Will American Airlines Change How Elite Upgrades Work?

Filed Under: American

In this post I wanted to share why I think American Airlines will change its approach to elite upgrades in the not-too-distant future. I mentioned this in passing in a post a couple of days ago, so wanted to expand on my thought process a bit.

Let me note upfront that this is purely speculation on my part, and I don’t have any inside knowledge on the matter that suggests this is happening. Rather I just don’t see any way that American couldn’t change its upgrade program given its new Alaska Airlines partnership.

First let me provide some background on American’s current upgrade program, and then I’ll share what I think will change.

American’s 500-mile upgrade “sticker” program

All American AAdvantage elite members are eligible for space available upgrades in one form or another for flights within the US, as well as flights between the US and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Central America.

However, the way these upgrades are processed depends on your status:

  • Concierge Key members get complimentary upgrades starting 120 hours before departure
  • Executive Platinum members get complimentary upgrades starting 100 hours before departure
  • Platinum Pro members get complimentary upgrades starting 72 hours before departure
  • Platinum members get upgrades starting 48 hours before departure, but they have to use 500-mile upgrade stickers to be eligible, except on flights of under 500 miles, where upgrades are complimentary
  • Gold members get upgrades starting 24 hours before departure, but they have to use 500-mile upgrade stickers to be eligible, except on flights of under 500 miles, where upgrades are complimentary
  • All elite tiers can have companions upgraded with them as well, but additional 500-mile upgrade stickers are required for them (even for Concierge Key, Executive Platinum, and Platinum Pro members)

What are the 500-mile upgrade stickers that AAdvantage Platinum and Gold members have to use on flights of over 500 miles, and that all elite tiers have to use for companion upgrades?

  • Each 500-mile upgrade sticker can be used to upgrade 500 miles worth of flying; in other words, an 1,800 mile flight would require four of these stickers
  • Platinum and Gold members earn four 500-mile upgrade stickers for every 12,500 elite qualifying miles earned during a calendar year
  • 500-mile upgrade stickers can also be purchased for $40 each by all elite tiers

500-mile upgrade stickers are required for some elite upgrades

Why I think American’s upgrade program will change

Alaska Airlines just joined the oneworld alliance, and to coincide with that, American and Alaska started to introduce reciprocal first class upgrades.

Alaska Airlines has just joined the oneworld alliance

This is because American and Alaska are planning close cooperation, probably the closest cooperation we’re seeing between any two US airlines. The airlines are going to do everything they can to create metal neutrality, which is to say that they want to encourage American flyers to fly Alaska when it’s convenience, and vice versa. This is especially important as American builds up a major international hub in Seattle.

It’s pretty clear to me that we’re going to see significant alignment of loyalty program perks between the two airlines. For example, Alaska Airlines is introducing a new 100,000-mile elite tier, which is clearly intended to create an Executive Platinum equivalent at Alaska Airlines.

For the time being the two airlines are only offering reciprocal upgrades for top-tier flyers, but there are plans for this to be expanded to more elite tiers over time.

In order for American and Alaska to offer a truly valuable reciprocal upgrade program, realistically American will have to introduce unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades for all elite members:

  • I don’t see a world in which Alaska Mileage Plan will adopt American AAdvantage’s 500-mile upgrade sticker program, especially since Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus offer unlimited complimentary upgrades at all tiers
  • Even the execution of reciprocal upgrades so far is strange, as Alaska MVP Gold 75K members get free companion upgrades on American, while American AAdvantage Platinum Pro members have to use 500-mile upgrade stickers for companions
  • This will only get more confusing as upgrades are rolled out to more tiers, given the vastly different approaches that American and Alaska take to upgrades

My prediction is that American will simplify its upgrade program, and offer all elite members complimentary upgrades. Yes, that will lead to some revenue loss for American as the airline would no longer get revenue from selling 500-mile stickers, but I also can’t imagine the revenue was that significant, given that it’s not terribly common for lower tier elite members to clear upgrades.

Alaska and American will need to align upgrade policies

Are there any downsides to upgrade changes?

I think a new upgrade program would be much easier to understand and logical given the Alaska Airlines partnership, though it wouldn’t necessarily be good news for everyone:

  • AAdvantage Gold members would have an even tougher time clearing upgrades, since currently AAdvantage Platinum members don’t always request upgrades, since they have a limited number of 500-mile upgrade stickers
  • It’s anyone’s guess what happens with companion upgrades, as we could see the airline introduce unlimited complimentary companion upgrades, and that could be a mixed bag, since it means companions could more consistently be upgraded ahead of other elite members
  • It’s possible American will carve out some exceptions for domestic upgrades; for example, maybe American would follow United’s lead and not offer complimentary upgrades on premium transcontinental routes
  • I could see American trying to make up for the loss of revenue from selling 500-mile upgrade stickers by outright trying to sell upgrades to non-elite members at a reasonable cost

Could American change its upgrade policy on premium transcon flights?

Bottom line

I predict that at some point in the not-too-distant future, American AAdvantage will significantly change its approach to elite upgrades. Let me again emphasize that I have no inside knowledge here, but rather this just makes sense to me.

American’s current approach to upgrades just won’t work if the carrier plans to roll out reciprocal upgrades with Alaska in a meaningful and beneficial way. While there will be some revenue loss for AAdvantage, the reality is that American sees a lot of upside with its Alaska partnership, and frequent flyers need to be onboard with the partnership for it to work.

This wouldn’t necessarily be all good news, though. While unlimited complimentary upgrades sounds exciting, we’re competing for a finite number of seats, so there will always be winners and losers.

What’s your take — will we see American AAdvantage adjust its approach to elite upgrades? And if American doesn’t change its upgrade program, how do you see Alaska and American expanding reciprocal upgrades?

  1. I’m curious what will happen to my “stickers” maybe they’d convert them to miles or something.

  2. @Mark — I am wondering the same. Quite a while ago (like 15+ years ago) United used to have a similar “stickers” system, and IIRC when they ended it they converted outstanding stickers to redeemable miles in customers’ accounts, something like 2500 miles per sticker.

  3. Are we sure this wouldn’t just result in more upgrades being sold to non-elites for rock bottom prices? I frequently hear of upgrades sold to non elites for at least 25% less than I pay for companion stickers. For example, DFW->DEN is 634 miles, two stickers. I have heard of non-elites getting the upgrade for $60 when It costs me $80 (two stickers) to upgrade my companion as a reward for my loyalty lol.

  4. @ Russ — No, we’re not sure at all. 😉 I could totally see American trying to make up for the loss of revenue from selling 500-mile stickers by selling upgrades for “tens of dollars.”

  5. Always hated the stickers. Most ridiculous part is you stop earning them when you no longer need them for yourself (PP and EXP) but would still need them for companions. Hopefully RIP.

    @Lucky similar situation – what do you think about upgrades on AA award flights for non EXP?

  6. I agree with your analysis. Definitely the stickers for EXP companion should be removed since they can’t be earned and does not make sense with the AS partnership (not to mention DL and UA do not charge anything).

  7. Ben was probably too young to remember the CO-NW-HP alliance, where the concept of unlimited domestic upgrade was introduced.

    @Mark/Bgriff – UA converted the 500-milers to 500 miles each when UDU was introduced pre-merger.

  8. All of us “non-elites” need to learn our place I guess. Heaven forbid we would pay with our own money to sit up front at a decent upgrade cost instead of some so-called elite mooching off OPM thinking they deserve it.

  9. If your thoughts about abolition of stickers is correct, I’d expect them to compensate us with miles. I used to be PP and in the east, upgrades were pretty dependable. But almost never on transcontinental. But as Gold or Platinum, it is less than 50%. Being lifetime Gold is pretty useless. So I just buy reduced fare first.

  10. Scary times for EXPs if this happens. Certainly wouldn’t want to see TODs upgrades become reality.

  11. Back in the day, American also allowed its elites to “cash in” their stickers for miles. I believe it was at a rate of 500 miles per sticker. My recollection is I did it many years in a row for me and my spouse. And that was at a time when the miles had value.

  12. All the stickers in my account were purchased for $40 – some when it was a little cheaper. So I would hope I would at least keep the value I paid for them.

  13. Why couldn’t they just let Alaska Golds and Silvers convert AS miles to AA stickers or purchase them outright at the standard rates.

  14. Probably true. This would also bring AA in line w DL and other airlines that have “free” upgrades for all elites (although good luck ever getting one on DL at Silver level)

  15. The stickers seem petty & mean compared to other programs. I would rather have decent cash buy offers on day of departure

  16. Depends how ‘valuable’ PP members are. Major slap in the face that PP don’t get free companion upgrades, but AS 75k Gold do.

    Honestly to mitigate, AA should just make companion upgrades free for EXP and PP and figure out what to do for GLD/PLT

  17. Oh man, as an Alaska MVP I had no idea how complicated upgrades are on American. That’s nuts.

  18. As usual, you’ve provided a concise and logical opinion on the most likely possibilities. I suspect you’re right on the mark and I am quite curious to see what happens to my 28 stickers… probably poof and they’re gone.

  19. I have 79 ‘500 mile upgrades’ in my account from they years I did quite a few TATL trips when Gold/Platinum. I never found much use for them on my domestic connections as the seats were already booked up by EXP’s, so they’ve just piled up.

    If these were converted into miles I wouldn’t be complaining 🙂

  20. (Rolls eyes like my teenage granddaughter)…This is all too complicated and ridiculous. Can’t I just buy a ticket, get on a plane and enjoy myself like before the plague started all this nonsense?

  21. No upgrades should be confirmed for any level of elite status until one hour prior to boarding. People traveling on paid F/J tickets need the flexibility to change their plans at the last minute without having to deal with full domestic F cabins due to upgrades. Over the past 15 years of flying on paid international J tickets, I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve needed to change my return date, only to find good availability on the international leg, but none on the domestic connecting flight. No one needs an upgrade confirmed 24-120 hours in advance. If flying in domestic F is important, pay for it – the price premium on AA is often quite modest.

  22. I’ve been sitting on several dozen stickers for years. The problem is that I primarily accumulated them when I was Executive Platinum, when they were effectively worthless since I was already being upgraded for free on nearly all flights. Then around the start of the pandemic, I dropped all the way down to sub-Gold, so still can’t use them, now because I lack any status to activate them. I’ve even purchased some stickers in the past couple of years because they were one of the few ways to use up the AmEx flight credits, hoping one day they would be of use. However, in the post-pandemic landscape, I don’t foresee a time when I would even return to any meaningful status to use these. As such, if these were converted to simple miles (of at least 2500 miles per sticker), as others have suggested, I would be very happy since I could finally get some real use out of them.

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