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The American Airlines AAdvantage program has gone through a multitude of devaluations and changes over the last few years. While much has been said about the program negatives like the lack of award availability (and silly fix) and inconsistent post-merger fleet, I wanted to look at a positive aspect in the AAdvantage program that’s still (mostly) in tact: American’s top elite Systemwide upgrades (SWUs). Today, I’ll share tips based on my experience earning and using these valuable upgrades.
How to Earn Systemwide Upgrades
Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs) are given to AAdvantage Executive Platinum and Concierge Key members and can be used to place them in the next-highest class of service. Currently, when you qualify or re-qualify for AAdvantage Executive Platinum status, you’re given four SWUs. Through 2015, you were given eight SWUs, but you still 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).
Also, Million Miler members get 4 systemwide upgrades when they reach 2 million miles and for every Million Mile level after. Once you’re upgraded on any of the segments on your passenger name record (PNR), your SWU is considered used (more on that later).
Systemwide Upgrade FAQs
When can I request to use an SWU? — You can call and request to use an SWU as soon as your ticket is issued.
When can my upgrade be confirmed? — If you can find a flight showing “A” fare (for business to first on three-cabin airplanes) or “C” fare (economy to business or economy to first on domestic) as available, you’ll be able to instantly confirm your upgrade when 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 — a complex mess that even most gate agents struggle to comprehend.
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, employee fares and now basic economy tickets.
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, 2020 if you earn status in 2018. It’s important to note that you must book AND travel by the expiration date — midnight CST, to be exact.
Tips for Successfully Using Upgrades
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, followed by your rolling 12-month Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) earned, so get your request in as early as possible if instant confirmation isn’t available when you book.
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 economy to first on domestic flights), or A fare, which represents SWU availability for an upgrade from 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.
AA.com now shows SWU availability at the time of purchase, but I’ve found it to be inconsistent. Here’s an example of what you’ll see when booking:
Once you select the SWU option, another pop-up box will show you the ability to confirm your upgrade at booking:
Make sure you pay attention to the individual segments and know that typically both aren’t available for confirmation. Remember, if your upgrade clears on one segment, even if it is only the ATL-LAX in my above example and you sit in economy for the long leg, your SWU is still deemed used. As I mentioned, AA.com’s SWU availability is inconsistent, as many searches don’t show the pop-up SWU option.
I haven’t cracked the key to knowing when AA will show the results or not, so I typically head to ExpertFlyer.com. The subscription-only service allows you to search for A and C availability and shows you how many seats are left in each.
Check your route/equipment — Popular business routes are always full (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.
Confirm long-haul segments first — If a single segment of your trip is upgraded, your SWU is deemed used. So if you’re flying an international connecting itinerary with a short domestic segment, call in and apply the SWU to your long-haul segment only, if it’s not available for confirmation at time of booking. This will ensure your SWU doesn’t go to waste by getting used on the short domestic segment. All the Exec Plat desk phone agents are very familiar with this process, though I have called a few times after the initial call to ensure it was done correctly.
The Value of the Systemwide Upgrade
Compared to many United MileagePlus elite members’ thoughts on that airline’s Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) and Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs), opinions on SWUs from the American elite community are quite positive. Many AAdvantage elites have an extremely high percentage rate of SWUs clearing, especially on domestic flights given the wide availability of C fares. The couple times I’ve had a friend gift me an SWU, it’s cleared in a reasonable amount of time.
The best value is combining an SWU with a cheap economy fare. My personal best was a $900 economy fare from Los Angeles to Sydney that I booked with American Express Membership Rewards and my Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN. I got a 50% rebate on the points and these tickets were treated like revenue fares so I earned miles for my booking. I applied and had two SWUs confirmed into business for LAX-SYD round-trip. That means I got round-trip business class to Australia for 45,000 Amex points. That’s an unreal value.
On a last note, with premium economy being introduced, there was a fear upgrades from economy would only be allowed into premium economy on the routes operated by the new aircraft. At this time, AA has said upgrades from economy into business would still be the standard practice.
With Executive Platinum members now only earning four SWUs a year instead of eight, the hope is that it will become easier to clear SWUs. In general, I haven’t heard too many complaints from members about not clearing, and I’ve had luck as an Executive Platinum. My only recommendation to American is to simplify the upgrade priority list and educate all gate and phone agents on the rules.