One Way Non-Elite Upgrades Now Take Priority Over Complimentary Elite Upgrades at American

About six weeks ago I covered American’s new domestic first class upsell program where they e-mail non-elite flyers with offers to sell first class seats if still available the day before departure.

  • This communication will happen over email, so American will have to have your email address in the reservation.

  • The method of payment for upgrades will be the credit card used to purchase the ticket. So they’ll need that on file. The ticket will have had to have been purchased by credit card directly with American to be eligible.

These upgrades are after elite upgrades the day before departure, so they don’t trade off with elite upgrades that are confirmed at least a day in advance however they certainly can trade off with available inventory for elite upgrades closer-in (many of my upgrades clear around 4 hours prior to departure, if not at the gate).

Via TravelingBetter we’ve learned one way that non-elite first class upsells trump elite upgrades.

If your elite-upgraded flight is cancelled, you lose your elite upgrade:

Electronic Upgrades/500-mile Upgrades/”Sticker” upgrades will be protected in the premium cabin on AA flights if X or R inventory is available (extremely unlikely), otherwise they will be protected in the originally ticketed cabin. Rerouting on OA, including joint business partners, will be done in the originally ticketed cabin.

In contrast American has to accommodate non-elite upgrades if there are first class seats (not just upgrade inventory seats) on another flight.

Early Upgrades/Email Upgrades & Day-of-Departure Upgrades (DODUs) will be reaccommodated in the premium cabin on AA flights only. There are no specific inventory requirements. Rerouting on OA, including joint business partners, will be done in the originally ticketed cabin.

This makes sense, non-elite upsell upgrades are paid upgrades. Customer gives American money in exchange for first class seat, American has a greater obligation to deliver the first class seat.

Similarly, upgrades that are confirmed with miles or a systemwide upgrade are protected in the event of schedule irregularity. American actually re-tickets mileage and systemwide confirmed upgrades, so when they re-accommodate in the ticketed cabin that’s the upgraded cabin.

Mileage Upgrades/Upgrade Awards & Systemwide Upgrades will be protected in the premium cabin on AA flights and oneworld member airlines (since the ticket has been reissued, “same cabin as ticketed” now refers to the premium cabin). A or C inventory is required unless there is a flight that arrives earlier than the next flight with A or C availability (effectively, the inventory is not required). Rerouting on non-oneworld carriers will be done in the originally purchased cabin.

In some sense none of this is new, it’s just that these non-elite pre-sold upgrades have been added to the existing re-accommodation policy and are treated like paid or confirmed upgrades rather than complimentary upgrades.

There’s no change in how elites are treated on complimentary upgrades (and in practice agents in clubs may be willing to protect in the upgraded cabin even though they aren’t supposed to). At the same time, some may take it as another sign of the new pecking order.

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. Do the airlines think there’s no downside to selling upgrades?When they lose a $20k per year flyer who stops flying AA and starts flying Southwest because he’s not getting upgrades (and may as well get a companion pass), do they take that into account. Or do they just not care because planes are so full?

  2. I’m trying to understand this post. You conclude that “n some sense none of this is new, it’s just that these non-elite pre-sold upgrades have been added to the existing re-accommodation policy”, in which case, as an elite, this seems like no big deal to me.

    But the headline says “Non-Elite Upgrades Now Take Priority Over Complimentary Elite Upgrades” and you say that ” they don’t trade off with elite upgrades that are confirmed at least a day in advance however they certainly can trade off with available inventory for elite upgrades closer-in”. If these non-elite upgrades are clearing ahead of elite upgrades, that’s a very big deal. Especially as it’s been widely discussed on FT that elite upgrades are coming later; it’s become common for even EXPs to be languishing on the upgrade list until the day of departure or even until the gate, even with 7 or 9 or 12 open F seats.

  3. This is kind of odd to me. I have been a steady AA Gold for a couple of years now so not high priority and not a significant amount of stickers. I have seen the cost for a non-elite to buy an upgrade only be a small amount (maybe $30 or $50) more than it would cost an AA Gold or Plat to buy the stickers required to upgrade on the same flight. I would think out-of-pocket upgrades regardless if they are stickers or not would be protected equally.

  4. Gary – I absolutely love reading your blog on a daily basis and gain very valuable information. With that being said, I totally agree with @swag as I too am trying to understand your post. I find that many times, I have to read your posts 3 to 4 times to finally figure out what exactly it is that you are trying to convey to the readers. I find your writing style incredibly confusing and hard to follow at times. The title of this post “One Way Non-Elite Upgrades Now Take Priority Over Complimentary Elite Upgrades at American” is a little misleading (assuming I’m understanding the information in your post) and a lot National-Enquirer-ish – if you know what I mean. I have no doubt that you know all the details in your head and understand it completely but in so many instances, they is not conveyed in an understandable way for the non-travel guru to grasp. Do you re-read your posts before posting to see if they make sense and are understandable? Perhaps someone should proof your posts before posting?

    I don’t mean to be totally blasting you and I understand that many times, the details can be confusing to understand – for anyone! However, I think a more concise, more clear writing style would be very beneficial for your readers.

    For example, your very last paragraph is confusing to me. When you reference talking to agents in clubs – is this whole paragraph in context to a situation of a cancelled flight – or is it in context to any normal scheduled flight? The whole last paragraph is contradictory to the rest of your post.

    I don’t think it’s just me who has difficulty understanding your posts at times – based on other’s comments and questions. Proofing can make a big difference, I’m sure. Again, I love reading your blog on a daily basis!

  5. Thank you, Josh, for your blinding glimpse of the obvious. Your commentary is of no use to those who want to goose the system.

  6. “Complimentary upgrades are getting harder and harder to get.”

    So are SWU’s, from 8 to 4, and in 2017 you need “elite qualifying dollars”. All decisions made by the Delta and United non-executive and quasi-executive members of the American Airline’s boardroom, who are also members of the Delta and United boardrooms.

    Just 4 months left and Obama is kicked out. Should get better in 2018 when Trump’s economy reverts back to butt-in-seat miles, I guess. lol

  7. If we use UA as an example, what will happen now is that AA will clear upgrades later to have more seats to sell. That simple. And even if flights are empty up front, AA can sell non-elite upgrades dirt cheap to bump elites to the back. Don’t believe me? That is exactly what UA has been doing for years much to the chagrin of us 1ks. I have a comparatively excellent CPU rate at 46% on the year. Most 1ks, especially at hubs do MUCH worse.

    This move gives AA several levers with which they can generate more revenue at the expense of elites.

  8. I am thinking here if if it pays off sending your miles to AAdvantage.
    Let us say you do not change your flying patterns, you still fly over 100k miles/year within AA. If flying First is important to you, you have the following alternatives:
    – play the lottery for a chance of being upgraded at no cost, which is getting harder and harder
    – shift to another One World partner so you have a chance to pay few dollars to be upgraded (chance that elites do not have… awkward!)
    – pay for first class by the time you issue your ticket (which is more expensive than non-elites that pays to be upgraded!)
    Bottom line: AA does not value you as a loyal customer, so they push you to take your loyalty elsewhere.

    Minimum in this case should be offering elites the chance for paid upgrade before non-elites! Am I wrong?

  9. i think economy is perceived as such that AA doesn’t care about the loss of , say $20k arbitrarily, from 1 loyalist when they can get a bunch of non-elite to say ‘a little’ more. They think there will be a lot more people traveling nowadays, coupling with gas price. There were no under $500 rt to Europe a few years ago, now you see a ton of $300. They think airline will not lose money per that model. They have check-mated us, It’s time to change buyer strategy.

  10. Even the title here is bad because it took me forever to realize that you didn’t mean “one way” as in not roundtrip. Just so much confusion in this entire article.

  11. I’m with Cristiano on this: If AA is going to sell upgrades to non-elites, I’ll be doing the following: Use my EXP number for me, request upgrades at booking time. Travel with my wife on business (this happens most of the time)— and list her under her ALASKA number. Then, we’ll see whether we get one freebie with her paid upgrade, or whether SHE GETS ASKED TO UPGRADE FOR MONEY, (which I will pay, and request reimbursement from Aadvantage) and then I write a series of damning letters to AA and publicize this “valued elite” nonsense all over the place. Loyalty, my eye.

    Bad Move, American. Better re-think this.

  12. I came over to AA from US Air and the new non-elite paid upgrade policy is a page out of the old US Air playbook. For years, I flew with them as a non-elite on International Flights to the EU. Almost without exception, the night before my flights, I’d get an email asking me if I wanted to upgrade to J for $400. I never turned that deal down.

    My PLT status at AA isn’t worth much these days. I’m not clearing any domestic complimentary upgrades and international award travel availability has dried up. Seems like we’re on the cusp of something equivalent to the legacy airline version of the subprime mortgage bust of 2008. Instead of property values tanking, the effect of a glut of points/miles chasing limited flight award availability is resulting in their value plummeting. Increased demand for air travel (healthy economy) is fueling it all. And there’s no place for many of us elites to go – the game is the same whether it’s UA, AA or DL.

  13. @SST – I’ve wanted to do something very similar to what you’ve described and just see if an offer would be made to a non-elite travelling partner vs. my request for an upgrade made at time of booking as a Platinum. I hope you follow through with this scenario and report back – AND report back to AA if the results are as we most all suspect.

  14. Gary, what is AA’s reasoning about not also offering cheap upgrades to elites. I am EXP, but I would certainly be willing to buy a reasonably priced last minute upgrade sometimes vs taking a chance with the upgrade list. It seems not fair to the elites to offer them an opportunity to buy up.

  15. As a non UA elite, I was offered a $69 upgrade, at checkin 24 hours before departure.. 2 hour flight, I bought it. Cabin was full. On AA it would have been two stickers.

  16. @jimjar I don’t know their rationale but it could be a marketing ploy as well. They target people without status with these upgrade offers and it could encourage them to fly AA again in the future in hopes of getting another cheap upgrade offer. It also encourages members of the general public who likely far outnumber people with AA status to fly AA on the hopes of maybe they can get an upgraded ticket for a really good price. If they just made this offer available to those with AA status they would not be reaching as larger an audience of new fliers. Maybe the loyal AA fliers don’t have a lot of viable alternatives. Maybe they are in an AA hub, in which case they are unlikely to go anywhere over this. A few annoyed AA elites leaving the airline isn’t something they are going to lose sleep over if they can make it up by bringing in enough new fliers. These are just guesses I really don’t have any direct knowledge of why.

  17. I think Donna is right. There are so many miles chasing little inventory, that American doesn’t care. People have miles to spend, and if they have to pay more for Anytime instead of Plan Ahead, it’s just a de facto miles devaluation that they don’t have to announce.

    As for the upgrades, I clear pretty regularly, spend $20k plus on flights anyway. The changes probably favor me, other than the non-elites moving ahead on a changed flight/cancellation. That sucks, but it’s not surprising. We all act astonished every time AA slaps us around, but it’s par for the course. If I didn’t live in a hub, I’d switch tomorrow. With WN getting ready to test first class, that may be a longer-term opportunity to switch.

  18. The devaluation of AAdvantage benefits, generally abysmal service and disdain for loyal customers makes it easy to call it a day and switch vocations to one that allows me to sleep in my own bed every night. I’m sick and tired of flying anyway, after 30 years of heavy travel. Yoga pants, cargo shorts and flip flops have replaced sharp, classy attire, and pax behavior trends right along in the same manner. Been top tier on several airlines and lived in various hubs of all legacy carriers. I’ll qualify for EXP again this year, but hopefully won’t fly enough in 2017 to care one way or the other. It is sad to see the deterioration of American Airlines. They deservedly pat themselves on the back for moving to a great hard product on some international routes. Otherwise, AA could go out of business and no one would really care.

  19. I am getting ready to abandon AA over this as I feel they are blatantly lying about the upgrade policy. I came in as part if us air and rarely missed an upgrade on these routes. Now it absolutely never happens. Even if expert flyer shows all but one seat available for upgrade and all seats empty magically the 72 hour mark passes and we hit checkin. Seats are all still empty exempt one. 15 hours later they are some how gone. They screw the elite fliers and hold them to offer to non elites. It’s happened constantly. I have cleared once before the gate in the last six months.

    This is frankly a bait and switch and fraud. They are advertising a product to get you to spend money when they have no intention of honoring it. Based on availability? You just never make it available.

    I am leaving AA Afar behind. If I have to just pay cash in hand for the seat their product pretty much stinks.

Leave a Reply

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