How To Use American Airlines Systemwide Upgrades

One of my favorite perks of being an American Executive Platinum member is that I receive eight systemwide upgrades each year just for earning the status. I’d argue American has the single most lucrative upgrade policy of any airline for their top tier elites.

I know there are lots of new AAdvantage Executive Platinum members thanks to the US Airways Dividend Miles program being merged into AAdvantage, which has led to lots of questions.

I figured I’d answer some of the most common questions I receive about American systemwide upgrades.

When are American systemwide upgrades deposited?

Systemwide upgrades are deposited within a few days of when you qualify/requalify for Executive Platinum status. All eight of them will automatically show up in your AAdvantage account.

They’re valid through whenever your status expires. In other words, if you qualify for Executive Platinum status now, they would be valid through the end of February 2017 (you always get one full calendar year of status, and then status expires the February after that).

American-SWUs

The other thing worth noting is that the systemwide upgrades have to be redeemed for travel by the expiration date. It’s not just a “book by” date, but also a “travel by” date.

Which airlines can systemwide upgrade be used on?

Systemwide upgrades can be used exclusively for travel on American and US Airways. Beyond that, they can only be used for flights marketed and operated by the same airline, as is the case with all upgrades in advance. In other words, you couldn’t use a systemwide upgrade in advance for an American marketed flight operated by US Airways, or vice versa.

How many segments can each systemwide upgrade be used for?

Each systemwide upgrade can be used to upgrade up to three segments on a one-way itinerary.

Can systemwide upgrades be confirmed at the time of booking?

In theory. Systemwide upgrades can be used to confirm an upgrade whenever there’s confirmable upgrade space. There are two ways to search confirmable upgrade space:

American-SWU

Which fare classes need to be available to use a systemwide upgrade?

If you want to use a systemwide upgrade from economy to business class, you need the “C” fare class.

Meanwhile if you want to use a systemwide upgrade from economy or business to first class, you need the “A” fare class. To clarify, you can’t double upgrade, but the point is that on a domestic two cabin plane (with just economy and first class) you need “A,” while on an international flight with three classes of service you also need the “A” fare class to upgrade from business to first class.

Interestingly the “A” fare class is the same as the discounted first class fare code. More on that later, and why that’s pretty awesome.

American-A
Discounted first class equals confirmable first class upgrade space

When does my upgrade clear if I waitlist?

In the event that your upgrade doesn’t clear at the time of booking, you can waitlist it. A waitlist could clear at any point, up until the gate. It could clear a day after you book. A week after you book. A month after you book. A day before you fly. Or at the gate before your flight.

As you might expect, upgrades are generally clearing closer and closer to departure, as American is doing everything they can to sell premium seats before upgrading people.

American-Upgrades-1
No confirmable upgrade space!

How are upgrades prioritized?

Upgrades are prioritized based first on status and then based on when you add yourself to the waitlist. In other words, as an Executive Platinum member booking way in advance, you have excellent odds of clearing. The closer to departure you book, the worse your odds get.

How often do systemwide upgrades clear?

Out of the dozens of systemwide upgrades I’ve redeemed, I’ve yet to not clear. That being said:

  • I’ve had some close calls, and a handful of times have cleared at the gate
  • I try to book strategically

You’ll want to sort of use reverse psychology when selecting flights to upgrade. In other words, choose the flights/times where a premium cabin is most likely to be empty.

To maximize your odds of clearing an upgrade:

Book as far in advance as possible

The tiebreaker when it comes to upgrades is when you book. On many flights there may be one or two dozen Executive Platinum members trying to upgrade. So booking 11 months out vs. a day out could be the difference between being #1 and being #24 on the upgrade waitlist.

Look at seatmaps when you book.

You’ll want to look at both the seatmap for the cabin you’re trying to upgrade to, as well as the seatmap for the cabin you’re booking. In particular, look at the exit row/Main Cabin Extra seatmap, as it will help you gauge how much competition there might be for those seats. You want to book a flight with a combination of as few Main Cabin Extra/exit row seats and business class seats taken as possible. In other words, you want to be competing with as few people as possible for as many premium seats as possible.

Main-Cabin-Extra-1
Not how I like Main Cabin Extra to look when booking!

Main-Cabin-Extra-2
That’s better!

Avoid Dallas

Every airline has a hub where they have a disproportionate number of elites, and therefore upgrades are disproportionately difficult. For Delta that’s Atlanta, for United that’s San Francisco, and for American that’s Dallas.

In general you’ll have a tougher time clearing an upgrade out of an airport like Dallas than out of an airport like Chicago or New York JFK, where there aren’t as many “hub captive” flyers.

Dallas

The better the product and longer the flight, the tougher the upgrade

This should be pretty intuitive, but overall the flights operated by 777-300ERs are American’s “premium” markets, and also where upgrades tend to be most difficult.

For example, Los Angeles or Dallas to London or Dallas to Hong Kong are probably going to be the toughest upgrades in the system.

American-Business-Class-777-17

Chicago to London should be considerably easier, given that there aren’t as many hub captives and they operate the old product on the route. In other words, who in their right mind would pay for American’s business class between Chicago and London, when there are several other airlines operating flat bed products in the market?

American-Business-Class

Meanwhile while New York to London features the new business class product, it’s generally quite an easy upgrade. That’s because it’s not that long of a flight, so a lot of people “rough it” in economy, and decide not to pay for business class or upgrade on it.

American-Business-Class

Day/time/month matters

If you want to upgrade to/from Asia, fly Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Those are by far the slowest days for premium travel to Asia, since few business travelers fly between the two continents in the middle of the week.

An upgrade to Spain is going to be much easier in December or January than in August or September.

An upgrade to Brazil is going to be much easier in August or September than in December or January.

Consider seasons, business travel trends, etc.

How do you apply systemwide upgrades?

Stupidly systemwide upgrades can only be applied by phone. There are two ways to go about that:

  • Book your ticket online, and once the reservation is ticketed call American to apply the systemwide upgrade; keep in mind that the systemwide upgrade can only be applied once the ticket is issued, and it can sometimes take up to 24 hours for a ticket to issue; therefore this might not be the best method if there’s a very limited number of upgrade seats available.
  • Book by phone and the agent can apply the systemwide upgrades directly. If you book your ticket directly by phone, the agent can actually confirm the upgrades before the tickets are issued, by booking you directly in the confirmable upgrade class.

Can you use systemwide upgrades to upgrade from business to first class?

Yes, that’s actually one of my favorite uses of systemwide upgrades. You can upgrade and revenue business class fare class to first class using a systemwide upgrade. Often it’s a great value to book a discounted business class ticket and then use a systemwide upgrade to confirm an upgrade to first class… though in many cases first class is only marginally better than business class.

American-First-Class-777-01

Also anecdotally I find upgrades from business to first class are easier than upgrades from economy to business class.

Can you use systemwide upgrades on domestic flights?

You sure can, and in many cases it’s actually not a bad value. As I briefly explained above, American doesn’t actually have a dedicated fare class for first class upgrades. Instead they use the “A” fare class, which is the same as the discounted first class fare class.

This means that as long as American is selling discounted first class, you can also confirm an upgrade. That means confirmed upgrades to American first class are exceptionally easy domestically, and also internationally on three cabin planes.

American-First-Class

Bottom line

The eight systemwide upgrades are arguably the most valuable perk of achieving Executive Platinum status, and if you take the right approach, you should have no trouble clearing upgrades.

Here’s to hoping American continues to offer systemwide upgrades as an Executive Platinum perk for years to come. While they are shrinking the size of premium cabins on some planes, with the right strategy I think upgrades should continue to clear regularly.

For the Executive Platinum members out there, what percent of the time have your upgrades cleared?

Comments

  1. The systemwide upgrades let you see which classes you can upgrade to, and on all segments. This has been in place for a few months, I believe.

  2. what about the 500 mile upgrades? i seem to have very little luck using those and only remember one time when the 500 mile upgrade has cleared. thanks!

  3. I’m hoping AA continues to allow SWU’s to be used on any fare class for years to come….

    Like you, I have never had an SWU not clear.

  4. @ chris dreiss — Ouch! What’s your status and which routes/days of the week are you mostly flying?

  5. I think that you need to clarify under the section “Book as far in advance as possible” that it’s not when you book that matters but rather when you request the upgrade.

  6. As former US Airways Chairman, what my wife and I find disappointing about the SWU’s is the availability. We recently looked at using 16 SWU’s that my wife and I have in Jan/Feb 2016 and could find nothing on EF using AA metal connecting through LHR or MAD. While, the US Airways metal was wide open during that time period. So before the US Airways reservation system is gone, we used all the SWU’s on US Airways. Since we only travel for fun and are very flexible for dates of travel, we have always been able to use our US Airways upgrades at the time of booking months in advance but that option appears to be gone or at least very difficult with AA.

  7. I am 1K with UA and EP with AA. Last year I was able to use all of my GPUs with UA, and on some great routes at that (SYD-LAX, DXB-IAD, BOM-EWR) while not a single one of my AA SUs cleared. I book almost all of my travel last minute, so your advice of booking far in advance must be key. Hoping for better luck this year…

  8. Lucky,
    If your SWU clears at the gate, will you still be able to credit your flight to a different program? I remember you mentioned this in one of your previous posts, I was actually looking for it today but couldn’t find it.
    Also, If an EXP gives a SWU to another person who is OWE with another carrier, would the person have the same UG priority as EXPs? What if the traveler is an EXP using someone else’s SWU?

  9. Are there any other ways to receive system wide upgrades? Can I buy them? Becoming an exec plat is a little far fetched for me…

  10. Really fantastic and very thorough post, Ben!

    The only other thing I would have liked you to cover is what happens in cases of irrops?

    I’ve heard that there is no guarantee that AA will maintain your upgraded class if they switch planes or something. Perhaps you could mention a few words about that and how to deal irrop situations if you’re flying on an SWU.

  11. @lucky- I have platinum status and normally fly ord to lga Monday/ Thursday with a lot of other business travelers. Even when trying to use on vacation or weekend trips on non business heavy routes, still little luck

  12. @ Craig — Good point. They should try to accommodate you in your confirmed class of service, space permitting. However, this does seem to be pretty dependent on the agent you get, so it’s a case of hang up and call again, or walk away and try again.

  13. @ Nick — They’re not allowed to be bartered. So if you have a friend that has one you could use it, but otherwise not any other practical way.

  14. @ Jonathan — Yep, you should still be able to give a different frequent flyer number after the upgrade clears. As far as gifting systemwide upgrades goes, I *believe* you get the member’s status while on the waitlist, except at the airport your individual status is what matters. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

  15. @ Chris — Agree the lack of upgrade space in advance is frustrating. That being said, as long as you’re booking way in advance, the odds of clearing are excellent.

  16. 100% from SWUs when I was EXP

    AND

    100% using 500s when I was PLT.

    AND

    100% out of DFW.

    Of course, I was always headed to either CUN or YYZ. DFW-YYZ is so light on AA Elites anyone can upgrade. Let’s just say YYZ AA flyers aren’t exactly “hub captives” 😉 So AA was a good choice for me, eh? My AC friends never get their upgrades hahaha.

  17. Hey Lucky,

    Do you have any tips on SWU for 2 travelers? Any idea how it is handled by AA? Or any data point on how AA release their award seats? If not cleared within days of departure, is it better to separate the PNR into 2?

    Thanks,
    Hank

  18. The EVIP’s were one of the most frustrating and useless perks. I would try to upgrade with my wife for international travel. If you don’t clear ahead of time, don’t expect the agents to manage the upgrades appropriately. We were once 1 and 2 on the upgrade list with four seats available, and tied to my EXP status. I was upgraded and she wasn’t. So we’re numbers 3, 4, and 5 on the list. Once they pushed my upgrade through, her ranking dropped to the bottom as Platinum. One of the many frustrating reasons EXP just isn’t worth the extra time or effort.

  19. Can super saver economy tickets use SWUs to upgrade to business on international flights?

  20. @ Joetraveler — Not sure what you mean by “super saver,” but all revenue tickets can be upgraded (economy award tickets can’t be upgraded with systemwide upgrades).

  21. @ Hank — I do think one PNR is better so both passengers definitely have the higher status. The downside is that if only one upgrade seat opens up, you’d be skipped on the waitlist if you’re on a single PNR. So can go either way on that.

  22. Ben, thanks for the post! Tremendously helpful for ex-USCPs 🙂
    One quick question, once you call for SWU and get waitlisted, do you see this info in your account, e.g. “on waitlist” for the flight itin? Also, is there any way to find out your current position on the waiting list? Thanks!

  23. @lucky – Regarding 2 pax on same PNR being skipped. Last week I was traveling with my boss on the same PNR. We both are EXP and only 1 seat cleared at the gate. GA called my boss and asked him if he wanted the upgrade. He said yes, so GA split the record and assigned the seat to him. This was a domestic flight on a complimentary upgrade so not sure if they would do the same for a SWU but I thought it was worth mentioning. One more thing about upgrade list sorting: I guess all things being equal (status, same PNR, same day SWUs were requested) it comes down to Last Name. He is always ahead of me when we travel together (D vs M last name initial)…..

  24. Great writeup.

    You point out the “Systemwide Upgrade” text on the flight results list (the red box you added around flight 137). To clarify some things:

    “Systemwide Upgrade” only displays if you have SWUs (obviously, you’d need to signed in) and there is some type of SWU available on that flight.

    As you mentioned in the other post that you crossreferenced is that (on 3 class flights) you don’t know if it’s “Y to C” and/or “C to F” that’s available. The crossreferenced post also mentions how connectiong flight are hard to figure out.

    The “Systemwide Upgrade” text is actually a click-able link !!
    Click it and you get a pop-up box. On the left select the Class you’re thinking of purchasing and on the right the will be your flight (or “flights” if it’s a connection). Any flight where your fare doesn’t have an available upgrade to the next class will be grayed out.
    It’s not the most intuitive display, but at least you can determine the info without an EF subscription.
    If 2 class, it’s easy as the only “type” of SWU is Y-to-C.

  25. @ Angel — Good point at the gate, though it’s my understanding that in advance if you’re on the same record and only one seat becomes available, they’ll just skip you.

  26. Hi Ben,
    Thanks to your “ausführliche” information I just applied my first SWUs as an EXP 🙂
    DFW-HKG (Nov. 24 out, Dec. 9 back). Right now MCE is basically empty on both legs. I know this is probably the toughest route for SWUs to clear, but by booking and waitlisting so far in advance my chance is still pretty good according to your knowledge? Thanks again!
    Cheers,
    Art

  27. “Interestingly the “A” fare class is the same as the discounted first class fare code. More on that later, and why that’s pretty awesome.”

    Why is this pretty awesome?

  28. @ Maciej — Because it means first class confirmable upgrades are usually pretty readily available.

  29. Thanks Lucky. If I book I class and upgrade to A, will I get 3K or 12K based on a recent AA promotion? Thanks!

  30. I am also a pale EXP. It’s mid July and I haven’t been able to use *ANY* of my 8 upgrades. I mostly fly to Europe and inventory is never available. Sorry but I am not risking spending $1.5K for a RT ticket being on a wait list and hoping it will clear. I am talking about all JFK routes: ZRH, BCN, MAD, CDG…not to mention the “flagship” route to LHR. Zero, Null, Nada. I don’t like “the theory”… For that price $1.2-1.5K I can have a guaranteed premium economy on a non-OW carrier. AA EXP is great for me on all domestic/Central America/Carribean free upgrades (success rate at 95%) but but SWU? These are unicorns to me during April -October. I heard about them and never saw/got one besides on some empty flights in mid March or eary November.

  31. I have been Executive Platinum since 2009, and tend to find systemwide upgrades are challenging to clear, ahead of time, even though I have booked well in advance of the departure date. ( Referencing international flights for upgrades, in particular, and not specifically DFW-LHR, on the 777-300ER, since I do know that is a stretch to clear )
    Will say that I have been blessed to clear, at booking, at times, which I truly appreciate, although rare. I can see all seats open, at times, and still told- “cannot confirm.” Good example, there- booked SAT-DFW-ICN and return, 7-8 months ahead of time, and outbound has all 37 seats open in Business Class, and could not confirm. The return had all seats open, and that was confirmed.
    I am traveling to HKG, via NRT, and booked well in advance, and neither upgrade has cleared yet, although over 75% outbound was open, and 95% on the return was open. ( I will not take a chance on DFW-HKG-DFW; too long of a flight to sit in MCE, since upgrades are sketchy on those flights. I will share that the first time I took that r/trip and cleared upon booking, I was stunned- May, 2014 )

    Thanks- Jim

  32. Thank you for the valuable info! One thing that is never very clear to me, keep getting different answers from airport and EXP desk personnel, priority within the same mileage level: EXP waiting list for UPGD using EVIP. Time of request only or other factors are taken in consideration (type of fare and thru customers, say GIG/MIA/CDG, using one EVIP would have more priority than local MIA EXP customer)? Appreciate any comments of remarks. Cheers!

  33. I’m a huge fan of the AA system as well although I am disappointed that they scrapped their “connecting passengers get priority for upgrade” process. As a AA flyer from IAH, I was almost always at #1 or 2 on the list if I didn’t clear already. I really like OW Emerald status as well and just enjoyed the sushi and sake bar at the JAL first lounge in NRT while flying economy on JAL intra-Asia.
    I think overall, my upgrade percentage is in the 90% range and I only missed 1 SWU on a DFW-LHR flight in August 2014. I booked it 6 months ahead of time and business class went out completely full… I was #1 of 40ish on the upgrade list at check in but to no avail.

  34. Hi Ben, I’m going to make EXP next week. When my 8 SWUs post this year I don’t suppose I’ll get another 8 next February would I? I can dream can’t I?

  35. Reading all of this and scratching my head. I’m flying to LHR from DFW in mid November and returning approx. 2 weeks later. Haven’t heard a scrap about my upgrade from coach to business. Think it’s likely? Presently Q-class ticket and I requested the upgrade at the time of ticket purchase in early September. Not feeling great about it at the moment. The whole process with AA is convoluted. Their advice is “well, we just don’t know …” or “wait.” I really like the airline but some of their tactics aren’t so user-friendly.

  36. For EXPs, is there any advantage in waitlisting to use SWUs domestically (versus relying on the complimentary domestic upgrade) ?

  37. I am a new Exec Plat member this year so just learning how to use the SWUs. I just booked a flight to Dublin in July and am on the waiting list. How will I know when the upgrade clears? When I called the Exec Plat desk they said I am not notified and have to call in but I find that hard to believe. Do I seriously have to call and check the status every few weeks?

  38. They do not notify you, via- e-mail when it clears, as they used to do. I would recommend checking your reservation, now and then, and it will either say, reservation, not accessible, as your SWU cleared, or you may see the upgrade, without a seat assignment, as an EXEC PLAT Agent has to clear the record, via phone.

  39. My family is anxiously awaiting 4 SWUs from Miami to LAX and then LAX to Sydney. We were wait-listed last September and to this day are the only ones on the list (or so I’ve been told.) Our flight leaves May 18th. Do you think there’s any chance of getting the SWUs on both flights? What about one? Do you think half of our party will be upgraded and half not? Last we checked there were only three open business class seats on the shorter flight (MIA to LAX) but all of the business class seats are still available on the flight to Sydney. The worst part is we already paid for 2 business class tickets so 2 people in our party (family) will be in business class while the others are just stuck waiting. Do you think there is anything we can do to get upgraded soon so we can stop worrying? Thank you for any help you can offer! And, thanks for a such a well written and informative article!

  40. It is my understanding that the EVIP is ranked by status, fare then request order.
    So if you are EP Concierge Key, you outrank regular ol EP’s.
    If you paid 3000.00 for that coach ticket, you are bumped higher than the person who spent less… no matter when the request was submitted.
    I don’t know this for sure but I did hear it from an AA employee.

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