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See that ancient 2-5-2 economy up above? American still operates that cabin on many of its international routes, but you can do so much better when flying overseas. AA also flies its 777-200 on a few domestic routes (to reposition the plane for long-haul service), and while it’s hardly a terrible option for a three-hour flight from Miami to Dallas, if you’re an AAdvantage elite member, you can reserve a business-class seat on a few domestic routes for free!

Over the weekend, I was scheduled to fly from Miami to Denver — in coach. When I missed my flight, I rebooked via Dallas on the 777-200. The only open premium seats were in the exit row in coach or a seat up in biz. That’s when I noticed that as an Executive Platinum member, I didn’t have to fly squished back in the economy cabin. I changed my flight and simply clicked seat 8J — a window seat in the 2-3-2 business-class cabin (which AA is very slowly working to phase out).

Now if I had booked first class on this flight, I would have landed a lie-flat seat — the same model the Pope flew around the US during his visit in September. But I was more happy with my angle-flat business seat since I was flying on an economy ticket! Note that you’ll still get economy service (so no in-flight meal), but that’s not a huge deal.

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So how does this work? Essentially, American needs to get its 777-200s from one hub to the next before a long-haul international flight. For example, the same plane used to operate a flight from Rio to Miami may later fly from Dallas to Tokyo. At some point between those two long-haul flights, it needs to make its way from Miami to Dallas, and rather than fly it empty (on a “ferry” flight), AA opts to load it up with paying passengers.

The challenge is, the airline will likely find it difficult to sell seats in three cabins on a short domestic flight, and with an aircraft substitution being a possibility (a 737 being swapped in for the 777, for example), it’s easier for AA to just sell first class and economy tickets on the flight. This is great news if you’re an elite member traveling on one of these flights, since American will let you pick a business-class seat for free.

Here are a few examples of flights where AA’s selling two cabins on a three-cabin plane 777-200 (all on May 4, 2016):

  • AA281 Miami (MIA) 7:00am Departure ⇒ Dallas (DFW) 9:12am Arrival
  • AA2391 Dallas (DFW) 4:45pm Departure ⇒ Miami (MIA) 8:30pm Arrival
  • AA2339 Chicago (ORD) 4:55pm Departure ⇒ Dallas (DFW) 7:27pm Arrival
  • AA1295 Dallas (DFW) 6:20pm Departure ⇒ Chicago (ORD) 8:38pm Arrival

You’ll typically only see this with the older version of AA’s 777-200 flying between Dallas and Chicago or Miami, or occasionally on A321T flights between New York and Boston. American operates the 777-300ER on several domestic routes from MIA, but the airline sells all three cabins on most of these flights. What’s especially interesting about the way AA sells the 777-200 flights is that AAdvantage Gold members will need to purchase Main Cabin Extra seats (at a discount), but business-class seats are available at booking for free. The choice is pretty clear here!

Have you scored a free business-class “upgrade” on AA?

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