Guide To American Airlines Systemwide Upgrades

Guide To American Airlines Systemwide Upgrades

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While domestic upgrades are nice, upgrades on long haul flights are even nicer. Having a flat bed on an overnight transoceanic flight makes all the difference between arriving exhausted and arriving well rested.

If not outright redeeming miles for an award ticket, there are sometimes opportunities to use miles or upgrade instruments to score a business class seat. In this post I wanted to take a closer look at American Airlines’ systemwide upgrades, which AAdvantage elite members can earn.

American Airlines systemwide upgrade basics

One of the most popular perks of American AAdvantage Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro status is the ability to earn systemwide upgrades.

You’re not issued these automatically anymore, but rather they’re offered as part of American’s suite of Loyalty Choice Rewards. In this post I wanted to look at just about everything you could need to know about systemwide upgrades, including how you can earn them, how you can redeem them, and more.

How do you earn systemwide upgrades?

With the new American AAdvantage Loyalty Points system, systemwide upgrades can be selected as Loyalty Choice Rewards:

  • Upon earning 125,000 Loyalty Points and flying 30 segments, Platinum Pro members can select up to one systemwide upgrade as their Loyalty Choice Rewards benefit
  • Upon earning 200,000 Loyalty Points and flying 30 segments, Executive Platinum members can select up to four systemwide upgrades as their Loyalty Choice Rewards benefit

In both cases there’s an opportunity cost to doing so, since there are other selections you could make (including redeemable AAdvantage miles, which I’d personally prefer).

On top of that, American AAdvantage Million Miler members receive four systemwide upgrades when reaching two Million Miler status, and for every Million Miler threshold after that.

Systemwide upgrades can score you business class seats on long flights

When are systemwide upgrades deposited?

Systemwide upgrades are deposited into your account almost immediately after you select them as your Elite Choice Rewards benefit, or within a couple of days of reaching a Million Miler elite threshold tier.

When do systemwide upgrades expire?

American AAdvantage systemwide upgrades are valid for one year from the date of issue. One important thing to keep in mind is that there’s often a long window where you can select your Elite Choice Rewards, so there’s value to not making a selection right away. That way you can potentially use a systemwide upgrade for well over a year from when you pass an elite threshold.

Note that the expiration date is simply the date by which you have to confirm the upgrade. You can use a systemwide upgrade for travel after the expiration date, but only if you can confirm the upgrade. Often finding confirmable upgrade space can be challenging.

Which airlines can systemwide upgrades be used on?

Systemwide upgrades can be used exclusively for travel on American and American Eagle. Not only that, but the flights need to both be operated and marketed by American, so a codeshare flight wouldn’t be eligible. You can’t redeem systemwide upgrades on partner airlines.

Systemwide upgrades are only valid for travel on American

Can you gift systemwide upgrades to others?

Yep, you sure can. You can gift systemwide upgrades to friends, family members, etc. The member with the systemwide upgrades would simply have to make the request, using the confirmation code and name of the traveler.

What fare classes are eligible for systemwide upgrades?

You can use a systemwide upgrade for any of the following:

  • To upgrade from economy or premium economy to business class
  • To upgrade from business class to first class
  • On domestic two cabin flights, you can use them to upgrade from economy to first class

All paid (non-award) economy, premium economy, and business class fare classes are eligible for systemwide upgrade usage. Even basic economy tickets can be upgraded with systemwide upgrades.

Use systemwide upgrades for American’s A321T first class

For how many segments are systemwide upgrades valid?

Each systemwide upgrade can be used to upgrade up to three segments on a one-way itinerary.

Can systemwide upgrades be used at the time of booking?

Systemwide upgrades can be used to confirm an upgrade whenever there’s confirmable upgrade space, so in theory yes. The catch is that American is quite stingy with making upgrade seats available in advance.

How can you search systemwide upgrade availability?

You can search systemwide upgrade availability directly on aa.com. Just search the flight you want, and if there’s any confirmable upgrade space you’ll see “Systemwide upgrades” written at the bottom left of the flight details. Note that this will only show if you are logged into your account and you have systemwide upgrades available.

You’ll also want to click on the “Systemwide upgrades” link to see which class the upgrade is valid for. For example, on a plane with both business and first class, it could be that there’s upgrade availability from economy to business class, but not from business class to first class.

Which fare classes need to be available to confirm an upgrade?

If you want to use a systemwide upgrade then you should be looking for either the “A” or “C” fare class:

  • You need the “A” fare class to upgrade from business to first class on American’s 777-300ERs and A321Ts
  • You need the “C” fare class for all other upgrades, including from economy to business class, and from economy to first class on two cabin domestic flights

Note that in reality the inventory actually comes from a subset of those classes. That’s to say that a flight could have the “C” fare class available, but it doesn’t work for upgrades. In other words, you’ll definitely only confirm an upgrade if the above fare classes are available, but even if they’re available, that’s no guarantee.

Sometimes it makes sense to use systemwide upgrades on domestic flights

How do you apply systemwide upgrades?

Stupidly systemwide upgrades can only be applied by phone. There are two ways to go about that:

  • Book your ticket online, and once the reservation is ticketed call American to apply the systemwide upgrade; keep in mind that the systemwide upgrade can only be applied once the ticket is issued
  • Book by phone and the agent can apply the systemwide upgrades directly

When do waitlisted systemwide upgrades clear?

In the event that your upgrade doesn’t clear at the time of booking, you can waitlist it. A waitlist could clear at any point, up until the gate. It could clear a day after you book, a week after you book, a month after you book, or an hour before you fly.

As you might expect, upgrades are generally clearing closer and closer to departure, as American is doing everything they can to sell premium seats before upgrading people.

How are systemwide upgrades prioritized?

If an upgrade doesn’t initially clear, it will be prioritized in the following order:

  • First by elite status level
  • Then by upgrade type (with systemwide upgrades and other confirmable upgrades getting highest priority)
  • Lastly by your rolling 12-month elite qualifying dollar (EQD) total; starting later this year, your rolling 12-month total of Loyalty Points will be the tiebreaker instead

How does systemwide upgrade priority work for companions?

If a companion is traveling on the same flight as you then they can receive your higher upgrade priority, even if you’re not traveling on the same reservation. This higher priority doesn’t apply if you’re gifting them an upgrade, and they’re not traveling on the same flight as you.

Can systemwide upgrades be used for premium economy?

American now has premium economy on all Boeing 777s and Boeing 787s, though you can’t use systemwide upgrades to upgrade to premium economy. Rather you can still use them to upgrade from economy to business class, which is probably a good thing.

Systemwide upgrades can’t be used for premium economy

Are there fees for using systemwide upgrades?

There are no fees or co-pays when redeeming American systemwide upgrades, with one exception. If you’re departing the United Kingdom and your travel originates there, you’ll be on the hook for the difference in the UK Air Passenger Duty (APD) between the cabin you booked and the cabin you’ll fly.

Maximizing odds of American systemwide upgrades clearing

How do you maximize your odds of systemwide upgrades clearing with American? Below are a few considerations, though admittedly coronavirus has changed some things for the time being. With business travel being down, international upgrades are generally much easier than they used to be.

Look at seatmaps when you book

You’ll want to look at both the seatmap for the cabin you’re trying to upgrade to, as well as the seatmap for the cabin you’re booking. For example, say you’re trying to upgrade from economy to business class on a Dallas to London flight:

  • Look at the business class seatmap, to get a general sense of how many seats are available to upgrade to (though this won’t always accurately reflect the number of people booked)
  • Look at how many seats are occupied in Main Cabin Extra, premium economy, etc., because it’s possible that at least some of these people are also elite members looking for an upgrade

This isn’t fool proof, but the emptier the seatmaps, the better your odds.

Avoid Dallas

Every airline has a hub where there are a disproportionate number of elite members, and therefore upgrades are disproportionately difficult. For Delta that’s Atlanta, for United that’s San Francisco, and for American that’s Dallas.

In general you’ll have a tougher time clearing an upgrade out of an airport like Dallas than out of an airport like Chicago or New York JFK, where there aren’t as many “hub captive” flyers.

Upgrades out of Dallas are notoriously tough

The longer the flight, the tougher the upgrade

This isn’t true across the board, but you can expect that upgrades are going to be toughest on the longest and most premium flights.

As least pre-pandemic, routes like Dallas to Tokyo and Dallas to Hong Kong were quite difficult to clear an upgrade of, since a lot of people were hoping to upgrade those flights.

Meanwhile Chicago and New York to London are much easier upgrades, in my experience, since there aren’t as many hub captives, and because the flights aren’t as long.

Pick your flight times & dates carefully

If you want to upgrade on a long haul flight, try to travel mid-week. Tuesday and Wednesday in particular are great days to travel long haul, since few business travelers fly between continents on those days.

For routes that are also largely leisure oriented, seasonality also matters. An upgrade to Spain is going to be much easier in December or January than in July or August. Similarly, an upgrade to Brazil is going to be much easier in August or September than in December or January.

Consider seasons, business travel trends, etc.

Bottom line

American Airlines Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro members can earn systemwide upgrades through the Elite Choice Rewards program. Personally I don’t plan on selecting these going forward, as I’d rather earn redeemable miles. There’s simply not enough upgrade space that’s confirmable in advance, and I don’t like waitlisting upgrades. Furthermore, some oneworld partners offer a better premium experience.

However, others get lots of value out of these, and are happy to waitlist. For those who are trying to redeem systemwide upgrades (or are considering selecting them as rewards), hopefully this is a useful rundown of how they work.

If you’ve used American Airlines systemwide upgrades, what was your experience like?

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  1. James F Guest

    I'm still a little unclear about the difference between Systemwide upgrades and Mileage upgrade awards. Is one given a high priority than the other?

  2. TMA Guest

    Is there any way to search "where can I go right now and use a SWU"? In other words, what's available at any given time?

    I'm retired and have flexibility to go anywhere at almost anytime and I might just choose a destination based on SWU immediate confirmation ability. Right now I have to select a city, then choose dates, and then through a lot of trial and error find SWU availability (or switch destinations and start over, then repeat again and again).

  3. Rusty Guest

    I am Explatinum but do not see the “systemwide upgrade” icon on any of my searches (including yours on 2/12). Is this a possible web issue?

    1. Chris Topher New Member

      You must be logged in AND have SWU available in your account.

  4. AlliW Guest

    And I've seen AA SWU on eBay for purchase a couple times recently...... /

  5. Mike Saint Guest

    I've tried unsuccessfully to try to use some SWU's this past year. Even with COVID, several flights to/from Europe were sold out up front. I'm very thankful that AA extended some expiring upgrades but with COVID still preventing travel to/from Asia for the most part, I don't know if I can use these this year before they expire in July.

    Lucky, let me know if you or any of your readers want to swap out...

    I've tried unsuccessfully to try to use some SWU's this past year. Even with COVID, several flights to/from Europe were sold out up front. I'm very thankful that AA extended some expiring upgrades but with COVID still preventing travel to/from Asia for the most part, I don't know if I can use these this year before they expire in July.

    Lucky, let me know if you or any of your readers want to swap out some of my expiring SWU's for before July 2022 to later this year or next year. I'd trust you if you think you will get EXP this year.

  6. D3kingg Guest

    I impulsively selected an SWU as soon as I became Platinum Pro. Getting upgraded between DFW - HNL which will be operated by a 789 instead of 772 reducing first class seats by 20% won’t happen. I don’t see how I can use the SWU this year. I’m pessimistic about this.

  7. yehuda Kovesh MD Guest

    I flew today AA755 from CDG to MIA, just one week ago I called the EXP line and the lady was able to confirm my SWU coming to Miami today and going back in less than three weeks time. She said I could not get the cheapest economy fare to upgrade but I was happy to pay the extra couple of hundred dollars to fly seat 1 L on both legs.
    The service on...

    I flew today AA755 from CDG to MIA, just one week ago I called the EXP line and the lady was able to confirm my SWU coming to Miami today and going back in less than three weeks time. She said I could not get the cheapest economy fare to upgrade but I was happy to pay the extra couple of hundred dollars to fly seat 1 L on both legs.
    The service on AA has gone from better to worse, but that is another story. All the best things about being EXP has nothing to do with onboard service on AA metal.

    1. Jay Guest

      Sounds like this agent was misinformed and charged for to bump up to main cabin. That's not necessary as Basic Economy fares can be upgraded with SWU's.

  8. Ryan Guest

    Lucky, Can you confirm that ability to clear an upgrade (before flight day) is also higher when you and your companion are on two separate reservations that are linked vs on same rez? I ask bc I know systemwide upgrade availability can eek out one at a time and doesn’t it skip doubles on same rez in that case? Thanks - have always wondered this!

  9. Reno Joe Guest

    I will coat-tail on Scotes reply to Danny C's comments. Agreed. I don't even try. Here's the deal . . . A inventory and C inventory are divided into revenue and award / upgrade. AA's Revenue Management allocates a certain amount of first class as A inventory and of business class as C inventory. Everything else is F and J. BUT, when RM allocates that A and C inventory, 330 days out, it is only...

    I will coat-tail on Scotes reply to Danny C's comments. Agreed. I don't even try. Here's the deal . . . A inventory and C inventory are divided into revenue and award / upgrade. AA's Revenue Management allocates a certain amount of first class as A inventory and of business class as C inventory. Everything else is F and J. BUT, when RM allocates that A and C inventory, 330 days out, it is only as revenue inventory. At a much later point in time, RM converts the A and C inventory to be award / upgrade eligible. Prior to that, one can still book an award flight at F and J point prices -- but, not at A and C point prices and certainly not an upgrade. After RM converts them, they become available at A and C point prices and eligible for upgrades.

  10. Disco Dave Guest

    Ben, please explain your preference for choosing redeemable AAdvantage miles over SWUs when cashing in Loyalty Rewards.

    When attaining EXP status one has a choice between 30,000 AAdvantage miles or 2 SWUs (among other rewards). This implicitly values SWUs at 15,000 miles each.

    If I were to upgrade a coach ticket (not full fare) with miles to deep South America, Europe or Asia, the cost is 25,000 + $350 copay. While there may be more...

    Ben, please explain your preference for choosing redeemable AAdvantage miles over SWUs when cashing in Loyalty Rewards.

    When attaining EXP status one has a choice between 30,000 AAdvantage miles or 2 SWUs (among other rewards). This implicitly values SWUs at 15,000 miles each.

    If I were to upgrade a coach ticket (not full fare) with miles to deep South America, Europe or Asia, the cost is 25,000 + $350 copay. While there may be more (?) availability for this type of upgrade, that is a significant different in cost.

    If I were to use the AAdvantage miles for an award ticket, 30,000 miles won't get you a single business class seat outside North America, let alone what 15,000 buys -- and that's IF award space is available at "standard" levels and also ignoring the opportunity cost of a non-rev seat that doesn't earn loyalty points.

    Yes, I know SWU availability has been tightened the last few years, and married segment BS may make it even worse, but I've been able to use all of mine on over-water longhauls year after year -- the only exception being one that expired in 2019 and had been applied to a 2020 Europe flight that was cancelled, twice.

    1. Reno Joe Guest

      You are better off NOT electing SWUs. Take the points. SWUs have a one-year shelf life. You might or might not be able to use SWUs before they expire. But, your points endure. And, for the number of points you receive as an elite choice award, you can buy an upgrade with those points (roughly). Make sense?

    2. Disco Dave Guest

      If you fly predominantly within North America, then yes, I see the point of taking the miles over the SWUs. But if a majority of your butt-in-seat miles come from AA's longhairs to Europe, Asia or South America, as mine are, you're much better off taking the SWUs and earning the points for the revenue. Yes, my SWUs are rarely secured at time of booking these days, but my (pre-pandemic) success rate has been well...

      If you fly predominantly within North America, then yes, I see the point of taking the miles over the SWUs. But if a majority of your butt-in-seat miles come from AA's longhairs to Europe, Asia or South America, as mine are, you're much better off taking the SWUs and earning the points for the revenue. Yes, my SWUs are rarely secured at time of booking these days, but my (pre-pandemic) success rate has been well above 50% for waitlisted flights.

      And miles may not expire, but sooner or later they will be devalued.

    3. Jeff Bue Guest

      I agree with you. I’ll take my chances with SWUs expiring as I fly a lot of long hauls to Asia and Europe.

  11. Andre Guest

    I’m Platinum Pro but I haven’t selected systemwide upgrade yet as a choice reward. When I do searches, I don’t see the “systemwide upgrade “ button on the flight readings. Is it because I haven’t selected that systemwide upgrade option yet? Also, with two more months left to raise my status with AA the old fashioned way, could I select systemwide upgrade as a Platinum Pro, qualify for Executive Platinum by February 28th and get...

    I’m Platinum Pro but I haven’t selected systemwide upgrade yet as a choice reward. When I do searches, I don’t see the “systemwide upgrade “ button on the flight readings. Is it because I haven’t selected that systemwide upgrade option yet? Also, with two more months left to raise my status with AA the old fashioned way, could I select systemwide upgrade as a Platinum Pro, qualify for Executive Platinum by February 28th and get four more systemwide upgrade? Thanks in advance.

    1. ExecPlat Guest

      You won't be able to see the 'systemwide upgrade' availability when looking at flights unless you have SWUs in your account. Also, yes, you will have the option of receiving another 4 SWUs when you qualify for EXP.

  12. Danny C Guest

    I am an EP member and mainly use my four systemwide upgrades on my monthly LAX/JFK flights. My strategy is to purchase business class tickets and waitlist for first class seats. Economy class to business class upgrades are seldom available unless traveling at late evening flights. From my over 30 years of travel experience on AA, the odds of systemwide upgrades from economy to business are slim and none. Sadly, with the new AAdvantage program...

    I am an EP member and mainly use my four systemwide upgrades on my monthly LAX/JFK flights. My strategy is to purchase business class tickets and waitlist for first class seats. Economy class to business class upgrades are seldom available unless traveling at late evening flights. From my over 30 years of travel experience on AA, the odds of systemwide upgrades from economy to business are slim and none. Sadly, with the new AAdvantage program this years, I won’t earn any systemwide upgrades since I am four segments short of 30 segments.

    1. Scotes New Member

      Key phrase here... "The catch is that American is quite stingy with making upgrade seats available in advance."

      I'm not longer in the game so to speak but outside of LAX/NRT I feel like the SWUs I would get were designed for breakage. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to use them on that LAX/JFK route for economy to business with no luck. There were years I literally couldn't give away the...

      Key phrase here... "The catch is that American is quite stingy with making upgrade seats available in advance."

      I'm not longer in the game so to speak but outside of LAX/NRT I feel like the SWUs I would get were designed for breakage. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to use them on that LAX/JFK route for economy to business with no luck. There were years I literally couldn't give away the one I'd have left at the end of the year because no matter where a friend was traveling to there was "no space" even though biz or 1st would show empty on the seat map.

  13. HiAperture Guest

    Good post, however I do have a question.

    I am Platinum Pro but I have not yet selected my elite choice reward (as you suggested, so it doesn't start the clock on expiring or in case I decide to use another benefit). Are you sure I should be able to see if flights are eligible just because I am Plat Pro? Because I have yet to see the option you show pop up on...

    Good post, however I do have a question.

    I am Platinum Pro but I have not yet selected my elite choice reward (as you suggested, so it doesn't start the clock on expiring or in case I decide to use another benefit). Are you sure I should be able to see if flights are eligible just because I am Plat Pro? Because I have yet to see the option you show pop up on any of my searches. My assumption is it requires having the systemwide upgrade in your account, ready to redeem, that flags showing eligibility, not just having the status level.

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James F Guest

I'm still a little unclear about the difference between Systemwide upgrades and Mileage upgrade awards. Is one given a high priority than the other?

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TMA Guest

Is there any way to search "where can I go right now and use a SWU"? In other words, what's available at any given time? I'm retired and have flexibility to go anywhere at almost anytime and I might just choose a destination based on SWU immediate confirmation ability. Right now I have to select a city, then choose dates, and then through a lot of trial and error find SWU availability (or switch destinations and start over, then repeat again and again).

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Jeff Bue Guest

I agree with you. I’ll take my chances with SWUs expiring as I fly a lot of long hauls to Asia and Europe.

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