Change Is Here. It’s Real. And, It Sucks.

I recently had my last flight of 2016 on American Airlines. Well, I guess it’s better to say last expected flight. I have a few more to go, but they’re all on United.

As a business traveler I found myself on a great many airplanes this year, more than I wanted.  This most recent flight was a perfect example of what the new normal is.  Don’t worry, this isn’t me complaining.  I’m acutely aware of the reality.  But, I still think it’s interesting to consider.

This was a midday flight from Charlotte to Denver.  Amidst the craziness of my travel schedule, I hadn’t noticed that my upgrade didn’t clear until the night before my flight.  I use a tool called Expert Flyer in situations like this to figure out how the capacity of the flight looks.  Expert Flyer does a lot of other nifty things, but on this day I was most interested in how many first class seats were still available.

In geek speak, the flight was “F7 A6”.  That meant American was still selling at least 7 full-fare first class seats (F) and 6 discounted first class seats available for upgrade (Gary corrected me on this, apparently even though it’s listed on AA’s website as a revenue bucket it’s only used for upgrades).  That seemed to bode pretty well for me.  After all, I’m an Executive Platinum member, the highest level you can achieve at American Airlines (without an invite to Concierge Key).  This wasn’t the first flight of the morning, a popular flight for business travelers on a Monday.

But, this is the new reality of airline travel.  Planes are more full, generally.  Airlines have gotten much better selling cheap seats in first class and cheap upgrades as well.  American has recently joined the fray in being more aggressive in how it sells upgrades, and it shows.

In “the old days”, I would have never seen a flight at F7 A6 and not already gotten an e-mail confirming my upgrade on American Airlines.  It’s one of the reasons I used to be fiercely loyal.  I would sometimes go a year without missing an upgrade.  Again, this is the new reality of air travel.

The following morning, my day of departure, I checked Expert Flyer again.  Now, the flight was F1 A0.  I still hadn’t gotten an e-mail confirming my upgrade.  But, at this point, given how many seats were available the previous evening, I was pretty sure I was good.  I logged into the app to find myself 5th on the wait list of an upgrade.  Oopsie.  Even I was a bit surprised by that number.

That means overnight either a whole bunch of people bought upgrades, got moved to my flight from another one or there were a lot of Executive Platinum members waiting to clear upgrades.  I didn’t see anything that made me think it was due to folks getting moved to my flight from another one.  There weren’t any weather delays and earlier Denver flights left on time.  That means it’s much more likely a combination of people buying upgrades and a lot more elites.

I ended up missing the upgrade by 4 spots.  Since this was Charlotte-Denver, I caught a bit more bad luck with a yet-to-be-refurbished A321 without extra-legroom seats.  This is the new reality of elite travel.


The New Reality


To be clear, there’s nothing new or earth-shattering here.  I’ve seen this rodeo played out on dozens of flights this year.  The implementation of Elite Qualifying Dollars will thin the elite ranks next year, no doubt.  But, this is what business travelers should expect in 2017.  Airlines woke up one morning and realized they could make more money by selling cheaper first class seats.  Instead of pricing those seats at a huge multiple to the coach fare, they started offering them for less.  In some cases, the buy-up amount is less than $100 per flight.  Sometimes, much less.

I’d be insanely interested to see a comparison of revenue generated from paid first class 5-10 years ago versus the combination of paid F and purchased upgrades in 2016.  I do wonder if the airlines on whole are making more money with this strategy.  I suspect that they do, but I don’t have an idea of the magnitude.

Incidentally, the title of this blog post is essentially the subject line of an e-mail I sent Gary Leff, who writes the blog View From the Wing.  A lot has changed in the airline industry over the past few years, especially as it relates to elite status and loyalty programs. For years, I was a fierce advocate of American Airlines.  Gary has flown them for a number of years, in part due to conversations where he encouraged me to try United and I encouraged him to try American 5 or 6 years ago.  I’m not sure what other business travelers like Gary plan to do next year.  Heck, I can’t say for sure what next year looks like for me when it comes to elite status.

I could sit here and say that I’m mad about the missed upgrade.  But, that would be like saying I’m upset the Yankees didn’t win the World Series this past season.  They were bad for a while.  Expecting them to start winning just because I’m a diehard fan doesn’t make it so.

That’s the reality of elite status for the business traveler today.  Airlines will still give you perks for flying a lot (and spending a lot).  They won’t look like the perks your traveling father or mother got in yesteryear.  And, they definitely won’t look like what I used to get a few years ago.  I’m reminded of something Seth, who writes Wandering Aramean, is prone to say.  The brick doesn’t love you back.

Plan accordingly.

The post Change Is Here. It’s Real. And, It Sucks. was published first on Pizza in Motion


  1. I have been under the assumption that AA only offers the $$$ upgrades to people if the number of elites requesting an upgrade is < the number of available seats. Is this still the case? If not, I think we can assume our upgrade percentages will become Delta-like.

    1. Shaun, they’ve said in the past they make their best effort to do so. There were about 25 empty seats on my flight. I find it a bit hard to believe with a bit of a light load that I would be 12th on the list as an EXP prior to starting to clear upgrades. It’s possible, but unlikely. I’m guessing some money was made here.

  2. ORD had a ton of delays yesterday (snow)…Many misconnects/rebookings.

    IME – the Monday noon flights are tough upgrades especially departing from a hub since those are the flights that a ton of connecting elite customers will be taking. The late afternoon/evening flights that are considerably easier or the crack of dawn ones (pre 6am). 8am-2pm are the hardest.

    1. Golfingboy, I know there was snow in Chicago, but I’d be surprised if a big chunk of elites chose to be re-routed to Denver through Charlotte. Not impossible, but they would have had to get out pretty early from ORD to even make a morning westbound connection to DEN. I’ve had reasonable success clearing that midday flight this year, though the numbers have been slowly creeping up.

      1. Yes, I have been noticing a similar shift where upgrades have been more challenging… I failed FLL-DFW on the 7AM flight last Saturday (#1 on the list, apparently full of paid F), so that was a little surprising.

        Weather IRROPs does strange things. I have had lost out on upgrades on PIT-LAX before on UA when they flew the route where customers flying EWR-LAX/IAD-LAX getting delayed and rebooked via PIT.

        To be honest, I didn’t mean to assume that many customers got rebooked via CLT in the midst of the ORD snow, but I am sure some customers flying WAS/PIT/CLE/MDT-DEN via ORD probably got rebooked through CLT for instance. Mondays are tough as flights are generally very full giving limited re-routing options and often customers find themselves stuck with a relatively inconvenient connection.

        Another thing to consider, this is the time of the year where elite ranks are swelled as we have 2016 elites and 2017 elites.

    1. nephari, didn’t really think about her as naked. I guess I could understand how someone would perceive it that way. It was really more just pointing out how crazy the changes have been over the last couple of years.

  3. I fly 200k+ /yr out of MEM. I’m EXP AA and fill in with Southwest. But I could go for Diamond on Delta too… We have Delta, SW and AA at my airport. Any thoughts?

        1. Oh, whoops. Right there in black and white in your first post. I wouldn’t lean DL because you’ll be back-tracking to ATL on a lot of flights. If I had 200K to fly out of MEM, I’d probably lean on AA and SW, just not sure in which order! 🙂

  4. I’ve had the same issue for several weeks now. As a Platinum, I never clear until the gate, even if I’m first on the list with tons of open seats. So much for 72 hours notice to clear like US Airways used to do religiously! I’m so over AA and chasing elite status. I’ve already qualified for 2017, but it will be my last. I’m on to cheapest fare and I’ll pay for first at $100 upgrade instead. It will be cheaper in the long run than mileage runs and overpaying in the hub of CLT.

    1. Greg, I used to clear the vast majority of my upgrades as an AA EXP at 100 hours. I guess the merger took the “best of both” when it came to upgrades. Still haven’t made my decisions for 2017.

  5. A is indeed discount revenue first. It used to be both confirmable upgrades and discount first; however, now upgrade inventory is separate and capacity controlled.

Leave a Reply