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?
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?