Domestic Upgrade Showdown! Do You Prefer American Airlines Or US Airways?

a close-up of logos

When the merger of American Airlines and US Airways was announced, elite members in both programs started to get a little nervous.  Rightfully so, considering how painful some of the previous large airline mergers have been.

While there are lots of items to be concerned about for AAdvantage and Dividend Miles elite members, domestic upgrades is one where the differences between how the two programs handle them are dramatic.

At a basic level, AAdvantage has a “pay-to-play” system where all elites are not entitled to free upgrades on every flight, whereas Dividend Miles offers free upgrades to all elites on a space available basis.

So, which one is better?

Let’s have a little fun determining which one is.

I’ve set up a poll for folks to vote in to determine the winner.  But, before we start with the poll, we need to clarify the relevant positions.  I’m a big fan of the American Airlines AAdvantage way of upgrading, so I’ll be presenting my opinion on why they’re the best.

I’ve invited a passionate US Airways Dividend Miles Chairman Preferred member, Jeanne from Heels First Travel to lay out the benefits of their system.  She’ll be guest posting here shortly on that.

Then, I get the last word with my two cents on why the AAdvantage system rocks.

Finally, we pay you to vote.  For everyone who votes and leaves a comment, we’ll be having a few giveaways you’ll be eligible for, including a couple of $50 Amazon gift cards we’ll give away randomly to folks who comment on both my blog and Heels First (they’ll have a place to do that as we get a bit further into the showdown).

I may also have a few other small, random giveaways, like Starbucks gift cards.

For my giveaway, I’ll allow multiple entries, with the caveat that you actually have to be discussing the upgrade procedures in some meaningful way.  A whole slew of “gee I’d like to win” posts by one person will not be considered.  I’ll be giving folks until Thursday, July 17th to comment before selecting winners.

For the record, even though American Airlines elite members get a lot more food in first class than US Airways elite members, I resisted the urge to call these the Hunger Games, airline edition (a la View From The Wing’s position that US Airways elites are hungry).

Let the games begin!






    1. Okay, now that I’ve got my opinions posted I’m going to join the discussion. JRG, AA does have more routes now, no doubt a plus!

  1. I’m torn. I like AA but I don’t like having to “pay” sorta for upgrades with coupons, stickers, etc.

    1. Dan, not paying is certainly nice but it’s only good if you actually get the upgrade, which lower elites at US Airways can struggle with.

  2. I am not an elite member on either, but if I had to choose, I would go for the 500 mile upgrade via AA only because it sounds better than the ridiculous upgrade price they suggest on check-in.

  3. US. UDU especially good for elites traveling outside of consultant commuting hours. Why leave the F seat empty if there is an elite in back, even if it is a short flight? Endears loyalty.

    1. Segments, while AA does send out empty F seats once in a while, it’s much rarer with higher load factors. If you travel on off days/hours, you may do better with the US system than some. But, with close to 100M elites in a combined airline, those upgrades are going to be harder to come by than today.

  4. I like the AA system better. It gives elites lower on the totem pole (e.g. gold) a slightly better chance to upgrade. A little bit of cost makes sure that the traveler actually cares about that particular upgrade. All elites do get free upgrade “stickers” for every 10,000 qualifying miles in a calendar year and only pay if they want more stickers.

    1. VG, you hit the nail on the head! Plan your upgrades for exponentially better upgrade percentages when you want the upgrade.

  5. I’m voting for AA – they’re very easy to use, and I’ve had really good “luck” in getting upgrades to clear.

  6. AA all the way- better chance of upgrades for elites, better service and more and better food than US Airways

  7. Much prefer AA ‘s policy as an EXP where I have been upgraded 99.9% of the time. Now only a matter of time before they adopt US Air’s model and all hell breaks loose for upgrades.

  8. I like AA better. As stated by others already, unless you’re Exec Platinum, it forces you to choose which upgrades are most important to you. That reduces the number of people in the upgrade “pool”, making it easier to upgrade a specific flight that you may want. Plus, the AA app shows you where you are on the upgrade list so you know if you have a reasonable chance to get upgraded before you get to the airport. That way if you’re not getting upgraded you still have a chance to buy food to bring on board for the flight.

  9. I’ve been a Chairman on US for the last three years and was Gold on AA last year. Though AA definitely does provide more food in first, I’ve found the US Airways first class to be pretty darn good (they’ve recently added a lot more to their first class meals on long haul flights), and upgrades aren’t impossible to get, even if you’re a lowly Silver, you’ll still clear about 20% of them. With the AA 500 mile-upgrade system, I’ve been pretty successful, but the fact that you can’t get complimentary upgrades unless you’re an EXP, I find to just be insane. FWIW, I’ve also found the US Airways first class seats to be a lot more comfortable, but maybe it’s just me…

  10. I don’t have status with AA but I’m a Chairman’s in US Airways. I appreciate not paying for upgrades and I get the opportunity to upgrade 1 week prior, so I know if I’m going to clear before I go to the airport (about 50/50 this year). I appreciate that AA might be better, just haven’t experienced it.

  11. I’m a Dividend Miles Silver Preferred… I actually think AA’s system is better. It eliminates the question of if a passenger will get an upgrade for most flights (even if the answer is “no”) and which means less of the gate lottery and certs can be banked for when they might actually matter. AA’s F is better than US Airways (for now) but of course the meals are being realigned to the US Airways standards, but at least with AA as an AAdvantage Gold/Dividend Miles Silver, there is a very strong likelihood of a free Main Cabin Extra seat.

  12. I still prefer US Airways upgrades.
    I have a chance on almost all routes I fly and that’s all that I can ask for, a chance.

    1. Izzy, wouldn’t you rather clear more upgrades than just have a chance that may not materialize as often?

  13. “At a basic level, AAdvantage has a “pay-to-play” system where all elites are not entitled to free upgrades on every flight, whereas Dividend Miles offers free upgrades to all elites on a space available basis.”

    Sadly I have not taken advantage of either but free is better than pay-to-play in my book.

  14. I think that the higher your status in a program, the more you will prefer that program for upgrades. Overall, I think the AA system is better.

    1. Bob, top tier on both airlines get treated fairly well for domestic upgrades (though I think AA does slightly better). Mid-tier, AA all the way.

  15. I have to say US Airways – consistently upgraded on short domestic routes is always nice – even when flying from DCA.

    1. Shari, US has a lot of frequencies out of DCA, making some upgrades easier to score. But, on longer routes, I think AA has more seats, likely giving them an edge.

  16. It’s a tie-breaker for those with EXP and CP status. However, for everyone else the AA upgrade system is better since everyone isn’t eligible for an upgrade, unless they request it.

  17. I like the American option. I can recoup the 500 mile “loss” with a couple of surveys on a survey site I use (you can opt to get AA miles instead of, say, a magazine subscription). It’s an easy way to treat myself, especially at a lower awards level.

  18. We are not elite with USAirways so being Gold for a few years with American has enabled us to upgrade domestic flights to first class using 500 mile upgrades and enjoying a steak dinner in flight on our way to Boston on Christmas Day. A great experience and wonderful meal.

    1. Madeleine, you’d be hard-pressed to find a steak on pretty much any domestic US Airways flight.

  19. I prefer US Air’s system. Since I do a lot of short hops, I get upgrades on segments I’d never bother wasting stickers on under American’s system.

    1. Dan, US has a lot of short hops and a good number of flights on those short hops, making those upgrades easier to score.

  20. Given my current address (in NC), I’d have to say that I prefer USAirways’ upgrade process. I just cleared upgrades for all flights from RDU to SFO for my bride and me.Sweet!

  21. I prefer American’s way. By charging a symbolic cost, it assures that only those who actually care about that particular upgrade take part in the process.

  22. I like AA better, being ExPlat most of my domestic flights are upgraded to F, and it work very well especially when you could travel off peak hours.

    1. Karung, as an EXP I can count on one hand the total number of upgrades I missed on 400+ flights the last 5 years.

  23. As an Advantage Gold, I prefer AA’s system. I get to pick and choose what flights I want to attempt to upgrade on. As long as I am not flying on heave business day I have a good success rate

  24. I’ve spelled my rationale out in detail on Jeanne’s blog, but suffice to say as an AA ExecPlat, that program wins hands down for offering a generous upgrade program to its best customers while still letting lower tier elites get in on the game, and actually not get disappointed when they don’t get a CPU on an elite-heavy flight…which so often happens under the open system, at least given my experience over the years at UA as a 1K who’s missed most of my CPUs so I can imagine how Silvers, Golds and Platinums feel. I also believe that limiting upgrades to some form of instrument gives lower tier elites the opportunity they’d seldom actual get under the myth of “unlimited” CPUs as well as preserving the quality of service in the F cabin, something AA has been very good at, particularly when one compares its meals to those on UA!

    We await the decision with anticipation, knowing there will be a lot of disappointed elites in either case, though I suppose fewer if US’s approach is followed…creating the illusion of better upgrade opportunities despite the proven reality as it’s been demonstrated over at UA.

    1. DavidB, it doesn’t take much to be better than UA for meals. 🙂
      I really do think lower level elites get a better chance at upgrades on AA. I understand we’re a “give it to me free” society, but I think it’s worth the extra bit of cash from time to time to spark your upgrade percentage.

  25. It simple. The #2 & #3 airlines in the world offer UDU. AA will lose market share in the long run if they do not match this offering.

    1. Mrp Alert, I’m not sure you’re right. If (big if) AA had none or less onerous revenue requirements I think it could drive elites their way, regardless of UDU or not.

  26. I think if you’re a top tier elite the question is irrelevant since you’re going to get upgraded either way. For lower tier elites, I think the sticker method gives AA flyers a better shot at getting an upgrade due to selective upgrade requests.

    1. FF, just the fact that the lists aren’t 50 ppl deep on AA should show folks they have a better shot.

  27. I would also point out that a person that is savvy with points could easily make up the 500 miles. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems more organized and civil. I know…civil is a bad word to use, but I already typed it and I never was good with synonyms.

  28. I’m EXP on AA and Gold on US so I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on both. This is a tough call, and ultimately I think AA should really take the best from both. Here’s why:

    1. US’ system is BY FAR more equitable. With AA having pay to play, you essentially have to have the $$$ at some point if you want to continue getting upgraded (only 2kmiles can possibly be upgraded per 10k flown in lower tiers).
    2. To further point 1, US’ ‘tie-breaker’ policy is without argument better than AA’s. If there are 2 discount fare Gold members vying for UDUs, the one that’s flown US the most in the past 12 months is next in line. That’s incredibly fair IMHO. With AA, they reward generally cheaper, further booked out elites which makes no sense from a revenue and loyalty perspective.
    3. AA’s system gives a better shot at an upgrade to lower tiers, esp Gold because of the pay to play system. Elites gets to pick and choose their upgrades on a cost to benefit basis, which helps bring up lower tired elite upgrade percentages.
    4. US’ MoveUp program in combination with UDUs rocks, absolutely BLOWS AA OUT OF THE PARK! I can show up to the airport, get a confirmed seat on an earlier or later flight within 6 hours FOR FREE, and if their happens to be upgrade space/booking class open on the flight, I’m confirmed into F immediately. AA first makes you pay to be confirmed (even as an EXP which is incredibly stupid), then you can go on the upgrade standby list. Want to standby? Sure it’s free, but you have to be confirmed at the gate in Y first before they even consider you for F, which is near impossible by that point.

    So, that being said, I really hope AA will intermix the best of both programs. Realistically from what I’ve experienced so far, AA will be taking the more revenue centric approach from pmAA, and giving elites the shaft. It’s unfortunate, but the combined carrier will have the network and yield capabilities to command this, whereas the more generous pmUS did not.

    1. Chase, everyone I know who flies UA or US says AA’s policy of charging to change flights day of travel is stupid. Without an exception I can think of, all of those folks who switched to AA love the confirmed change fee because it keeps folks from switching and taking up extra F seats. That way, when you really want the seat, it’s yours. And, you can generally confirm ahead of time that you’ll get the upgrade before you have to pay.

  29. AA aall the waay. As an EXP with actual butt-in-seat mileage each year, I have been upgraded 99.9% of the time. Can’t say that for US Airways.

  30. I’m not an elite with either, but I like US Airways more since elites get upgrades if space is available.

  31. I’m not an elite with either. I’m outside Philly, which is a USAir hub. I’ve been with colleagues who have been upgraded quite readily and often on USAir flights.

    I haven’t seen the same experience with AA, althugh I’ve flow that overseas several times, but didn’t see much if any upgrading.

    But that’s comparing apples to oranges. American was more comfortable, even without upgrading, but the routes and equipment were different, so hard to say.

    (On another topic, I had hoped that with the merger that the American might start flying direct nonstop flights, such as to Milan and other European cities, from Philly, a USAir hub, since AA flies from JFK to many European cities. But it hasn’t happened.)

    1. Linda, I think we need to see some 787s and other larger aircraft before the combined airline starts launching many new international routes.

  32. I’ve flown American Airlines for many years. So my vote is for it. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

  33. I like AA’s upgrade system the best because I find it to be a superior airline than US Airways, at least for now.

  34. I’m not elite with either of them, but I’d prefer US Airways, seems a bit more fair: why should elites pay for upgrades.

  35. Okay, I see the US Airways argument. Reading their perks of elite status:

    “Enjoy the comforts of First Class. If an upgrade becomes available, we’ll automatically upgrade you and a companion to First Class (when traveling in the same reservation). Complimentary upgrades may be awarded up to 2 days in advance on US Airways and US Airways Express marketed and operated flights.”

    So automatic upgrades if available huh? First come, first served I would assume.

  36. I’ve been flying American for many years, and have had excellent experiences with both their flight schedules and their loyalty program and upgrade system. I like the fact that you can save your upgrades for the flights you really want them on … 3 hour+ flights vs. shorter hauls. The cities they service are much more convenient for me, and I agree that AA’s food service is better. I also enjoy receiving free snacks when I am in coach.

  37. I have to be Heels First’s corner on this one. Although I certainly don’t travel as much as much as you do, I have been upgraded on every single US Airways flight I’ve taken since becoming a Silver Preferred—schweet! Being based in a US-dominant market, this is a huge morale booster on travel days.

  38. I like the US Airways upgrade process because it is so easy. They just email you when you get upgraded.

  39. I like how US Airways has a Trial Preferred program where you can pay a fee to jump right into the game quickly.

  40. I’d prefer an upgrade to no upgrade. I think I’d prefer the AA system, but have not had experience with either.

  41. US is better by far – US actually used to use the same sticker process and got rid of it – there was a reason for that. It is actually less equitable than it appears. I started out as Silver, flew my way up to Gold after a few years, and now reside at the Chairmans level. Even as a low level elite, I would receive upgrades up to 40% of my flights – for me AND a companion. As CP, I have missed one upgrade in Four years – and it was on a flight that didn’t really matter. With US I get upgraded for a 300 mile flight OR a 2500 mile flight at the same level. IF the A a program offered flat out upgrade stickers ( god, I hate that word – so juvenile) then it might be a little different – as it is I would have to use 5 of those ‘ stickers’ to upgrade East to a West coast – and that is why the AA system is discriminatory. If I am loyal to an airline, and an upgrade is available, then I want to have a chance to be given that upgrade – for the entire segment…..not just a 500 miles portion. As far as empty seats in F – there should never be any. Fill the cabin with loyal flyers. Then sell those available coach seats (rather than paying IDB to the people who play THAT game). I have actuall had an AA ExPlat say to me that empty seats keep the riffraff (Gold and below) out of the cabin. Please.

    Jeanne is right – loyalty counts – democracy works best – and so does the US program!

    1. Susan, just my two cents, but the days of empty F seats went away when load factors went up. I rarely see empty seats in F anymore.

  42. Many good arguments above. Definite pro of the AA system is that the competition isn’t necessarily are “fierce” as you must pick and choose your upgrades based on number of 500 mile certs available and routes. This worked well for me when I was Premier and then Premier Exec with United before they did away with e500s. Initially, I was excited about CPUs, but have found (maybe b/c I’m a consultant and tend to fly business-heavy routes) that my upgrade percentage actually quite sucks. Even as a Platinum, I’ve been upgraded once out of 32 domestic segments flown so far this year. I feel like it would’ve been better with 500 milers.

    So if you’re top tier elite, US is probably better.
    For mid-tier, it’s probably a toss-up and maybe more route/time dependent.
    For low-tier, I’d probably lean toward upgrade stickers.

    1. Gobluetwo, I think it’s much more equal at the top. Many CPs and EXPs report near flawless upgrade percentages.

  43. I remember dealing with 500-mi upgrade certs on DL back before they implemented UDU. I’m really torn which one is better. The argument for certs/stickers making it more likely to get upgrades to lower elites makes sense, but it was such a pain dealing with them and having to use multiple for long flights (which is when one really wants an upgrade!). UDUs are great because it just goes thru, but I get that higher (highest?) elites crowd out everyone else on busy routes.

    Maybe a compromise of upgrade certs/stickers but get rid of the 500mi limitation, so one per flight, regardless of distance?

  44. I like US Airways better. Where is the loyalty from American to its preferreds when it allows first class seats to go out empty while the frequent traveler sits in coach?

  45. US Airways is better. I like that a companion traveling with you will also receive the free upgrade if seats are available.

    1. Chris, same holds true on AA for first companion(still need to have enough upgrade certs). US will let you upgrade more than one companion.

  46. I’m trained in economics. If a resource is free it will be overutilized. Charging stickers means that upgrades go to fliers who value them most. AA’s plan isn’t pure on this (EXP get unlimited free upgrades) but it comes closer than the US system. AAdvantage AA.

    1. @J.D. – you said “if a resource is free it will be over utilized” as your argument for AA pay to play upgrade scheme. Maybe DP would agree since US charged for sodas at one point to ensure they were not “over utilized” by non-thirsty coach pax. Do you really want to go down that path?

  47. I like the process of US Airways awarding seats in each tier based on how many miles were flown the previous 12 months. This gives the person in that tier that has flown the most the greater benefit then someone who has not flown as much. This is a great way to take care of your frequent flyers. This is much better than awarding the upgrade based on the day requested.

  48. US Airways upgrade window for Chairman is one week prior to the flight. This is more time than the 100 hours that American uses. This helps in planning especially if you need to check bags and know you will have the extra weight limit First Class is given.

  49. Like I said on the “Heels First” post I don’t currently have status with either airline; but I’ll give the edge to US Airways for the ability to upgrade your flight companions.

  50. I like when you earn Chairman status on US Airways by flying the required miles and you are upgraded (if space is available) on award tickets. That is the way a company should treat its highest level of preferreds.

  51. As a Silver Preferred US Airways flyer, I prefer the US Airways process hands down. I’ve been upgraded to FC several times during their trial program and I don’t think that would have happened on American.

  52. I was mid tier for years simultaneously with Continental OnePass Gold and American Aadvantage Platinum – equal levels at the time. I would have voted for OnePass at the time, as Continental had large first class cabins, a superior product and less Elites, resulting in great upgrade results, even at Silver when working towards Gold. AA, much more members and elites still resulted in great results for upgrades as they had a pay to play system, thus less seats were used. Once the merger was complete and Continental was devoured by the cancer that is United, the upgrades at the mid tier levels were all but hopeless, their third tier still resulted in less u/g than both American and the former CO. I think the UDU works but only for smaller airlines, not with a mega airline. AA was, prior to the mega mergers the largest carrier as well and had smaller legacy carriers that didn’t charge for upgrades and they still had a robust and large elite loyalty following. I would rather have to use my stickers and get upgraded than get UDU and never move my but out of Y. Those that are too penny woes will not upgrade as likely as a true business and frequent flyer , so my seat isn’t taken by someone that happened to fly a big trip to Asia in deep discounted Y and just happened to get a higher status than me and then flies again on a trip that they planned 60 days out so they get Ugd ahead of my work trip that was booked two weeks before in discount coach as well. Plus, CO had so many variables such as how long an elite, how many miles actually flown etc that it was better than most current systems. AA is by far the better choice for a business traveler and US is better for the leisure occasional elite that is their customer. US system works for US size carrier but not the largest mega carrier that is the new American.

  53. It is the upgrade for free of companions that truly makes American a better program. Again, CO allowed only one companion upgrade, which is better than US allowing multiple. As an Elite FF, it is annoying to think someone can take my seat because they happened to book their wife, friends and kids a few days before me. If they got the upgrade themselves that is fair, but taking up multiple seats from other loyal fliers that may have paid more but in the same inventory bucket! AA Alows an upgrade but you use your stickers, and I think an elite is less likely to do that for his coworker or teenagers! CO also had a system for a while that if you upgraded a companion your place was dropped to Silver! You could both go but after Gold or Platinum actual travelers went. I think that is fair as well, if you want to take someone with you your place in line will drop! I think a lot of people thought harder about the value of taking Joe on the list to upgrades if they fell below other Golds etc (or it may have been they got upgraded at the same time as Silvers etc, I don’t remember exactly but I do remember breaking my companion off the PNR so I would not lose my space in the UPGD process. Plus companions were not allowed for the lowest tier, thus further limiting to depletion of seats at the lower levels. In the US airways or United process good luck being a low tier and gettjng an upgrade until you climb four levels. Plus the multiple additional tiers also makes for less benefits on these programs where on American there are three levels, low, medium and high as there was back in the “good old days”. I do however like the fact that other programs, inclusive of US Airways allows you to attach your status to reward tickets, these are not FREEBIES as they are considered a value to the consumer and liability to the carrier. You spent a far more amount of money to get the seat than the fare would have cost. Have you really ever thought to use a domestic coach free ticket ? It isn’t worth it to use 25000 or more for a. 250 fare domestically – 10 miles = $1 in this typical scenario. I think that adding a way to use upgrades on international flights, be it at a cost , would be a way to get more travelers that still result in higher revenue routes. I would use double the amount of stickers or have the opportunity to convert to international stickers at a Lower conversion, say 1=.5 for internationals UPGD. Then I would do all my travel internationally on AA or I would jump ship from my UA, DL or other UDU programs for the paid system that generates revenue and would result in more PAX on the higher fare routes. The success of the legacy carriers has come from reduced domestic capacity and increased international capacity. The carrier that could capitalize on this more and more and leave the money losing flights to the domestic LCC would position itself as a strong carrier with a higher proportion of business going on international routes than domestic – with interline and code share fares with a domestic LCC used to keep feeding the international routes as it’s own domestic availability shrinks. This would allow the carrier to fly with better service and reduce the necessary bare minimum domestic “no service ” that has become necessary in today’s industry. Once PANAM shifted its focus from being an international flagship carrier to a domestic / international legacy carrier the economics couldn’t support the high level of service the airline was known for.

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