Why American Airlines’ Upgrade Lists Cause Confusion

Filed Under: American, Travel Technology

Of the “big three” US airlines, American has the worst IT, in my opinion. I find their website to be fairly usable, though too basic. Their app is even worse, and trails the apps offered by both Delta and United. The lack of functionality of both the website and app can be frustrating as a passenger.

There’s one aspect of American’s app experience that I consistently receive the most comments about from readers, though. I’ve written about this in the past, though it’s still something that I get a question about on a near daily basis.

I’m talking about American’s upgrade & standby lists, which can only be accessed through the app within four hours of departure. As a point of comparison:

  • United shows these lists starting 24 hours out to all passengers
  • Delta shows these lists starting 24 hours out to passengers booked on that flight

Why American’s upgrade & standby lists confuse people

American’s upgrade and standby lists often don’t clear in the correct order, and it’s understandable that this causes people to think that gate agents are breaking the rules in how they clear upgrades and standby passengers. If you have a numbered list, you expect that #1 clears first, #2 clears second, etc.

That’s often not the case, though, and it leaves some people feeling bitter when they feel the upgrades weren’t cleared correctly.

Perhaps surprisingly, in a vast majority of cases American is clearing the list correctly, and this isn’t a case of employees just helping out their friends (though I’m sure that happens once in a while). Rather this is just bad IT.

What’s really going on?

Let’s use the example of yesterday’s flight AA20 from Dallas to London. There were 15 people on the upgrade list — #1-5 cleared, and then #15 cleared, but #6-14 were skipped.


The main issue is that American displays a single upgrade list and a single standby list for customers.

What could cause American to not clear an upgrade list in the correct order?

  • American has premium economy and international first class on some planes, so it could be that you show #1 and are trying to upgrade from economy to business, while #10 on the list is the first person on the list looking for an upgrade from business to first, and they clear (in this case, #1-9 aren’t eligible for that upgrade)
  • The same is true for planes with premium economy, where someone can be upgraded to premium economy, while you’re looking for an upgrade to business class
  • Sometimes the upgrade list doesn’t correctly display the priority for those passengers traveling with companions, and as a result the companion may be cleared in an order that isn’t reflected on the public list

A similar situation is true for standby. For example, non-rev passengers are typically at the bottom of the standby list, so it could be that you’re standing by for economy, while a non-rev employee is waitlisted for economy, business, or first class. If there are only first class seats available, they’d get the seat and not you (we can save the merits of that system for another post).

Circling back to the above example of the Dallas to London flight, that flight was operated by a 777-200 with economy, premium economy, and business. My guess is that #1-5 on the upgrade list were upgrading to business class, while #15 was the only person waitlisted for premium economy.

How American could fix their upgrade & standby list problems

As a non-IT person, the fix here seems pretty obvious. Or at least we know how other airlines do it, and it works.

American needs to have separate upgrade lists for each class of service on a given flight, because then everyone would know where they stand.

For example, this is something that United does well. Take today’s flight from Newark to Hong Kong, which features economy, premium economy, and business. As you can see, they have separate lists for those upgrading to premium economy and those upgrading to business:

Bottom line

Of the “big three” US carriers, American does the worst job with displaying upgrade and standby lists. This causes confusion for passengers all the time. I have faith that a vast majority of the time upgrades are being processed in the correct order, but the optics are really bad if you’re on a standby or upgrade list and get beaten by someone who is listed behind you.

I’m pretty bad with technology so I can’t say how easy of a fix this would be, but it’s something on my IT wishlist for them. It’s certainly something that readers contact me about all the time.

Has anyone else experienced this issue with American’s upgrade and standby lists?

Comments
  1. Could not agree more. I had the same thing happen to me on a flight from PEK to DFW. I wrote to complain and had a very nice agent walk me through this over the phone, which I thought was a nice touch. I made exactly the same suggestions as you, including listing the number of seats available as that helps manage expectations a bit.

  2. Their standby list is just as bad. I rarely ever fly standby but didn’t have a choice recently…

    My work trip to Orlando (Monday-Thursday) was cancelled the Friday beforehand…when I was already in Miami for a weekend with friends. When I went to switch my MIA-ORD-DCA ticket that upcoming Thursday to MIA-DCA direct that Monday, everything before 5:30 PM was sold out and the 5:30 PM was something like $1600 first class only due to it being the end of spring break week. I booked the 8:30 PM and arrived with my friends at MIA who had the 8:30 AM that morning (after a very friendly EP agent tried to help with a number of other solutions) to give standby a try (and if not, a day at the Centurion and Admirals clubs).

    For the 8:30 AM flight, I was standby number 3 but they had “cancelled flight passengers” that apparently have priority over early standby passengers (which is fine with me), but they were all listed on the standby order behind me and I missed the cut by one. At 10:45 AM, I was standby number 3 again. They boarded 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9. I asked why I had been skipped, mainly to confirm that it was the same reason, and the gate agent said I had asked to move my standby preference to the 10:45 PM flight…which I clearly had not. She figured out that it was some kind of computer auto-reroute and skipped me. I lucked out that because I spoke up, she noticed one of the passengers who checked in hadn’t arrived and put me in the last seat…even though they said “full plane” and were planning to leave without me (with an open seat?) if I hadn’t.

    TL;DR: American’s backend system is most definitely an issue and they need to fix it, at least on the front end.

  3. Even happens on “domestics”. I have a screenshot still on my phone from 2 years ago when I was flying MIA-LAX on the 77W. I was 11th and the next in line for an upgrade (as a lowly Gold). Just before departure, myself and #12 were skipped and #13 and #14 were upgraded. Rather than cause a scene, I boarded to my coach seat. Karma was looking out for me; someone in J never boarded and I got the “price is right” come on down upgrade.

  4. These types of IT investments generally take 6-12 months to design and implement and are easy to shove off if you have a website/app redesign within the next 2-5 years, which will inevitably be delayed a couple more years beyond that. This certainly doesn’t excuse AA from having a bad system for displaying upgrade or standby lists but can probably shed light on how the decision was made to keep kicking that can down the road

  5. Maciej – If those passengers were employee non-revs, typically if they list for business class, they will show as standby for both classes. So if business fills up with upgrades or revenue passengers they will still be on the list for premium economy.

    Not sure if that will be the case if a United Elite used a global/regional upgrade, but I think that would be the same scenario.

  6. Due to airports and my flying pattern I’ve flown AA for the majority of my flights (not a heavy traveler but certainly a decent amount) and I’ve noticed that things have gotten progressively worse. I don’t know if it is due to the MAX grounding and their inability to work around it or just bad planning.

    I had a flight out, BWI-PHZ and took AA outbound but I didn’t like the in bound times. Sorry but 30 minute connection in Charlotte at 10pm isn’t a good idea. What’s the likelihood I’m going to make that? And what are the odds there are any other flights back to BWI at that time of the night if I miss it? I’m guessing zero.

    So instead I took a Delta flight with a 90 minute connection in Detroit. Probably my first Delta flight in 20+ years (again mostly due to my locations and travels) and I definitely found flying Delta better than AA. The individual tvs are really nice (my AA flight out had entertainment issues and on the nearly 5 hr flight I managed to watch one 90 minute movie).

    The FAs were very nice. The new Delta lounge in Terminal 3 at PHX was really nice (entered with my AmEx Plat CC). The Delta lounge in Detroit was crowded but ok (near gate A10).

    Definitely if things are equal (and in this case the Delta ticket in first class was about $300 cheaper) I would try Delta more often.

  7. Doing a little research on the DFW-LHR AA20 flight. Looks like Upgrades 6-9 were all in Premium Economy already, Upgrades 10-14 are all Economy pax. #15 is an employee flying confirmed, eligible for any cabin upgrades (first, biz, PE). The only seat available was Premium Economy, which revenue passengers cannot “upgrade” into, hence why upgrades 10-14 were skipped. 5-9 were already in PE and no business class was available.

    In regards to AA IT, I do agree it’s worse than UA/DL. However, the employee app where we can check standbys and upgrades list is far better than what UA/DL have. I’m really not sure why they don’t push that info out to customers because the employee app is the best out there.

  8. I really don’t understand why AA feels like it has to be so secretive about the upgrade, standby, or cabin info.

    @Lucky, to your point – UA shows how many seats in F have been booked and how many are open at 24 hours. I love the transparency!

    AA on the other hand is a guessing game the entire time, even within 4 hours (unless you’re physically at an AC)! Even the EP Desk has been instructed not to give an accurate count (I’m always being told “more than a handful of seats remain” or it’s “a little more than half full in J”). Not that I want UG’s to disappear, but having this info would also help SELL some of those seats. If I’m flying HKG-DFW and it looks really bad to clear to J, I might buy-up.

    Incompetence continues to abound at AA’s IT dept.

  9. For the DFW-LHR flight AA20, business was full after upgrades 1-5 were cleared. 6-10 were already in PE. 11-14 are revenue passengers in Y, not eligible to be upgraded into PE. #15 was an employee traveling confirmed, which is eligible for any cabin class upgrades (first, biz, PE) That’s why it looks like 6-14 were all “skipped”.

    All this info is available to the employee using the employee app/website where we check the standby list/upgrade lists. AA has by far the best app for non-revs compared to UA/DL. I do agree the AA app for customers is not as good as UA/DL. By releasing some of the info from the employee app, the customer app would be so much better.

  10. @Insider. I have access to the NonRev site too AND am frequently called by friends and family to check it for them. None of the information on there is secret and were it more public, would let the regular passengers know how fair the system actually is. It used to be much more possible for agents to game the system. Now, it’s really much more difficult.

    P.S. I already know I’m not going to get the upgrade to IAH tonight as a lowly Platinum UPG4.

  11. My favorite AA experience is when there are 5 open seats in F and the gate agent announces they are shutting the door and departing at D-10 minutes. If you speak up you either get:
    1) Sorry, we are at departure, no time to clear the list OR
    2) Sir, are we going to have a problem?

  12. Forr pax 10-14 in Economy to learn an employee ended up getting “their” PE upgrade. Ahem.

  13. Another thing what AA would do is to oversell PE if J has plenty of setas. If some of then are EXPs with SWUs, they are upgraded at the gate out of the upgrade order and those in Y will be skipped. This happened to me on LAX-HKG flight in Jan. Before departure J has 12-15 seats and essentially all of them were filled by PE (at least according to the gate agent). It looks like AA had found a loophole to exploit!

  14. As someone with over 39 years in IT, including as CIO of a couple of companies, I agree this could be done better. However, I would say that all airlines I’m aware of have IT failures that have resulted in system downtime, denied boarding, etc. Not to stroke AA but the integration of the US Airways systems went much better than for UA/CO or DL/NW.

    One thing that is very disappointing about AA with respect to IT is that they were the clear leaders for years. Max Hopper, a legendary CIO, created the concept of yield management, developed Sabre and introduced the first true Frequent Flyer program while at AA. At one time AA was using their IT (through the res systems) to generate income instead of selling miles to do it like now.

    Most don’t care about this but I wanted to point out the AA IT legacy since it is especially disappointing, at least to me, to see them not in a leadership position anymore.

  15. @Robert – that ridiculous thinking is littered all over the US airline boards on flyer talk -people complaining that ‘their’ upgrade was ‘stolen’ as though they had a right to it when they don’t.

  16. I always fly AA for a variety of reasons (am Platinum) and generally and satisfied, but I was shocked when I flew United and saw how much better their app is than American’s. I just had no idea how bad American’s was until I compared it to United’s which is 10 times better. No reason for AA’s to be so far behind.

  17. My biggest gripe: not showing how many seats were booked v. how many remain open. UA and DL both clearly put this on the app and on the gate display boards. The transparency benefits everyone; gate agents at AA face lots of extra questions about “will the upgrade clear?” as people figure out whether to grab food, etc., because there’s not a sense of how many open seats.

  18. My biggest complaint is the way they handle downgrades from First/Business. Because of how aggressively they clear upgrades, a flight cancellation or misconnect often means there are no First/Business seats available on alternate flights. If you’ve paid for a First/Business seat, they will downgrade you to economy (“Main Cabin”) on an alternate flight and add you to the “waitlist” for a First/Business seat. Supposedly, you take priority over everyone on the upgrade list.

    However, your name never appears on the “upgrade list” (apparently, because you’re not waiting for an “upgrade”), and it is hard to tell if the agent entered your “waitlist” request correctly. More than once, I’ve had agents apparently enter the “waitlist” request incorrectly, which means I now routinely ask a second agent to double-check that the first agent did the job correctly. But, on top of that, having people on the “waitlist” is confusing for people who are #1 on the upgrade list. They don’t know whether there really is someone else who is on the “waitlist” and ahead of them.

  19. It’s the right order no one is getting cut. There’s number codes and letter codes. The #15 on the list was CK or EP. higher status than #1-5. But numbers come before letters. In this instance #15 on the list was really first on the list ahead of #1. To make matters more confusing there were a few lists for this flight because it was oversold.
    I imagine there were a dozen gate agents boarding this flight to avoid the chaos.

  20. I don’t think anyone has mentioned another example of “out of order” standby clearing. I’ve occasionally seen someone very far down the standby list clear ahead of everyone else, and when I’ve asked the gate agent, they’ve told me it’s an employee who is eligible to sit in the jump seat. That makes complete sense, but it’s odd that AA even shows that person on the standby list in the first place. There has to be a better way.

  21. What I think is happening is the app is seeing non-revenue customers and standby’s get intertwined, as even non-revs appear on the upgrade list depending on their status.

    Some sample standby lists from AA’s system: (seat assignments X’d out)

    PriorityNamePriority codeClassSeatGroup codeComments
    Confirmed revenue upgrades
    1. NAT/S UPG4 N XXD —
    2. CUN/H UPG5 G XXC —
    3. JEN/K UPG5 V XXD —
    4. NAT/D UPG5 N XXE —
    5. MER/R UPGE E XXF —

    Revenue standbys
    1. BLU/E RV4 G — —

    Non-revenue standbys
    2. MCI/M D2 Y XXB CC2
    3. PHA/H D2 Y XXA CC2
    4. KNI/K D2R J — CD2
    5. KNI/P D2R J — CD2
    6. HER/A D2P Y XXC —
    7. HIN/B D3 Y XXD —

    And on a much busier route — seat assignments X’d out

    Confirmed revenue passenger oversales
    1. FAN/F OS O XXA AB3
    2. FAN/L OS O XXD AB3
    3. EPS/D OS O XXE AQ2
    4. PIL/J OS O XXF AQ2
    5. SIM/D OS O — AB3

    Confirmed revenue upgrades
    1. TRA/J UPG3 H XXC —
    2. DUN/M MLG4 G XXA —
    3. SLA/K UPG5 H XXC —
    4. VIR/A UPG5 H XXF —
    5. FLA/J UPG5 H XXD —
    6. MUS/N UPG5 Q XXA —
    7. SEI/I MLG Q XXF —
    8. RIC/W OPUP D XXD —

    Revenue standbys
    1. CIM/M RV2 V — —
    2. COH/S RV2 N — —
    3. WU/K RV2 S — —
    4. WU/S RV4 S — —
    5. FLO/S RV5 G — —

    Non-revenue standbys
    6. MCD/A D1 F — —
    7. FIS/J D2T F — —
    8. MCN/T D2T F — —
    9. SMI/S D2T F — —
    10. FOR/B D2T Y — —
    11. BER/E D2T F — —
    12. KHA/S D2 F — — CJ
    13. RUI/M D2 F — — CJ
    14. DOD/S D3T F — —
    15. BUT/C D3T Y — —
    16. KEL/T D3T Y — —
    17. DEL/D D3T F — —
    18. WHE/J D3 F — — HERE
    19. PHI/D D3 Y — — HERE
    20. ZHU/J D3 F — AW2
    21. GON/G D3 F — AW2
    22. VIL/J D3 Y — —

  22. Modifying a mobile app is not nearly as difficult as a legacy app. They have all the data. They would just need to change the presentation layer. This is a few weeks work by a small dev team — tops. Most of the effort would be in testing. I just don’t think they are interested in transparency.

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