American Airlines Selling 80% Of First Class Seats

American Airlines Selling 80% Of First Class Seats

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If you’ve found upgrades on American Airlines to be more difficult in recent months, this might explain why…

American selling most first class seats

During yesterday’s American Airlines third quarter earnings call, some interesting comments were made about the percentage of first class seats being sold. As noted by View from the Wing, American Chief Commercial Officer Vasu Raja commented on how the airline has seen a significant increase in the number of people buying first class (primarily leisure travelers).

Raja claims that between July and September of 2022, American started to see a significant shift in first class demand. Specifically, he mentioned how previously maybe 60% of domestic first class seats were paid for, while nowadays that number is closer to 80%.

Raja partly credits the following for this change:

“But a major part for that simply changes that we’ve made with our upgrade program that we used to have a lot of different, what I’ll call cottage upgrade concepts that could be had through different certificates through our loyalty program. We’ve been trying to go and simplify that for our customers, digitize a whole lot more of it and frankly, offer more fair products to customers.”

I’m not exactly sure what Raja is talking about here? Yes, American introduced its new Loyalty Points program earlier this year, and overhauled Loyalty Choice Rewards, though I’m still not sure what the “cottage upgrade concepts” are that have been “simplified?”

I’ve certainly found American Airlines upgrades to be tougher lately, and have noticed first class cabins a lot fuller before the upgrade window even starts. Now we know why this is — if you go from selling 60% of first class seats to selling 80% of first class seats, that means the number of people being upgraded is cut in half.

Upgrades on American are tougher than in the past

This shift has been going on for a long time

We’ve seen airlines’ financial performance improve significantly over the past couple of decades, and (unfortunately?) that largely comes down to airlines better monetizing their products.

Back when I started traveling frequently 15+ years ago, pricing for first class was outrageous, and instead the cabin was mostly full of upgraders. First class was significantly more expensive than it is now (not even adjusted for inflation), and as a result a vast majority of seats were occupied by elite members getting upgrades.

Progressively we’ve seen that change, and year after year airlines have more impressive statistics about the number of first class seats they sell. That largely comes down to more attractive first class pricing. Furthermore, the tougher upgrades get, the more likely elite members are to just outright pay for first class.

In general I’ve still gotten the sense that upgrades on American are easier than on Delta and United, since American doesn’t do quite as much to monetize upsells to first class.

You can’t blame an airline for actually wanting to sell the products they offer. Nobody expects that an airline intentionally won’t sell first class seats in order to leave room for upgraders. At the same time, the single biggest perk of elite status is generally complimentary upgrades, and at some point that loyalty is no longer worth it. And while some might dismiss that, keep in mind that the loyalty program is where airlines actually make money.

I think all of the “big three” US carriers will continue to sell a higher and higher percentage of first class seats. On the surface you’d think this would cause passengers to be less loyal, but then again, loyalty programs cause us to do some irrational things.

Without upgrades, is there value in being loyal?

Bottom line

An American Airlines executive claims that the airline is now selling around 80% of domestic first class seats, compared to 60% of seats pre-pandemic. In other words, there are half as many first class seats available to upgrade to. I can’t blame airlines for getting better about monetizing their products, though upgrades are increasingly becoming a rare treat, rather than a consistent benefit.

What do you make of the percentage of first class seats American is selling, and the implications of that?

Conversations (43)
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  1. kenindfw Guest

    A comment made on CNBC this past week was tangent to this story. CNBC analyst was reporting cruise lines are experiencing a softness in bookings. One reason, a family of 4 now pays over $1K/person to fly to a port city before getting on the ship. So much so that some cruise lines are now "testing the waters" and having ships sail from NY. It adds a couple of days to get to the Caribbean...

    A comment made on CNBC this past week was tangent to this story. CNBC analyst was reporting cruise lines are experiencing a softness in bookings. One reason, a family of 4 now pays over $1K/person to fly to a port city before getting on the ship. So much so that some cruise lines are now "testing the waters" and having ships sail from NY. It adds a couple of days to get to the Caribbean but the cost difference is significant. Also, the schedule reliability of the airlines has all but gone out the window and more cancellations are expected come the holidays. I'm surprised 80% are paying full first class while still receiving "limited" service.

  2. Euro Aviation Guest

    "...single biggest perk of elite status is generally complimentary upgrades..."

    Seems airlines do this often not just because of the flyer's elite status but to open a good revenue paying seat in the next cabin class down. Alternatively, this shuffle includes outright giving some poor soul the boot off the plane opening a seat for that full fare paying passenger.

  3. peter Boulton Guest

    I wish European Airlines would intoduce a third class------called possibly''Business Premium' or even First class --------this would be better seating in a separate cabin at the front of the plane------i'm sure it would sell!

  4. Fed UP Guest

    Its all part of the loyalty scam. At this point, being a top tier flyer is useless. With the spending requirement of $ 18K or higher, its simply easier to pay for first class, board earlier and not worry about the upgrade and early boarding. The only thing you lose is extra miles, which are to the point of being so devalued, its easier just to buy a ticket. What was once something special, is now, not much at all....

  5. Steve Guest

    Almost never pay for first but sprung for it from JFK to GCM and back. The free bags, lounge access (included for Caribbean bound flights), 777 service on the JFK-MIA and MIA-JFK legs with lie flat seats, free drinks and meals and additional bonus miles felt very fairly priced. Wouldn’t make it a habit but was happy with the experience.

  6. Frog Guest

    The only thing sillier than being loyal to an airline is being loyal to a hotel chain…

  7. Mike C Diamond

    As an outsider in this, and as Platinum with a foreign OW carrier (QF) it is clear that airlines 'train' their FF members about what to value from status. QF gives zero free upgrades, but on domestic flights upgrades clear immediately for points if there's award space available, and clear for successive statuses as the travel date approaches on international. But they give free lounge access for gold (=AA platinum) and up. For most posters...

    As an outsider in this, and as Platinum with a foreign OW carrier (QF) it is clear that airlines 'train' their FF members about what to value from status. QF gives zero free upgrades, but on domestic flights upgrades clear immediately for points if there's award space available, and clear for successive statuses as the travel date approaches on international. But they give free lounge access for gold (=AA platinum) and up. For most posters to this blog, the upgrades are THE reason for chasing status, for most QF flyers it's lounge access (incl on AA domestic). We seem to be happy with the packages on offer to each of us (I am), and woe-betide an airline that changes them. With the incidence of 'no baggage' fares, the free baggage allowance seems to be a reasonably valuable (and guaranteed) benefit.

    As others have said, extra cash will provide most of the benefits that status confers, so there's a cost benefit analysis to be done about how focussed on obtaining status one should be. I'm certainly doing it, even if only about whether to aim for platinum or gold (and QF1 lounge rather than biz lounge). The seemingly trivial benefits (eg priority check-in, security and boarding, extra redeemable (and for AA loyalty) miles) are not without value. Whether these things are trumped by the airline having the effrontery to sell a premium seat and thereby reduce your chances of an upgrade is a decision we each make on our own terms.

  8. Greg Guest

    With 80% of the seats sold up-front it really goes to show how little value there is in elite status. 20 years ago as a AA gold I was impressed with how often I was upgraded. It caused me to mileage run to Executive Platinum by 2010. Today I am a free agent and sit up virtually 100% of the time and yet I spend less on Air fares and enjoy the service up front...

    With 80% of the seats sold up-front it really goes to show how little value there is in elite status. 20 years ago as a AA gold I was impressed with how often I was upgraded. It caused me to mileage run to Executive Platinum by 2010. Today I am a free agent and sit up virtually 100% of the time and yet I spend less on Air fares and enjoy the service up front on a variety of airlines.

    I pity those people who had to endure mileage runs and the terrible flying conditions this past summer

  9. Kelley Guest

    I totally read that as AA was selling first class seats 80% ofF!!! Dang.

  10. Randy Gold

    Another point - does this include people that are redeming miles for F? The highest mileage levels book into J code. Does that include J rewards. People have lots of miles to use - and will use them for the J level if necessary.

  11. Randy Gold

    If this 80% number includes all the small jets, then the number is higher for main line jet. My experience is that CR's with 12 seats on short distances - get likely 75% upgrades.

    1. Randy Gold

      If this 80% number includes all the small jets, then the number is higher for main line jet. My experience is that CR's with 12 seats on short distances - get likely 75% upgrades.

      Also does it include J level rewards? Lots of people are redeeming their miles.

  12. Jaalee Guest

    They are trying to sell me the upgrade for my economy ticket as the flight date approaches. Seemingly cheaper and cheaper. I suppose if they offer the upgrade for very cheap a day or two prior they may get a buyer instead of giving an upgrade. Are people still getting 5 day notice of upgrades for EXP?

  13. Steve from LA Member

    I think there are two things going on here. First, the better monetarization of first class tickets by the airline. Second is the pandemic itself. For some reason, whether true or not, people feel safer from Covid if they are sitting upfront and not shoulder to shoulder with others. They are willing to pay for that feeling of "safety." I don't know if that willingness is rational and whether it is temporary. But I do think it is there.....

  14. Donna Diamond

    I’ve consistently reported here my observations flying AA which align with what has now been disclosed by the airline. AA lowered the price of F to monetize the cabin and I believe Delta might have been first to do this. I noticed this first just before the pandemic. I don’t think the dynamics will improve for upgrades. Sadly, I believe this is the new normal.

  15. Eskimo Guest

    Anybody misread the title and thought AA was having an 80% off First Class sale?

    1. Not Lucky Guest

      I actually thought they were selling 80% of the physical seats from the soon to be eliminated international first class cabins.

      In a world where most people read only the headlines, it's no wonder we're all so woefully misinformed and yet sure of ourselves!!

  16. Michael Sheils Guest

    The thought of spending any amount of time in AA Economy class is so off putting and offensive that some ppl that have to fly may be biting the bullet and buying first class.

  17. Lune Guest

    IMHO, this is temporary. It may not go back to 60%, but perhaps settle at something like 70%. While airlines are doing better at monetizing these seats, there's also pent up demand from leisure travelers who have a bunch of money saved up in their travel budget for the past 2 years.

    We know that in normal markets, very few leisure travelers buy business class. Premium economy and MCE is priced for people spending their...

    IMHO, this is temporary. It may not go back to 60%, but perhaps settle at something like 70%. While airlines are doing better at monetizing these seats, there's also pent up demand from leisure travelers who have a bunch of money saved up in their travel budget for the past 2 years.

    We know that in normal markets, very few leisure travelers buy business class. Premium economy and MCE is priced for people spending their own money.

    Business and first class was always for OPM travelers. And those people are either flying less, or have more restrictive policies forcing them to buy economy. IOW once this current surge of leisure travelers buying business/1st is over, we'll see more space available.

    Even if I'm wrong and leisure travelers continue to buy business class at current rates, eventually airlines will increase supply to capture more of the market. While this process takes longer (reconfiguring seats, up gauging aircraft, etc) it *will* happen if this higher demand is sustained.

    So either current demand is temporary and will come down, or it's permanent and airlines will increase supply to take advantage of it. Either way, a new balance will be found, although it may take a few years.

    1. Brian Gasser Guest

      I agree with your comment about the limit of leisure travelers buying F or J from the website at full market fares. However, if AA wants to monetize the seat and sell a transcon J upgrade for $400 upcharge close to departure date via the app, I think they can move a lot of inventory and free up Y space to sell.

  18. Andy 11235 Guest

    "Upgrade" class was never really sustainable. At the same time, AA has for many years been a profitable loyalty program supporting a marginal airline. I'm not really sure how many people actually value the idea of getting "unlimited" upgrades from elite status, knowing that these upgrades are -- even on the best days -- unlikely for all but the highest on list. As such, I don't think much value is lost now that these are...

    "Upgrade" class was never really sustainable. At the same time, AA has for many years been a profitable loyalty program supporting a marginal airline. I'm not really sure how many people actually value the idea of getting "unlimited" upgrades from elite status, knowing that these upgrades are -- even on the best days -- unlikely for all but the highest on list. As such, I don't think much value is lost now that these are rarer. Back when I had elite status, I cared a lot more about the systemwide upgrades, and went into domestic flights happy that at least I could snag an "extra leg room" seat for free.

  19. Sam Guest

    I wonder if now that people are actually paying for first class they will start investing in the quality of the product, catering, and experience. Gonna guess not...

  20. George Romey Guest

    This is the future no matter what the FFs on Flyer Talk and Airliners will blather on about how no way the airlines are going to take away complimentary upgrades. Paid upgrades are coming. And those that are high spend EXPs or CKs are probably buying premium outright so it won't impact them. Elites will also compete against non elite flyers with the income to pay for upgrades.

    1. John Guest

      Perhaps AA will start offering different price points for buy up offers based on status. If AA completely eliminates upgrade priority for elites, they’ll have nothing left to encourage brand loyalty. They’ve completely devalued redeemable miles with credit card offers and dynamic pricing. Main cabin extra? That’s where all the Basic economy and standbys end up. I guess they could try to offer a better product, but that seems like a much more expensive option...

      Perhaps AA will start offering different price points for buy up offers based on status. If AA completely eliminates upgrade priority for elites, they’ll have nothing left to encourage brand loyalty. They’ve completely devalued redeemable miles with credit card offers and dynamic pricing. Main cabin extra? That’s where all the Basic economy and standbys end up. I guess they could try to offer a better product, but that seems like a much more expensive option than leaving F empty for upgrades.

    2. Levi Gold

      The most logical way to handle elite upgrades is probably to have it be a status-based discount applied to the revenue managed paid upgrade offer, and if the post-discount price is zero or negative, it gets automatically taken. That's a model which allows upgrades to include intercontinental business class (the cash price allows that to be controlled) and is one where there's no need to have an upgrade window (viz. your upgrade could clear at ticketing).

  21. LP Guest

    For those seeing "buy up" offers to first, how far in advance (at booking, at check-in, days/weeks prior to flight...) are you seeing these offers?

    1. John Guest

      I’ve got buy up offers on my January bookings. I haven’t booked anything later than that, but I see an offer on every booking made at least a week before travel.

    2. Jim Guest

      As a small business owner, in a weird way, I started traveling for my business during the pandemic. Back in the day, 10 plus years ago, I was an Executive Platinum for multiple years. At the time, I worked in telecom. Now, I only fly paid first class because, in my opinion, the value proposition is there. Other than miles, I see no other value in the loyalty program. If I am missing something, please let me know.

    3. ConcordeBoy Diamond

      It can vary (primarily DL flyer, but also AA).

      On areas where they expect to sell a lot of F (e.g. semi transcons without int'l J), you won't see them until last minute, if at all.

      On shorter routes like LAX-SFO/LAS/PHX, they're available almost immediately, and sometimes more cost effective than immediately buying F outright. For example, I'll often see F as ~$400, but Y as ~$160, with $85 e/w upgrades.

  22. John Guest

    I think AA is counting paid upgrades in their 80%. If so, this may not represent a fundamental change in customers’ willingness to book F from the outset, but more a reflection on AA finally getting the price point right with their buy up offers. I’m sure they’ve been looking for the sweet spot on upgrade pricing that almost fills up the cabin, but leaves a few empty seats for CK and last minute full fare F customers.

    1. Jimmy Guest

      AA offered me an upgrade from economy to lie flat business on SEA-LHR for $350, and I was happy to accept. $350 is better to AA than giving it as a free upgrade, but it's a fraction of the business class fare.

  23. Alex77W Guest

    For the last few months I was always receiving offers to move to F for $90 for domestic flights when the F cabin is about half full and my EXP upgrades are not cleared. On a recent trip DFW-RDU my colleague (PLTPro) simply paid for such upgrades both ways out of his pocket because "otherwise we would not be upgraded". My guess this is how AA replaced lost revenue from selling stickers.

  24. Eric Guest

    They said they faced out first because it was full of upgrades and employees. They also mentioned that companies do not like the First class word. They only allow employees to buy business.

    While free upgrades is a perk, loyalty programs come with some other perks that frequent fliers take for granted. Like 2 or 3 check bags free ( some may say they don't use it, but it is there). Bag gees are pricey...

    They said they faced out first because it was full of upgrades and employees. They also mentioned that companies do not like the First class word. They only allow employees to buy business.

    While free upgrades is a perk, loyalty programs come with some other perks that frequent fliers take for granted. Like 2 or 3 check bags free ( some may say they don't use it, but it is there). Bag gees are pricey in today's word. Go check how much they are...
    Also same day changes, free seat selection etc.

  25. Alonzo Diamond

    I've gotten offers to upgrade paying cash on every AA flight I've taken this year. Why anyone is paying hundreds for a lackluster meal, shitty wine, no seatback entertainment and interactions with overworked FA's, is beyond me. Cheers donkeys.

    1. Darin Member

      You left out more space. I don’t think most people overvalue the soft product you’re describing, they just want to be comfortable for the few hours they’re packed into a crowded plane.

  26. Dan Guest

    Cashed up boomers are finally starting to retire en masse.

  27. Mark Guest

    I think a lot of the value through the loyalty program is calculated through mileage burn, so they can still extract the same value with fewer elites in the new world of selling more F seats that accrue more miles.

    In the end I think it’ll sort itself out where the pool of top level elites will start to thin and then the upgrade success will go back to something closer to pre pandemic levels.

  28. LEo Diamond

    I saw the title and thought: how on earth can AA sell 80% of their first class on 321T and 77W, and then realized it was domestic first class.

    1. Brian Gasser Guest

      If AA prices their app "buy up" offers dynamically based on demand they can move the J/F inventory. This is how airlines have mastered selling their Y inventory and have 90% load factors. With airlines making most of their profit from selling points to credit card companies, it makes sense to monetize the front of the plane.

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.

Eskimo Guest

Anybody misread the title and thought AA was having an 80% off First Class sale?

2
Michael Sheils Guest

The thought of spending any amount of time in AA Economy class is so off putting and offensive that some ppl that have to fly may be biting the bullet and buying first class.

2
Mark Guest

I think a lot of the value through the loyalty program is calculated through mileage burn, so they can still extract the same value with fewer elites in the new world of selling more F seats that accrue more miles. In the end I think it’ll sort itself out where the pool of top level elites will start to thin and then the upgrade success will go back to something closer to pre pandemic levels.

2
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