American’s interesting approach to domestic upgrade availability

I’ve received a lot of emails from readers lately about American, given that many of you are going for Executive Platinum status thanks to American’s double elite qualifying miles promotion (and in many cases triple elite qualifying miles promotion) through the end of the month.

I figured I’d cover one aspect of American that I find especially interesting, relating to their domestic upgrade inventory.

Most airlines have separate upgrade inventory for those looking to use miles to upgrade. While American has separate upgrade inventory for international flights, they don’t for domestic flights. If you want to upgrade domestically using miles or systemwide upgrades, they only require discounted first class (“A”) to be available in order to confirm the upgrade.

This is why in many (most?) cases, 80%+ of domestic first class seats have confirmable upgrade space through American, unlike at the other legacy carriers.

Again, this is only for those using miles or systemwide upgrades, and not those looking for complimentary upgrades or “sticker” upgrades. In a way, this means you can use systemwide upgrades for a domestic flight without it being a total waste, given that you can confirm an upgrade you might otherwise not have gotten. For example, say the day before a flight, there are two seats left for sale, and one of those is a discounted first class seat. Chances are slim that you’d clear the upgrade if you hoped for a complimentary upgrade as an Executive Platinum member, though you could use a systemwide upgrade to lock in one of those last two seats.

Funny enough I’ve also heard Executive Platinum members complain about this policy, because this is also the reason that many of American’s first class cabins are fairly full a few days out, when elite upgrades kick in.

I have to disagree there, because I think it’s in American’s best interest to get some miles off the books and make some revenue through co-pays as opposed to giving away complimentary upgrades or even upgrades using “stickers”, at least within reason (meaning don’t play Continental’s “tens of dollars” upgrade game). At the same time, the bigger issue I see is that it gives people no incentive to pay for first class, given that they can always use miles to upgrade. Part of the incentive to pay for first class is that your upgrade might not otherwise clear. By making upgrade inventory so readily available, there’s not much of a reason to spring for a first class fare when you can always just use miles to upgrade.

As you can see below, all the routes between Chicago and San Francisco (typically one of the tougher routes to upgrade) in a couple of weeks have at least seven confirmable upgrade seats. Keep in mind that “7” is the highest amount of inventory American will display, so it could very well be more than that.

Anyway, just another one of those interesting things that makes the dAArkside interesting.

Filed Under: American
  1. Ben, have you ever missed an upgrade as an EXP? Despite it being easier to confirm supported upgrades in advance most EXPs I’ve talked to (including myself) clear 95%+ of the time domestically.

  2. @ Michael — Oh, and I’m not suggesting they take that away. What I’m asking is if they release too much upgrade space to non-elites using miles.

    @ BrewerSEA — I’ve missed one, though I try to erase it from my memory best I can. I’ve nearly missed three of my last four upgrades, though (might have something to do with the fact that the tickets were booked day of).

  3. Ben.

    I wonder if you really understand the AA program relative to its peers…You say you are concerned about FC availability, upgrade rates, and exclusivity (incentive to buy F outright).

    Allow me to point out that until the middle of last year, AA was consistently the industry’s RASM and yield leader while at the same time providing the highest upgrade rates of any airline in any tier.

    I am EXP on AA (since 2002 virtually continuously), and I have been Plat on CO for nearly as long (I fly enough for work to keep top status on two airlines if I wish), and I can assure you that upgrade rates on AA are better across the board for EXPs, Plats, and even Golds than for any UA fliers of equivalent status.

    Last year, I cleared 146 segments on AA out of 146 attempted segments. On CO/UA, I missed about half out of 50. In other words, had I flown 146 segments on UA/CO, I would have missed between 60-75 segments.

    As far as exclusivity goes, CO’s system (which encourages YBM fare purchases and mileage, TOD, and other upgrade purchases) leaves you in an F cabin with more riff-raff and kettle than I have ever seen on AA.

    One reason for AA’s upgrade success is that other than EXPs, people earn a limited amount of stickers which they can choose to use on flights that are important for them to upgrade. If they are cheap, they’ll never upgrade more thn they earn. Many Plats and Golds buy stickers though and use them often very successfully because selectiveness is still important (unless you like wasting money).

    Again…AA was the yield leader for a long time (the reason they are no longer has nothing to do with the upgrade scheme…they are losing strategic corporate exclusivity contracts which pinches margins) while featuring the highest upgrade rates of any of the majors (with the exception of PMUA, but they are going the way of PMCO).

    Lastly, a few words of wisdom…if you’ve missed one upgrade as an EXP, I can nearly guarantee you’d have missed many more as a 1K in the last year. Also, you know that time of request for EXPs is a huge component of upgrade success, so given the routes I see you fly and given they are booked more or less last minute, you should count yourself lucky that you haven’t missed any this year (and on dirt cheap fares to boot, I assume).

    And finally, allow me to leave with these thoughts…I like reading your blog because it is very entertaining. Sometimes though, I feel a pinch of resentment that a guy like you (who has made a hobby and career of exploiting the loopholes of various mileage programs) teaches others (potentially in great numbers) how to achieve EXP while paying bottom-basement and mistake fares and then turning around and sucking tons of benefits out of the airline by redeeming SWUs and miles, which in turn devalues the program for those of us who actually fly the airline (in my case for a living) at a profit for the carrier and who rely on AA and their benefits to make our life bearable while on the road.

  4. I missed only one upgrade last year as an exp.

    When it was getting tight, however, I did use swus to confirm upgrades that were looking dicey on domestic trips.

    I am a real fan of AA’s approach to balancing upgrades. It provides the opportunity to get certainty when you want it…and holding back a few seats from segment upgrade inventory makes it possible to upgrade even if you do a sdc change or buy a last minute ticket.

  5. What? I understand the subject well. The post must have been written in a big rush. Good Heavens, Ben! Proof-read before you hit that Magic Go button. The first two or three paragraphs make no sense an connect to nothing. I’m still not sure what point you wished to make. Of course, I still enjoy reading your posts. We all have bad days. You’re a professional now and the writing just has to improve a bit. Please…

  6. @ AAExPlat — First of all, you’re over-analyzing my post. I was simply making an observation about one aspect of American’s program that I find interesting and generous. I wasn’t suggesting anything about the airline as a result.

    And as far as not understanding American’s peers, I was a 1K for seven years. I flew over 800 segments with them, and missed five upgrades. So my upgrade rate wasn’t bad there either.

    And as far as the last part, define “cheap?” It’s costing me a *lot* more than $3,000 to earn Exec Plat, so I don’t think I’m nearly as cheap as you think. My roundtrip to the west coast this weekend cost me $700, though maybe you could consider that to be a “bottom-basement” fare as well?

  7. @Ben – Like I said in my post…PMUA was great to its 1ks. No doubt about that. The new UA, the one that is run by J/SMI is a completely different airline with respect to customer loyalty and upgrade rates. PMCO is what I have been flying for about 8 years and the upgrade rates there are grim for many Plats. Many 1ks are now beginning to complain about the same…coincidence? I don’t think so.

    What I am saying is that if you were a 1k RIGHT NOW under J/SMI, your experience would be nothing like what it was when you were 1k and barely missed an upgrade.

    And regarding the fare you paid to SFO, that was certainly not bottom-basement. That SHOULD ABSOLUTELY be a profitable fare for AA. While you may be a profitable customer, I think it is fair to point out that some of your readers could easily use what they read here and achieve EXP for $2000 this year, then turn around and use the RDMs for a FC ticket to Asia, and purchase a number of cheap Y ticket for later in the year and upgrade them to C with SWUs.

    Is that profitable for AA? I doubt it. Is that all your fault? Nope. Do I blame AA for running so many desperate promotions that are stackable on top of each other? You betcha!

    On a personal note, my spend on AA last year was probably somewhere around $25k. Do I think everyone should have to spend that for EXP? No. But I do think that $2000 or $3000 for making EXP cannot possibly be in the airline’s best interest, and ultimately, AA is responsible for creating an environment where something like that is even possible. And it is something I occasionally remind customer service or the EXP desk about when a particularly egregious new promotion hits the wire. Last year during the infamous EXP challenge period, there were so many of us EXPs complaining about the challenge being too easy that AA backed off after Q1 and has since not reinstated a similarly generous challenge.

    I do think that if you like a given program you are a member of (in this case being EXP on AA), that you have a minimal amount of responsibility to protect its integrity by not handing folks the tools on a silver platter to potentially massively devalue the very program you appreciate yourself.

    Hope that makes some modicum of sense. Soft landings, smooth skies, and all the best.

  8. Wow… seems like you stepped into the fire with this post 🙂 As an AA Gold (and Plat as of this week), I have yet to get an upgrade via stickers, so I appreciate that if I REALLY need the upgrade badly, I can use miles+copay to get upgrade confirmed. My upgrade success thus far this year on 14 segments is 0%. Don’t let the current EXP’s flame you too much since there are still alot of us lowly GLD/PLT’s out there!

  9. @AAExPlat

    Oh please, you haven’t even started missing upgrades and you’re complaining? I’ll give you a slight benefit of the doubt, since you mentioned you only feel a pinch of resentment, but I beg to differ on how much profitability I bring to AA, as one of these triple EQM mileage runners.

    First, on the couple of mileage runs, I’ve noticed that AA planes tend to be emptier than flights i’ve taken on other airlines. Granted I flew on lighter travel days (Sat and Tue), but it didn’t look like the plane was gonna fill up any time soon (maybe that’s why they’re in bankruptcy). So even if I had a dirt cheap fare, I’m pretty sure I already provided some profit to the airline.

    Furthermore, as a frequent flyer enthusiast who does not have top tier status with any airline, I’m think I’m pretty likely to give AA consideration on my future trips now, even those when I don’t plan to use SWUs. I do have mid-tier on United, but I’ll definitely consider shifting some of my future business to AA, which I think is what they set out to achieve. I understand that not everyone thinks this way, and/or they have top elite with another airline and may not be shifting business to AA besides flights that they want to upgrade, but I beg to differ that this is a complete money losing scheme for AA.

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