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Tricks to avoid being skipped on an American Airlines upgrade list

March 17, 2022
8 min read
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Editor's Note

This post has been updated with current information. 

It's a rough feeling to just miss out on an upgrade. But, with some travelers increasingly willing to pay for premium cabin tickets and splurge for paid upgrades, premium cabins are as full as ever. And the competition for a small number of available upgrades can be fierce.

American Airlines has official rules regarding upgrades, which I'll discuss in the first section below. But, some quirks of the American Airlines upgrade system might mean you get skipped on the upgrade list. For example, my wife Katie and I are both American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum elites. Yet, we have evidence that we've been skipped by lower Platinum Pro, Platinum and even a Gold elite on flights.

Through these experiences, we've learned the quirks of American's upgrade system. In this guide, I'll run through a few of those quirks and discuss what you can do to avoid being skipped on American's upgrade list.

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American Airlines' upgrade system

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

When you request an upgrade, there are several possible outcomes. Systemwide and mileage award upgrades may be confirmed before check-in if there's open award space. Complimentary upgrades may be confirmed up to 120 hours before your flight, although the actual timing will depend on your elite status tier.

If your upgrade isn't confirmed before check-in, you'll be placed on the airport upgrade standby list when you check in with American. This list uses the following criteria in order to determine upgrade priority:

  • Status level (ConciergeKey members are first, followed by Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro, Platinum and then Gold members).
  • Upgrade type (Systemwide and mileage award upgrades are first, followed by complimentary upgrades on purchased tickets and then complimentary upgrades on award tickets).
  • 12-month rolling Loyalty Points.
  • Booking code.
  • Date and time of the request.

But, as my experience has shown, American's upgrade system had some quirks that may cause you to be skipped as the system follows the above criteria. So, here are some tips you can use to avoid being passed over.

Related: American makes upgrades free for all elites, eliminates 500-mile coupons

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Split your record locator when flying with a same-tier elite

An upgrade could snag you a hot meal. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

For one of the times I have evidence that multiple lower-tier elites skipped me, I got this reasoning from American Airlines: We were traveling together and the system only cleared one upgrade at a time. Since we were in the same record locator, the system skipped over us — multiple times. If we had been on separate records, we both would have been upgraded.

The solution: If you're traveling with someone at the same elite status as you, contact American Airlines to split your record locators. That way, you'll each clear on your own. My wife and I now ask for our record locators to be split on every flight we book together. And doing so is more important than ever as American rolls out its automated airport upgrade process. Of course, you'll only want to split your record locators if you're willing to fly in separate cabins if only one upgrade clears.

You'll want to be more judicious about splitting record locations when traveling with a lower-tier elite.

After all, lower-tier elite and nonelite travel companions get the benefits of higher elites booked in the same record locator. That means your companion will clear with you at your prioritization level, get your baggage allowance and access seats based on your elite status. Splitting your travel companion out of your record locator might mean that your upgrade clears but that your companion loses access to some valuable perks.

Related: American Airlines changes the confirmed upgrade process

Split requests on continuation legs

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

This tip is only for when you book a "direct" but not "nonstop" flight.

I learned this the hard way when flying Charlotte to Phoenix and then continuing from Phoenix to Honolulu on the same flight number. And this particular example is a perfect example of when this is necessary.

The Charlotte to Phoenix flight was full of business travelers with elite status. Even after American upgraded elites into the 28-seat A330 business class cabin, Katie and I found ourselves at #12 and #13 on the upgrade list, and there were even more Executive Platinum members below us on the list. We clearly had no shot at an upgrade on that leg.

However, the Phoenix to Honolulu flight is a leisure route. The A330 business class cabin was large enough to upgrade almost all the elites flying at this non-holiday time. Only five upgrades went uncleared at departure. Almost all of those were low-level elites, but one was an Executive Platinum: Katie.

That's because we didn't know another quirk of American's system: the airline treats the two legs as one flight by default. To select an economy seat, that seat must be available on both flights. And, for upgrades, space has to be available on both legs for the upgrade to clear. Since we had no shot at the Charlotte to Phoenix leg, that meant we had no shot at upgrading from Phoenix to Honolulu until arriving in Phoenix and being added to that upgrade list.

The solution: Ask American Airlines to split the two legs as soon as possible after booking. I was able to do this with the American Airlines Social Media team. You'll be able to tell that it's been done when you review your upgrade status in the American Airlines app and see each leg has its own mileage. Here's the before and after for those flights:

(Screenshot from the American Airlines app)

Related: Every American Airlines premium seat ranked from best to worst

Use same-day flight change to move to an emptier flight

If you've got scheduling flexibility, you can use American Airlines' same-day confirmed change program to switch yourself to a flight with more empty premium cabin seats. This tip is particularly helpful on high-frequency routes where you can shift your travel by only an hour or two.

You can't make same-day confirmed changes until 24 hours before departure. So, elites cleared on complimentary upgrades will likely have snagged most of the upgrades on flights to which you could change. But, if you see a flight with more than one seat still available 24 hours before departure, you might have a good chance of clearing.

I successfully used this strategy when a bug in American Airlines' upgrade system upgraded lower-tier elites (even a Gold) ahead of Katie and me. By the time American caught the issue, there was just one empty business-class seat left on two flights from New York to Los Angeles, departing an hour from each other. So, we split the record and used a same-day confirmed change to switch Katie to the earlier flight. We both got upgraded into the last available business-class seat on our flights.

Related: It's time for American Airlines to improve its same-day change policy

Use a systemwide upgrade

If you can snag a lie-flat seat for a lengthy flight, it might be worth using a systemwide upgrade to jump the queue. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Finally, American Airlines elites on the verge of missing an upgrade could apply a systemwide upgrade. After all, doing so would push you to the top of the priority ranking for your status tier.

But, unless you have surplus systemwide upgrades or one expiring soon, you probably would only want to do this on long flights with a significant experience difference between economy and business.

Related: Want to upgrade your American Airlines flight? Here are the international routes to book

Bottom line

American Airlines' upgrade system has its quirks, and the published upgrade priority is complicated enough without being further complicated by them. But, as in so many parts of maximizing your travel experience, knowledge is power. Hopefully, learning about these tricks will help you get that upgrade on an upcoming American Airlines flight.

Additional reporting by Katie Genter.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Sometimes it's worth a large investment to reap the benefits of a great credit card. That's exactly the case with the Amex Platinum card. In exchange for the annual fee, you'll unlock access to the Amex Membership Rewards program that let you access airline and hotel transfer partners, along with new lifestyle and travel credits. This card is also incredibly rewarding for travel purchases, helping you rack up a ton of Membership Rewards points for your next award trip.

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  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one select qualifying airline.
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  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees