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The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on American Airlines

Sept. 21, 2022
12 min read
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With the ever-increasing demand for premium flight seats, airline upgrades have become exceedingly difficult to obtain for the average passenger. You may even have airline elite status or want to use your points or cash to secure a higher cabin class on your next flight, but that may not be enough for a cushier seat up front.

Nevertheless, if you aspire to an upgrade on your next American Airlines flight, there are a few ways to increase your odds.

In this guide, we'll review how American Airlines flyers can score a seat upgrade, including learning about upgrade eligibility, priority and more.

Searching for Upgrade Inventory

Your fare code makes a big difference in your shot at an upgrade. ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

If you’re seeking an upgrade on your next American Airlines flight, one major factor you should be familiar with is finding the correct upgrade fare codes — also known as upgrade inventory. Just because there’s an open seat in business or first class, doesn’t mean that an airline makes it available for upgrades.

American has 26 different fare codes, covering its revenue tickets, award tickets and upgrade inventory.

For this illustration of finding the right upgrade inventory, there are only two fare codes you need to remember for the purpose of scoring an upgrade:

  • A: First class upgrade inventory (three-cabin aircraft).
  • C: Business class/domestic first class upgrade inventory (two-cabin aircraft).

The good news is that if you forget, ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG's parent company, Red Ventures) gives you a handy little cheat sheet as to what each fare class means.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

For example, when using ExpertFlyer's "Award & Upgrade" search functionality for American’s transcontinental flights between New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) next March, the screen shot below displays “A” and “C” fare class inventory. If the resulting number is greater than zero, it means there are upgrades available to the next cabin up on those flights.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

However, please note that you must search ExpertFlyer segment by segment to get accurate results for connecting itineraries. As an example, if you want to fly from San Francisco (SFO) to Orlando (MCO), you can't use SFO as your departure airport and MCO as your arrival airport. You must first search for SFO to your connecting point — like Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) or Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) — and then do a separate search from your there to MCO.

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Upgrade Priority

JT GENTER/THE POINTS GUY

Given how many different types of upgrades American offers, it’s important to understand where you’ll fall on the upgrade list to understand your chance of clearing. Here is how American assigns priority on the upgrade list:

  • Elite status: From the top down, American will rank all passengers on the upgrade list based on their AAdvantage elite status. Concierge Key members have the highest priority, followed by Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro, Platinum and lastly Gold elites. General members attempting to apply an upgrade certificate (more on that below) will find themselves at the bottom of the list.
  • Type of upgrade/ticket: Within a single elite status tier, American uses the type of ticket or upgrade certificate as a tiebreaker. Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs) and mileage upgrades get the highest priority, followed by complimentary upgrades on revenue tickets and complimentary upgrades on award tickets.
  • Something to note: The tiebreaker on the upgrade priority list between two elite members who have the same elite status and are using the same upgrade instrument boils down to which member has the higher amount of Loyalty Points in their account. As of March 1, 2023, the rolling 12-month Loyalty Points value used for upgrade priority will be solely composed of Loyalty Points.

Speaking of which, let’s dive into these upgrade types in greater depth.

Ways to upgrade on American Airlines

ERIC ROSEN/THE POINTS GUY

First, you should be familiar with the myriad of methods that can be used to upgrade to first class or business class with American Airlines.

They are:

  • Upgrading using miles or cash.
  • Use systemwide upgrades, or SWUs.
  • Earn complimentary upgrades for AAdvantage elite status members.
  • Upgrading through the airline’s small-business program.

Of the aforementioned upgrade options, non-elites — those who don’t have any elite status with American Airlines — can only upgrade to a higher class of service by redeeming miles or paying cash.

American Airlines elites, however, have an array of choices, including using systemwide upgrades or receiving a complimentary upgrade based on elite status level.

Upgrade using miles or cash

Since cash and mileage upgrades are available to all American Airlines customers traveling on qualified tickets — not just elite members — we'll start here.

American Airlines publishes a chart detailing how much it will cost you to upgrade a ticket to the next class of service. The upgrade amount is determined by your origin and destination.

If you’re flying on a discounted ticket and trying to upgrade, you’ll need to shell out miles and a cash copay, while those looking to upgrade on a full-fare ticket can simply pay extra miles — no copay required.

For example, an itinerary from the continental U.S. to Hawaii would cost 15,000 miles and $175 to upgrade to the next cabin of service.

AA.COM

While AA says these upgrades are to the “next cabin of service,” that currently does not include the carrier’s premium economy product.

This means that if you’re upgrading from an economy ticket, you skip right over premium economy and land in business. Premium economy tickets also upgrade directly to business class.

Here are a few important terms and conditions to be aware of when using cash and miles upgrades:

  • Upgrades are subject to capacity controls (i.e. you need A or C inventory to clear an upgrade).
  • Upgrades are valid for a single one-way trip with a maximum of three segments.
  • Basic economy tickets and award tickets are not eligible.

And if you’re wondering what exactly American counts as a “discount economy ticket,” here are the relevant fare codes for each category of upgrade pricing:

  • Discount economy with published fares booked in H, K, M, L, V, G, Q, N, O, S and Military or Government fares booked in Y.
  • Full-fare economy with published fares booked in Y.
  • Discount premium economy with published fares booked in P.
  • Full-fare premium economy with published fares booked in W.
  • Discount business with published fares booked in I.
  • Full-fare business with published fares booked in J, D or R.

Apply systemwide upgrades if you have AA elite status

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum elite members with American Airlines can choose from a selection of Loyalty Choice Rewards after qualifying for status.

Arguably, the most coveted gift — cherished by AA elites — is a systemwide upgrade certificate (SWU). These upgrade certificates allow you to upgrade any American Airlines-operated flight (including long-haul routes) from economy to business class (or from business to first).

American's top-tier Executive Platinum elite members can choose two SWUs as their Loyalty Choice Reward and Platinum Pro can choose one when obtaining their elite status — which can be used to upgrade any purchased American ticket for up to three segments (except for basic economy tickets).

Executive Platinum elites can earn additional systemwide upgrades by accruing Loyalty Points at the 350,000-, 550,000- and 750,000-point levels.

To apply these upgrade instruments to a ticket, you can read our guide to redeeming SWU, but there are a few things to note.

Before applying a systemwide upgrade to a reservation, “upgrade inventory” must be readily available. This is a specific fare class reserved for these types of upgrades.

Your upgrade clearing and being applied to your reservation solely depend on this inventory. You need to search and find “C” fare class inventory (economy to business or economy to first on domestic two-cabin airplanes) or “A” fare class inventory (for business to first on three-cabin airplanes) to have a chance at applying an SWU to your one-way itinerary.

Once found, you can instantly confirm your upgrade when your ticket is issued by calling the AAdvantage service desk and applying the SWU.

You can search for upgrade inventory by logging in to aa.com and looking for the "Systemwide upgrades" link to find flights with available upgrades. You will see “Systemwide upgrades” displayed if there are enough upgrades available on the flight for the number of passengers you request and if you have the appropriate number of upgrades in your account.

You can also search for the specific upgrade inventory you need using ExpertFlyer, before or after booking your flight.

Either way, you will need to speak with an AA agent to apply the systemwide upgrade manually to your reservation.

Complimentary upgrades with AAdvantage elite status

All American elite flyers qualify for complimentary upgrades on domestic and short-haul international flights. However, the exact nature of this process is determined by two primary criteria:

  • Your elite status.
  • The distance of the flight.

For starters, complimentary upgrades on eligible flights are processed in the following order:

  • AAdvantage Gold: 24 hours before departure.
  • AAdvantage Platinum: 48 hours before departure.
  • AAdvantage Platinum Pro: 72 hours before departure.
  • AAdvantage Executive Platinum: 100 hours before departure.
  • AAdvantage Concierge Key: 120 hours before departure.

All AAdvantage elites are eligible for unlimited, complimentary upgrades on flights within the U.S. or between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Central America.

These upgrades are generally valid only on cash tickets, except for Executive Platinum and Concierge Key elites who will also receive them on award tickets.

Business Extra Upgrades

American also operates a separate loyalty program geared toward small and mid-sized businesses known as the Business Extra program.

When employees fly, they earn their individual AAdvantage miles, but businesses enrolled in this program also earn points that can be redeemed for travel awards, including free flights, elite status, lounge access and upgrade certificates.

You’ll earn 1 Business Extra point for every $5 spent on eligible AA and select OneWorld flights, in addition to frequent bonus offers.

At only 650 Business Extra points, you’ll earn a U.S. domestic one-segment upgrade, which is valid for travel within North America or between North America and Hawaii or the Caribbean.

AA.COM

Similar to the systemwide upgrade process, these upgrade certificates require confirmable upgrade space to be available. However, if available, using Business Extra points to upgrade your flight by one class of service can provide a stellar deal.

Related: Guide to earning and burning with American Airlines’ Business Extra program

Bottom line

There are numerous ways to receive an upgrade on an American Airlines flight.

The options range from using miles to outright paying for cash for an upgrade to a higher cabin or scoring a complimentary upgrade as an elite in the AAdvantage frequent flyer program.

Although having an American Airlines cobranded card won't get you an upgrade on your next flight, you can earn AA elite status from credit card spend alone, which could then result in you winding up at the front of the plane in the business or first class cabin.

FEATURED PHOTO BY ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY.

Featured image 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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  • The current welcome offer on this card is quite lucrative. TPG values it at $1,600.
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  • Outside of the current welcome bonus, you’re only earning higher rewards on specific airfare and hotel purchases, so it’s not a great card for other spending categories.
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  • Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings, which requires a minimum two-night stay, through American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
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  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax. Plus Ups are excluded.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. There are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $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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  • Breeze through security with CLEAR® lanes available at 100+ airports, stadiums, and entertainment venues and get up to $189 back per calendar year on your membership when you use your Card. Learn more.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees