American Airlines Tried to Overcharge Me $47 After Making It So Much Harder to Book Tickets

American Airlines used to offer confirmable upgrade space on nearly all domestic flights (other than premium New York JFK – Los Angeles and San Francisco flights). That completely changed at the beginning of January and now using miles or upgrade certificates is nearly impossible even domestically.

Years ago Executive Platinum upgrades — which can be used on any American flight — would confirm into revenue first class inventory. Now you can barely use confirmed upgrades domestically, they aren’t only difficult internationally.

That’s a pretty big devaluation for the AAdvantage program, which still charges cash copays to upgrade domestically even for all elite members other than ConciergeKey members. 15,000 miles and $75 used to upgrade nearly any flight, now they can’t be used for very many flights at all.

It’s also a devaluation of the Business ExtrAA program. I frequently redeem points in American’s small business program for domestic one-segment upgrade certificates. These are valid on most but not all fares, and confirm into the same ‘C’ upgrade inventory as miles or VIP systemwide certificates. (They aren’t valid on B, N, O, Q or S fares.)

I was booking a 4 hour domestic flight where — much to my surprise — there was confirmable upgrade space available. So I decided to plunk down one of my Business ExtrAA certificates. It’s a tougher process than you’d expect.

  • The lowest fare for my trip was an S fare. S fares can’t be used with Business ExtrAA upgrade certificates.

  • I needed to book a G fare for $45 more.

  • I put the cheaper reservation on hold. I was lucky this was offered to me at, they don’t always offer this option any more which makes the process even more of a pain.

  • Then I called up American. They transferred me to the meeting services desk. I needed them to upfare the reservation and then process the upgrade.

Here’s published fares currently on the route.

I wanted the $220 G fare. The agent told me ‘the cheapest eligible fare is…’ the V fare that’s $47 more. Most people would believe what an agent told them. I pushed back, “you aren’t seeing any availability in G?” She stammered and came back with the lower price. She had quoted me a price that was almost fifty bucks too high.

Processing the upgrade for the first time I was asked not just for the certificate type (BXP1) but for the serial number on the certificate. That’s a pain because it suggests they want me to use a specific certificate (I have a stack) with a specific reservation. Usually I just have a couple of these in my wallet, and I might have multiple upgraded reservations at any given time.

At the same time the certificates have become much harder to use, because of lack of upgrade space, they wanted to tie specific certificates to a specific reservation. They must be trying to crack down on some sort of aftermarket in these even though they’re all of a sudden far less valuable.

In the end, meeting services didn’t set up the upgrade correctly so American Airlines didn’t ticket the reservation. I had to call back and sit on hold.


  • Use Business ExtrAA certificates when you can, since they’re so much tougher to use than they used to be.
  • You may need to have the certificate in hand now, in case the agent insists on inputting the certificate’s serial number.
  • Watch out if you are having them adjust your reservation to a higher fare, or sell you a higher fare that’s eligible for the upgrade with these certificates — the agent may not quote you the lowest eligible fare.
  • Always be sure you receive a ticketing email from American, I rarely receive email notifications like I did this time when a reservation fails to ticket. The risk is greater on ‘complex’ bookings like this one.

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 »

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  1. I had the serial number surprise the other day, as well. I didn’t have them on me and the agent indicated that it wasn’t mandatory, but was intended to save time at the airport (because handing over a voucher and waiting 60 seconds was always so hard…)

    She said I could call back and add them later, which I guess I will since this is for my parents and I’d rather things go smoothly for them.

    My guess is they’re probably more interested in prevent the situation where an agent doesn’t know to ask for the voucher you get to use it twice (which I have never been lucky enough to have happen).

  2. Yep, part and parcel of the overall, very intentional deterioration in the legacy carriers’ frequent flyer programs.

    On a more positive note, I’m very curious about how the Alaska-Virgin merger will shake out, not least in terms of its FF program. Count me ready to jump on it.

  3. It seems to me that the airlines are foolish to offer an upgrade program like this. It’s absurdly complicated, and the chances of an upgrade sound quite low. There is near zero chance that a normal passenger could understand it — yet alone appreciate it. So what’s the point?

  4. What happened to EXPLAT comp upgrades on domestic flights? Never happens any more they take from way down on the airport upgrade list anyone that will pay 75$ and 15K miles.
    I have called and written in to AA and no one answers.
    Talk about devalue! There is pretty much zero reason for loyalty with AA any longer.

  5. It is pretty simple. Before confirmed upgrades (miles or SWU) came out of A class (which has high availability and still does. Now domestic upgrades to J come out of C – which is rarely available on any popular routes.

    First awards (U class) are also nearly impossible on popular routes as well.

    Although it does keep Kettles from using 15K miles + $75 – and opens more F seats. Although the issue is also that F fares are low and not much more than adding the costs of 500-stickers for a Plat/Gold member.

  6. I appreciate how these articles continue to reinforce my decision to dump the AA program after 15 years as an execplat. Free agency is awesome, and United does a great job with discounted first. I’m in Austin, so there are always options. What a mess that AA has become.

  7. Hi Gary;

    Appreciate your advocacy! How about next time you are interviewed by the WSJ, point out the disconnect between stock analysts evaluation of the current value of selling miles vs. the forward going evaluation now they are killing the golden goose. When it comes to credit card advice, I’m now telling all but the most dedicated to just get a 2% cash card.

  8. Will never fly American again! Mechanic did not sign off on routine maintenance, creating a delay and missing our connecting flight. Charged for bag (only had 1), Stuck in MIA for 6-12 hours, no consideration at all . On return flight from Barbados, they held flight for a passenger for 25 minutes who had been drinking at the bar! Then he complained because there was no overhead over HIS seat. Shoulda left his butt in Barbados!

  9. AA is incredibly stingy these days. I had an award flight booked to Iran on Etihad for April that I had to cancel because Iran stopped issuing visas to Americans (thanks Trump!). I called to cancel and get the fee to redeposit the miles waived, but they didn’t want to citing they had no directives for this. I literally read the agents the Iranian press release but no luck.

    In the end, I just tweeted the shit out of them with direct links to Iranian foreign affairs ministry until they finally used common sense and waived the fee. Ridiculous. United cancelled my return flight and waived the fee in a 1 minute phone call.

  10. Do you use ITA Matrix to track fares?

    For those who need to flight on certain dates to a certain destination, I suggest you to try the awesome service of Flystein – you pay a little to travel hackers to find you a super deal for your flight. And they save you around 250$ on average!

    Para la gente que necesita viajar en unas fechas determinadas, os sugiero probar el genial servicio de, tú pagas una pequeña tarifa para que hackers de vuelos te encuentren un super chollo escondido para tu vuelo. Y te ahorran unos 250€ de media!

  11. After 3 million lifetime miles with American Airlines, I see no reason to be Loyal to them anymore. They have gutted out their program, so I do an on-line search and buy my tickets based on routing and price…AA is just another bus.

  12. Gary:
    Can you write a column on the small business mileage programs offered by the legacy carriers (and maybe others), and how they (apparently) increment the normal mileage programs? I don’t know much about them. Are they available to professionals such as me, who travel occasionally for a client or two and who are now sole practitioners, and perhaps part timers or self employed? It would be helpful to me to be sure, and probably to others like me.

    Many thanks.

  13. The intro of Concierge Key as a published tier has devalued, significantly, AA ExPlat status. I suppose it is the same thing with other legacy carriers (UA Global Services vs 1K, DL 360 vs Diamond). Unless you are CK because you command a high level of corporate spend or otherwise get reimbursed for premium cabin travel, you are pretty much out of luck. Because upgrade benefits have become pretty much worthless, 2017 will be the last year I spend much on AA. And the serious degradation of service on BA makes OneWorld a far less appealing alliance on which to incur spend on premium cabin travel. Based in Dallas, I will begin using other carriers for paid international trips, even if it means an extra stop. Veteran ExPlats have seen the severe devaluation of their status. I think AA truly does not care if ExPlats defect or not. They see ExPlats as an irritation or inconvenience. I spend 20-40K annually on air travel, mostly on American. After a while, you throw up your hands and say “what’s the point?”

  14. The greed at the top of the company means you have to pay at the bottom. Going for great… payday for them.

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