International American Airlines Upgrades Are Getting Easier

Filed Under: Advice, American

I’ve no doubt given American a hard time lately, given their switch to a revenue based program along with their 2016 AAdvantage award chart devaluation. But I also believe in giving credit where it’s due, and American deserves some credit here.


American’s improved upgrade & award availability

I’ve written about the amazing amount of business class award and upgrade availability American has offered on their own flights for the past several weeks. This included flights to Asia and Europe, and even extended to first class in many instances.

American first class awards seats were wide open on many routes, including Dallas to Hong Kong

There’s something a bit weird about how American releases award availability, though. For a while they didn’t have a single upgrade or award seat on any transpacific flight for all of 2016, and then suddenly they were making half of the first and business class cabins on many international flights available for awards. That seems highly irrational to me, and I figured there has to be some long term middle ground.

In the meantime, it has certainly presented some fantastic opportunities for us, where we’ve been able to book the entire family to Europe or Asia over peak periods at the saver level. That’s fantastic.

I’ve long said that business class award and upgrade availability on American is more or less the same. I’ve realized that technically hasn’t been the case, since American uses separate fare classes for both inventories. Business class upgrades come out of the “C” fare class, while business class awards come out of the “U” fare class. But for the past couple of years, “C” and “U” inventory have been the same in a vast majority of instances.

Business class award & upgrade availability has been wide open lately

American’s improved upgrade availability

I think it’s worth noting that this is changing, and American is making significantly more upgrade seats available than award seats. Most of the flights with a ton of award availability are now showing less award space, though there’s still a fair amount. I actually think the award availability we’re seeing right now is much more reasonable, fair, and sustainable, and that’s ultimately a good thing. While I like periods with a ton of availability, I’d rather have a program be more consistent.

In looking at inventory, upgrade availability is quite good, much better than award availability. There’s not an insane amount of upgrade availability, but rather an amount which I’d love to see American sustain over time.

Let me give a few examples, using availability I pulled up for random dates through ExpertFlyer.

Los Angeles to Shanghai has three business class award seats and five business class upgrade seats on one flight:


Between New York and London, four flights have upgrade availability (up to seven seats per flight), while only one flight has award availability:


From Dallas to Beijing, there’s one business class award seat and four business class upgrade seats on one flight:


From Los Angeles to Sao Paulo, there are two business class award seats and five business class upgrade seats on one flight:


From Dallas to Hong Kong, there are no award seats but three business class upgrade seats available:


From Los Angeles to London, both flights have at least five upgrade seats available, while they have no award seats available:


From Auckland to Los Angeles, a flight has two upgrade seats available but no award seats available:


From Sydney to Los Angeles, a flight has one award seat available but two business class upgrade seats available:


From a business standpoint, having a different amount of upgrade and award availability makes sense. The airlines are accounting for the costs of these awards differently, so it makes sense for inventory to also be different.

For example, when someone books an award ticket, the airline gets minimal revenue, but does get miles “off the books.” Meanwhile when someone books a paid ticket and confirms an upgrade, American is at least getting the cash cost of an economy ticket, plus a systemwide upgrade, or otherwise miles and a co-pay.

Keep in mind that as of next year American will be reducing the number of systemwide upgrades that Executive Platinum members earn from eight to four. That’s a huge blow to the program. At the same time, if I’ll actually be able to use those four upgrades to confirm business class at the time of booking, I wouldn’t be as frustrated. For the past couple of years I’ve had to waitlist virtually all of my upgrades, and then had to sweat it out, typically clearing at most a few days before departure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying American should have confirmable upgrade availability on all flights, but as long as there’s some availability with a flexible schedule, I consider that to be “fair.” I don’t consider it to be fair to offer upgrades but to never have any upgrade availability confirmable, as we’ve seen in the past.

Confirm upgrades on American’s 787 between Auckland and Los Angeles

How to search American upgrade availability

The best way to definitively search American’s upgrade availability is through ExpertFlyer, which is a subscription service. It will let you search business class upgrade and award availability, and will even let you set alerts. That way if upgrade or award space opens up, ExpertFlyer will email you to let you know.


The second method is through American’s website. Since 2013 the website will show you if upgrade space is available. The catch is that you have to be Executive Platinum and log in to see availability through this. If there’s confirmable upgrade space available, you’ll see an icon which says “Systemwide Upgrade” on the booking page, like this flight between Dallas and Beijing:


Meanwhile if there’s not confirmable upgrade space it won’t show that icon:


The catch is that if your plane has three cabins (meaning it has business and first class), you can’t tell whether the systemwide upgrade availability is from economy to business class or business to first class. So only rely on this being totally accurate for planes without an international first class cabin.

The third method is to simply phone up American Airlines reservations and ask them about availability. If you want to lock in an upgrade at the time of booking, you’ll want to book by phone, because they can apply the upgrades when you confirm the reservation.

If you book online you’ll first have to wait for the reservation to ticket (which could take a few minutes or several hours), and then afterwards phone American to upgrade the reservation. In that timeframe it’s possible the upgrade availability disappears.

American-767-Business-Class - 3
American 767 business class

Bottom line

I’m happy to see American finally make some upgrade space available across the network, which I think is a really smart move. They don’t have to have seven upgrade seats on every flight confirmable at the time of booking (that probably doesn’t make business sense), but offering some confirmable upgrades consistently across a variety of flights is a huge win for us loyal flyers. And if this sticks, it ever so slightly takes the sting out of systemwide upgrades being cut from eight to four.

Is anyone else noticing the increase in American’s confirmable upgrade availability?

  1. I think the bigger issue is that airlines have overinvested in premium cabins. There is literally not one profitable premium-only airline in the world while there are tens of highly profitable economy-only airlines.

    Sure there are a few routes where there’s a ton of premium demand but those routes are generally highly competitive and well served. As premium cabins take up more and more real estate per seat (to allow lie-flat), they have an even higher and higher break-even point.

    The US and India are about the only two big economies riding high right now and companies are also wising up and saying “hey we’ll fly you out a day early and put you at a nice hotel” because it still saves the company a ton of money. Here’s a simple math equation:

    Alternative A: Fly employee in Premium Cabin
    a) Flight Cost: $5,000 round-trip ticket
    b) Hotel Cost: $200 for one night
    c) F&B Cost: $100 for one day

    Total = $5,300

    Alternative B: fly employee in Economy
    a) Flight Cost: $1,500 round-trip ticket
    b) Hotel Cost: $400 for two nights
    c) F&B Costs: $200 for two days
    d) 1 – 2 days of lost productivity: X to 2x

    Total: $2,100 + 2x (let’s just assume two days)

    So unless 2x > ($5,300 – $2,100) = 2x > $3,200 which means x > $1,600, it’s not worth it.

    This means assuming the employee makes less than $1,600*5 (days/ work week) *48 (work weeks/year) = $384,000, it’s no point sending them in business class.

    This is giving your employee a day off on either side of a trip. Amazing.

  2. I found business award availibity wide open on MIA-LHR (on an AA 77W) on the exact date I wanted in October, which came as a pleasant surprise. It does seem like things are getting better.

  3. Disagree that award and upgrade space used to be the same.

    When award seats would be available upgrade seats would be also.

    But upgrade seats could be available without award space being open.

    Easy to miss because just as American was stingy on premium cabin awards, they had gotten really tough with upgrades too. But definitely the case that AA would open C inventory and not award.

  4. Got confirmed upgrades LHR/LAX and back in the next couple of weeks, which I’m very happy about!

    > But definitely the case that AA would open C inventory and not award.

    Yep. This is definitely true.

  5. My recent experience with AAdv (I am a gold member) is that they have less and less seats available for flights between the US and South America. You can search for an award ticket for next April, May and June and you are lucky if there is ONE DAY available (or need to use 100,000 miles for a ” free ticket)….

  6. Even American Airlines doesn’t fully understand the effect of any change on profitability, or every change would be profitable and every year would set a new record. Also, access to the new availability you reference turns out only is available to AA elite and subscribers to a paid service. Why not mention that first? An off day, I think.

  7. I just booked award space in business going SFO to DFW/DFW to NRT round trip. There were a lot of dates open, so I didn’t notice a shortage. I just hope I get a retrofit place. It says I’m flying a 777 but I don’t know if that’s 777-300ER or 777-200 or something else. Does anyone know how to confirm if one is flying retrofit?

    Apologies for going off topic.


  8. If any airline was predictable in releasing premium cabin awards then few would actually buy these seats, preferring to wait for a reliable award seat. Logical really. Cathay are now masters of unpredictable and haphazard award availability, but no doubt this is how they like it! A little puzzling though is their apparent willingness to have departures with many premium seats empty, as they have failed to put them up as very last minute (within 24hrs) awards. I think 48 hrs before flight is the minimum most travelers can organize themselves to take up an award.

  9. If you’re booking online, the thing to do is not to purchase – if you do that, then as noted you have to wait for the reservation to ticket. But if you hold the reservation and then call, they can apply your SWUs to the held reservation right away. I find this to be the best of both worlds; I don’t like booking purely by phone because I really don’t feel able to consider all options.

  10. I had set dates for travel so I booked American Airlines operated flights for three $422 Amsterdam to San Francisco round trip tickets. I purchased tickets last month. I called up AA after my purchase and asked them to place me on the SWU upgrade list for all three January, February and April flights. All flights on my international tickets have been upgraded in past week to Business Class transatlantic and First for domestic legs. Burned six of eight 2016 SWUs.

  11. “The catch is that if your plane has three cabins (meaning it has business and first class), you can’t tell whether the systemwide upgrade availability is from economy to business class or business to first class. So only rely on this being totally accurate for planes without an international first class cabin.”

    The popup tells you which upgrade is available if you just click on the Systemwide Upgrade link.

  12. @Barret F. Martinez – If it says 777 it’s almost always the 200, if it says 77W it’s always the 300ER. Another way to check is to click the “Available Seats” and look at the J cabin. If it’s 1-2-1 it’s the reverse herringbone. If it shows 2-3-2 it’s the old seats.

  13. My observation is that the C and U may be tied together in some cases.
    A flight from SYD-LAX had 1Z, 1C, 1U. Then the 1Z and 1U was booked, the 1C instantly went away. It is like AA was offering either 1C or 1U, but only 1 seat.

    On AA’s partner QF, U is used for either reward or upgrade, so it comes out of the same inventory.

  14. But to clarify – C does not equal U – as can have 1C and 0U, but in this case, it appeared that booking the 1U made the 1C go away – in otherwords not possible to buy 1 ticket and upgrade, and a second ticket for reward.

    My real booking – 1C disappeared too quick.

  15. I agree with Lucky, I think something’s happening. I’m leaving to LHR on February 16th from LAX and got my upgrade to business last week using an SWU. 4 days ago I got my return upgrade. Even though there were 30 plus seats open when I booked the trip 6 weeks ago (each way) they didn’t offer them up and now suddenly they’re handing them out. I have been very verbal with my disappointment With American regarding their treatment of EPs since the merge in October and contacted some senior management, somehow. living in Hawaii I noticed, since then, I’ve been getting over water upgrades that I’ve been missing since October. Is it possible they are giving us EPs a little more respect as they get ready to take the program south?

  16. HaHA……this assumes you would fly on AA in the First place over another superior Asian or Gulf carrier…….

  17. I’ve noticed this as well. My SWU cleared on the DFW-HKG leg a full 20 days out. I had to call the EXP desk because my flights were out of order. Rep wen’t ahead and cleared my LGA-DFW leg as well on the same SWU, said the upgrade is good through to my final destination. I guess that clarified the whole “Upgrades are valid, when available, for one-way travel on any American marketed and operated flight (up to 3 segments)” for me.

  18. Semi off topic but wanted to let you know that 2 of my families flights this Summer from BCN to JFK and CDG to JFK were both changed yesterday from the old 777-200 to the retrofitted 777-200. Since we were in business class, this feels like a upgrade from what we were prepared to be in but I can’t imagine for those who were originally booked in First Class that this is good news. I say this because as of this past Friday we stewed over using the extra points to upgrade 3 of us to first class – since there was award space available for 3 (!) to move to first class but decided against it & to conserve our points. Last night I logged in to my AA account to see all our seats have changed. We had been searching for award space for 3 since last September for this July and it wasn’t until this past week that I saw the influx of 3+ tickets being available. Whatever the reason for the change, since I had given up hope after I read your post about AA looking for new seat manufacturer, my family and I will be happy campers come July! 🙂

  19. Hey EPs, look these comments over! Looks like AA is getting nicer to us. The SWUs are confirming much better. I think it is maybe that so many people are complaining to FAs, EP CSRs and upper management about the horrible post merge scene at AA for us. I imagine many of you, like me, have been verbal in their desire to leave the airline…I most likely will after 8 years of EP. If they can keep the upgrades coming (for me over water to and from Hawaii, where I live), I might be able to live with the reduced everything. Very anxious about the new 4th class on planes and how it will affect our upgrade lives. Coach to coach plus really doesn’t make it in anyone’s book. Keep complaining people…loud and strong. Parker will take it all away if we don’t. His history is well documented.

  20. First off, thanks Gary Leff for correcting Lucky. THE UPGRADE AND SAVER AWARD WERE NOT THE SAME! NOT EVEN CLOSE. Fortunately for me the past eight years, I managed to use the 70 system wide upgrades. I monitor inventory like a hawk, and can tell you that C, especially in the last two years would sometimes open up 5 days before departure. U inventory (saver space) virtually never did. In fact the lack of upgradeable space and save award seats combined with the new revenue system is why I will no longer be Executive Platinum after February. Its just not worth it.

    I believe the opening up of seats, may have to do with the number of Executive Platinum’s who are using SWU’s on long haul flights. But I have no evidence it is just a gut feeling.

    It is getting harder to justify flying just for Executive Platinum status these days, when the number of miles earned (with the new revenue system) as an Executive Platinum may likely not even get you a single one-way First class redemption. I am sure there will be many of us who with the fact that the miles earned by flying 100K (probably over 300 hours in the air and in airports or about 2 weeks of your life) will not be happy that the expense of effort does not even earn you a ONE-WAY F ticket, so if AA doesn’t at least throw a bone and make you feel good that you can actually upgrade with your SWU an economy ticket it JUST DOES NOT MAKE SENSE.

    I believe, and possibly its because I am an optimistic individual, that AA is repairing the poor value Ex Plat program currently is by at least releasing a handful of upgrades AND some award seats that we can use our miles to redeem for with the horrible new changes.

  21. I have been able to fly to NZ business class the last multiple years using the old mileage system and a combo of quantas and AA, booked through American. Altho it has always been a struggle to find the award seats now it seems that the business saver award seats are non existent and the miles required for anytime business awards are outrageous. I am a kiwi with a horrible back issues and there is no way I can make this trip in economy nor can I afford to pay to fly business. Any suggestions out there would be really appreciated. My whole family is back there.

  22. Total hogwash. Upgrades are not available until gate time or latter. I am looking at flights DFW-LHR-DFW and selected the flights with more than 50% empty business. Chacked befroe boarding – there were 15 business class seats empty – did not get upgraded until the doors closed. And I am Executive Plat. and Plat. Lifetime.
    On return the same thing.
    Where are the times that employees were capable of estimating how many tix they will sell and let the rest go to elite upgrades. Now American Airlines would rather fly empty seats with Executive Platinum in the back of the plane.

  23. I tried to get my economy award tickets from Raleigh to London upgraded with my 500 mile upgrades and was just told not possible. What number are you all dialing to make this work?

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