Dear American: Stop Confusing People With Your Upgrade Lists

Of the “big three” US airlines, American has by far the worst IT, in my opinion. I find their website to be fairly usable, though too basic. Everything else about their IT just seems like a mess, from the lack of functionality of their app, to not even being able to apply mileage or systemwide upgrades through their website.

There’s one aspect of American’s app experience that I consistently receive the most comments about, though. Specifically, I’m talking about American’s upgrade & standby lists, which can only be accessed through the app by passengers traveling on a given flight within four hours of departure (meanwhile United will show anyone these lists starting 24 hours out, and Delta will show the lists to any passengers booked on a flight 24 hours out).

I constantly get reader questions about this, because it’s genuinely confusing. For example, take this Tweet that I just received:

This is a problem with both American’s upgrade and standby lists. 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). However, that’s not what you’d think based on how the list displays. If you see a numbered list, you’d expect that #1 clears first, #2 clears second, etc. Often that’s not the case though, and understandably it leaves you feeling bitter if you feel like someone was cleared out of order, and that causes you to not clear an upgrade or not get on a flight.

So, what’s the problem? 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 in 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 an 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).

To be constructive, let’s talk about what American should do to fix this. First of all, they should have separate upgrade lists for every class of service on a given flight. This is something that both Delta and United do. For example, below is a three class 777 United is flying from San Francisco to London, where you can see they display separate upgrade lists for business class and first class:

Based on that I can also tell that the last four people on both lists are non-revs that will take any seat that is available. How do we know? Because they show on both lists, and revenue passengers can only upgrade by one class of service, and not double upgrade.

Furthermore, if someone is on standby and clears for a cabin other than economy, it seems logical enough to move them to the upgrade list (and show them as cleared) rather than the standby list (where they may show as #25, when no one else cleared). This is what United does in the above situation.

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 cleared in the correct order, but the optics are really bad if you’re on a standby/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.

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


  1. Just show us the damn list on the app! if I’m # 1 on the upgrade list, I may not choose to go buy some crappy food in the airport before a transcon. Instead I might have a clue if I’m close to an upgrade so I can eat the crappy food on the plane.

  2. FWIW Delta has the same shortcoming as AA in not being able to apply systemwide or mileage upgrades online.

    United is really far ahead of the pack here — their app, website, and kiosks can do a lot of things that Delta’s and American’s can’t. For example United kiosks can put you on the standby list for an earlier flight, which AFAIK the others’ kiosks can’t. And United’s systems seem to work better — for example in theory Delta’s app, website, and kiosks can handle same-day confirmed flight change requests, but in practice it rarely works correctly without talking to an agent, while United’s version of the same generally works.

  3. Wait, what? I thought only domestic (and Caribbean/Mexico) flights were eligible to upgrades. You mean all flights are eligible?

  4. @ John — This includes people requesting mileage upgrades, upgrades with systemwides, and more. We’re not just talking about complimentary upgrades.

  5. @ Bgriff — That’s true, though in the case of Delta I genuinely get the feeling that not being able to apply upgrades online is a feature, in the same way that they don’t show upgrade space online. I don’t think it’s due to an IT shortcoming. In the case of American I do believe it’s an IT shortcoming, and that they’d introduce online upgrades if they had the technology.

  6. Also one other case you didn’t mention that I’ve personally experienced is when pilots are standing by, and they end up clearing into the jump seat. In that case, it may seem to many that American let an employee instead of revenue pax get on a sold out flight, but in reality, revenue pax can’t end up in jumpseats

  7. Another problem which I recently encountered: when a EXP requests a SWU to be applied, it will only show the request and your # on the list in the last 4 hours on the AA mobile app.
    There should be a way to insure one’s upgrade request on the AA app. (of course on the full site it is possible)

  8. No trying to hijack the thread, but I have a few Delta flight certificates worth a couple $ 1000 -s on my Delta skymiles account. I was flying transcon and I was buying ticket on-line. I saw that when I was ready to pay, I was asked that for an additional $220, I could upgrade to 1st. Well, I said, I just use my $ certificate to pay for it. When paying, there was no option for paying for the upgrade with cert. I called diamond desk, and asked to pay for the $220 upgrade with certificate. He actually called supervisor to check because he thought it was strange that I can’t do that. Ended up, Delta customer can’t pay with $ cert for upgrade portion of the price. I guess the Delta Certificates that are advertised as Delta dollars are really just something else … funny thing is that I ended up getting complementary upgrade at gate.

  9. I think the one underlying factor that is still new for AA is the 12 month rolling EQD being used to determine upgrades in addition to EQMs. I don’t know if the EQD is factored in on how the upgrade list is displayed. If it is not, then that could be another reason why people lower on the list are bypassing others.

    I’m 13/14 for complimentary upgrades on the year so far. The one time I didn’t clear someone jumped me on the list about 45 minutes before boarding. They went to #1 and I dropped to #2.

  10. There are so many transactions that American still makes folks call in for which consumes so much manual labor. You can’t even cancel an award reservation without calling.

  11. I’m guessing they saw the IT meltdowns over at United and decided slow and steady was the better approach.

    They do need to get a move on tho.

  12. @CF Frost: agreed! It would be great to be able to request a SWU upgrade (when there is no “C” space at booking) on the AA web-site or app.

  13. @CF Frost – You can cancel those award flights online, but you then need to call to get your miles redeposited and taxes refunded, which only makes it more frustrating. Why even let me cancel online then if I have to call back in to get refunded?

  14. Lucky,

    I can’t speak for UA, but AA never lists non-revs on the upgrade list. They may be requesting a F or J class seat, but that does not show on upgrade list. They’re processed from the standby list, based on class they’re requesting.

  15. Or….you could just pay for it if you need it/want it.

    Works everywhere else quite nicely, and reduces peoples sense of entitlement to things they haven’t bought.

  16. I am Executive Platinum in top 15% of American fliers and it does not matter. The American upgrade system is a complete JOKE and no one really knows what to do as the list is not locked in as it should be probably at the 24 hour mark of check in. A few weeks ago I checked into MKE about 1 1/2 before flight and told I was #1 on for upgrade I get to the gate and all of a sudden I am #2 and the person who jumped ahead go tthe upgrade. I was changing flights in CLT got off the first flight with one hour between flights new gate was accross the asile I looked at upgrade list and I was #1 went to the Admirals Club came back and I was now #5. The biggest kicker was #1 on Upgrade list JFK – LAX 20 minutes before boarding thenI drop to #3 then I drop to #7 and finally drop to #9 spoke to gate agent who could care less, pilot was at the gate and he even said that was terrble and I should complain which I did but executive customer affairs had no answer and to this day speaking withthem last week theystill do not have answer.

    The simple easy way for them to fix this entire system once the upgrades are turned over to the airport once the 24 Check In begins is to lock the upgrade list as it is embarssing for the airline and for the gate agents to deal with the changing list and then again no one kn ows how the list works. It is a JOKE!!!

  17. “American’s upgrade & standby lists, which can only be accessed through the app by passengers traveling on a given flight within four hours of departure”

    Actually, I can see the upgrade list for any AA flight departing within 4 hours by checking the flight status in the app. If you do this more than a few times in a day it stops letting you see the upgrade lists, but uninstalling and reinstalling the app fixes that.

  18. Was on Hkg to DFW flight 3 weeks ago and got cleared to bus. Hubby was on the top of the list but didnt get the upgrade even though there were a number of seats available 2 hrs before departure. We were very disappointed. But now it makes more sense after having read your article. Thx.

  19. I am aa platinum with like $16k of eqds last 12 months. Flew to nyc with my 6yo daughter (no status) on Saturday and we both got upgraded using 500 Miles certificates. Strange thing was we got upgraded 48 hours before the flight. I got upgraded on the way back 24 hrs before the flight (had to decline it) even though exec plats were eventually on the flight.

    Why did my upgrade and my daughters clear on the way out? And so early? Obviously a positive situation!

  20. just be grateful that you still get upgraded. if I were the CEO I would def drop all the upgrade opportunities and make elite program purely based on spending. nothing else.

  21. People .. get real.
    You can BUY 1st Class for the price that Coach was in the 1980’s (inflation adjusted).
    Quit complaining … open your wallets … buy 1st Class… impress your lady
    (particularly cheap on American I might add).

  22. @Lucky, the four @United you claimed are non-revs are not non-revs. They will not be on the upgrade list unless they have a confirmed seat. Yes, they are employees, but they either 1. Bought their tickets through the employee discount or 2. Are on company duty travel. Either way, they are not non-revs standby.

  23. I don’t believe UA is much better although they list the data on the upgrade list it still is not accurate. Last week 18 hours before flight I was #1 for 1 available J (domestic flight). At airport the monitor showed me as #26 for 0 available seats? Not sure how this could change with all the higher level pax already upgraded at 72 and 48 hours prior to flight.

  24. And the current United technology is soooo much worse than it used to be at PMUA. Remember when there were actual standby lists for specific cabins with specific priorities? The current process for a paid F pax to standby on a different flight is to go on the generic list, be confirmed into coach, then added to the upgrade list, having missed the available seat 99% of the seat. Moronic. And don’t get me started on the lack of instant ticketing.

  25. Am I a bad person for liking that I can only see the upgrade list within 4 hrs of flight time? I’ve been trained by AA to not worry about it or check it for the entire day before the flight. And, really, seeing the upgrade list at T-20 hours often creates false hope of an upgrade that won’t happen. On American, as EXP, my upgrade percentage has been good (90 pct) as long as I stay away from the new A319s.

  26. “I don’t believe UA is much better although they list the data on the upgrade list it still is not accurate. Last week 18 hours before flight I was #1 for 1 available J (domestic flight). At airport the monitor showed me as #26 for 0 available seats? Not sure how this could change with all the higher level pax already upgraded at 72 and 48 hours prior to flight.” – Paul

    @Paul: The UA upgrade list gets populated as individual passengers check in. If an upgrade-eligible passenger hasn’t yet checked in, he or she won’t appear on the list yet. What almost certainly happened is that 25-26 passengers with higher-level upgrade priority than you checked in between 18 hours before departure and the check-in cutoff. Bear in mind that if higher level elites and/or same-level, but higher fare bucket elites switched to your flight on the day of departure, they too would appear ahead of you on the list.

  27. I agree fully with Lucky on this. The information AA displays about the upgrade queue is terrible. UA is light years ahead of AA in terms of the usefulness of the upgrade transparency it provides. With AA, you can’t see the upgrade queue until four hours before departure, whereas UA makes this information visible 24 hours out. And while UA rigorously adheres to its published upgrade hierarchy, all of us AA flyers have seen multiple examples where upgrade clearance doesn’t match the order on the list.

    AA is also terrible about making upgrades available to elites executing same-day changes. With UA, if I switch to a different same-day flight, at check-in, I hop right into the queue where my status and fare bucket warrants. On AA, when I switch flights on the same day on an economy revenue ticket, it almost guarantees no upgrade because standing by clears into economy, but won’t get you on the first class upgrade list until after all upgraders have been processed, if at all.

  28. @Chris I think Paul is referring to the fact that there are technically 28h/72h/96h upgrades possible for higher United elites. But as far as I can see they only happen if the flight is looking really empty. In other words almost never. I have got a very occasional T-48h upgrade on a flight that eventually goes out mostly empty.

  29. Many comments seem to be Elites looking for some sort of complimentary upgrade. I think they should be able to more easily use those rewards, otherwise the airline should not even offer them if they prove to be useless and end up expiring. You do have my sympathy. My situation in different. I have no status with AA but I have a bunch of miles and I am an AAdvantage member trying to upgrade from Premium Econ to Business on a transatlantic flight using miles + copay. I agree AA’s upgrade program is not transparent and may even be worthless. I have no idea when or even if it will clear. AA gives little to no clue about that. It’s a crap shoot. The internet makes me think there is little chance it will clear. Also, it is not fair that the miles + copay is the same to upgrade from a cheaper Econ fare to Business as from Prem Econ to Business. That begs the question. Why even be loyal to AA at all? Why does AA offer miles + copay upgrade if it rarely clears seats for this or if my low status keeps me out of the running? It feels like bait and switch. Isn’t that illegal? (just joking). Also to the commenter who said stop complaining and just buy the front cabin seats with cash—If I could afford that I would not have to bother with belonging to any loyalty program and trying to decipher their convoluted rules and restrictions. I’m just saying, “American don’t offer perks you can’t or won’t deliver on.” It makes for poor customer relations.

  30. So riddle me this, how did I wind up upgrading 4 people to first from MZT as Gold only with stickers? It’s a computer. It’s not perfect. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose.

  31. I just spoke to a rude an AA Customer Relations person, her name is Toni Broadway, who confirmed that all eligible REVENUE tickets, regardless of status, will be upgraded first. EXP like myself, traveling on an Award Ticket, will be prioritized AFTER all revenue ticket upgrade requests has been processed.

    Can anybody confirm this to be true?

    My partner, who is Platinum Pro and was traveling with me on revenue ticket on a separate record locator, got upgraded 3 days prior, while I (EXP on Award) didn’t.

    It was under my impressions that all CK and EXP will be upgraded first regardless whether it is a revenue or award ticket?

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