Trying To Skip The American Upgrade List With Miles

Trying To Skip The American Upgrade List With Miles

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Over the weekend I flew on an American Boeing 777-300ER from Miami (MIA) to Los Angeles (LAX). In hopes of getting an upgrade, I tried something for the first time, which I figured OMAAT readers would find interesting.

My upgrade odds on American weren’t looking good

I’m an Executive Platinum member with American Airlines, and one of the perks of that is unlimited complimentary space available upgrades. The Boeing 777-300ER has 52 business class seats, so I figured that my odds of clearing the upgrade on a Saturday in September were pretty good.

My upgrade didn’t clear in advance, and unfortunately the day before departure business class was totally sold out, and I hadn’t been upgraded.

Not what you want to see when you haven’t cleared!

American Airlines starts publishing the upgrade list 12 hours before departure, so at that point I saw that I was still “only” number four on the upgrade list. Unless there were several misconnects or no shows (which isn’t totally unheard of), odds weren’t at all looking good.

I was #4 on the upgrade list

How I bumped my priority on the American upgrade list

American Airlines prioritizes upgrades as follows:

  • First by elite status — upgrades go to Concierge Keys, then Executive Platinums, then Platinum Pros, then Platinums, and then Golds
  • Then by the type of upgrade — confirmed upgrades (like mileage upgrades and systemwide upgrades) clear ahead of complimentary upgrades
  • Then by rolling 12-month total of Loyalty Points

As much as I hate paying for something I could get for “free,” I really valued an upgrade on this flight, as I was exhausted, and some real sleep sounded oh-so-nice. For that matter, this is about as valuable as an upgrade in the lower 48 gets, as you get a reverse herringbone seat, a decent meal, bedding, etc.

The morning of departure I was in the Flagship Lounge Miami (thanks, Royal Air Maroc!), and went to the counter to ask about the possibility of requesting a mileage upgrade. The agent told me I had to call American to request that, so that’s what I did. Within a few minutes, a phone agent waitlisted me for a mileage upgrade. If it cleared, it would cost 15,000 AAdvantage miles, and I’d be charged a $75 co-pay.

The thing is, if you’ve already checked in, the list doesn’t automatically update. With the request having been made, I went back to the agent at the counter in the Flagship Lounge. It wasn’t just a case of her having to uncheck me in and then check me in again. She must have typed for a solid five minutes, before telling me I was now number one on the upgrade list.

I moved up to #1 on the upgrade list!

I figured my odds of clearing were pretty good at this point. Yes, business class was sold out, but with 52 business class seats, American no longer having change fees, and the potential for no shows (whether it’s due to a misconnect, someone being stuck in customs, or someone running late to the airport), I gave myself 60/40 odds of clearing. After all, a certain percentage of passengers no show, and I only needed a 1.9% no show rate here.

So, how did it work out for me?

It didn’t. Everyone showed up. On the plus side, since this was a Boeing 777-300ER, I could assign myself a premium economy seat at no extra cost (with standard economy service). That’s almost as comfortable as domestic first class, so it was a perfectly pleasant flight.

Unfortunately Wi-Fi was broken, which made for a long flight (since usually I just stay productive, and that passes the time).

JoJo’s “Too Little, Too Late” song comes to mind. I would have surely cleared a mileage upgrade if I had just waitlisted it as such from the beginning. But like I said, I didn’t want to pay for something that I thought I could get as a perk.

The view from my American premium economy seat

American is missing out on a huge revenue opportunity

Among the “big three” US airlines, American is the absolute worst (by far) at monetizing upgrades. That’s probably something that most frequent flyers ultimately appreciate. Not only does the airline not really have low cost (cash) upgrade offers, but American makes it an absolute pain to upgrade.

I still find it hard to believe that American doesn’t even let you request a mileage upgrade online, but rather you have to pick up the phone. I imagine a lot more people would request mileage upgrades if they were easier to request.

And that brings me to the huge opportunity for American’s bottom line. Again, we should probably be grateful American doesn’t do this, but I feel like American is missing out by not more widely encouraging people to request mileage upgrades to boost their odds of clearing an upgrade. Not only would it take the liability of AAdvantage miles off the books, but there’s also a co-pay for these upgrades.

In addition to allowing people to request mileage upgrades online, American could actively promote how you can get a higher upgrade priority by requesting a mileage upgrade. This is a case where transparency would probably work in American’s favor, so that customers really know where they stand.

With better tech, a lot more people would request mileage upgrades

Bottom line

I’ve never before requested a mileage upgrade on an American route where I was eligible for a complimentary upgrade, since I don’t like the idea of paying for something I could get for “free.” I finally gave this a try, but only on the day of departure, when business class was sold out.

On the plus side, I was bumped up on the upgrade list from the fourth spot to the first spot, so it worked in that sense. Unfortunately all business class passengers showed up, so that wasn’t of much value.

I’m curious where OMAAT readers stand on mileage upgrades to get higher priority on the upgrade list — under what circumstances would you do it?

Conversations (31)
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  1. Lucas Guest

    What annoys me the most is the gate agents in MIA that refuse to work on the upgrades, despite seats being available and your name on the upgrade list.
    Excuses vary, from they can’t upgrade me from coach to business because it’s a 3 cabin flight, to system isn’t working.
    And you can’t argue back. I’ve seen cases where they would jump you in the upgrade.

  2. Bill Guest

    You should have purchased 4 business class tickets with points (I’m sure u have enough) when the seat count on expert flyer looked almost full, then cancelled them 30 min before the flight, thereby opening up
    4 seats for the guaranteed “free” upgrade. Assuming of course you knew you’d be no lower on the list than #4 (probably a good bet with your status).

    1. Eskimo Guest

      And before you even land, you will get an email from AA's corporate security department.

  3. est Guest

    actually what stood out the most for me was that you could actually call and get an agent without an "4-8 hour" wait!

  4. Rene Guest

    This dilutes status even more

  5. iamhere Guest

    That $75 should be charged to a credit card where you have an airline money reimbursement budget. Did you get your points and money back or do you lose it if you do not get the upgrade? Actually sounds pretty cheap 15,000 points and $75 for proper business class.

  6. Schar Gold

    im sorry....did I read this correctly...you flew PREMIUM ECONOMY????? omg....i cant believe it hahahaha. and u survived!! welcome to how the other half lives..... ;)

  7. D3kingg Guest

    I’d imagine a Saturday flight out of MIA to LAX would be full up front. All those connections from South America and the Caribbean. An easy upgrade MIA-LAX would be a late evening weekday departure in November or December the week before a major holiday.

    Hmmm , never thought about a mileage upgrade before .

  8. Randy Gold

    I suspect that others also used miles for upgrade - way before you did. A lot of people have trouble booking rewards, so they use all their miles for upgrades. I am sure this flight had mileage upgrade (or SWU) space available - say a week before.

  9. George Romey Guest

    For a flight like that where PE is sold as coach assuming I could get PE I wouldn't burn a SWU or try to do a miles/co pay upgrade. The business class is of course quite nice but it's a 5 hour flight and the Olive Garden meal with a few drinks isn't worth the $75.

  10. WilliamNYC Guest

    Ben — How would the $75 have been charged you if you had cleared moments before departure? I find as EXP that AA doesn’t store my credit card number (except on the website which the agents can’t use), so would the gate agent really process the charge or just upgrade you and not worry about it? I’m thinking it might end up being a free upgrade or maybe miles only but no copay?

    1. Karl Guest

      AA requests your credit card information when you request the upgrade. The credit card is automatically charged if the upgrade is cleared.

  11. Mick Guest

    Yeah I’ve used miles to upgrade ord nyc ord prior to takeoff on American as I’m a lowly platinum. Generally I don’t bother as row one of economy is pretty close to first anyways for these short flights.

  12. R B Guest

    how to find the upgrade using miles in expertflyer? same as using SWU? "C" bucket?

  13. Omar Guest

    It could cut both ways; if you make upgrading too easy people are less likely to pay outright for a first class seat.

    Separately, I have been offered reasonable cash upgrades many times at check in, particularly on sju-xxx routes and transcon lax/sfo-jfk.

  14. Alvin | YTHK Gold

    Is this your first flight in premium economy (not counting Norwegian, etc.)?

  15. Clem Diamond

    At first when I read the title, I was wondering if you were going to tell us how you used your newborn son as a way to skip the upgrade list hah!

  16. upstater Guest

    Ben, did AA refund the $75 fee and redeposit your miles? A while back when 500-mile coupons were necessary to upgrade, I purchased two so my son and I could upgrade and sit together. It didn’t clear and I was stuck with the paid-for coupons until they bought them back in spring.

    1. Mike C Gold

      In the post Ben said that 'IF CLEARED' it would cost 15K points and $75 so from that I'd conclude that those charges aren't debited until the upgrade clears.

  17. CS Guest

    Wow - that is amazing to me Lucky that as an EXP, on a Saturday flight on a 777-300 and out of 52 Biz seats, that not 1 single upgrade cleared. Dang!! That's amazing to me. So does this mean that all 52 passengers are either cash-paying customers or used miles for a Biz seat?

    1. LarryInNYC Diamond

      A large number of upgrades (probably) did clear in the 72 hours prior to the flight. Ben's "mistake" (as he states in the post) was waiting until an hour or two before the flight to bump himself to the top of the list using miles. Had he done so before the 72 hour clearance window he would surely have cleared.

    2. CS Guest

      Ahhh yes, I did not consider that. That makes more sense. Thanks for the clarification.

    3. T- Guest

      You were a good fellow for accepting that you didn't get the upgrade with such a good attitude. Too often these articles are nothing but a rant as to why one wasn't upgraded. Too bad you have to fly AA to get there though.

  18. Lee Guest

    System-wide upgrades and point-based upgrades are highly dependent on the specific route. Using first class as an example, there is F inventory and there is A inventory. Within F and A, there is revenue inventory and there is award inventory. F award inventory is the Anytime type. A award inventory is the Saver type. All inventory starts out as F revenue. AA's Revenue Management will then allocate F award seats. RM might or might not...

    System-wide upgrades and point-based upgrades are highly dependent on the specific route. Using first class as an example, there is F inventory and there is A inventory. Within F and A, there is revenue inventory and there is award inventory. F award inventory is the Anytime type. A award inventory is the Saver type. All inventory starts out as F revenue. AA's Revenue Management will then allocate F award seats. RM might or might not allocate A revenue seats. Lastly, RM might or might not allocate A award seats. SWU and points-based upgrades can ONLY be used if there is A award inventory. On certain routes, such as the US to Europe, A award inventory is virtually never released prior to the day of travel. Apply the same concept to J/I.

  19. B C Guest

    My last 3 out of 4 flights on American Widebodies have featured broken Wifi. It is really time AA steps up and gets their Wifi situation figured out because it will cause me to look elsewhere if it continues to be a problem.

  20. Efren Guest

    Ben, do mileage upgrades clear first than System Wide upgrades?

  21. Arizona Dads New Member

    Comment and Question:

    I fly the A321T LAX-JFK-LAX roue 2 to 3x a month. I am EXP as well. Recently, when purchasing coach, the mobile app offers an upg to BC. On my flight last week, the offer was changing literally every hour (and not always increasing). It started at $850, dropped to $456, then back to $700ish then I finally accepted it when it dropped the next hour to $250. Is AA testing a...

    Comment and Question:

    I fly the A321T LAX-JFK-LAX roue 2 to 3x a month. I am EXP as well. Recently, when purchasing coach, the mobile app offers an upg to BC. On my flight last week, the offer was changing literally every hour (and not always increasing). It started at $850, dropped to $456, then back to $700ish then I finally accepted it when it dropped the next hour to $250. Is AA testing a new dynamic pricing process for UPGs ahead of the 100 hour window? Is it limited to this route?

    Related question: Where do BXP1 upgrades fall in priority with mileage upgrades and SWU?

    1. Darin Member

      Just a guess here. Flight inventory changes frequently in the week prior to the flight. I believe that AA may just be calculating the difference between the fare you paid and the lowest available premium fare. As lower premium buckets become available, the price goes down, as they sell out, the price goes up. And this can swing back and forth.

  22. Anthony Diamond

    Hmm.. A few comments

    Be careful what you wish for - if American were to roll this out widely (say via app)
    1) Tons of people would look at the “low” cost of upgrading (effectively $262 assuming a 1.25 valuation for AA miles) and try to upgrade, making upgrade lists longer. Remember this option is available to all customers. How do you choose between a general member requesting a mileage upgrade and an...

    Hmm.. A few comments

    Be careful what you wish for - if American were to roll this out widely (say via app)
    1) Tons of people would look at the “low” cost of upgrading (effectively $262 assuming a 1.25 valuation for AA miles) and try to upgrade, making upgrade lists longer. Remember this option is available to all customers. How do you choose between a general member requesting a mileage upgrade and an Executive Platinum that didn’t. Or would you get a lot of AA Golds burning down their big mile balances on upgrades months before flights
    2) The more likely scenario is American more aggressively promotes a Delta like policy of pushing upgrades at 1 cent per mile - so you see 30K, 50K, 100K offers.

    Back when I was flying American I used this option to upgrade into F on transcon routes all the time. Never used it for a regular upgrade.

    As a Delta flyer now, regional upgrade certificates serve this function. If you can’t confirm, just waitlist an RUC on a flight where you value first class. Since there are a limited amount of them and they are only earned by Platinum and Diamond status passengers, I think that works OK

    1. Darin Member

      It’s already the case (with all of the major airlines) that confirmable upgrades trump complimentary upgrades regardless of status. A general customer using miles + co-pay would clear before an EXP using comp upgrades. This seems fair - it gives all customers the opportunity to pay and have a reasonable chance (higher status pax still have priority if they choose to pay on a route that is important for them to upgrade instead of taking...

      It’s already the case (with all of the major airlines) that confirmable upgrades trump complimentary upgrades regardless of status. A general customer using miles + co-pay would clear before an EXP using comp upgrades. This seems fair - it gives all customers the opportunity to pay and have a reasonable chance (higher status pax still have priority if they choose to pay on a route that is important for them to upgrade instead of taking their chances).

      UA has allowed their customers to process mileage upgrades online for years. In my experience, it hasn’t notably changed upgrades, although a big difference is that UA doesn’t allow comp upgrades on premium transcons, where it would have the most effect.

      As a rule of thumb, having been 1K on UA and EXP on AA, I never left upgrades to chance on these routes as they often fill up with paid passengers. If I couldn’t find a reasonable premium fare or confirmable upgrade space, I would always waitlist with confirmed instruments.

    2. Jittery Eric Guest

      As a Delta Platinum I have not had a single RUC clear for an upgrade in 2022.

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Karl Guest

AA requests your credit card information when you request the upgrade. The credit card is automatically charged if the upgrade is cleared.

2
Clem Diamond

At first when I read the title, I was wondering if you were going to tell us how you used your newborn son as a way to skip the upgrade list hah!

2
Arizona Dads New Member

Comment and Question: I fly the A321T LAX-JFK-LAX roue 2 to 3x a month. I am EXP as well. Recently, when purchasing coach, the mobile app offers an upg to BC. On my flight last week, the offer was changing literally every hour (and not always increasing). It started at $850, dropped to $456, then back to $700ish then I finally accepted it when it dropped the next hour to $250. Is AA testing a new dynamic pricing process for UPGs ahead of the 100 hour window? Is it limited to this route? Related question: Where do BXP1 upgrades fall in priority with mileage upgrades and SWU?

2
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