According to The Points Guy, major changes are in store for how upgrades are processed by American Airlines, one of the country’s largest airlines. The new policy will increase the focus on how much individuals spend with the airline instead of the current method that considers the time of request. The rules were announced last year but their implementation date, May 20, was not reported until now.
Many carriers already have rules that rank passengers by fare class — a rough proxy for the price of a ticket, but which more accurately describes the rules and restrictions placed on a fare. Alaska Airlines switched earlier this year from using time of request to fare class. United Airlines and Delta Air Lines have used fare class for much longer. American Airlines already gives priority to full Y fares, but this is a minority of passengers.
What’s different is the new plan for American Airlines doesn’t look at fare class. Instead it looks at how much you’ve spent with the airline. Buying an expensive, unrestricted ticket on a particular flight won’t help much if you’ve spent relatively little on other flights in the past year. Conversely, regular travel — even on cheap fares — could give you higher upgrade priority on a particular flight if your historical spend is higher than that of other passengers.
This is not entirely surprising. Airlines have been increasing their focus on how much customers spend for a long time now. Elite status at some airlines no longer depends on how far you fly (elite qualifying miles) but also how much you spend (elite qualifying dollars), and both requirements need to be met. It’s just unusual to see elite qualifying dollars tied directly to the upgrade process, too.
The New Upgrade Process
Elite status will still be a more important factor in upgrade processing. Executive Platinum members will all be upgraded before Gold members, for example. But within each elite tier, the guy with the more expensive ticket won’t necessarily be at the top of the list.
To determine your upgrade priority, follow this process:
- First, all passengers are ranked by elite status: Concierge Key, Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro, Platinum, and then Gold.
- Second, passengers within a particular elite tier are ranked by the type of upgrade they’ve requested: (1) systemwide upgrades and mileage award upgrades; (2) 500-mile upgrades on paid tickets; (3) 500-mile upgrades on award tickets.*
- Third, in the event two passengers have the same elite status and the same type of upgrade request, the number of elite qualifying dollars in the last 12 months will be used as a tie-breaker.
*500-mile upgrades on award tickets are only available to Concierge Key and Executive Platinum members.
How do you determine the number of elite qualifying dollars you have? Well, you can see how many you have for this year, but that isn’t the same as a rolling 12-month period, which includes some of this year and some of last year. There’s no way to know how many elite qualifying dollars you or anyone else has without tracking that manually. I recommend you don’t worry about it.
American Airlines has consistently had a two-pronged approach to companion upgrades. In advance, you and a companion could be upgraded together at the same priority as the person with higher status. But like many other airlines, only one companion is eligible to be upgraded and all passengers on a particular reservation need to be treated the same. This means reservations with three or more passengers can’t receive companion upgrades — it’s impossible to upgrade one person and a companion while leaving the third person behind.
If you’re traveling with several people on a reservation, I recommend you call to have the reservation split into smaller ones. (I have the same recommendation for Alaska Airlines and United Airlines.)
Within 24 hours of departure, you’re essentially screwed. Each passenger — including companions — is re-sorted on the upgrade waitlist according to his or her own status. Companions do not share the status of the other person unless traveling on an award ticket.
I imagine this could lead to some unhappy campers, though it raises a valid point: Should a loyalty program recognize the individual purchase or a history of purchases? It’s not clear what the right answer is. Alaska Airlines still avoids the issue of elite qualifying dollars altogether. United and Delta have similar policies to each other, using elite qualifying dollars for status but not for upgrades. American Airlines appears determined to try a third approach. Regardless of who’s right, be warned that your upgrade strategy may need to change soon if you fly on American Airlines.