American’s Process for Deducting Upgrades is a Customer Service Nightmare

I had a couple of American Airlines systemwide upgrades that I wasn’t going to use so I offered them to a friend. Even though American awards their 100,000 mile flyers with 4 – rather than the previous 8 – confirmable upgrades valid on any American Airlines flight, it’s harder to get upgrade space than it used to be and I haven’t purchased any American Airlines international tickets.

For one of the upgrades American pulled a systemwide from my friend’s account rather than mine.

The second upgrade cleared at the gate. And though it’s been a month the upgrade hasn’t been taken from my account (it wasn’t taken from his either).

When upgrades cleared at the gate, they aren’t debited right away. Instead the reservation is tagged to remove the upgrade later. And American says they have “an unexpected backlog of cleared requests.” To which I have two reactions.

  1. This has been going on for at least a year
  2. It wouldn’t be an issue if they’d make upgrade space available prior to departure (tickets are reissued and upgrades deducted immediately in that case)

The thing is that it can take six months or more before American goes back and deducts a systemwide upgrade from a member’s account.

As a result, plenty of people think they have more upgrades available than they actually should. And they use those upgrades.

When American finally gets around to collecting, that means:

  • A member may have upgrades for the next year available, and American will take those. So the member thought they had the next year’s upgrades to use, and may have been planning how they would be used, then they’re gone.

  • The member may not have any upgrades available, in which case I’ve seen American asking for miles and a cash co-pay (generally 25,000 miles and $350) instead. With enough push back I’ve seen American give up on the cash and just take the miles.

Copyright: karenr / 123RF Stock Photo

Obviously this is a terrible customer experience. I find it hard enough to remember what I’ve done with my upgrades, and I rely on the upgrade total displayed in my account. I know Executive Platinums that don’t even know they have these upgrades, so expecting members to keep track of them when American cannot hardly seems reasonable.

Coming back and charging a member for an upgrade that they may no longer have — as a result of American’s poor systems and insufficient resources dedicated to the issue — is worse that a hotel billing missing charges months later because in the interim American has been telling you the number of upgrades you have in your account, and then coming back and changing their mind.

This happens over and over based on the emails I receive and the notes I scroll through on Facebook.

I tend to think an airline ought to be estopped from saying you have some number of upgrades other than the number displayed in your account for half a year. If they tell you that you have available upgrades, you should be able to rely on that. American’s glitches are American’s glitches and they shouldn’t interfere with your future upgrade or mileage redemption plans and they certainly shouldn’t be presenting you with a bill for hundreds of dollars.

At this point I assume I have one fewer upgrade in my account than American’s website shows me. But that’s only because my friend tells me nothing came out of his account. They might come back later and (incorrectly) deduct the upgrade from him and I’ll have simply let an upgrade expire as insurance against AAdvantage Upgrade Collections Agents coming after me next year.

Copyright: stocking / 123RF Stock Photo

American can re-program their IT for basic economy. They can re-program their IT for revenue-based earning of miles. They can re-program their IT to limit the number of flights you can have in an award ticket. They can re-program their IT to integrate the Grab app’s airport food ordering into their own app in order to earn affiliate commissions.

If it’s about saving money or extracting revenue from customers, American can give the IT fix a priority. But fixing IT so the airline doesn’t come after its most frequent customers six months down the line like a bad bill collector…?

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 2 Systemwide upgrades that went unused last year. I tried to use them for myself and I tried to give them to friends. They do not have the value they used to have when they are unusable. Updating the IT system does not help the stock price with Wall Street, that is all Parker cares about.

  2. I’m a PDX based Alaska MVP75k and will fly close to 100k miles this year, with the majority on AA. With the AS/AA breakup I’m forced to find a new long haul partner and split between them and AS. Initially AA was top of my list. But given all the devaluation this year alone it appears AA and DL are in a race to the bottom. Looks like I’ll go UA and as a bonus I can status match without having to pay cash…

  3. I recently got Exp status for 2018 and they took two systemwide certificates right away. I call the exp desk and was told my account was negative since 2014. I dont know what they were talking about until i got reply from them apologizing for it. They claim that the two certificates were never used indeed but they were attached to some old reservations from 2014 that never cleared. Now i see why ……American needs to put their stuff together.

  4. I’ve been EXP for 10 years and never let an SWU go unused. But based on the difficulty to use, this might be the first time I have 2 expire.

  5. “Manufactured difficulty” in using swu’s IS the point. American hopes you give up and let them expire.

  6. It’s very interesting to hear these anecdotes. My experience has been mostly positive, but now I worry a bit, please see below:

    I first got EXP status for calendar year 2017. I used two SWU’s to go from paid business to first on two transatlantic trips – they cleared at the time of booking (yes, I know that the Flagship First availability is much better than Biz…) and had no issues before, during, or after the trips.

    Then I gave my boyfriend two to use for his trip to Rome and back. At the time, there was no upgrade availability into Biz, so he was added to the waitlist. About 48 hours prior to his flight over to Rome, I noticed that there was C availability, called, an he was upgraded (why didn’t it happen automatically…?), but what is interesting is that to date, this single SWU has never been deducted from my account and this was back in early July. For his return trip the same thing happened (spotted the availability 48 hours in advance, called…), but this time the SWU was deducted right away. Per the above post, and considering this was not an airport upgrade, I’m curious if I am at risk for them finally deducting the upgrade 6 months later or if it was simply an oversight.

    I have requalified for EXP for 2018, and have been quite successful recently, using two to upgrade to Biz on two transatlantic trips for January and April 2018 one way, with C availability present at the time of booking. What has been interesting, though, is the fact that one upgrade went through without issue, while the other went through initially but then my ticket was in a “pending” status for over a week and only became ticketed when I called back in because the original agent had not deducted the upgrade before sending it over to the ticketing department.

  7. I just noticed I was short 1 eVIP. I called AA. It was pulled this week & applied to a total stranger’s account. Not sure how long this will take to correct — perhaps the fact that I caught it so quickly will help. But I spent 16 mins on the phone today, & have to call back to talk to customer service. But there is ZERO transparency on the website about this…

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