unlike United and Delta, status trumps fare at American. At United, a full fare Silver goes ahead of a mid-priced fare 100,000 mile flyer on the upgrade list. Not so at American.

  • Connecting passengers get priority upgrading on the flight onto which they are connecting. Say I was flying Washington National – Dallas – Los Angeles. I would be an originating (not a connecting) passenger for the DC – Dallas segment. I would be a connecting passenger, with higher upgrade priority, for Dallas – Los Angeles. This has always suggested to me that American believed they had to work harder to compete via status benefits for connecting traffic, whereas on non-stop flights they believed customers chose those flights based on schedule.

  • Time of upgrade request matters at American — not time of check-in. That’s the final tie-breaker. Two Executive Platinum members connecting onto the same flight who are not on full fare tickets are basically tied in every way. The upgrade would go to the one who requested their upgrade first. And that’s the original request (generally made when purchasing tickets), which carries over to the airport standby list.

The US Airways upgrade list is sorted differently. After elite status, their tie-breaker is a member’s elite qualifying miles flown.

Or at least it has been.

There appears to be anecdotal evidence that US Airways may have shifted to prioritizing upgrades based on check-in (or request) time.

Now, it seems odd to me that they’d be tinkering with the US Airways systems — systems that will be going away as part of the American Airlines merger. We expect AAdvantage and Dividend Miles to combine in the first half of next year, the two airlines to obtain a single operating certificate in the second quarter, and the reservation systems to combine later in 2015.

They’re operating hundreds of different systems, and IT priority is clearly focused on integration. So another possible scenario here is that the US Airways systems simply weren’t functioning properly in the reported case where priority seems to have changed.

The US Airways system doesn’t always work properly. And the whole thing has long been held together with the programming equivalent of duct tape. In fact, when any first class seat is available during the check-in window it’s available as an upgrade (complimentary for elites, paid for anyone else). So the best strategy has been not to check in if you haven’t cleared the upgrade, and first class is sold out. Instead, keep checking and wait to see if a first class seat opens up for sale. Check-in then, grab the upgrade, jump the queue over folks with higher status that had already checked in.

I suppose that if time of request became a US Airways tie-breaker, that could serve as an incentive to check in early and not play the waiting game for a seat to open up.

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. AA PLT here. Flew USAir BOS-CLT-MCI this morning. Checked in exactly 24hrs out yesterday (seq1 on both). Ended up #1 on the upgrade list on both. About 46k EQM so hard to tell if it was because of that or the check in time.

    Got the BOS-CLT upgrade at the gate but missed the CLT-MCI which is disappointing since it did show availability 1 yesterday early evening but it was gone by the time I tried to change my seat to it. Any idea if you can change your seat after you checkin if availability opens up or only at checkin time?

  2. So I assume that US Air Chairman Preferred will be converted to Executive Platinum next year. Do you think they would also receive any SWU?

  3. You don’t need to wait. You can always change your seat to first class whenever it becomes available until your first leg departs. I did about 16 USAir flights last months. Only once somebody got upgraded at the gate. Sometimes gate agents just ignored the list and kept first class seats open.

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