American Airlines Limits Confirmed Upgrade Space

Filed Under: American

This most definitely isn’t good news, though only time will tell whether it’s just moderately bad, or terrible. More than anything I’m puzzled about the timing — is this time of record low business travel and record losses really the time to make a negative change to upgrades?

American adjusts confirmed upgrade space

American appears to have just made some changes to how it makes confirmable upgrade seats available:

  • Confirmed upgrades refers to upgrades with miles, systemwide upgrades, or Business Extra certificates
  • This does not refer to complimentary elite upgrades, as well as upgrades with 500-mile stickers, which are confirmed within days of departure

Historically American’s confirmable upgrade has been tied to availability in a specific fare bucket:

  • Confirmed upgrades to three cabin business class and two cabin first & business class have required seats to be available in the “C” bucket
  • Confirmed upgrades to three cabin first class have required seats to be available in the “A” bucket

Upgrades to two cabin first class have booked into the “C” fare bucket

As noted by Zach Griff, with a recent change, American Airlines’ confirmable upgrade seats will only include a subset of seats in the “A” and “C” fare bucket. In other words, you could previously tell whether a flight would have upgrade space that could be confirmed by looking at availability in the “A” and “C” buckets, while that’s no longer the case.

Upgrades to three cabin first class have historically booked into the “A” fare bucket

Only time will tell how bad this change is

It goes without saying that this is a negative change, because confirmed upgrade availability will only be a subset of what it was before. What remains to be seen is how bad the change will be.

Will upgrade availability be reduced slightly, or by a lot? Generally American’s upgrade availability from business to first class has been readily available, while upgrade availability from economy to business class most definitely hasn’t been readily available.

Making this change at a time like this seems especially backwards, since this isn’t a time to make negative changes. My guess is that American figures it might as well upgrade some back-end systems while demand is down, so that they’re ready for better times. It’s still not cool, though.

Upgrades to three cabin first class have mostly been readily available

What’s the logic for this change?

The whole concept of airline fare buckets is quite complicated. The way this works out at American:

  • “A” also happens to be the fare bucket for discounted three cabin first class, meaning historically discounted first class fares have had the same availability as confirmed upgrades
  • Up until this point “C” has simply been used as a confirmed upgrade fare bucket, and not as a revenue fare bucket

Going forward:

  • American wants the ability to sell discounted first class seats in the “A” bucket without necessarily making those seats available as confirmed upgrades
  • American plans to make “C” a revenue fare bucket as well, though I’m not totally sure I get the logic there, since “I” is already a discounted business class fare bucket; could we see American introduce a “basic” business class concept?

American is introducing a new revenue business class fare bucket

Bottom line

American will now only make a subset of seats in the “A” and “C” fare buckets available as confirmable upgrade seats. Only time will tell how much of a reduction in upgrade space this leads to, though it’s definitely not good.

In general I can appreciate the concept of American wanting to be able to sell discounted first class seats without making upgrade seats available, but I’m also curious about how American will be making “C” a revenue fare bucket for business class.

What do you make of these upgrade changes at American?

  1. Not to gloat here because I’m not happy about these changes either but two days ago when you wrote loyalty programs would become more customer friendly in order to fill vacant previously occupied by biz traveler seats…. yeah, never trust a loyalty program to not screw you. It is in a scorpion’s nature to sting.

  2. The whole concept of booking classes has been outdated for more than 5 years now…

    Airlines could just utilize the immense power of cloud data centers for next to nothing to price out every single seat individually without being limited by booking classes.

  3. D0ug Parker sure does know how to tell his best customers FU.

    Will be difficult to see myself remaining a loyal EXP AA customer without knowing I can use my loyalty benefits.

  4. Total nonsense — aren’t there enough letters in the alphabet to create another separate discount business class bucket? It all converges towards less transparency for the (supposedly ‘most valued’) loyal customer — and, as you point out, to do this during a time when AA should court every customer who is willing to fly them appears ‘counterproductive’….to use a euphemism!

  5. And Alaska Airlines executives are trying to convince it’s FF that the American code share is great for us !! BS. Just another nail in that coffin for us. Too bad Tricky Dick Anderson was such a [email protected]$%@#$ we could have a much better system with Delta and its alliance which I think is the best for international travel.

  6. If demand is as low as you’re expecting, then would it really matter if its confirmed or standby as if they don’t sell it you still get the upgrade, and if they do sell it then they were apparently correct in this business decision?

  7. Lucky, don’t get how we will even know then if/when AA opens up…looking at the JFK-LHR flight tonight, endless empty seats, but no “systemwide upgrade” link on showing space.

    UA has their own “bad actor” issues but they are making upgrade space plentiful internationally right now.

  8. I don’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of upgrade logic in a pandemic, however, as an AA loyalist who has been out there taking trips both long haul and domestic the past three months, I can tell you that F and J fares are priced very low and capacity is severely reduced. They must have a high degree of confidence that they can sell those seats for much needed cash. As demand for travel ramps up, probably with the release of an effective vaccine, I’d bet that the increased capacity will result in more confirmed upgrade space.

  9. So when was there really C inventory and TATL or pacific flights? Sure has been awhile since I’ve been able to confirm that or get a U seat in AA metal.

  10. Ben, I am not sure you caught the fact that only a few weeks back, AA dropped some key privileges for OneWorld Emerald members including most notably the automatic upgrade to Main Cabin Extra….

    Although I see some of the logic behind the fare bucket rationalisation, it has to be said that the combined effect of the recent changes seems to disincentivize business travellers to fly on AA At all, whether domestic or foreign. Having removed a key privilege for their OW partners (especially BA Gold members who make up a vast number of the OW Emerald members fed into the AA system), they are now stripping confirmed upgrade availability for their own members.

    Why they would do this in the middle of the worst downturn in aviation history is beyond me. As and when frequent business travel returns over the next couple years, will there be any incentive at all to fly American? Seems not.

  11. Millions of FF with Trillions of points and airlines dramatically reducing their fleets/seats. Maybe for years to come the maths indicates availability will be dramatically worse and/or the number of points required will go through the roof. I have been spending points like crazy on items and gift certificates and yes it’s a shocking value compared to flight redemptions but if they are revalued i.e. 30-50% then I have done well. Loving my new Bose sound system and will sit on my current points when I get bellow a million. Lucky always thought you were very optimistic about the future of the airline industry, still reckon it will be a few years before normality returns and when it does the frequency might be the same but capacity will be way down. Hope I am wrong.

  12. A and C inventory should be reserved for non-revs, members of Congress and their families and staff.

    SWU’s should be converted to upgrades to exit rows.

    Something special in the air.

  13. So to sum up… AA offers lots of upgrade paths – miles, SWUs, Business Extra certs, 500-mile stickers, and complimentary elite upgrades – but they almost never seem to actually be available.

    Now, they are even less available.

    At least that’s been my experience over the last 5-6 years. Lost count of how many SWUs I’ve had that went to waste. Cashed in some BizExtra points for upgrade certs but due to fare class roulette can’t seem to use those either so those will probably end up worthless as well.

  14. Worthless is as worthless does. AA certainly know how to pull out the stops at distancing revenue generating passengers from their flights. Makes Delta Medallion status matches that much more valuable.

    I guess in the end if they don’t fill the business class seats, they can always argue that there was no demand, eliminate them and become the LCC they want to be. AA seems hellbent for the bottom or are they just bottom feeders.

  15. This has been going on for weeks. Surprised you just got wind of it. Upgrades are clearing, just not in advance. They are trying to sell biz seats to raise cash.

  16. Giving up on AA for all my South America travel. Opting for Azul (excellent all around) and Avianca (getting complimentary upgrades all the time!)

  17. @ Ben — This may have something to do with Alaska joining OW. Alaska has completely eliminated confirmable upgrade space. Literally, there is ZERO U space available, which is exactly the same amount of our business they will be receiving even though we are MVPG 75k’s.

  18. Good move by AA – if you can sell the seat (even if only a $50 upgrade at time of check in) why give it away. Don’t get me wrong, I traveled extensively for 35 years and have earned around 8 million frequent flyer miles (vast majority “butt in seat” versus gaming it with credit cards like people do now). At one point I assumed I would be upgraded on American or Delta (2 airlines I flew the most and have lifetime status on each with around 3 million base miles). I was EP for the last 4 years of my business career (top of US Airways before that since live in CLT) and saw the upgrades diminishing.

    Now as lifetime Platinum I don’t count on upgrades and am glad to pick the seat I want and preboard without any of the nickle and dime fees. If I want first I either buy a first class ticket or use my miles to redeem a first class award.

    Times have changed people and upgrades are no longer a given (unless maybe Concierge Key level). Also airlines have to do all they can to maximize revenue so I understand, and am in favor of, this change. People are so selfish they only consider what is in it for them (way too many on this blog and similar ones) without understanding the economics of the industry. Grow up people and learn something.

    For those (and there are always some) that threaten to leave over policy changes like this don’t get excited – DL and UA are about the same with respect to upgrades.

  19. These kinds of changes make points less valuable and we are hearing about them all the time. What is the point of earning points if you can never find available award space?

  20. Seems like a way to hide confirmed upgrade availability. Maybe it is available depending on who you are – rating, etc.

  21. It’s been a very long time since I flew AA. I use AA for QA which works out fine. Hoping that the ‘new’ AS is not going to become just AA- but am seriously expecting that my AS points will have no value after the merger.

    I imagine that the purpose of the degradation is to sneak in by most elites while there is such a little demand for seats that the upgrades will still happen 99% of the time. The pinch will come when flights fill up again and elites will NOT get their upgrades. AA will then say it’s been policy for x years, what’s your beef? And the sheeple will accept and all will return to the lowest level.

  22. So….nothing in this article or in AA’s change actually indicates that actual upgrade availability will be changing in any material way. They could simply be making the same number of “old C” and “old A” available as a subset of some “new C” or “new A”.

    But don’t let that get in the way of a good alarmist headline.

    Is Gary Leff moonlighting over here now?


    An AA EXP who in 5 years of pre-COVID flying, missed a grand total of 1 Y–J longhaul SWU.

  23. Could this be related to a potentially new type of SWU they’ll roll out as part of the updated EXP benefits?

  24. Even as a CK member, American can suck it. I’m so fed up with their BS. All this bs means even I won’t continue with them. Cya.

  25. Totally different take on this: they are trying to get passengers to pay for the upgrade. It’s a revenue tactic. Create scarcity and uncertainty by not confirming upgrades other than in certain fare class availability. A few people say “screw it – I’m not sitting in cattle class for this trip” and pay to upgrade. Most loyal travelers get their unpaid upgrades anyway. AA wins.

  26. I understand the premise of wanting to sell seats for much needed cash. In the instance I am looking at upgrade is confirmable at time of booking from coach to business but not business to first. In this specific case they are missing out as I wouldn’t mind using a SWU to upgrade to F but now I’ll just buy Y and confirm to J.

  27. Airlines are saying that demand has shifted to <3 days in advance of departure. So I understand trying to yield manage to reduce the number of confirmed upgrades. Arguably if airlines are opposed to food exemptions to mask rules they should provide no food nor allow customers to eat their own food on any domestic flights in any class of service. Providing unbundling of seat assignments and baggage limits in business class is likely the next step.

  28. My company pays for premium economy on trans-Atlantic flights. Yes, I’m still traveling now.

    I exhausted my SWUs in February. I sometimes pay the difference and book business if it’s a particularly long flight, if I have a tough schedule, or other situations that justify it. I would book business a lot more if there wasn’t such a crazy difference between premium economy and business. I can only swallow a $2500 difference per trip so many times a year, though.

    I don’t care about the food, the wine, or the overrated headphones. I just want to stretch out and rest.

    A basic business product could allow AA to sell more seats for cash while providing better transparency on upgrade availability. If that’s where they are going. I’m all for it.

  29. You may have missed our post on FT but EF does show the upgrade “version” of A/C inventory for AA now:

    – Due to American now having different A and C class inventory for paid fares vs upgrades, we have worked with AA to be able to show you both versions on EF
    – As of now, the default Flight Availability and Award & Upgrade search will show the “upgrade” version of A/C
    – We are going to make a change so the Flight Availability search shows the paid version of A/C by default, however for now the workaround to see it is to change the POS to non-USA or to use the Don’t Show Interline Connections options which uses a different system and will show the paid inventory A/C classes.
    – When we make the default change we’ll post here again, likely sometime in November as it will take a bit of programing.
    Flight Alerts for A or C will always be for the upgrade inventory version as those classes are marked as Award/Upgrade classes internally.

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