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Big changes are coming to American Airlines upgrade lists starting this Saturday. Effective May 20, the upgrade order will undergo a fundamental shift from being based on the time of your request to being based on how much you’ve spent on American Airlines in the last 12 months.

These changes were originally unveiled last June and were expected to kick in sometime this year. However, we had no timeline regarding when these changes were going to go into effect until now — just days before the changes happen.

Let’s take a look at the changes and then who the winners and losers are from these changes:

Free Upgrades on Award Tickets

Starting May 20, American Airlines Executive Platinum and Concierge Key members “can use their complimentary 500-mile upgrade benefit on AAdvantage award tickets for travel on American to upgrade from the Main Cabin to the next class.”

Effectively, this means that award flights are going to be treated similarly to revenue economy flights: EPs and CKs on award flights will be added to the upgrade list for domestic and short-haul international flights (any flight covered by the 500-mile upgrade policy). However, your upgrade priority isn’t going to be as high as when you’re flying on a paid ticket (see below).

Changes to Upgrade Order

Currently, priority on the upgrade list is first determined by elite status with the tiebreaker being request date/time. That’s changing this weekend to be based on status, then by type of ticket, then Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) accrued in the last 12 months, then booking fare code, then by request date/time.

However, as EQDs earned in the last 12 months is the first tiebreaker, two elite members are going to have to have the exact same EQDs for the booking fare code or request date/time to factor into the order. So, you can effectively ignore the booking fare code and request date/time aspects of the new rules.

In short, the upgrade priority is going to be as follows — with EQDs in the last 12 months being effectively the only tie-breaker.

Status Level Type of Ticket
Concierge Key Systemwide and mileage award upgrades
Concierge Key 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
Concierge Key 500-mile upgrades on award tickets
Executive Platinum Systemwide and mileage award upgrades
Executive Platinum 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
Executive Platinum 500-mile upgrades on award tickets
Platinum Pro Systemwide and mileage award upgrades
Platinum Pro 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
Platinum Systemwide and mileage award upgrades
Platinum 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
Gold Systemwide and mileage award upgrades
Gold 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets

Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQD) was introduced last July — which is less than 12 months ago. So, EQDs over the last 12 months isn’t an option right now. As EQDs weren’t a factor for elite status until January 1, you might think that that’s when AA would go back to. That’s not the case. AA is going back to August 1, 2016 to calculate your EQDs for upgrade priority.

Now through August 1, 2017, your EQDs for upgrades are going to be based on your EQDs from August 1, 2016 to the present. After August 1 2017, it’ll switch to being based on a rolling 12 month period. Unfortunately, AA notes that your EQDs for upgrades won’t be “visible to customers or front-line employees”.

Upgrade Status of Companions

The only change to upgrades for companions of elite members is that one companion per CK/EP will inherit the same status of their elite traveling partner on the airport upgrade list only when traveling on award tickets. Unfortunately, there are some discrepancies that exist in the current AA system that won’t be resolved with these changes. Let’s take a moment to clarify these:

Upgrades more than 24 hours out: Everyone on the same record locator is added to the list at the priority level of the highest-ranking elite. American Airlines’ official policy limits the number of travelers on a record locator to two travelers when being added to the upgrade list. This means that the AA agent potentially needs to split traveling partners who are on the same reservation onto multiple record locator numbers. While this isn’t always done consistently, this is the policy.

Upgrades at the airport: This upgrade order changes drastically at the airport. Every traveler gets added to the upgrade list at their elite level. So, an Executive Platinum with a non-elite companion are split up — with the non-elite not inheriting the elite companion’s status. This isn’t going to change this Saturday… with one exception. Now, if an EP/CK is traveling on an award ticket, one companion on the same reservation can inherit that elite member’s status on the airport upgrade list.

Winners:

  • American Airlines Executive Platinum and Concierge Key members on award tickets. Currently, no elite members on award tickets can get added to the upgrade list. Now, EPs and CKs jump onto the list at a fairly high level. (Side note: I’ve been “inadvertently added to the list” multiple times when flying on an award ticket. However, this wasn’t a published benefit before now).
  • Companions of Executive Platinum and Concierge Key elites on award tickets. Currently, these companions are relegated to their own status level (or lack thereof) when upgrades don’t clear prior to 24-hours out. Beginning Saturday, up to one companion per CK/EP will be on the airport upgrade list immediately below their elite companion.
  • Last-minute-buying high-spend elites. Previously, the first tiebreaker (after status) on the upgrade list was request date/time. So, it didn’t matter if you were a high-value traveler spending $20,000 a year or a cheap leisure flier spending $5,000 to get the same elite status; the priority was first-come, first-served. Now, American Airlines is going to prioritize that high-value flier ahead of those spending less on the airline no matter who buys their ticket first.

Losers:

  • American Airlines Platinum Pro, Platinum and Gold members. Now that Executive Platinum and Concierge Key members (and up to one companion each) on award flights will be prioritized above you, you have an even smaller chance of getting an upgrade.
  • Advance-purchase low-spend elites. If you have elite status based on cheap flights in 2016 — and probably won’t re-qualify now that the Elite Qualifying Dollar (EQD) requirement is in effect — you may have looked forward to milking the benefits of your status this year by buying flights well in advance. Now, you just got dropped down the upgrade list — potentially from the top of your elite status group to the bottom. When there are domestic upgrade lists that sometimes top 70 requests, this is a significant drop.

Bottom Line

This is a huge change to how upgrades are going to work going forward. Generally, these changes make sense — rewarding high-spend travelers and those with high elite status — but there’s no question that some elites will end up getting upgraded less often beginning this weekend.

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