Why The American Airlines AAdvantage Domestic Upgrade System Rocks!

As part of my domestic upgrade showdown, it’s time to lay out why the system employed by the American Airlines AAdvantage system is superior to US Airways. First, I wanted to thank Jeanne from Heels First Travel for staking out the positive points of the US Airways Dividend Miles domestic upgrade program. Next, before we get into why the AAdvantage domestic upgrade system is better, let’s just cover what the current system is.  Most of you are familiar, so I won’t go into painstaking detail.

  • All AAdvantage elite members are eligible for upgrades on all paid flights within and between the US, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as flights from the US to Central America.
  • Only the top tier of elites, Executive Platinum members receive complimentary domestic upgrades.  All other members most redeem the appropriate number of 500-mile upgrade certificates per flight they wish to upgrade.  All members can purchase additional 500-mile upgrade certificates either for themselves or traveling companions.
  • AAdvantage Gold and Platinum members earn 4 500-mile upgrade certificates for every 10,000 revenue miles they fly with American Airlines or any other oneworld carrier.
  • All elite members can upgrade one companion traveling with them on any paid economy class ticket.
  • Domestic upgrades are processed by status level at the following time intervals:
    • Executive Platinum:  100 hours prior to departure.
    • Platinum:  72 hours prior to departure.
    • Gold:  24 hours prior to departure.

Now, why American Airlines is better than US Airways when it comes to domestic upgrades.

Less Democracy, More Capitalism Goes A Long Way

More upgrades is better.  That’s a point we can all agree on.  If you’re an informed American Airlines elite member, you’ll get more upgrades on American Airlines flights than you will on US Airways.  Why?  There are a few reasons:

  • The American Airlines system is not a democratic one.  While all elites earn 500-mile upgrades, they choose whether to use them on specific flights.  A Platinum or Gold member on American will not earn enough 500-mile upgrades to cover all their flights each year.  This means that if they want more upgrades, they have to buy them.
  • This system benefits those that value upgrades.  When another Gold or Platinum member chooses not to upgrade on a specific flight they open up a spot for someone further down the list.  If you’re willing to pay for an upgrade, you’re going to receive it much more frequently.  When I was a Gold member of the AAdvantage program I cleared 40-50% of my upgrades, a percentage unheard of from those airlines that practice “Unlimited Domestic Upgrades” (UDU).  As a Platinum, that percentage was around 80%.
  • Even if you don’t buy 500-mile upgrades, you’ll receive enough throughout the year to upgrade some of your flights for free, and have a much greater chance of clearing the upgrade you want.

UDU Just Doesn’t Work In a Larger Airline Unlike a true democracy, UDU doesn’t scale.  The clearest example is the most recent “largest domestic airline” prior to American and US Airways merging.  I’ve been a United Airlines 1K member for about 3 years, the highest status you can earn on United without an invitation.  This is equivalent to Executive Platinum on American or Chairman Preferred on US Airways. As a 1K member, I’ve never approached 100% cleared upgrades.  Frankly, I’ve never approached 75%, but mine is an edge case.  I consistently hear from other Executive Platinum members who clear 99% of their upgrades.  I hear the same from some, if not all, Chairman Preferred members.  The closest thing I’ve heard from other 1Ks is, “Well, when I fly on such and such route, I always clear.”  Or, “I clear a lot of my upgrades, but nobody can expect to clear Chicago to LAX on a Friday night no matter what airline you fly.” US Airways elites like their current system, but we’re talking about a system to be applied to a much bigger airline.  The upgrade lists on United Airlines are frighteningly long.  It’s not uncommon to see a list with 50 or 60 names on it at the airport.  Of those 50 or 60, maybe a handful will clear.  90% of those passengers don’t get any value out of UDU, over and over again on United.

So I ask you, how valuable is a free domestic upgrades if you don’t receive it? The Current

American Airlines System Produces Revenue For The Airline

This is important because without revenue Doug Parker will shrink the first class cabin on the majority of domestic planes. American Airlines leads their peers in the number of first class seats per domestic airplane in their mainline fleet. Based on everything we know about Doug Parker and Scott Kirby, they’re unlikely to keep those ratios intact. The only reasonable argument against that in their world involves revenue. If there’s a chance that the contraction of domestic first is to be less severe it will be due to the revenue generated from 500-mile upgrades (and, to a lesser degree, discounted F upgrades).

I don’t know how much revenue American Airlines derives from upgrade revenue, whether it’s enough to justify the size of the front cabin in the eyes of Doug and Scott. But, I know exactly how much hard revenue will be generated by UDUs. A big, fat zero.

You could argue that free upgrades solidify loyalty, thus increasing revenue. While United Airlines certainly has other issues, I don’t think free upgrades are holding any wavering elites right now. And, with less first class seats than American, United impacts their elite members less on average with domestic upgrades (whether free or not). US Airways generally has fewer seats in domestic first class than American as well.

Imagine an airline where there are more elite members than United fighting for the same or fewer number of seats. Add to that the fact that disenfranchised United fliers are looking for a place to take their loyalty. American Airlines is the only domestic legacy carrier left that hasn’t announced a spending requirement for elite status. That could make United defectors more likely to choose American Airlines over Delta.

More elites. Less seats.

 Why The American Airlines Confirmed Standby Procedure Is A Friend, Not Enemy, To Those Who Seek Upgrades

 A gripe I’ve heard in the past relative to American Airlines is that everyone, including Executive Platinum members, are required to pay a fee to confirm a different flight via their confirmed standby procedure.

But, this is actually a good thing.

 Again, like with paid 500-mile upgrade certificates, those that don’t want to pay the confirmed standby upgrade fee won’t end up on the upgrade wait list. While likely a small number, it’s still folks who can’t take a seat from you if you’re willing to pay the confirmed standby fee and they’re not.

And, as an Executive Platinum member, you generally know before you pay the fee if an upgrade seat is available.

Because American holds back a decent amount of seats for people who buy first class seats at the last-minute, this also means that elites will have the option to slide into one of those seats with a confirmed change fee.

If You’re Smart And You Feed & Water Your Reservations, You Have An AAdvantage Over Your Fellow Elites

A small “feature” of the AAdvantage upgrade system is that you need to request the upgrade when booking (or any point thereafter).  Priority in the same status group is by time of request.  There’s a small check box at the bottom of your final confirmation page when booking a reservation that needs to be selected to get put on the upgrade list.  Some folks who want an upgrade won’t realize this, others will forget to do it.  That’s a small percentage of folks, for sure.  But, if you take care of your reservation and request the upgrade right away, you’ll be a bit further ahead

Now, Jeanne makes some good points about the US Airways side of things.  She says:

Complimentary Upgrades For All:  I think the lack of upgrades on most routes outweighs occasional upgrades for lower level elites on non-elite heavy routes.

You Get Upgraded Way Ahead Of Time:  It’s great to know you’re upgraded a week out, but this works against you.  Last-minute changes are a part of life.  If you have to change your flight within the upgrade window, you’re better off if your fellow elites haven’t already been upgraded.

You Won’t Get Separated from Your Traveling Companion:  There are some small differences here but the procedures between the two airlines are pretty close here.

Your Companions Get Your Status LevelA US Airways win, in that American will only let you upgrade one companion.

Upgrades on Award TicketsAnother plus for US Airways.


Bottom Line It For Me, Ed

US Airways has a small AAdvantage when it comes to multiple companions and upgrades on award tickets. In all other areas, the American Airlines process will yield you more upgrades when you want them, especially if you’re willing to buy extra 500-mile upgrade certificate.

Remember, a free upgrade is only valuable as a benefit if you actually receive an upgrade.  Plenty of higher ranked United Airlines elites miss out on many upgrades.  Just look at those mile-long upgrade lists.  The New American will be a bigger airline with more elites.  A modest pay for play system ensures that you’ll have occasional upgrades when you want them, and even more if you’re willing to pay.

We’ll be voting either later today or tomorrow.  I have the poll ready to go.

And, don’t forget to join the discussion to have a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card.  Here are the links:

Heels First Travel (Jeanne’s valiant effort at claiming US Airways superiority)

Pizza In Motion (The American AAdvantage is clear)


  1. One concern I have with the AA method is that it seems easier to be gradually devalued, especially with Parker running things. Currently, you earn 4x 500 for each 10K, or purchase for $30 each, but that could easily be devalued to 3x for 10K, or 4x for 12K, or the price raised to $35 or $40. And then again a few years later. When you instead have “free unlimited domestic upgrades”, that can’t really be devalued without it no longer being free or unlimited.

    1. Swag, no doubt Doug knows how to cut. Let’s hope the revenue is enough for him to leave the system alone.

      1. Seriously?

        For Parker – or any CEO, for that matter – “revenue” and “enough” cannot be in the same sentence unless preceded by “not”.

  2. Ed, when you compare the UA vs. AA upgrade rates, isn’t an important distinction how aggressively the airline sells “tens of dollars” upgrades to customers – essentially discounted upgrade offers that are made either at booking, at check-in, or some time in between? And maybe a secondary factor is discounted confirmed upgrades that are available to customers paying relatively high fares, ie. YBM fares on UA. To the extent that the new AA sells these space available upgrades or offers first for high coach fares (effectively discounting first for elites), all of which can occur before elites get upgraded, that will have a much bigger impact on elite upgrade rates than whether they use stickers or UDU. It seems reasonable to expect that AA will be selling upgrades more aggressively as well as shrinking F cabins. The new A319’s are being delivered with only 8 F seats. How many in the non transom 321s?

    EXPs have had a really nice existence with unlimited free upgrades for them and no one else. It’s reasonable to expect their experience will become more like UA 1K’s within a year or two.

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