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Last-Minute Upgrade Strategies on US Airways

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One of the perks of airline elite status is getting bumped up to a premium cabin, but the upgrade process is complicated and it’s sometimes hard to predict when you’ll be accommodated. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen looks behind the curtain of upgrade priority (for the next few days, at least!) on US Airways.

It’s official. This Sunday, March 28th, the American and US Airways will merge their respective loyalty programs, which is actually ahead of the original estimate of sometime in the second quarter. This clearly has many implications for travelers with both airlines, but today, I want to focus on one aspect of it: upgrades on US Airways. What can you do to secure an upgrade in the waning hours of the Dividend Miles program?

We're just days away from the end of Dividend Miles, so if you want to upgrade, now's the time to do it!
We’re just days away from the end of Dividend Miles, so if you want to upgrade, now’s the time to do it!

For starters, the most important part of yesterday’s announcement (at least in relation to US Airways Dividend Miles) is the following:

“March 25 is the last day to book Dividend Miles award travel.”

This doesn’t mean that your miles will disappear, so no need to panic! They will just be converted to American AAdvantage miles (and added to your AAdvantage account balance, if applicable). However, that means today is the last day to redeem miles for award travel AND upgrades using US Airways’ award chart.

In addition, if you are a Chairman’s Preferred member, you should’ve received two upgrade certificates on March 1st, and those used to be valid for a year. However, due to the integration of AAdvantage and Dividend Miles, that’s not the case. You must redeem these two upgrade certificates by Friday March 27th. Remember that you will be receiving 8 Systemwide Upgrades when the programs merge (and your status converts to Executive Platinum), but it would be a shame to let the two you earned from your 2014 flying go to waste!

So today’s post will be organized slightly differently than my earlier posts on United and Delta. Instead of focusing on the timeline for upgrading (in advance vs. at the gate), I’ll organize this discussion around the various methods for upgrading, highlighting the differences between the various upgrade instruments on US Airways:

  • Certificate upgrades (only applicable until 11:59pm Central Time on Friday March 27th)
  • Mileage upgrades (only applicable until 11:59pm Central Time on Wednesday March 25th)
  • Complimentary upgrades (only applicable until Saturday March 28th)
Flying US Airways to Europe instead of other carriers can save you hundreds of dollars.
If you have Chairman’s Preferred upgrade certificates, it’s “use it or lose it” time!

Upgrading using certificates

As I mention above, Dividend Miles Chairman’s Preferred members receive two upgrade certificates on March 1st, and these can be used to upgrade flights to or from Hawaii, Europe, South America, and the Middle East on US Airways-operated flights. Remember that these must be used by Friday! The flight(s) can be in the future, but the upgrade must be confirmed before 11:59pm Central Time.

Here are the other important details:

  • To book, you must call the Chairman’s Preferred Desk.
  • One companion is eligible (and doesn’t need his/her own certificate), but he/she must be traveling on the same reservation.
  • The benefit only applies to the long-haul flight; connecting flights are confirmed following the process for complimentary preferred upgrades (though I have read reports of agents upgrading a domestic segment as a courtesy).
  • You would normally be allowed to wait list if the upgrade isn’t available and then transferred to the airport standby list; however, since the Dividend Miles program will be gone as of Saturday, this is no longer an option.

Upgrading with miles

In addition, when the programs combine, the SWUs will be valid on both American and US Airways operated flights; as of now, each carrier’s upgrade instrument is restricted to flights on its own metal. When you add in the fact that these certificates are valid in any fare class (without copays), they can be quite valuable.

AA expert flyer
ExpertFlyer availability for A and C fares on American flights between MIA and LHR in November

For more information, see American’s Systemwide Upgrade page, US Airways’ Chairman’s Preferred page, and the combining loyalty programs page.

Upgrading with miles

In addition to these certificates, you can also upgrade future US Airways flights using miles. However, to obtain the rates from the Dividend Miles mileage upgrade chart, you must confirm the upgrade by the end of the day today! After that, you’ll be “forced” into American’s mileage upgrade chart, which could result in needing more miles.

Here’s the chart from US Airways:

US Airways mileage upgrade chart
Dividend Miles upgrade award chart

And here’s the chart for American Airlines:

AA mileage upgrade chart
AAdvantage upgrade award chart

You’ll see that each carrier has some slight differences:

  • For upgrades within the U.S. and Canada, American charges a flat mileage rate and copay, while US Airways charges more miles depending on the flight distance.
  • American charges fewer miles and no copay to upgrade full-fare economy tickets (booked in Y and B fare classes) to any destination, while US Airways charges the same mileage (regardless of your fare class) and only waives the upgrade fee for long-haul business class. If you are booked on a Y or B class ticket, you should definitely wait for the integration, as the upgrade will require fewer miles and no copay.

Here’s a quick chart that shows you which flights should be confirmed now (with Dividend Miles) and which flights would be better after the integration (using AAdvantage miles):

Region

Carrier Savings
Within U.S. and Canada (flights less than 500 miles) US Airways

10,000 miles + $50

Within U.S. and Canada (flights 500 – 999 miles long)

US Airways

9,000 miles + $25

Within U.S. and Canada (flights 1,000 – 1,499 miles long)

US Airways 7,500 miles
Within U.S. and Canada (flights 1,500 – 1,999 miles long) Depends

6,000 miles with US Airways; $25 with American

Within U.S. and Canada (flights 2,000+ miles long)

Depends

5,000 miles with US Airways; $50 with American

Mexico, Caribbean, and Central America

American $75
Hawaii US Airways

$25

South America and Europe

Depends $50 with US Airways; 5,000 miles with American

What makes this even better (and notably different from United and Delta) is that US Airways upgrade inventory is searchable on ExpertFlyer, allowing you to check for availability. Here are the fare buckets for which you’ll need to search:

  • Economy to short/mid-haul first class using miles: A
  • Economy to long-haul business class using miles/certificates: C

Not surprisingly, availability is much better on domestic routes than international ones, though the long-haul routes do have several seats close to the departure date. Here’s a snapshot of the inventory on US Airways’ two daily Philadelphia-London flights for next week:

US upgrade inventory

Again, if you want to use miles at the US Airways rate, you must do so today! If you want to use your Chairman’s Preferred upgrade certificates, you must confirm these upgrades by Friday.

Now you can match up your American and US Airways accounts.
Upgrading on US Airways flights is business as usual for the next few days, but that will all change on Saturday!

Complimentary elite upgrades (short- and medium-haul routes)

If you are booked on a US Airways flight departing in the next few days, nothing has changed with your upgrade procedure. Any elite member on a full-fare ticket (Y and B class) is eligible for an instant upgrade at the time of booking, as long as A inventory is available (again, this is searchable on ExpertFlyer). These fare classes continue to enjoy priority at the top of the upgrade list until the flight departs.

For all other fare classes, upgrades begin clearing one week prior to departure, and these complimentary upgrades require X class inventory (also searchable on ExpertFlyer). The following advance windows apply:

  • Chairman’s Preferred — 7 days before departure
  • Platinum Preferred — 4 days before departure
  • Gold Preferred — 3 days before departure
  • Silver Preferred — 2 days before departure

One non-status companion can also be upgraded at the same time as the status holder as long as he/she is on the same reservation. What’s really interesting, however, is that after preferred status (and ignoring Y and B class passengers), the next tiebreaker is the number of Preferred-qualifying miles you’ve flown on US Airways and US Airways Express in the last 12 months. That means that a Gold member can purchase a $1,000 ticket in a much higher fare class, but be prioritized behind a Gold member on a $200 ticket if the latter member has traveled more in the last 12 months.

These companion and priority rules only apply to advance upgrades. If your upgrade hasn’t cleared by the day of departure, the list is first prioritized by preferred level and then by check-in time. In other words, if you didn’t score an upgrade ahead of time, try to check in as soon as you can!

A final quirk of the upgrade process on the day of departure is that you must be the only traveler on a reservation to be added to the airport upgrade standby list. This applies to reservations with multiple preferred members, but also to ones with both preferred and non-preferred members. Unfortunately, this means that if your companion doesn’t clear in advance, he/she is out of luck at the gate.

If you hold AAdvantage elite status and are traveling on US Airways in the next few days, you'll need to wait until check-in to request an upgrade.
For the next few days, AAdvantage elite members need to wait until check-in to request an upgrade on US Airways flights.

If you’re currently an AAdvantage elite member traveling on a US Airways-operated flight, the process works a little bit differently. There’s no advance upgrade window or priority; instead, you’ll receive upgrades at check-in (if available), and you can be added to the standby list if an upgrade isn’t available. However, these requests are fulfilled on a first come, first serve basis, so an AAdvantage Gold member could snag the last available seat ahead of an AAdvantage Executive Platinum if he/she checks in and requests the upgrade first.

Remember, though, these rules and procedures are only in effect through this Saturday March 28th. Even if your flight is operated by US Airways after that date, the upgrade policies will be based on the newly combined AAdvantage program. I’ll go into that process in-depth in the early part of next week.

Bottom line

Saying goodbye to the Dividend Miles program is a sad day for the frequent flyer community. Its generous routing rules and “flexible” agents led to many sweet redemptions, and its upgrade program was quite generous. I have Silver and Gold Preferred friends who regularly received upgrades, even on transcontinental routes like Philadelphia to San Francisco. Sadly, I don’t think that will continue, but only time will tell!

Stay tuned for next week’s post that details the upgrade process on the “new” American Airlines.

What are your experiences with upgrading on US Airways?

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