How I’m Using American’s New Upgrade Priority To My Advantage

A lot of changes have been made to the American AAdvantage program the past couple of years, and almost none of the changes have been positive. I’m doing what I can to make the best of the new program, and I figured I’d share how I’ve been doing better than I was expecting in terms of upgrades.

Overall fewer upgrades are available than before on American, and that’s due largely to American’s newer planes having a smaller ratio of first class seats, as well as American doing more to actually sell first class. Furthermore, American has gone from first to (just about) worst when it comes the amount of domestic confirmable upgrade availability they offer.

However, I’ve at least figured out one way that American’s new Executive Platinum upgrade priority can work to my advantage, which I figured I’d share.

How American’s upgrade priority has changed

In May of this year, American changed how upgrades are prioritized. Prior to May of this year, American prioritized upgrades first by elite status, then by the time added to the waitlist, and then by the fare class. In other words, if you were an Executive Platinum member booking way in advance, you’d almost certainly be number one on the upgrade list.

Then in May American changed upgrade priority — upgrades are now sorted first by status, then by your rolling 12 month Elite Qualifying Dollar total, and then by the time by the fare class. In other words, all that really matter is your status and your EQD total. To American you are quite literally your dollar total over the past 12 months. Furthermore, this year American has formalized Concierge Key status, meaning that Concierge Key upgrades clear ahead of Executive Platinum upgrades, which wasn’t previously the case.

It goes without saying that this is great news for high spenders. I know a lot of people who are Executive Platinum members who frequently book last minute who hated the old system — they were paying the highest fares, but were last on the upgrade list. Meanwhile this is a terrible system for those looking to score a bargain when booking in advance.

My EQD situation

I’m probably somewhere in the middle when it comes to how this new system impacts me. The Elite Qualifying Dollar requirement for being an Executive Platinum member is 12,000 EQDs.

My EQD total, including EQDs earned through credit card spend and travel on partner airlines, is 16,703EQD. I suspect that puts me somewhere in the middle in terms of Executive Platinum priority (probably slightly below average). There are certainly Executive Platinum members with fewer EQDs, and also lots with way more EQDs than me.

You’re no longer penalized for making same day change

So this is how I’ve been doing better when it comes to upgrades than I was expecting. While American allows free same day flight changes for Executive Platinum members (though the terms are stricter than with most other carriers), in the past you’d basically be penalized for doing so if you were on the upgrade list. That’s because upgrades were prioritized by status and then time added to the waitlist, and if you change flights, then your time added to the waitlist is essentially reset.

So while I sometimes still made flight changes in the past, automatically being last on the upgrade list within your elite tier isn’t ideal.

Under the new system, you’re not in any way penalized when it comes to upgrades if you make a same day change. Your priority on both the original and new flight will be based on your status and then your rolling EQD total, meaning that you can jump Executive Platinum members who may have been on the list before you.

A couple of examples

A couple of weeks ago I was flying from Miami to Los Angeles. This is a really tough route on which to score an upgrade, and I thought it was a sure bet that I’d be in economy. When I booked my flight was “J0” (meaning there were no seats left for sale in business class), while the flight before mine was “J1” (meaning there was one seat left for sale). I figured I’d have no shot at an upgrade on either flight, so just booked the more convenient one.

There’s no way to know where you’ll be on the upgrade list until you actually confirm onto the flight and it’s within four hours of departure. So for giggles I made a same day change to the earlier flight. I figured I could always switch back to the flight I was originally booked on, and if there was a no show in first class I wouldn’t lose any sort of priority.

To my surprise, I was number one on the upgrade list, and it stayed that way up until departure. I ended up getting the upgrade.

A couple of days ago Ford was flying from Los Angeles to New York, and his flight was “J1,” so there wasn’t much of a shot at an upgrade. The flight an hour before his original flight was “J2,” so a few hours before departure I figured I’d just confirm him on the earlier flight to see where he was on the waitlist. If it looked like he would clear, it was worth flying a bit earlier. If it looked like he wouldn’t clear, I could always move him right back, and he’d be no worse off. To my surprise, he was #1 on the earlier flight, and it stayed that way. He got the upgrade. I doubt he would have gotten it on his original flight.

Bottom line

While I don’t love American’s new upgrade priority, I think it’s at least worth pointing out that you can now make same day changes (and even switch off a flight and then book back on it) without having your upgrade priority be penalized. This doesn’t always work — some routes don’t have multiple daily flights, and when economy is full you can’t make same day changes. However, in at least two cases in the past few weeks this has helped us score upgrades on transcons, so hopefully some of you can benefit from this as well (just don’t confirm onto a flight I’m booked on and beat me on the upgrade list, please). 😉

Has anyone else benefited from the ability to make same day changes without being penalized on the upgrade front?


  1. Had a confirmed first upgrade on PHL-SFO earlier this year on an 321, but earlier flight before mine was operated by anA330, took the gamble and same day switched, few hours later, upgrade cleared for that! Not a bad way to spend the 6+ hr domestic flight on a lie-flat

  2. I am not sure I would call this gaming. Your switching the earlier flight at the cost of losing your original seat assignment and no guarantee of getting it back if you decide you are too low on the upgrade list, not to mention the fact there has to be E space on your original flight to switch back to.

  3. American’s same day change policy is essentially useless.

    Have to stick to the same connection points. Not any seat available – has to specific “E” fare class.

    Most of the time I try to do SDC – the answer is “no seats available.” The idea of using it to increase upgrade odds is laughable, IMO.

    And why do people keep posting their 2017 EQD total and saying it’s an indicator of upgrade position? It’s really not – yearly EQD and 12-month rolling EQD (used for upgrade prioritization) are different things – and that difference can be significant.

  4. i’m only AA gold but just got upgraded over the weekend from dfw-mex and mex-dfw (and dfw-mci) for 2 people…pretty nice. mexico and central america has generally been pretty easy even as gold

  5. Except previously, I’m pretty sure, your time of request did transfer over if doing a same day change as there was no reticketing involved.

  6. @Bob – probably because there is no way (that I know of) to get info on your rolling total. So EQD is better than nothing. And if the person has regular spending patterns it can be a good representation of the rolling total. Also, as we get to the end of the year the rolling total moves closer and closer to the 2017 EQD total.

  7. Interesting idea, I hadn’t thought of that.

    I generally book all my business travel within a few days of a flight (and it’s entirely domestic) so I’ve enjoyed the switch to EQDs as the prioritization since I’m usually thousands of dollars ahead of my EQM or EQS level. Plus, it makes business sense for the airlines to do it that way so overall, not an issue with the change.

  8. @ Nick — Maybe my understanding is wrong, but I thought it was about when you were actually added to the upgrade list for a flight, rather than your ticketing date, necessarily. Anyone know for sure?

  9. @ Bob — Well at this very moment it’s quite similar. We’re 95% of the way through the year, so there’s 95% overlap between the 12 month total and the calendar year total. It’s one thing if I posted it in June, but in mid-December I think it’s a fair representation.

  10. They should just let you see your position on the upgrade wait list as soon as you book rather than just 4 hour prior. I really don’t see a drawback from AA’s perspective to providing that visibility.

  11. I was able to use the same day change feature once this year, on an Austin-Charlotte-Harrisburg itinerary. Prior to making the change I was number one on the first class standby list for each segment. After I confirming the flights I did not appear at all on the f-class standby list for either of the new flights. To top it off, for whatever reason the airport agents were not able to add me to the standby list for either flight.

    I wrote to American regarding what appeared to be a snafu in their rebooking system. I received a canned response about them knowing how important upgrades are to their Executive Platinum members along with 5,000 miles for the inconvenience. Of course they didn’t mention anything about the fact that their system failed to add me to the standby list for the new flights.

    I no longer even try to use the same day change feature. I just keep my original itinerary.

  12. @Andrew – in order to be on the airport upgrade list, you have to be checked in, so showing it at booking isn’t possible. Many don’t check in 24 hours before or even 12 hours before. Thus, the upgrade list doesn’t appear until 4 hours before when, presumably, most people have checked in (though there are some, like my colleagues, who check in 2 hours before). You can view the upgrade list for any flight – no need to be on it – 4 hours before, but only through the smartphone apps. Why they don’t show it on the website is beyond me (and for that matter, why doesn’t the phone app show the standby list?).

    I would like it if they would show the upgrade list for instruments/miles+copay/etc. at all times, but that isn’t going to happen. It may be more of a “managing expectations” issue than anything else as that list is so fluid, but it may also be proprietary data as to how many are using what instruments and when.

  13. Some poorly trained agent *at the airport* used to be able to “reset” the time stamp. To do that, you need to add a segment first, request an upgrade on a new flight, remove the old segment, and only then reissue a ticket. Changes through phone agents typically didn’t cause glitches like that.

  14. What happens to your seat assignment? I rarely do this, as I assume I’ll be swapping an aisle seat in Main Cabin Extra for a middle seat in Economy if the upgrade doesn’t clear.

  15. I PAY for First Class when I fly American and very much enjoy flying like it was in the 70’s
    American’s 1st Class tickets are reasonable and affordable compared to other airlines.
    I know that I am preventing “freeloaders” from their free upgrades … and I LIKE THAT ….
    It’s fun that I get my pre-arranged food preference when the freeloaders get what’s left.
    The Flight Attendants seem to appreciate the few of us that PAY for 1st class.
    Let’s hope that American Airlines keeps First Class affordable for those few of us that are ready and willing to PAY for it, rather than giving it away to freeloaders.

  16. I’ve tried to same day change several times and am always told there isn’t anything available within the app. Two things though:

    Can same day flight changes be done BEFORE the day of departure? Meaning, you know you want to move to a different flight on that same day, but it’s not the “day of” travel yet? I only see the same-day flight change the day of travel on the app. A friend of mine who files Delta says he can do the change 24 hours before the flight, as opposed to “the day of”.

    I’ve never had any luck doing the same day flight change, unfortunately, so I likely won’t be able to put this to the test.

  17. I am at same EQD level as you for EXP. On one of my last flights (LAX_ORD) – I was number 11 out of 31 on the upgrade list. Only one person cleared this A321.

    On other flights I have generally been in the 4th to 8th position. $16K EQD isn’t enough.

    Only flights I have cleared were very late flights (with no food) that arrived at midnight. Like the last flight from DFW-LAX, and last flight from ORD-DCA.

    I am seeing a big impact to upgrades. To be #11 out of 31 says there are lots of high $ EXPs.

    I have considered the same day change – but as pointed out you can’t change your routing. And then when I have great MCE seats, and the change would involve getting bad seats, not worth the risk.

  18. As an EP with total spend so far this year at 40k I am almost always number 1 on upgrade list and more times than not put in First Class 3 to 5 days before the flight. The times I am not confirmed in advance I show up as number 1 on the list to clear at the gate. When plans require me to change flights my first position is always preserved on the new flight. The other day flying out of SNA I did not get a reservation until an hour before the flight and when booked I immediately jumped to number 1 and received an upgrade at the gate. I do resent being called a free loader. My company does not allow us to book first class regardless of how low the fare is. Spending 40k a year does not make me a free loader.

  19. He’s a troll trying to start a flame war. Don’t worry about it. You are definitely the customer AA wants and has taken pains to prioritize (to MY detriment, as I usually spend less but book farther in advance, and I used to do fine as an EXP; no more, sigh. Haven’t been upgraded transcon since this changed).

  20. @Mark – I’m glad you are able to PAY for first class and I assume that AA agrees with you since the flight attendants give you more appreciative service than they give the ‘freeloaders’. Maybe you are also famous or a Congressman.

    I’m curious what you do with all your points? If you use them for occasional flights – do you and the flight attendants consider you a ‘freeloader’ and give you ‘what’s left’ (on those trips)? Or do you explain to them that you only have the free ticket because you PAY for so many others? Do you write off the travel cost as a deduction on your taxes, as I assume you travel for business? Or does an employer pay for your fare?

    It is my understanding that the credit card companies pay the airlines for the seats that the ‘freeloaders’ are awarded. When I use my credit card – that credit card company makes a profit. I look for the lowest price tickets or lowest point tickets and use my cards where they get me the most points per category. I price and quality compare when shopping for a car, house, or paper towels. I don’t do the MS stuff because it is too time consuming for my likestyle – but the people who do are working their heads off.

    I don’t mean to be snarky to you – just think that we are all part of a system. Somewhere along the line you are getting some kind of benefit in the system too. AND you don’t have to worry about a wait list, make constant changes to a credit card spreadsheet, or make numerous trips to Walmart. Having said all that – I would rather be you and am mostly jealous.

  21. Average airline fare price from the 1970’s, adjusted for inflation, buys a First Class ticket these days. It’s easy to justify for old, fat, gray-haired guys like me.
    I use my points to fly all the kids and grandkids to family events.

  22. My understanding doesn’t match your description of the old system. As I understand it, there is one field per PNR that holds the timestamp of the upgrade request. Switching flights did not alter the timestamp. If you booked the flight 11 months in advance and had the upgrade auto-requested, and then on the day of departure you used same-day confirmed flight change to switch flights, your original 11-month out upgrade request time was preserved. The times this didn’t happen were if you checked in for the new flight immediately after being confirmed onto it. In that case, your upgrade request time was reset to the check-in time. If you waited 20 minutes or so after being confirmed, and then checked in, your upgrade request time was preserved.

  23. I know they aren’t checked in and under the airport’s control until a certain time, but why not show where you are right upon booking and allow you to see how it changes up until the flight? What do they lose out on or how are they able to extract a few dollars more without doing so? Trying to make lower elites burn the worthless 500 mile upgrades?

  24. @ BillyHo, it’s not your ticket that is J0 or J1 or J7, it’s a flight. You can see if a flight has seats for sale in business/first (or coach) by checking the AA web site for available flights. Many of us use a paid subscription service, ExpertFlyer, which provides inventory information on any flight.

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