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 Point 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 American AAdvantage Loyalty Points system, systemwide upgrades can be selected as Loyalty Point Rewards:

  • Upon earning 175,000 Loyalty Points, Platinum Pro members can select up to two systemwide upgrades as their Loyalty Point Rewards benefit
  • Upon earning 250,000 Loyalty Points, Executive Platinum members can select up to four systemwide upgrades as their Loyalty Point 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 many will prefer). Note that there are six higher thresholds at which you can earn even more systemwide upgrades, as American’s Loyalty Point Rewards system has thresholds all the way up to 5,000,000 annual Loyalty Points (though I can’t imagine many people will achieve that!).

Keep in mind that your Loyalty Points total resets every program year. The Loyalty Points program year runs from the beginning of March until the end of February of the following year.

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 Loyalty Point 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 Loyalty Point 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?

The most popular way to redeem systemwide upgrades is for flights on American and American Eagle. To have the easiest time redeeming them, you’ll want the flights to be both operated and marketed by American.

It’s also possible to redeem systemwide upgrades on British Airways in a limited capacity. There are quite a few terms associated with this (these can’t be waitlisted, at least one segment has to be on America, if you want to upgrade to business class you have to book premium economy, etc.), so see this post for more details.

Systemwide upgrades are primarily 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?

When flying on American Airlines, 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 mileage upgrades getting highest priority)
  • Lastly by your rolling 12-month total of Loyalty Points

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? Back in the day you were primarily competing with business travelers, while nowadays premium leisure demand is through the roof, so upgrades can be hard to clear at times. Below are a few considerations.

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, 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.

Admittedly American doesn’t operate that many ultra long haul routes, but you can generally expect that Los Angeles to Sydney or Dallas to London will be a tougher upgrade than Boston to London, for example. After all, the longer the route, the more people are willing to pay to avoid being in economy.

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 Loyalty Point Rewards program. Personally I don’t generally select these as my choice, 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. Denise H Guest

    What happened to systemwide upgrades for Executive Platinum members? One used to get 4 per year. Has this been discontinued?

  2. Ryan Z Guest

    Have been executive platinum for 20 years. Have noticed AA has become extremely stingy in allowing systemwide upgrades at time of booking-to the point of making executive platinum of little value if I cant use systemwide upgrades. I have also noticed they are upgrading me to first much less often on domestic flights. This will be my last year of flying predominately with AA as top status is not worth the extra cost of AA...

    Have been executive platinum for 20 years. Have noticed AA has become extremely stingy in allowing systemwide upgrades at time of booking-to the point of making executive platinum of little value if I cant use systemwide upgrades. I have also noticed they are upgrading me to first much less often on domestic flights. This will be my last year of flying predominately with AA as top status is not worth the extra cost of AA flights and the less attractive service and food compared to competition.

    1. Roy G Guest

      Same here, they are selling the discounted upgrade before granting SWU to their EP customers.

  3. Hoepper Guest

    I accumulated a number of systemwide upgrades, but even though I travel frequently to Europe, they mostly expire, since there are very few (and then only on multiple connection flights) upgrades available. My experience is that they are a waste to even consider. Just the extra work and time to find a suitable flight is a hassle. I recently crossed the 5 Million mile threshold on American. What was the offered reward? Not EP for...

    I accumulated a number of systemwide upgrades, but even though I travel frequently to Europe, they mostly expire, since there are very few (and then only on multiple connection flights) upgrades available. My experience is that they are a waste to even consider. Just the extra work and time to find a suitable flight is a hassle. I recently crossed the 5 Million mile threshold on American. What was the offered reward? Not EP for life, which would be the comparable reward on United for that milestone, no, just another 2 systemwide upgrades, which probably will also expire unused in a year, because there are no transatlantic flights available with upgrades.

  4. M.K. McClure Guest

    Systemwide upgrades for 2022-23 required 175,000 Loyalty Points AND 30 segments. I feel two segments short and was denied two systemwide upgrades on the Platinum Pro help line.

  5. Doug Guest

    I am EP and have been for many years. I travel internationally often and have only ever had a single SMU clear. More often than not they just expire. The one time I was able to use the SMU was on a relatively short flight to the UK and i was notified that day before the flight. AA needs to improve the utility of these.

  6. Antonio A. Guest

    Do you have to buy the ticket directly from American Airlines to be elige for system wide upgrades ? Or can you buy it thru a third party booking agent ?

    Thanks.

    1. GREGG Guest

      You do not have to buy through AA but it must be a published fare.

  7. bostonflyer New Member

    Wonderful article on SWU and great discussion. As SWU tend to expire - is there a website/forum wherein one can offer their expiring SWU to those who might be able to use it? I have 6 SWU and finding it hard to redeem.

  8. wlahome4 Guest

    I wish I found this article before I redeemed one of my choice for a couple SWUs. I've got several upcoming paid fares and can't use a SWU on any of them. I have a couple friends who each have an international trip I offered them to and they confirmed they aren't able to use them either despite there being open seats in business.

    Would have much rather taken the $200 or 20k miles in...

    I wish I found this article before I redeemed one of my choice for a couple SWUs. I've got several upcoming paid fares and can't use a SWU on any of them. I have a couple friends who each have an international trip I offered them to and they confirmed they aren't able to use them either despite there being open seats in business.

    Would have much rather taken the $200 or 20k miles in hindsight. It sounds absolutely amazing on paper but unless you seem to be extremely lucky it doesn't seem to be worth it in practice...

  9. Larry Chandler Guest

    I used a mileage upgrades for my fiancée, daughter, and I in April 2022 on AA from DFW to Heathrow (London) and was able to have all 3 upgrades clear prior to check in. Granted, the upgrades were during the tail end of COVID but the experience of being upgraded from economy to business class was incredible. We were even able to upgrade on the return trip as well using miles. Calling AA to request...

    I used a mileage upgrades for my fiancée, daughter, and I in April 2022 on AA from DFW to Heathrow (London) and was able to have all 3 upgrades clear prior to check in. Granted, the upgrades were during the tail end of COVID but the experience of being upgraded from economy to business class was incredible. We were even able to upgrade on the return trip as well using miles. Calling AA to request a mileage upgrade is worth both it’s weight and wait in gold when traveling internationally!

    -Larry C.

  10. KM Guest

    I know million miles might not be a lot for some but it is lot for us. Last year when we finally made it to million miles it was a airline milestone for us. :) Our loyalty has been only with AA and to only get the lifetime Gold status but still have to fly those miles to get to gold doesn't prove to me that they are loyal to they travelers who've spent so...

    I know million miles might not be a lot for some but it is lot for us. Last year when we finally made it to million miles it was a airline milestone for us. :) Our loyalty has been only with AA and to only get the lifetime Gold status but still have to fly those miles to get to gold doesn't prove to me that they are loyal to they travelers who've spent so much time, money, and flights with AA. I'm just bummed that we've been so loyal to AA and our loyalty doesn't matter. Should have a marching ban and plaques :) hahaha The least they could do. HA :)

    1. Hoepper Guest

      I remember getting Platinum status for life, at that time their highest level, for crossing the 1 Million mile level. Now you'll be hard pressed to get upgraded even on a regional flight with that. Loyalty is a word they like to throw around, but it has as much value as "I'll respect you in the morning"!

  11. Scott Guest

    Can we talk about why AA will only show you SWU upgrade availability in search results if you actually have a SWU in your account? I find that to be a bad idea because I’m often trying to decide if I want to use my loyalty awards to claim a SWU. If I can’t search to see whether I could even use the SWU, then how can I decide if I should claim one?

    1. OCTinPHL Diamond

      "If I can’t search to see whether I could even use the SWU, then how can I decide if I should claim one?"

      It's not ideal, but call AA. They can tell you if there is confirmable upgrade space.

  12. AaronP Guest

    I have 4 for good until the end of 2023 because I just passed 2 million miles. I tried to use one of Thursday night MIA -LHR and was number 8 on the list. Pathetic. I'll be lucky if one clears in 2023...

    1. Mark Guest

      How do you see where you’re on the list prior to the day of travel?

  13. Thomas Guest

    Thanks for the information. I am EXP ( half flown and half credit card ) and made my 30 segments on February 25 to qualify for several loyalty rewards. I thought SWU were a good deal, but after reading this as well as a FlyerTalk blog, I am going to take the redeemable miles like the author. If I booked an international flight in coach and it didn't clear.......

    1. OCTinPHL Diamond

      You have a better chance of having SWUs clear on a transatlantic trip than you do finding AA awards to Europe for 80k miles. But hey, take the miles. Just plan on using them on JL, CX, or QR. There is next to no chance you’ll be able to use 80k miles on AA metal for biz class.

      I did just book HAN-DFW in JAL F for September for 80k AA miles. AA wanted 175k for its own metal on the same route.

    2. OCTinPHL Diamond

      Clarification - AA J was 175k vs. JAL F for 80k.

      IMO SWUs are a better value than Ben states. But that is just my opinion. I use mine strategically. And I did split my EXP awards between miles (one selection) and SWUs (one selection).

    3. Fernsie Guest

      I’m also an EP and have been for a while. My experience has been very good waitlisting. I would say that I have been upgraded at least 8 out of 10 times. I see less value in the points because 80K points don’t get you very far these days. Having said that, like Ben suggests, I do many of his suggestions to increase the chances. Btw the DFW late flight to LHR did clear the one time I took it

    4. OCTinPHL Diamond

      I've been EXP since the USAirways merger, and my SWU % for int'l travel is above 95% when waitlisted. The one time it did not clear was a BCN-PHL flight the previous day's flight had been cancelled. I am 100% to/from Asia. But like you, I tend to follow Ben's suggestions - I book strategically.

    5. Disco Dave Guest

      Agree with Fernsie. My SWUs clear about 75% of the time, overall. It was probably 100% on flights AA operated LAX to China.

      The value of an SWU that clears is far greater than the miles one gets if choosing that as your award, and I fly more international longhauls than I have SWUs to burn. But if you need guaranteed upgrade security and/or you only fly two or three longhaul flights annually, SWUs are not the way to go.

    6. Disco Dave Guest

      One other consideration: flying with someone you want upgraded with you. If you’re both on the same record it should not be a problem, though there’s a chance only one seat is available. But if you’re on separate records, all bets are off.

  14. Lee Guest

    The thing everyone needs to understand is that AA's Revenue Management segregates A inventory into A Revenue inventory and A Award/Upgrade inventory. RM might release A inventory solely as Revenue and not Award/Upgrade. So, just because you see there's A inventory does not mean you can upgrade or use a SWU. I've seen it time and time again.

    And, you want to talk about SWA's software being 20 or 30 years old? AA's reservation software...

    The thing everyone needs to understand is that AA's Revenue Management segregates A inventory into A Revenue inventory and A Award/Upgrade inventory. RM might release A inventory solely as Revenue and not Award/Upgrade. So, just because you see there's A inventory does not mean you can upgrade or use a SWU. I've seen it time and time again.

    And, you want to talk about SWA's software being 20 or 30 years old? AA's reservation software is just about as old. That A inventory that you see might not be visible to a reservation agent with whom you must speak to use your SWU. Failure is baked into the system.

    AA's Revenue Management would rather see seats go empty than to allow an upgrade. Touting SWU as a benefit borders on fraud. It's sort of like SNUs at Marriott. Just try using one. I don't even try anymore. It's a hollow benefit.

    1. OCTinPHL Guest

      “Touting SWU as a benefit borders on fraud.”

      Stop. That is a ridiculous statement. I have no problem using SWUs. Just used SWUs today to upgrade PHL-MAD-PHL both ways in June.

      I do agree about AA’s IT. But that is hardly limited to AA and SWA, All legacy airlines have some ancient software. Not all of the software, but some.

    2. AD in Big D Guest

      No, it isn't a ridiculous statement and frankly, it doesn't border on fraud, it is fraud. I'm glad you were able to book an upgrade using SWUs for June. Hopefully AA won't cancel yours like they just did mine. In January, I booked a trip with confirmed SW upgrades to LHR in July, departing in DFW, then CLT-LHR. All seemed great! But this morning, AA canceled my DFW-CLT flight, and also wiped out my SWU...

      No, it isn't a ridiculous statement and frankly, it doesn't border on fraud, it is fraud. I'm glad you were able to book an upgrade using SWUs for June. Hopefully AA won't cancel yours like they just did mine. In January, I booked a trip with confirmed SW upgrades to LHR in July, departing in DFW, then CLT-LHR. All seemed great! But this morning, AA canceled my DFW-CLT flight, and also wiped out my SWU on the CLT-LHR flight that was not canceled. AA then re-booked on a direct flight DFW-LHR but no SWU. Tried to get back on original flight--but no, no SWUs available now. And I'm at the end of the upgrade line now because other people had requests in earlier on this new flight. Talked with two customer services reps and they can't even explain what happened let alone try to fix it. There's no SWU availability to anywhere in Europe now before mine expire. AA knows this. So it is fraud--an illusory incentive designed to induce you to spend more on AA than other airlines because of the perceived benefit. I've flown this airline for 25 years, I'm now platinum for life, and I get screwed like this trying to use SWUs.

  15. Danny Guest

    I use my systemwide upgrades for travel between LAX/JFK on the Airbus A321 Transcon. Economy to business is impossible to upgrade unless it's a red-eye flight. The only chance is from business to first during off peak hours.

    1. OCTinPHL Guest

      JFK-LAX/SFO from J to F is a very good use of SWUs. At least it was when AA still offered FFD. RIP.

      I've had pretty good luck using SWUs on long haul flights to/from Asia and Europe, but I book strategically to increase my chances. I'm generally less concerned about coming back from Europe - I'll take the waitlist (only once in recent memory have I not cleared from the waitlist when returning from Europe).

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Disco Dave Guest

Agree with Fernsie. My SWUs clear about 75% of the time, overall. It was probably 100% on flights AA operated LAX to China. The value of an SWU that clears is far greater than the miles one gets if choosing that as your award, and I fly more international longhauls than I have SWUs to burn. But if you need guaranteed upgrade security and/or you only fly two or three longhaul flights annually, SWUs are not the way to go.

1
Fernsie Guest

I’m also an EP and have been for a while. My experience has been very good waitlisting. I would say that I have been upgraded at least 8 out of 10 times. I see less value in the points because 80K points don’t get you very far these days. Having said that, like Ben suggests, I do many of his suggestions to increase the chances. Btw the DFW late flight to LHR did clear the one time I took it

1
Lee Guest

The thing everyone needs to understand is that AA's Revenue Management segregates A inventory into A Revenue inventory and A Award/Upgrade inventory. RM might release A inventory solely as Revenue and not Award/Upgrade. So, just because you see there's A inventory does not mean you can upgrade or use a SWU. I've seen it time and time again. And, you want to talk about SWA's software being 20 or 30 years old? AA's reservation software is just about as old. That A inventory that you see might not be visible to a reservation agent with whom you must speak to use your SWU. Failure is baked into the system. AA's Revenue Management would rather see seats go empty than to allow an upgrade. Touting SWU as a benefit borders on fraud. It's sort of like SNUs at Marriott. Just try using one. I don't even try anymore. It's a hollow benefit.

1
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