Airline Upgrades — How to increase your chances of flying in style

Example: American Airlines Flagship® Business Class

Photo by American Airlines on ValuePenguin

So, I walk up to the gate on my United Airlines flight from Philadelphia to London. The roundtrip ticket I purchased was $1,100 for economy. The gate agent had just announced that the flight was completely full and the boarding would begin shortly. He was also asking for volunteers to give up their seats.

Very calmly and friendly I approached the agent, handed him my ticket, and said to him, “My name is Richard Neher. Here is my ticket. I am flying alone and while I can’t give up my seat, I’m making it available if you are able to upgrade me.”

The gate agent smiled, took my ticket, and said, “I thank you for your offer. Let me see what I can do. Wait here on the side, please and I’ll call you in a while.”

I waited patiently and boarding began. About 15 minutes later he waved to approach him. At the desk, he handed me a free First Class ticket and said thank you! I smiled, too. That was about the 5th or 6th time I got a free upgrade to first class in 1986.

Yep, that happened 25 years ago and it’s not happening anymore on any airline, on domestic or international routes. Long ago, when first-class cabins were much less crowded and Business Class consisted mainly of full fare Economy tickets, it was a win-win for the airline and the passenger. There was space in First Class and I was making an economy seat available. Woohoo.

Photo by Justin Hu on Unsplash

My life partner Pat and I fly mostly together. Our experience with upgrades is mainly focused on Business Class nowadays and my airline of choice is American. Since she does more business travel, her AA status is Platinum while mine is Gold.

Business Class on American and on most other airlines is nothing to sneeze at, of course. It is more comfortable and comes with more amenities than First Class back in 1985. Especially on transcontinental and international flights with wide-body aircraft. No doubt about that.

I read the other day that you have more chances of winning the lottery than getting a free flight upgrade. I don’t want to go that far. While it has become considerably more difficult to be eligible for an upgrade to Business Class, there are ways to increase your chances considerably. Here’s how.

  1. Pick an airline and stick to them.
    It may not be possible for every city in the USA, because some of them have little competition and you may have to fly the airline that’s there. Gary Leff writes on VIEW FROM THE WING, “Because mileage-earning is now largely about credit cards, not flying, your choice for airline to fly is about schedule, price, product — and elite experience if you’re a frequent flyer with enough travel to earn status.”
    I think he’s right, especially if his “product” is aircraft. We fly a lot from Los Angeles to Miami so wide-bodies like 777s are important to us and here’s why.
    Airbus A321 on a transcontinental flight: 20 Business Class seats
    Boeing 777–200: 37 Business Class seats
    Boeing 777–300: 52 Business Class seats.
  2. Fly that airline and its partner airlines
    Make sure your travel plans focus on the airlines that award you miles for the same loyalty program. In the case of American its “oneworld® airline partners” are e.g. Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Sri Lankan Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and a few more.
  3. Aim high for an airline loyalty status
    If you have loyalty status, you get in front of the line when it comes to upgrades. ‘Travelbinger’ writes, “The higher status you are in a frequent-flier program truly determines your chances of being upgraded. To get top-tier frequent-flier status, you have to spend a lot of money with a specific airline, and they reward you with perks that include complimentary upgrades.”
    Even though I’m Gold on American, it’s really the lowest Elite status and there are thousands or millions of higher-level members ahead of me. So, if there is a seat available in Business or First Class, the airline goes through the list of passengers based on their loyalty status first.
  4. Seek out off-peak times and routes
    There are certain times of the day, days of the week, and also certain routes that business travelers with airline status typically prefer to fly. Find them and then stay away from them to avoid being always way in the back of the upgrade line. The least busy routes and the earliest morning flights are good, as well as the late flights, even the “red-eye” overnighters.
  5. Use miles for an upgrade
    a) 500-Mile Upgrade. American has so-called 500-mile upgrades for its loyal members. Valuepenguin writes, “500-mile upgrades are upgrades that are available to certain elite members of the American Airlines AAdvantage® program. All elite members, Gold or higher receive unlimited, automatic upgrades on flights 500 miles or less. For longer flights, your elite status determines your access to 500-mile upgrades.
    Executive Platinum or Platinum Pro members receive unlimited complimentary 500-mile upgrades based on availability on all paid flights within the U.S. and between the U.S. and destinations in North and Central America. Gold and Platinum elites earn four 500-mile upgrades for every 12,500 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) they earn each membership year.”
    Special upgrades, known as systemwide upgrades (SWUs), are available only to flyers with Executive Platinum status, the top level of American Airlines' elite status. (Technically there is a higher level, ConciergeKey℠, but that level is by invitation only.)
    I know, it sounds complicated but it really isn’t. It shows you how important it is to get as high a possible in your airline loyalty status.
    b) Regular miles upgrade. As a rule, upgrading with awards miles is not the best use of your miles since it’s not possible to upgrade award tickets. Also, most discount fare classes are not eligible for upgrading with miles. But, you can use AAdvantage miles, or a combination of cash and miles, to buy upgrades on American Airlines. And you don’t even have to have elite status for that. Interestingly, a miles upgrade does get priority over complimentary upgrades. In other words, with miles upgrades, you are not in the back of the line anymore.
Photo by Francois Van on Unsplash

CONCLUSION

Your chances of landing that desirable upgrade on an airline increase significantly if you know their upgrade priority. On American Airlines upgrade requests are prioritized in this way:

  1. Elite Status
    First priority: ConciergeKey members, then Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro, Platinum, and Gold-level elites (poor me, haha).
  2. Upgrade Request Type
    The first priority goes to mileage award upgrades and systemwide upgrades. And 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets get priority over upgrades on award tickets.
  3. Number of EQDs
    Elite Qualifying Dollars are a 12-month rolling value that’s updated daily. That value is based on the EQDs you’ve earned by
    a) purchasing airline tickets on American Airlines flights
    b) spending on eligible AAdvantage Aviator MasterCard cards.

One last note: Begging at the ticket counter or the gate will NOT get you an upgrade. However, when your flight is overbooked and you have the ability to give up your seat, ALWAYS insist that you are being rebooked in First or Business Class (whichever is available) AND given a voucher for future travel.

You’re welcome!

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Rich Neher

Rich Neher

Born and raised in Germany, I dislike politicians and like performing arts. I enjoy writing, acting, opera, cooking, fine wine, traveling, and playing tennis.