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How to Use American Systemwide Upgrades

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Among the various benefits of holding elite status with an airline is the ability to receive complimentary upgrades, both automatically and with certificates you can apply to upcoming trips. TPG Contributor Richard Kerr takes a look at the latter, showing you how to use American’s upgrades.

Much to our chagrin, the long-anticipated American AAdvantage devaluation has finally reared its ugly head. While not exactly a great beginning to the holiday season, it’s caused me to look at all the great aspects about the AAdvantage program which were (mostly) left in tact. One of the aspects is American’s elite upgrades. Today, I’ll cover how to use American’s systemwide upgrades.

Systemwide Upgrades

Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs) are given to AAdvantage Executive Platinum members and can be used to place them in the next-higher class of service. Currently, when you qualify or requalify for AAdvantage Executive Platinum status, you’re given eight SWUs. Beginning January 1, 2016, you’ll only be given four SWUs, but you’ll have the opportunity to earn up to four more based on the number of EQMs you accrue (another two after 150,000 EQMs and two more after 200,000 EQMs).

An American 787 Dreamliner. Photo courtesy
It’s tough to use SWUs on American’s 787 Dreamliner, currently used on difficult-to-upgrade routes. Image courtesy of

Currently, AAdvantage Executive Platinums report earning another two SWUs upon reaching 150,000 EQMs and two more for every additional 25,000 EQMs they accrue. Also, another four are earned upon reaching two million lifetime miles and every million miles afterward. A single SWU is good for a one-way trip with up to three segments. Once you’re upgraded on any of the segments, your SWU is considered used.

Systemwide Upgrade FAQs

When can I request an SWU? — You can call and request an SWU as soon as your ticket is issued. Of all the carriers I’ve dealt with, American is the slowest to actually issue the ticket and can take a day or longer.

When can my upgrade be confirmed? — If you can find a flight showing “A” or “C” fares as available (more on this later), you’ll be able to instantly confirm your upgrade as soon as your ticket is issued. If not, you’ll be waitlisted and your upgrade can clear at any time all the way until departure. If it hasn’t cleared at 48 hours before departure, you’ll be placed on the airport waitlist. Make sure you understand American’s upgrade priority so you can better your chances.

What fare classes are eligible for an SWU? — A huge advantage of SWUs is that all published fare classes are eligible. A few exceptions include award tickets, military and government fares, charters, companion tickets, infant tickets and employee fares.

How do I apply an SWU? — You must call to have an SWU applied, as there’s currently no way to electronically complete an SWU.

Can I only use SWUs for myself? — You may gift an SWU to any traveler you like, whether you’re traveling with them or not.

Can I use an SWU on other airlines? — No, you can only use an upgrade on flights marketed and operated by American Airlines or American Eagle that offer a first- or business-class cabin for travel. This means you cannot use an SWU on codeshare flights.

What if my upgrade doesn’t clear? — The SWU will be redeposited into your account. If you have to cancel or change a flight with an SWU already applied, it’s your responsibility to call and have the SWU redeposited. You should keep an eye on this, as the redeposit can take a frustratingly long time and several phone calls to finally get it back in your account.

Do SWUs expire? — Yes, they expire when your status does — i.e., January 31, 2018 if you earn status in 2016. It’s important to note that you must book AND travel by the expiration date — midnight CST, to be exact.

Business class on AA's A321T.
Business class on AA’s A321T.

Basic SWU Strategy

Time of request really matters.  — Unlike United, American doesn’t take into account the fare class of your revenue ticket when deciding the waitlist priority. Only the member’s status and time of SWU request factor in to your priority when using an SWU, so get your request in as early as possible if instant confirmation isn’t available when booking.

Check for an immediate confirmation. You do have the ability to find out if the flight you’re looking to book has availability to instantly confirm your SWU. You can use a couple of techniques to search for C fare availability, which represents an economy to business upgrade, or A fare, which represents SWU availability for an upgrade from economy or business to first. To be clear, you can’t double upgrade. On domestic flights, you can go from economy to first and on a three-cabin flight from business to first.

Curiously, the “A” fare bucket also designates a discount first-class fare, so when you see discount first available for purchase, you can conclude your SWU can be instantly confirmed to upgrade from paid economy or business to first.

Because A fare is often for sell, you can usually easily confirm an SWU instantly on domestic flights.
Because A fares are often for sell, you can usually easily confirm an SWU instantly on domestic flights.

When searching, there’s a notification SWUs are available below the flight number, but you can’t always believe it. There are two real discrepancies with the feature. The first problem is the notification doesn’t represent only C or R fares as available; it means any of the upgradeable fare buckets are available for the flight. Secondly, if you’re searching a multi-segment itinerary and only one leg has upgradeable fares, it will not differentiate whether the other segments have availability and will show them as available anyways.

You can't believe's notification that SWUs are available.
You can’t always believe’s notification that SWUs are available.

The best way to confirm availability at the time of booking, besides seeing an A fare available for sale, is to use ExpertFlyer. The subscription-only service allows you to search for A and C availability and shows you how many seats are left in each.

Use ExpertFlyer to find space for instant SWU confirmation.
Use ExpertFlyer to find space for instant SWU confirmation.

Check your route/equipment. — There are popular business routes that are full every day (with a majority of premium-cabin passengers holding AAdvantage elite status) no matter what time of the year. If you have SWUs, you’re probably aware of these routes (and hubs like DFW and LAX) and know to avoid trying to use an upgrade on them, especially at the last minute. I would strategize for off-peak seasons while also taking into account the equipment being flown.

American's new 777-200 business cabin is much more desirable than the old seven across cabin.
American’s new 777-200 business cabin is much more desirable than the old seven-across cabin.

American unfortunately still flies some terrible 777s with seven-across business that are angled lie-flat. If you’re looking to use an SWU, you stand a better chance of it clearing on these old planes compared to using it on a more desirable product like the new Dreamliner or 777s.

The Value of the Systemwide Upgrade

Compared to many United MileagePlus elite members’ thoughts on that airline’s RPUs and GPUs, opinions on SWUs from the American elite community are considerably more positive. Many AAdvantage elites have an extremely high percentage rate of SWUs clearing especially on domestic flights given the wide availability of A fares. The couple times I’ve had a friend gift me an SWU, it’s cleared in a reasonable amount of time.

With that said, seeing that the number of SWUs you’ll earn will officially be cut in half next year, the SWU may no longer be a driving force in keeping travelers loyal to American. At least American has said that cardholders will still be able to earn EQMs and miles with the Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard.

What has your experience been when using an SWU?

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