Is American Airlines Selling Upgrades To Folks Without Status Before Upgrading Elites?

American Airlines does a great job of upgrading their elite members, especially Executive Platinum members on domestic US flights.  Over the course of the last 4 years or so, I’ve had over 400 flights and missed less than 10 upgrades, so there’s nothing to complain about.  However, there’s uncertainty on how upgrades will be handled going forward.  We expect a new upgrade procedure in the next few days that will accommodate elites on both airlines, but there’s still a ways to go before we ultimately figure out what the process will be for the combined airline.

There’s always ambiguity in these procedures when elites don’t get upgraded.  Even when I change flights at the last minute I generally score an upgrade.  But, I did have a bit of an odd situation this week.  It can be explained by the normal changes other folks make on flights, but I’m at least a bit curious if American is getting more aggressive selling upgrades to people without status.

I made a confirmed same-day change to my departure flight just less than 24 hours before the flight I wanted to change to was departing.  Prior to 24 hours I saw that American was selling 2 First Class seats and one of those was available for a domestic elite upgrade (F2 A1).

I got busy with some work and didn’t call to change until 20 minutes or so after my change window opened up.  At that point, the flight was F1 A0.  No biggie, the agent helped me grab a good seat in coach.  I figured there was a reasonable chance I would clear the upgrade, but it was a short enough flight from DEN to ORD so it wouldn’t be a big deal either way.

I was a little surprised later that afternoon around 2pm when I got notification that my upgrade had cleared as I figured that I would likely clear at the airport.  That was a reasonable indication to me that the inventory had changed, maybe someone else had canceled.

Onboard the flight I got into a conversation with the passenger next to me in First Class.  He mentioned that he didn’t have status with American but he bought an upgrade for the DEN-ORD flight when he checked in that morning.  He was offered the DEN-ORD upgrade for $90 and a further upgrade from ORD-CLE for $45.

On balance, that’s a pretty good price for DEN-ORD.  If you were an elite member you could redeem two 500-mile upgrades for that flight which, if purchased, would cost a max of $70.  If I didn’t have elite status I’d consider buying the upgrade for that price but ultimately might decide to stay in coach for that amount of money unless it was an early morning flight and I planned to sleep.

Anyway, he checked in online at roughly 11:30 that morning.  He showed me his boarding pass so I was able to confirm no status was listed on it and the time stamp from the printer was accurate.

It’s certainly possible more than 1 seat opened up for an upgrade that morning.  Even though they’re not obligated to do so, I would that that if American thought they could accommodate me on the flight for an upgrade they would have cleared me at roughly the same time they were selling upgrades that morning.  But, there are enough parts of the procedure that are opaque that everything may have happened exactly as it was supposed to.

And, since I changed flights less than 24 hours prior to departure, it is possible all elite members other than me that requested upgrades had been accommodated.  But, I think that’s unlikely, given that ORD is a hub and should have had a reasonable number of elites flying it.

At any rate, I cleared my upgrade, so no harm, no foul.

Frankly, I don’t have a huge issue with American trying to make some extra money on upgrades when they can.  But, similar to my concerns with United on their domestic upgrade procedures, I want to know that if American is thinking about selling an upgrade affordably to someone that might ultimately jeopardize my ability to get a seat that they offer it to me first.

United has a bad habit of selling upgrades to non-elite members more cheaply than to elite members.  It’s a known glitch in their system.  By choosing not to fix it they’ve alienated some of their elite members (Ed raises his hand), especially those who buy more expensive tickets and change flights closer to departure.  I certainly don’t want to see American go down the same road.

It’s one occurrence, and there are plenty of outside factors that could have impacted the situation.  It was more dumb luck than anything else that the timeline worked out the way it did and I happened to be sitting next to the guy with no status who bought the upgrade.  I could probably go a long time without being in a situation where things are confirmable as they were here.

Anyways, just me ruminating on a Saturday morning.

Have you had any upgrade experiences with American that have you wondering what’s next?  



  1. I’ve seen stuff like happen on AA for years. It’s hit or miss. I think it’s just open seats and some computer model that keeps lowering the price until someone buys the seats regardless of what elites might not get an upgrade. They would rather make $90 than let you have the seat for free (plus 500 mile upgrades which is money already out there).
    Don’t feel bad I can’t even get on the AA upgrade list as a US elite member lately.

  2. This article is insanely misleading. There is nothing to speculate. AA has offered “load factor-based upgrades” since the mid-2000s.

    They are only offered at kiosks, and the only way the kiosk will trigger offering the upgrade is if there is nobody on the upgrade list and all upgrades have been accommodated. That’s it. At the point he checked in, the computer likely already accommodated your upgrade even if you hadn’t received notification.

    1. Simon, I don’t believe that is a correct statement on how upgrades are handled. What I’ve heard from multiple people is that the policy is they will only offer upgrades when they anticipate everyone will clear, not when everyone is already accommodated. I looked at my record prior inside the 4-hour window and it still showed me in coach. I didn’t specifically look at Expert Flyer at that point to see if the flight was F1 or not, but the system hadn’t updated my seat as of 1pm-ish.

  3. With DL, you can see the upgrade and standby list once you check-in. Does AA not offer a similar option? That would put to bed the question of whether everyone had been upgraded at a particular time. Of course, you’d have to check a non-status coach ticket at the same time as an elite already on the upgrade list to see who clears first.

    1. Chris, AA does show this on their app, but it doesn’t work all the time for me. Plus, in this situation I wasn’t checked in yet. With AA I usually wait to check-in if my upgrade hasn’t cleared because they’ll allow you to select a seat online only if you haven’t checked in yet.

Leave a Reply