How American Quietly Slashed Confirmed Domestic Upgrades

Filed Under: American

Last October I first wrote about how American has realigned their fare codes for domestic flights. With these changes, the forward cabin on two-cabin American Airlines flights are continuing to be marketed as first class, though the fare classes used for them are now aligned with business class.

With these changes:

  • The “F” booking class (full fare first class) changed to the “J” booking class
  • The “A” booking class (discounted first class) changed to the “D” booking class
  • The “P” booking class (discounted first class) changed to the “I” booking class


In practice there weren’t supposed to be many implications of these changes for AAdvantage members. However, for those earning or redeeming partner miles, this meant there would be a few changes. For example, British Airways Executive Club members can now redeem fewer Avios for domestic flights in American first class (since they just have to pay the business class price), while they also earn fewer Avios for paid travel in American domestic first class (since they only earn based on business class rather than first class).

However, there’s one very big implication for AAdvantage members as well, which has been implemented much more quietly.

American used to be extremely generous with confirmable upgrades

American was by far the most generous airline when it came to confirmable domestic upgrades. If you wanted to redeem miles or systemwide upgrades for an upgrade to first class on a domestic flight, you could almost always confirm that at the time of booking. That’s because the fare class American used for upgrades was the same as their discounted first class fare class.

They used the “A” fare class to confirm upgrades, and on most flights there would be “A” fares available.

So getting a confirmed upgrade on a domestic American flight was a near guarantee, whether an elite or non-elite member. Well, that’s not the case anymore.

American domestic upgrades are now tougher to confirm

Now that domestic first class is sold with business class fare codes, they’ve changed the fare codes they use for upgrades. This change didn’t just happen, but rather was implemented a few weeks back.

There now needs to be “C” class inventory to confirm an upgrade on a domestic American flight. This is the same inventory American uses for confirmable upgrades on international flights, and as any frequent American flyer will know, confirmable upgrades to business class on international flights are very tough to come by.


Even looking months in advance, there are many routes where there’s not a single flight with confirmable domestic upgrade availability anymore, even when searching for weeks at a time. In the past if you looked weeks in advance virtually every single flight would have upgrade availability, while now the opposite is true.

The easiest way to search for “C” space is through ExpertFlyer. If you’re not a member but you’re an Executive Platinum member, log into your account and then search for a flight. If you see “Systemwide Upgrade” written under the flight you’re searching, that means there’s confirmable space. Otherwise there isn’t.


Bottom line

While this change kicked in a few weeks back, it certainly has a big impact for anyone looking to confirm an upgrade on a domestic American flight in advance. Regardless of whether you’re using miles or a systemwide upgrade, expect you’ll have to go out of your way to find confirmable domestic upgrade space, while previously it was a given. This is especially true on hub-to-hub routes.

Perhaps the one slight silver lining for elite members is that fewer non-elites will be able to use miles to upgrade, leaving more seats for elite upgrades. However, something tells me that the difference will be negligible.

Have you been impacted by American’s lack of confirmed domestic upgrade space?

  1. It’s interesting; I noticed this yesterday when I was looking for space to HNL.

    I have say availability is nearly non-existent. This basically takes me out of discretionary trips. If I can’t confirm the upgrade, why bother. Who wants to chance it at the gate. This effectively lowers SWU utility down to near zero domestically, and of marginal utility for overseas flights given the smaller premium cabins on widebodies of late. The death blow is probably yet to come when SWUs become upgradable only to premium economy shortly, if this happens as expected.

    Given all of this, and the recent eqd introduction, I don’t believe EXP is worth specifically striving for at this point. You get 4 SWUs with limited value and a higher upgrade priority. For me, as a Lifetime Platinum, it just doesn’t seem worth the effort…(and I’ve been EXP for the last 4 years).

    I guess it’s time to go back to playing the field and paying for the services you want.

  2. @ Louis — They’re for travel as of January 11, though have already been implemented for those travel dates.

  3. I have found that flights from DFW LAX at peak times have not had systemwide upgrades available.. and I ended up buying First Class seat…. as for the Hawaii flights out of DFW, rarely are there system wide upgrades available. Today’s flights to Hawaii, only AA 5 had system wide upgrade showing yesterday. but 98% of time Hawaii is full in First Class, either use AA Miles for First or pay. Last year Jan 3 DFW SEA first flight out, had 45 on the AA upgrade list…. The New AA still does not appreciate the paying customer who flies 100 – 150 segments a year.. they are only interested in the big time passenger who is willing to pay First/Business Fares to Europe and Asia. ….

  4. Yep, looked in Aug-Oct Washington to LA with stops, on most of the days there were few if any C space or U space available… next to know availability, yet they want us to pay more and are giving less… guess who is not seeing my money next year?

  5. @mike

    I had same thoughts 2016 was 1st year I made EP, and obviously excited about the 4 SWU..

    But this weekend I was looking for flights to Asia 2 and 0 flights had “c” availability. I even checked with expert flyer.

    So now I have to risk buying an economy ticket / AA metal flight to Hong Kong (its not cheap)and pray my SWU clears. If it doesn’t clear im Going to be so pissed. Because I can buy errr could have purchased a CX premium Econ tick for just about the same price as an AA Econ ticket. Plus if I buy a CX ticket I would get 20% of flown miles as EQD so about an extra $1000-$1500 towards my EQDs.

    So if my SWU doesn’t clear .. This will just prove that exp is not worth the 12k you have to spend and that SWU are truly useless

  6. I recently booked a flight and used points to upgrade. However, only one leg had comfortable upgrades but the agent said point upgrades clear ahead of EXP upgrades. Is that true?

  7. @TeeAyo
    Here’s a tip for you: if you are going to be “so pissed” if you get stuck in economy on a flight, don’t buy economy to begin with.
    Not that complicated if you ask me.

  8. Delta is THE BEST! Here is why.. The Pros way outweigh the CONs

    -Diamonds get way more upgrade. Every year you can have 4 Regional, 4 Global AND 25,000 bonus miles (or 4 more regionals) Availiblity isn’t great but WAY better than American…WAY!!!
    -Service is night/day verse American. Not even a competition.. not even close
    -Operations have some issues but are still better by a million miles
    -Much more benefits for top tier. Lounge access… Clear membership… and more
    -Irregular Ops are mastered by using the app, no arguing with agents..Delta will always take great care of you
    -Delta First class meals are more basic, but the food is fresh. doesn’t taste like canned food like on American. It might still be canned food.. but its better.
    -They do sell a lot more First Class than American but upgrade % is still high for me. (just not too good ex ATL to west coast)
    – Very nice planes
    -OK.. Skymiles seems like its sucks but there are some amazing awards on amazing partners! Business to Europe or Asia is much easier to redeem than on American. I really enjoy..KLM, Korean, Garuda and China Airlines business class. these are great partners and DL is very easy on the routing rules. agents always help me, never an argument about MPM.

  9. @kris. You’re not too bright huh. I have to buy an economy ticket to use an SWU to biz. I’m not going to pay 3-4K to buy an AA biz class ticket and hope to get upgraded to their 1st class with an SWU. He whole point of SWU is to get biz or better at Econ price!! Their hard and soft product is not worth me Paying for their biz class.

    This article is about C availability so your useless comment should just be deleted, you troll.

  10. At this point people are fawning over the turd that smells the least. How far the mighty have fallen. Hehe.

  11. Personally I wouldn’t think of using a SWU on a domestic flight because a good portion of my travel is international and the value there is immensely greater. However in the past if I was using a SWU on a connecting domestic/international trip (i.e. BOS-MIA-GIG) whenever the international upgrade cleared they would clear the domestic portion at the same time. The only difference for me now would be that domestic portion wouldn’t be cleared right then but I assume I’d still get higher upgrade priority than complimentary upgrades on the domestic portion right?

  12. I agree that SWU availability is more scarce. I’m booked on an AA domestic flight with two segments on 1/31 and two on 2/3…two of the four segments have 15 out of 16 seats in First still open, but they will not let me use SWU.

    Also, in your example above, there is another tricky step (if using AA website logged in as EXP vs using expert flyer). You inserted a red box around “Systemwide upgrade” for a 2 segment trip. But, you also have to click on that link to see if Systemwide upgrades are available on BOTH segments. In my comment about the 1/31 and 2/3 flights, when I search, I also see Systemwide upgrades as seemingly available….I booked the flight and called to redeem, but no availability for the longer legs. If you actually click on the link, you get a pop-up window to show availability for each segment….and I’m finding it is often not yet available for the longer segments, even when plenty of seats open.

  13. @Tony I have used SWUs for transcons, which is a fair use especially going West, but also use miles+copay for longer domestic, and a TON of BXP1, which also cleared into A.

    This is the end of me chasing status on AA, totally fair game for them to do it though. I will now preferably buy discount F or Delta C+ and then cheap AA/UA F, and then AA MCE if nothing before works 😉

  14. @kevininRI

    SWUs & charged upgrades are arranged higher on the upgrade list than complimentary domestic upgrades (they’re arranged as VIP on the PALL list)

  15. @Teeayo

    Kris’s point is that experienced FF’ers don’t have unrealistic expectations. Sure, the program is designed to allow “free” upgrades. The reality is they are harder and harder to come by — is this a surprise to you? Try to game the system all you want… but at the end of the day you bought a coach ticket — the ONLY thing you should count on is a coach seat. To be “pissed” about sitting in coach is…not too bright, huh? I

    f you found CX premium economy for LESS than AA coach (dubious)…what are you waiting for??

    And this column is about DOMESTIC upgrades. Not HKG.

  16. James your mistaken as well. The argument is that AA is no longer providing seats (upgrades) at time of booking. In the past you were able to find availability, now it’s pretty much impossible and you have to be cleared.

    I don’t have unrealistic expectations, just disappointed with this AA change.

    And who’s gaming the system? What I was venting about which was also relative to the article was the lack of transparency that AA now provides its FF’s.

    I’m sure most fliers agree with me; It would be great to know that your upgrade cleared when you purchased the economy ticket, that’s not the case anymore. I’m not talking domestic upgrades talking SWU.

    When you see your flight is 90% empty in business class but AA doesn’t give on the spot Upgrades, it’s not a good feeling. That’s all I’m saying.

    Oh and I didn’t say same price; CX premium was $300 more, but that difference will be made up with the 1.5 EQMs and a net of $900 in EQDs

  17. I have nothing but contempt for American Airlines.

    Time to jump ship Lucky. Plenty of room for AA refugees at Delta.

  18. Whoa! AA tries to avoid people to use upgrades pushing them instead to buy the seat… how terrible!! Oh wait, did you mention that now you can buy a premium fare for less than the price of a Y ticket just a year or two ago? Obviously not.

  19. Pits definitely not worth going for EXP status anymore. The funny thing is, AA employees traveling as non-revs (standby) are also screwed by this as well. The smaller and smaller F and J cabins AA has introduced mean it is less likely they will get those seats when all upgraders have been accommodated. Go shareholders!

  20. I gave up on chasing status a couple of years ago. So far so good. I used to book cheap first class tickets and redeemed miles but now with AMEX biz plat I just pay with points. No black out dates and any flight in F or J gets 50% back. This works out quite well I am free to fly any airline and I am always guaranteed a seat in F or J while earning RDM. I have a couple hundred thousand AA miles that are rather useless I can’t even redeem them for 50k flagship F ! No inventory at all on dates I need to travel. So much has changed with AA the past few years. I may end up going back to UA if AMEX builds centurion lounge in terminal 6 or 7.

  21. I guess I wouldn’t be so irritated with the changeover from A to C if there was indeed extra inventory for EXP. However, can anyone tell me the last time they saw anything upgrade space or free premium inventory open for EXP that wasn’t open to regular members?

    I realize it’s much more economical to buy the seat but I dislike AA continually creating false expectations.

  22. Like a lot of us, I’ve used SWU’s for domestic upgrades in January and February to burn them off before they expired. The practical implication of this change is that it will be harder to do that this year now that confirmed domestic SWU availability is basically dead. For the last 5+ years SWU’s have been easy to use on business to first upgrades for international flights, which made sense as a way to get premium travelers to book AA’s pathetic business class product and upgrade to an F product that competes with other carrier’s J products. Now that F is going away on most routes and domestic SWU availability is non-existant, I have no idea how I’ll use the 4 SWU’s I have for 2017. I expect that’s AA’s plan. They’re not dumb, just short-sighted. They’re in a highly-cyclical business that is very competitive, and load factors and fares will not always be this high.

  23. I would how AA will handle the situation when a SWU clears on an international segment and you have a domestic feeder segment – will AA override and give you the upgrade?

  24. Randy in most cases your domestic segment will be upgraded too once the international segment clears.

  25. Is Jeff $miSek now AA’s “travel consultant? 🙁 We have had one form of status or another with AA for ~20 years, and I likely made a huge mistake in “buying up” my AA status this year. It’s terrible to see another US air carrier do everything they can for profits over anything positive for their customers. I’ll fly WN domestically, until LH, OS and the European air carriers can break through the stranglehold of air travel between US cities that the “big boys” hold. Should that ever happen, air travelers will leave the US airlines in droves!

  26. The article touches on it briefly, but the changes are quite vast for partner earning potential. I’m a BA Exec member and booking a direct domestic 1st from NYC for a trip over 2000 miles (LAS,PHX,SAN for example) attracted 420TPs, the same as 1st class return to London which would run at $6000+ but now with J it will be 280TPs and about 15% fewer miles. There goes any status/mile runs 🙁

  27. Sure ’nuff. I just tried to use my system wide upgrades on a half dozen flights, some going out six month. They’re almost worthless!

  28. Let me know if I have misunderstood anything:

    System Wide Upgrades
    (1) buy coach and pray
    (2) EXP getting only 4 SWUs instead of 8 and these 4 have limited value
    (3) Almost non-existent upgrade availability
    (4) They will probably force us to go from Economy to Premium Economy with SWU
    (5) If I see a SWU available on the AA page and I select it and try to move to the next step, it says it is not available

    Domestic Upgrades
    (1) confirmable domestic upgrade space has disappeared
    (2) if confirmable domestic upgrade space is available, it involves a stop and is not available on a non-stop
    (3) upgrades based on previous 365-day EQD spend

    MileSaver Awards
    (1) can’t find MileSaver award seats at 330 days in the future in coach or business or first
    (2) can’t find non-stops MileSaver award seats at 330 days in coach or business or first
    (3) award seats makes you use BA to LHR (when going to Europe) and pay $478 in taxes plus AAdvantage miles
    (4) If I see business or first available on the AA page and I select it and try to move to the next step, it says that flight is not available, no matter which flight I pick

    Earn Miles
    (1) we earn less miles when we fly as it is now based on base fare plus carrier charges. We don’t get miles for the taxes we pay

    (1) $12,000 EDQ min spend imposed. What is the value we will receive for this? Better upgrades? or just forcing the spend just to force us to spend

    Miles Devalued
    (1) miles devalued, e.g. first class (US-Asia 2) was 67,500 miles, now 110,000 miles (42,500 miles increase), a 63% devaluation

    Cheap Coach Fare Can’t Upgrade
    (1) I hear that if you buy the cheap fare, then you can’t get MCE or upgrades and board last and no overhead storage etc.

  29. Tried to upgrade from business to first using miles and was told can’t your in I class and that’s not upgradable / they have made it very difficult to upgrade / although my I class ticket was discounted it was not a steal maybe 750 less than full fare. While this is talking about domestic it’s impacting international now / never had this issue in the past

  30. Yeah, I know, I’m whining.
    I spent a few years becoming PLT for life and collecting miles, etc. I am fine with the risk of devaluation of miles. What I am not fine with is the devaluation of PLT. But most of all, by far my biggest complaint is not the devaluation of the award chart, it’s that for about a year now there is virtually NOTHING available to use with them on AA. So am quietly burning my miles with OneWorld partners, but I need an international trip for that which is less frequent than domestic.
    One thing I have learned the hard way out of this game? Screw loyalty. It’s a hell of a lot easier just to buy the service you want and gives you the freedom to use any carrier. Miles are only good for long-haul F/J class. Everything else is way too much hassle for the “maybe” benefits you might get. Hotel programs (for now) are a lot better to deal with.

  31. EP for years working hard to keep my EP status mostly on short domestic flights so definitely the hard way. I used to love the program, but this year, I’ve basically said ‘forget it’. Sorry AA, it may look like you’re ahead on paper, but I think you’re going to loose many dedicated frequent flyers due to the lack of reciprocal loyalty here. I’ve honestly been pleasantly surprised at the lower cost (and even friendlier / better service) as I’ve been sampling other airlines having given up on EP qualification this year. I’m embarrassed to admit the number of times I took extended connections, paid more or avoided direct routes to fly american. Now I can’t even find a domestic upgrade for the paltry 4 systemwides even when looking 10-11 months in advance. No more. I’m out

  32. When I travel with my family I usually buy coach and upgrade using 30k miles and a $150 co pay. It is much more affordable than buying 3 first class tickets. I checked 3 months out on a simple trip from Miami to La Guardia and there wasnt even one available. I checked 7 months out to Honolulu and the same. My wife has wait listed a couple times providing her credit card t o hold her spot, no upgrade. They even upgraded people at the gate using electronic upgrade coupons and she had no priority over them. Have they totally done away with these upgrades? It seems the only choice is to use miles only to purchase the ticket, which is costlier and you earn nothing. The strategy Ive been using is no longer a good one. I’m starting to look at other options.

  33. AA has certainly caved-in to money grubbing when it comes to its customer loyalty. I have been an AAdvantage member since the month it began, way back in 1981. I am now a gold member for life, because of my currently being at more than 1.5 million-miler on AA. Many millions more on various other airlines worldwide. What has happened with what was intended to be a “loyalty program” at AA is appalling. I, as many others should do, am voting with my feet–and my airline loyalty. Slowly and definitely surely, WN has emerged as the best domestic U.S. airline. When AA get’s its priorities straight, I might “consider” renewing my once very strong loyalty to AA. But with the “green-eye shade,” know nothings/care-nothings in charge of AA now, I am voting by using any OTHER airline than AA. Loyalty cuts both ways. Good-bye AA; you once were great.

  34. It’s also impossible to use miles to upgrade. I’m not sure what the point is of being loyal to American anymore. It used to be so easy.

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