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The Easiest Way to Miss an Upgrade on American

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This weekend, TPG intern Kevin Song flew more than 22,000 miles on American, including one segment in coach, despite having systemwide upgrades to burn. Learn how to avoid Kevin’s costly mistake when booking AA flights of your own.

For many frequent flyers, much of the motivation behind attaining ever-higher elite status is the allure of the upgrade. Many don’t care too much about upgrades on short flights, but on longer flights, it can be the difference between being too tired to enjoy a day of sightseeing at your destination and exploring the place you spent hundreds of dollars to visit.

In general, American Airlines has a generous upgrade policy. Elites accrue “stickers” (coupons) domestically, which gives even the lowest-level Gold flyers a chance at an upgrade, since flyers need to pick and choose which flights they would prefer to upgrade, unlike other carriers where the lowest-level elites may have almost no chance of getting a free bump to first.

Instead of sitting in coach, you could be sitting in one of these brand-new business-class seats on American!
Instead of sitting in coach, you could be sitting in one of these brand-new business-class seats on American!

Not only that, but American’s also pretty generous to top-tier Executive Platinum elites, offering unlimited complimentary upgrades domestically (including the flat-bed transcons — if you can get it), and eight annual systemwide upgrades (SWUs), that can be used on any American route — domestic or international — on any paid fare class. If you don’t have any systemwide upgrades, you can also upgrade with miles and a cash co-pay.

There is, however, one caveat: You need to be booked on an American-marketed and American-operated flight. It’s not enough to have one or the other.

With US Airways, at least until reservations merge on October 17, this is also true. If you book a US Airways-operated flight on an American flight number, or vice versa, you won’t clear any upgrades — complimentary or otherwise — until 24 hours in advance when the reservation is handled by the operating carrier. By then, upgrade space might be gone, whereas you might have otherwise cleared as a higher-tier elite.

Furthermore, the ticket generally needs to be issued on American ticket stock (001), so in most cases even an AA flight with an AA flight number can’t be upgraded if the ticket wasn’t issued by American. I missed an upgrade because of this recently — when I tried to upgrade a flight I had booked through British Airways with a systemwide upgrade. I knew I would have no chance of getting it upgraded beforehand, but even the day of, both in the New York JFK Flagship Lounge and at the gate, I wasn’t able to do so. Others have reported success, but that may just boil down to the agent being flexible — those same people report that SWUs were not taken from their account.

So the next time you want to try for an upgrade on American (and most other carriers, too), be sure to avoid making this mistake.

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