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For airline elites, there’s no more exhilarating — or frustrating — aspect of flying than upgrades. The elation of getting that upgrade at the gate for the 16 hour Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Hong Kong (HKG) flight. Or, the futility of seeing yourself as #72 on the upgrade list.

There might be no worse frustration than being skipped over on the upgrade list — especially when it’s for one of the airline’s longest international flights. But, that’s exactly what happened to TPG reader and TPG Lounge member Andrew Manuel before his Los Angeles (LAX) to Hong Kong (HKG) flight:

How in the world does this happen?!? #2 on the upgrade list and four people below me gets it?!? Asked the gate agent and he was not responsive at all. So I guess the gate agent can circumvent the prioritization of upgrades? Never seen anything like this before.

AA Upgrade List HKG-LAX

Andrew asked how this could happen, so let’s take a look.

Upgrade List Order

First, some background on how the upgrade list is ordered. With the advent of Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQD) and the airline’s understandable push to maximize revenue, American Airlines reconfigured its upgrade list in May 2017.

Before this change, upgrade lists were sorted by elite status with the tie-breaker being the date/time of upgrade request.

Now, it doesn’t matter when you request an upgrade; AA’s upgrade lists are now ordered by: elite status, then type of upgrade (systemwide/mileage before 500-mile) and ticket type (purchased before award) and finally using EQD for the past 12 months as a tie-breaker.

So, all Concierge Key elites will be listed ahead of Executive Platinum elites and on down the list. Within each group, all of the systemwide and mileage upgrade requests come before 500-mile upgrade requests. Within the 500-mile upgrade request section, paid tickets are prioritized before award tickets (now free for Executive Platinum and Concierge Key elites). Finally, EQDs are the final practical tie-breaker.

Reasons you may have been skipped

1. You weren’t skipped, AA just combines two upgrade lists. This is what happened in Andrew’s case. I checked with American Airlines, which looked into Andrew’s specific flight to make sure everything was above board. Side note: as an AA Executive Platinum member myself, I was pleasantly surprised to find how seriously the airline took this upgrade priority concern.

Here’s what happened: The Los Angeles (LAX) to Hong Kong (HKG) flight is operated by a three-cabin 777-300ER aircraft. Both the economy-to-business and business-to-first upgrade requests appear on the same list, ordered according to the same rules. #4, 6, 8 and 9 all were upgrading from a different cabin.

This scenario is going to be a potential issue on any flight operated by American Airlines’ two different three-cabin aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER (used on premier international routes) and Airbus A321T (used on certain transcontinental routes: LAX-MIA, LAX-JFK and JFK-SFO).

The simple solution would be to have separate upgrade lists. While a spokesperson agreed that this would be very customer-friendly change, the airline’s IT department is backlogged with more pressing items. Unfortunately, separate upgrade lists aren’t on the horizon.

And, unfortunately, it can get worse before it gets better. American Airlines is leading the US carriers with its rollout of premium economy, with 63 aircraft scheduled to have the product by year end. If the airline introduces economy to premium economy upgrades, this upgrade list confusion will quickly become the new normal, rather than a one-off.

2. Not enough seats for traveling companions to be upgraded together. My wife Katie and I have been on the short end of this scenario. With our Executive Platinum statuses landing us #1 and #2 on the upgrade list, there was just one first class seat up for grabs for a flight. The gate agent skipped over both of us and upgraded #3 — without checking whether we wouldn’t mind being split up for the flight.

3. You were on the upgrade list for an award flight (Gold, Platinum and Platinum Pro elites only). While Executive Platinum and Concierge Key elites can now get free upgrades on award tickets, other elite members don’t get this perk. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to talk a kind (or poorly-trained) phone or check-in agent into adding you. But, if the gate agent catches it, you might be skipped.

4. You’re not at the gate at boarding. For last-minute gate upgrades, I’ve experienced where gate agents will simply yell out those on the upgrade list. When we stepped forward, we were processed — rather than the gate agent processing the upgrades in the system. Presumably those that weren’t at the gate at boarding would be skipped.

5. Gate agents acting… improperly. Yes, airport upgrades are done manually, so gate agents have say over who gets upgraded and who doesn’t. So, it’s possible that a gate agent went out of order to help someone with a sob story. However, make sure to check that there isn’t another reason before reaching out to American Airlines Customer Relations with a complaint.

Outdated skipping scenarios

1. You were added to the upgrade list on an award flight (Executive Platinum elites only). Now that AA Executive Platinum members get free upgrades on award flights, you should no longer be skipped over for being on the upgrade list improperly. Before this perk was added in early 2017, I was flying on an award ticket and listed as #1 on an upgrade list. The gate agent caught that I was on an award ticket and skipped over me, upgrading the next four passengers on the list.

2. Upgrading non-elite travelers with their elite companion. In the past, airport upgrade lists were ordered “every man for himself.” So, a top-tier elite could be traveling with a low-tier elite spouse. One would be up at the top of the list and the other would be down the list. Gate agents noticing this situation would upgrade both together.

Now, I’ve confirmed with American Airlines that this bug has been worked out. Traveling companions on the same record locator are automatically added to the airport upgrade list based on the upgrade priority of the highest-priority traveler. If you’re on separate record locators, you’re going to have to contact AA reservations to link the two record locators together.

Bottom Line

Andrew’s situation sure looked sketchy, so his anger is certainly understandable. Unfortunately, this isn’t a rare situation… and it’s not going away anytime soon either. Hopefully this article shed light on why you might be — or might have been — skipped on an American Airlines upgrade list.

Have you been skipped on an upgrade list — especially for a reason other than those listed here? Sound off below.

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