My First Longhaul Economy Flight In 10+ Years?

Filed Under: American, Travel

Confession time. I haven’t flown economy on a longhaul flight in well over 10 years. It’s not that I wouldn’t be willing to fly economy, but rather if I can fly premium cabins for pennies on the dollar, why wouldn’t I?


How do I make sure I always fly business/first class?

  • My typical strategy is to pay for my domestic flights and then redeem miles for my international flights, so by redeeming miles for first & business class I’m guaranteed the seat I want.
  • As an American AAdvantage Executive Platinum member, I receive eight systemwide upgrades per year, which are great for upgrading international flights, like Dallas to Hong Kong. I’m very selective with which flights I use these on, as I always want to make sure my upgrade odds are very good. I do this by:
    • Trying to find flights with upgrade space confirmable at booking, though that’s extremely rare nowadays, as American tends to hold back upgrade space
    • Booking on off peak days
    • Checking the business class seatmap before I book, to be sure not too many seats are occupied yet
    • Checking the economy class seatmap, and in particular the “preferred” economy seats, to see how much potential competition there is for those upgrades

Up until now my methods have always worked, as I’ve yet to miss an international upgrade on American. However, it looks like my luck may soon change. I’m headed to Madrid in a few weeks, and decided to route from Los Angeles to New York to Madrid to London to Los Angeles.


I chose these flights not just because upgrade odds looked good, but because:

American’s new 767 business class

So while my predictions haven’t failed me until now, it looks like they may finally fail me for the first time.

A couple of days ago my flight went from looking wide open to being J2Y6. This means that American is only selling two more seats in business class, and only selling six more seats in economy. That’s sort of odd, given that the seatmap didn’t change much.

The business class seatmap still shows as being half empty:


While the economy seatmap shows as being wide open:


The only thing I can assume is that a huge group of some sort booked on the flight without having selected seats. Airlines don’t just stop selling seats for no reason.

When I first saw that the load I said “well, I guess I’ll just book a premium cabin award ticket if the upgrade doesn’t clear.” After all, at least in theory that’s one of the perks of having millions of miles. That being said, I decided I’ll stick with it no matter what. So while I’ve been promising more business class reviews, you might even get some economy reviews. 😉

Bottom line

In general my upgrade percentage on American has been terrible lately. That’s likely because I’m mostly booking last minute, and American prioritizes upgrades based on when you book. That means there’s a huge advantage for those who plan in advance.

In this case I think it might just be bad luck. Who knows, I might still luck out. But this is the closest I’ve been to missing a transatlantic upgrade, and it’s still weeks out.

Has anyone else not flown economy on a longhaul flight in a decade (or so)? If you missed an upgrade on a transatlantic flight, would you stick it out, or redeem miles for a different routing?

  1. Take one for the team, Ben! Would be refreshing to get your take on long-haul economy every once in awhile.

  2. I was expecting whining in the article, but you took the high road! Well done, Ben. I think it would be worthwhile to review economy products. I was actually quite shocked at how clawed back flying on long-haul economy on AA has become. It is nearly as bad as United now, to be honest. On my flight to Sao Paulo, “breakfast” was a warmed flat piece of bread (they called it a “muffin”) and orange juice. It was really depressing.

  3. I’ve never flown international first or business, but I could imagine economy would be especially painful when you aren’t used to it! Maybe it would be a good refresher and keep you honest 🙂 I really do think you’ll be surprised of the experience if you end up flying in the back.

  4. “When I first saw that the load I said ‘well, I guess I’ll just book a premium cabin award ticket if the upgrade doesn’t clear.'”

    Wasn’t the original Y itinerary booked with cash? Wouldn’t you have lost the cash value of those tickets?

  5. Do it Ben! It lends quite a bit of perspective on premium cabins. I flew SFO-HND on UA last month in Y and while it sucked, I was so much for thankful for a JAL flat bed seat on the return. Just my 2cents

  6. I must confess I haven’t flown economy for over 10 years long haul, but have flown Premium Economy – 2 flights a year more or less, if I look back say 2-3 years. Same reason as you, upgrades did not convert and no space in premium cabins. It was a bit of a shock. LA-LHR hurt, but the worst was Toronto-LHR. Just isn’t the same 😉

  7. MCE, E+, WTP, etc. and a good traveling companion or 3 make economy bearable.

    Out of our last 4 long haul family trips, the easiest had the 4 of us fly non-stop SFO-CDG in E+, in 2 sets of 2 seats by the window. We didn’t sleep well, but had enough room so as not to be uncomfortable. Between the preflight libations at the amex lounge at sfo, and the decent IFE, the flight time passed amazingly fast and before we knew it, we were in Paris. I’d do this again any day…

  8. Flew EWR-MAD a few months back in J, and tbh it’s almost overkill on that route. By the time the meal service is completed you barely have any time to sleep! The 767 is my favorite equipment in Y because of the seating layout, so if you can get the row of 3 to yourself you have a lie flat bed anyways! I’m looking forward to the report! Also as a longtime reader Ben I just want to say the blog has been great, keep up the good work!

  9. Since when are seatmaps accurate indicators of availability? I actually had to confirm if the article was written by Lucky!

  10. Lucky, you ain’t so Lucky these days Chile! How will you survive the perils of economy? Do you even remember what it’s like to herded like cattle into steerage?!?! Will be a humbling time for you, yass, yass it will be.

    Good luck, chile.

  11. @Guyguyguy: seatmaps alone are not a good indicator. Seatmap + inventory for sale is a better indicator (still far from perfect) but it gives you a decent picture of what is going on with that particular flight.

  12. @ Guyguyguy — Not a totally accurate indicator, but if the flight is “7s” across the boards, it’s the only other indicator, no?

  13. Flying Y all depends on your seatmate. If it’s a fatty boom boom (at least 70% of the American public based on my personal experience), it can be misery. AA 767s are the pits but I lucked out in March on MXP-JFK when I was seated next to an absolute stunner.

  14. Flyling economy, you mean MCE don’t you? In any case, while it’s a little bit like being sick makes you appreciate being healthy, who wants to be sick? Personally, if I have a choice, I wouldn’t bother because you know it’s not going to be comfortable and you won’t be able to sleep or work. You want to fly economy – then just do a shorter hop cross country. Your focus is on reviewing premium products, and you’ve always been upfront about that. Since you already had an issue with you your health, why risk it? Just my two cents.

  15. Oh, I feel for you. Having avoided AA for the last couple of years in favor of other One World carriers, I recently flew TATL in MCE on the refurbed 767. It’s not what it used to be, which wasn’t all that great to begin with. Take a sleeping pill, put the cloth over your cage, and wake up in Madrid. Good luck!

  16. Is lucky making this up to redeem himself after all the LH and EK F reviews? Haha. But seriously, this will be a big hit. Schadenfreude, anyone?

  17. The best course of action here is to reserve a sea in the very back, at one of those all-empty middle groups.

    I’ve flown economy on United and AA recently, and got myself what I call poor man’s business class — 3 middle seats to myself. It was quite comfortable and a pleasant experience actually, except for mediocre food…but that’s minor.

  18. I have come to believe that the airlines are just here to fleece us after suffering economically for so many years. The fact that Ben can’t see availability is not surprising. Unlike a lot of you I don’t have to fly for business, thank god, because it has become miserable.I love reading Ben’s blog because it gives me a way to experience travel at a unique level. I am amazed at how Ben is able to work the system and more power to him. I don’t believe for a minute he will have to fly economy but it would be interesting to read that trip report! 🙂 Go gettem Ben

  19. I live in Madrid, flown the AA 767 MAD-JFK in economy…you better make sure its at least an emergency row haha…then again, Exec.Plat….

  20. It’s not worth rating the economy experience. Just bring noise canceling headphones. A bag of xanex and some snacks.
    The value it will add to your love of biz and first will be worth it. Your reviews will be better in the next few months knowing what you aren’t suffering beyond the curtain.

  21. Come to think of it you should do a middle seat in a normal row. Honestly, the experience will totally enhance your reviews in the future.

  22. On Monday I flew AA ZRH-JFK in economy on the worst of their fleet (767 with overhead TV entertainment) after about 6 years of international business class flying (usually at least 3 trips a year). It actually wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. While business was 100% full, it was a light load in coach, so I had 2 seats to myself and that extra space made all the difference, to not feel too constrained.

    Going in, I was fully prepared to spend $500 on an upgrade if they had made them available at check-in, but after the flight I felt like it might not have been worth it for a daytime flight as long as I had the extra space. If I had wanted to sleep, it would be different.

    Ironically, the most physically uncomfortable I was on this trip was the outbound to LHR in VS Upper Class. Halfway through the flight I had to get the bed unmade and continue sleeping in a reclined sitting position. When in lie-flat mode, there was no room for my shoulders to move and after a couple hours I couldn’t stand it anymore. It was worse than a coffin.

  23. IMHO… Flying Economy or Premium Economy every once in awhile will give you a better perspective and appreciation of the quality of Business / First product you review. The reviews will also benefit your readers for situations when Business / First is just not an option.

  24. An economy trip report on any airline would be something more interesting and new than another report on EK F 🙂

  25. I think times are a changing. Lately AA has been very difficult for me and some of the new fleet includes smaller planes, plus they’re also using 757s (30+ years old) for some of those transatlantic flights. Jees.

  26. spoiler alert…upgrade will clear and/or Lucky makes a different arrangement to stay in a premium cabin.

    As an aside, I flew the 767 J cabin CDG-JFK this summer and really liked it. I found the chair really comfortable for lounging (and I’m 6’5″). The tablet instead of a fixed screen was not ideal since they take it away from you pretty early into the descent. Other than that, it was fine. And I liked my food. had a chicken curry that was quite tasty and i really enjoyed my first AA ice cream sundae.

  27. Craig – when it’s an option (clearly not to Madrid) I actually prefer Southwest’s open seating to a preassigned seat. Gives me much more control over who I sit with.

  28. I flew AA 137/138 (DFW-HKG) roundtrip twice last month, with three of the four flights seated in Coach. it really isn’t half bad, if you have a MCE aisle seat. Food is edible, and the crew was fine for the most part, but nothing special. They do have water, juice, and snacks set up in one of the galleys (mid cabin galley on the 77W, and I think rear galley for 763). While there isn’t built in entertainment on the 763, the MCE on the 763 is among the most comfortable I’ve experienced, even with a full cabin, and a fully charged laptop takes care of the entertainment.

  29. Poor spoiled brat. 🙂

    But what you may be failing to realize — and it surprises me as you are the expert — is that if Y is close to being full, AA will purposely reduce the number of J seats in availability. Basically you would need to che k this by calling and asking what the cabin holds and then what it is currently authorized for.

  30. I know I’ve asked for more J reviews in the past and been whiney about your Krug habit but don’t take things too far!

    You’re too tall for Y and that’s that.

  31. I’ll believe this when I see it. You’ve had several of these posts over the past couple years, and you always manage to clear at the gate or something like that. Putting it less than 20% that you actually fly in economy.

  32. I generally avoid coach if flying over 4 hours, but as long as you get up and walk around every couple of hours, and aren’t seated next to a mysogonistic jerk like Craig, I’m sure you’ll survive.
    As far as reviews go, though, I really think Comfort+ (or whatever aa calls them) really are totally different, and much more bearable, than regular steerage.

  33. AA system wides seldom clear anymore on the DFW HKG route. The last time that I cleared on that trip was first week of July, when all EP’s cleared on outbound route. On return I cleared but according to FA there were many EP’s in Y who were unhappy that they didn’t clear. I have made 3 attempts to clear in Oct using the same method as Lucky, but all I’ve accomplished is running up change fees. I need the miles to retain EP, but am unwilling to fly that distance in Y. I have concluded that since system wides now seldom clear on International flights, there is no point to being EP. Europe is even worse due to all of the heavily discounted J being sold. Lastly, AA almost never has Saver space available in F or J.

  34. When I miss an upgrade on a long-haul I just take an ambian after a drink or three. I wake up before landing feeling great and have not awake time to notice I’m in the back!

  35. Have fun!
    But, seriously, American, AGAIN?
    Just kidding!
    But seriously, I’m waiting for dat Easyjet, Aeroflot, Aeromexico, Santa Barbara, or Dynamic 😛
    How about LAX-BOG-CCS-YYZ-LAX?

    Lax-bog on AVA
    Bog-ccs on AVA
    ccs-yyz on ACA
    YYZ-lax on aca rouge
    I’d love this.
    I’d love it for revs. Of aca rouge and ccs airport.

  36. @John: I wonder if Lucky can convince TSA that the Krug is medicinal and required–that he can’t fly without it? ; )

  37. Just did BOS-JFK-CDG-AUH-JNB-AUH-JFK-BOS last month. Pretty intense long haul flying although EY IFE made it a little more tolerable… And the price was right from Christmas 🙂

  38. I am confused, with a seat map that is very open in business class, and economy for that matter, there is likely to be very few elites and full fare travelers. So seeing that combined with them only willing to sell 6 seats in coach, and 2 in business probably indicates that you will clear no problem.

  39. If any of you think that simply being an XP is a guarantee of an upgrade, I want what you’re taking. AA is either selling more seats or selling upgrades at check-in. They’re waiting until the day of to upgrade so the 100 hour benefit is worthless. I’ve missed getting upgraded on several international flights this year despite looking for the least full flights at booking. It seems as if someone from US is managing the upgrades since they always waited until the day of the flight to upgrade.

  40. @lucky – Something for you to consider with this upcoming trip report: I think it would be an especially interesting review if you did a “full economy” experience — at least in one direction. For example: no lounges, flying in coach, average hotel with no suite upgrades. I think it would give you additional perspective and depth to your reviews, and at the same time would help readers understand when it makes sense for them to spend miles/money for a premium experience vs. flying in the back (which most people do the majority of the time, as miles & money aren’t an endless commodity).

  41. He’s still lucky. My flight on the same route in late November will be on the 757. I didn’t even know there still WERE 757’s in AA’s fleet. Seriously contemplating saving the swu, recliners aren’t worth it. 🙁

  42. @lucky: I fly AA95/94 very often and never clear, it always books tight within 1 week of travel. Last week I was waiting for the last available seat to go C but it was booked 2 hours before flight control went to the airport. Evil. Any chance of knowing when you’ll be flying? I’m on it twice in the upcoming week.

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