American Airlines changes the confirmed upgrade process

Oct 23, 2020

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There’s no better feeling than scoring an upgrade.

In fact, upgrades are one of the top benefits of elite status. On American Airlines, top-tier Executive Platinum and invite-only Concierge Key elites are awarded four (soon to be five) systemwide upgrades each year.

These certificates can be used to confirm a one-way, one-cabin upgrade beginning at the time of booking. This includes all AA routes, including long-haul international travel, so long as there’s space available.

It’s no surprise then that many Executive Platinums save these certificates for the most premier routes, like AA’s longest from Dallas to Hong Kong (slated to resume in 2021).

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However, finding availability might be harder next time you’re ready to redeem an upgrade with AA. That’s because American is making changes to the upgrade process.

Let’s start with some background. When you book a flight, you’re actually purchasing a seat in a given fare class, denoted by a letter ranging from A to Z. These fare classes have different meanings on different airlines. Some are dedicated to revenue (paid) tickets, some to mileage awards and others specifically to upgrades. And a few fare classes can be used for a combination of the three.

Related: The complete guide to American Airlines fare classes

As part of AA’s change to the upgrade process, the Fort Worth-based carrier is adjusting how many seats are available as upgrades, according to a carrier spokesperson. The adjustment will apply to both systemwide and mileage upgrades (and Business Extra ones too).

American Flagship First (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Before this change, it was quite easy to determine if there was an upgrade available on a given AA flight. Upgrading from coach to biz required seats in the “C” fare class. For a bump from biz to Flagship First, flyers would need to find space in the “A” fare class. (“A” was also used interchangeably with a paid first-class ticket.) 

If there was space in either class, then you knew that an upgrade was available. (If there wasn’t, you could always waitlist an upgrade in the hopes that space opened up closer to departure.)

Now, that’s changing. Going forward, even if there are seats in the “A” and “C” classes, upgrades to biz and first won’t necessarily be available. A spokesperson confirmed that the carrier will only offer a subset of seats in these fare classes for upgrades. (American is adding revenue fares to the “C” class.)

You can search for space when making a booking at AA.com or by calling reservations. In addition, ExpertFlyer will and already does display the upgrade space for both the “C” (biz) and “A” (first) fare classes.

Indeed, take a look at American’s New York to Los Angeles Flight 33 on Nov. 2. As shown in the below screenshot from ExpertFlyer, “A0” indicates that there are zero seats available in this first-class upgrade fare class.

(Screenshot courtesy of ExpertFlyer)

If you’d like to see the seats in the “A” class available for purchase, then check “Do Not Show Interline Connections” on the Flight Availability search page. As you’ll see, there are plenty of seats available for purchase in the “A” fare class.

(Screenshot courtesy of ExpertFlyer)

When checking upgrade availability on AA.com, that’s exactly the case — first-class upgrades are unavailable on this flight, despite seats available for purchase in the “A” fare class.

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

This pattern — first-class upgrades being unavailable despite seats in the “A” bucket — applied to many first-class flights that TPG checked. Although we’ve found instances where availability appears to have decreased, an AA spokesperson reassured TPG that “we do not expect any significant changes to upgrade availability.”

Related: Guide to getting upgraded on American Airlines

AA confirmed that upgrade space will continue to be managed on a leg-by-leg basis. That means that you’ll see the same space on a flight from LAX to JFK regardless of whether you’ve booked it as a single segment or as part of a larger itinerary (like LAX to LHR with a stop in JFK). This is in stark contrast to mileage redemptions. In recent years, AA has been transitioning to offering dynamic award availability based on your end-to-end journey.

The carrier also confirmed that there are no plans to change upgrade availability based on a traveler’s elite status. United, on the other hand, has long offered its invite-only Global Services members additional upgrade space compared to other Premier members.

Either way, American’s latest change is noteworthy for those looking to score an upgrade. For now, select flights offer less upgrade space than before, It’s anyone’s guess whether the trend will continue, but one thing is certain — make sure to double-check if an upgrade is available before you book an AA flight.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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