Why American loves top tier leisure flyers…

As I fly American more and more as an Executive Platinum member, there are some things I’ve really come to love about them, especially as a leisure flyer.

One of the major differences between American and United when it comes to comparing their top tier status levels is that 1K members at United get six fare restricted systemwide upgrades per year (you have to purchase at least a “W” fare for international travel, which can be pretty pricey in many markets), while Executive Platinum members at American get eight systemwide upgrades per year that can be used on any fare class.

As shown above, the cheapest upgradable fare using a systemwide is more than double as much as the cheapest fare

That means at American your $500 ticket to Europe and $800 tickets to Asia can be upgraded. But the real kicker is how American prioritizes upgrades.

At United as a 1K member, it’s to some extent a crapshoot whether or not you’ll get your upgrade unless you can confirm it immediately. That’s an issue given that you’re often paying a huge premium for the chance at an upgrade, when it might just not come true. United, as I understand it, sorts upgrades first based on status and then based on fare class. That means I can be a 1K member booking 11 months out, and I’ll be jumped by any Global Services member that’s added to the waitlist and any 1K member on a higher fare class that’s added to the waitlist.

American, on the other hand, sorts upgrade lists based on status and then time added to the waitlist. That means if I book a ticket 11 months out and there’s no confirmable upgrade space, there’s no need to sweat it. If a single upgrade clears (which it will), it’ll be me. At American, Executive Platinum is actually top tier status, while at United 1K is really a glorified middle tier, given how many Global Services members there are. That’s not a jab at United because I find they treat 1Ks really well, but at the end of the day they’re not top tier — there’s always a Global Services member that can jump you on just about any list.

The reason I bring this up is because recently I was going to book a ticket on American from Chicago to Delhi with a friend and upgrade. The problem is, there was only one confirmable upgrade seat remaining. That means if my friend took that last confirmable upgrade seat, I would be the first person on the waitlist no matter what, which is pretty amazing.

Now, to a large extent that system doesn’t really make sense to me. I love it as a leisure flyer, though you’d think an Executive Platinum on a last minute, super-expensive fare should clear an upgrade ahead of me. As much as it’s a bit irrational, I’m not complaining!

Along the same lines, American charges close-in ticketing fees for upgrades within 21 days of departure. It’s normal for airlines to charge close-in ticketing fees for awards, but it makes no sense to charge them for upgrades, since those seats will otherwise go to elite upgrades. So as a non-elite you’d be paying $175 plus 15,000 miles for a one-way domestic upgrade requested within six days of departure. Again, it doesn’t make sense to me, but as an Executive Platinum member it certainly helps in keeping upgrade percentages close to 100%.

Close-in ticketing fees, even for awards

Anyway, I’ll be posting a more comprehensive review of the two airlines from a top tier elites’ perspective soon, so keep in mind this is only one small aspect of the two programs. Also, while it’s nice to have all those systemwide upgrades, American’s international route network is lacking somewhat, to say the least. They fly to Helsinki but not to Hong Kong, they fly to Budapest but not to Bangkok, and they fly to Dublin but not to Dubai.

Filed Under: American
  1. Ben,

    That full-fare paying EXP would trump your cheap ticket bought 11 months in advance.

    See http://www.aa.com/pubcontent/en_US/disclaimers/EP_Mktg_Page.jsp

    “The earlier you request your upgrade, the better. AAdvantage Executive Platinum members are given priority over all other members. Within each elite level, Full-Fare Economy Class tickets booked in Y or B are confirmed first, then all other fares, in the order in which the upgrade request was received.”

  2. The more I think about it American’s system actually makes a lot of sense, as it effectively segments the market splitting leisure travelers and business travelers. Business travelers really should be booking business class if that’s where they want to sit. The problem with United is that as a leisure traveler I may have to compete for the upgrade with business travelers on a much higher budget, booking last minute H and higher fare classes. Up to now I’ve used VDB certs to cushion the price of W fares, maybe its time to switch.

  3. Looking forward to your report! Unless I’m mistaken, it sounds like you earned top tier with American, but with United top tier is unavailable unless you are selected to be included…..

  4. Think many of us have heard of the ~18K estimate (give or take) of GS – has there ever been any documentation of how many Concierge Key members there are? From what I’ve heard it’s far, far less…but are we talking, 3, 4, or 5 digits worth?

  5. HAHAHAHAHA! YES! Lucky is going to India! Now try Kingfisher First (BA or Delta miles) and Jet Airways. Well … Please anyways :)!

  6. Back in the day when I was an EXP (last year) my wife and I cleared 13/13 TATL upgrades (Her dad was an EXP too) All were on cheap tix and some upgrades were requested within a week of departure.

    Not too shabby.

  7. Lucky, I gather you are showing the United fare market to SYD which is quite an expensive market for United’s SWUs. Most United W & higher fares to Europe are priced at most $100 more than the lowest fare.

    I think AA has better confirmable space and better usability of their SWus, and getting 8 SWUs is better than United’s 6 SWUs. AA has the potential to poach some UA 1Ks, if UA continues with the lack of confirmable NC space.

  8. Since AA does not directly fly to india, does that mean you are doing Chicago to London on American and jet airways from London to Delhi? Or are you routed via Brussels instead?

  9. @ Gene — Whoops, thanks for the heads up! Didn’t realize that.

    @ UA-NYC — Concierge Key really is totally different than Global Services in that CK members don’t beat Executive Platinums on the upgrade list or in any other way. It’s more about the airport experience. I have no clue how many there are, though I’d guess it’s in the four digits.

    @ eponymous_coward — Because they treat them so well!

    @ Ajay — American actually does fly from Chicago to Delhi.

  10. You are correct that UA treats 1K’s much worst that UGS members. 1K’s are really what Premier Execs were – you might get an upgrade, but chances are you’ll be last to clear and probably only at the gate.
    UGS members get lots of nice perks whilst 1Ks just have to put up with what’s left.

  11. I have heard that one can ticket an award ticket greater than 21 days in advance to avoid the close in fee then call right back to speak to a different agent and change the day to ASAP without getting charged $100 for the close in fee.

  12. Can someone explain to me why United doesn’t grant UDUs or allow usage of SWUs on award tickets? Doesn’t seem to make sense to me. Is this the same on AA as well?

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