American’s New Upgrade Policy is a Smart Hybrid

American, Frequent Flier Programs

American announced the details of the 2015 AAdvantage frequent flier program today, and I was given a sneak peek yesterday. The details of the new program are a big deal because it’s the first one that combines the old US Airways Dividend Miles and American AAdvantage programs. As expected all along, AAdvantage is the surviving program. While there are many things that will probably be addressed in future years, it’s the changes to the upgrade program that really caught my eye.

But before we get into that, let’s talk a bit about the basics. The programs will combine in the second quarter of 2015, but no exact date has been announced. Unlike in the US Airways/America West merger, you can’t pick which account number you want to keep. Your AAdvantage number will be the surviving one. (That’s good for me since I’ve had mine memorized ever since it was my eAAsy Sabre login back in the day.) If you don’t have an AAdvantage number and only use Dividend Miles, you’ll have a new AAdvantage number created. If you have both accounts, in early 2015 you’ll link them so they can be combined later. (You won’t be able to freely transfer miles between the two. They’ll just come together when the combination occurs.)

Earning and redeeming miles won’t change at this point, though I was told the usual “we’re always monitoring the market” line that means there could be future changes. The big changes here are around the elite program since US Airways and American had fairly different philosophies. Here’s a fairly useless chart I created to explain what’s happening.

New AAdvantage Program

In other words, the levels that exist at American today don’t change, and that’s something of a surprise since US Airways had four tiers. Now, both US Airways Gold and Platinum members will be combined into Platinum in the new program. I was told that anything new that requires a technological change to implement wasn’t really considered. They wanted to put all their efforts into the combination itself. That means I won’t be surprised if things that haven’t changed today (no fourth tier, no revenue requirements, etc) end up changing in future years once the integration is behind the airline. So it’s hard to really comment on non-changes. The biggest actual change involves elite upgrades, and that is worth talking about.

US Airways today has a system like United’s and Delta’s. Elites all get unlimited domestic upgrades. That means the highest tier elites generally have good luck while the entry level elites struggle. This program will continue on US Airways until the airline joins American’s reservation system in late 2015. After that, we’ll see a hybrid approach.

On American, Executive Platinum members do get unlimited domestic upgrades, but they still have to request them. That’s changing next year when upgrades will be automatically requested. That’s long overdue. (Executive Platinums will also retain their 8 annual systemwide upgrade benefit which is best used for international travel.)

Gold and Platinum members have to use 500 mile upgrade certificates (aka “stickers”) if they want to upgrade. They get 4 of these stickers for every 10,000 miles flown, and they can buy more stickers for $30 each. Each sticker is good for 500 miles, so a 2,000 mile flight would require 4 stickers to be redeemed, if a seat is available. The cost isn’t all that great to do this, but it allows those elites who really want the upgrade to get it while those who don’t care as much won’t bother. That means entry level elites have a better chance of an upgrade than they would under the unlimited system.

With United and Delta both going with unlimited upgrades, the expectation was that American would go along as well. I’m happy to say that the airline did not opt to blindly follow Delta and instead went with an interesting hybrid.

For all flights under 500 miles, upgrades will be unlimited without charge. Every elite will be added to the list automatically. Surprisingly, 34 percent of the new American’s flights are under 500 miles and on 2 cabin airplanes. I’ll bet that US Airways makes up a fairly high percentage of those flights because of its short haul network up and down the east coast and its greater percentage of regional airplanes with 2 cabins.

But American still has a sizable number of short haul flights, and were I a betting man, I’d guess the airline looked at the numbers and found that elites didn’t use stickers to upgrade on short flights all that often. By making this change, American could then give a nod to the US Airways elites while not really hurting the point of the program.

Meanwhile, on flights of more than 500 miles, the stickers will still be required. This upholds the idea that only those who really want the upgrades will get them. Low level elites should be thrilled because it means they have a chance.

Who won’t like this? US Airways Platinums. They are probably pretty pissed right now. After all, they had high enough status where they likely got upgrades fairly easily on US Airways before. Now they not only have to use stickers to get those upgrades but they are lumped in with the former US Airways Golds at the same new Platinum status level now.

The AAdvantage team knew this would be an issue, so they are working on a conversion kit for Dividend Miles elites. I couldn’t get details of exactly what will be in it, because I don’t think they know yet. But I have to assume they’ll load them up with an increasing number of stickers depending upon how much they fly in order to ease the transition. Maybe by the following year, the integration will be behind the airline and we’ll see a fourth tier added to help make them feel better about the change.

Of course, it’s impossible to make everyone happy when combining two different programs like this, but I like the way this upgrade issue has been handled. Most everything else, however, hasn’t changed, and that just has a temporary feeling to it. But the airline has now proven that it’s not just going to follow Delta’s lead. I for one hope that American puts as much thought into future changes as it appears to have put into the upgrade policy.

To learn more about the new program, go to

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32 comments on “American’s New Upgrade Policy is a Smart Hybrid

  1. Don’t forget that US Airways Golds and Platinums go from earning a 50% and 75% mileage bonus, respectively, to earning a 100% bonus on flown miles as an AAdvantage Platinum.

    US Airways Chairmans members make out like bandits — they get their 2 confirmed international upgrades at the beginning of the program year and they get 8 more when they become Executive Platinums!

    1. Gary – Yep, good point on those earning bonuses. So it’s something to make the Platinums feel a little better.

  2. Yup…your right …pretty darn pissed as US Platinum with an average of 95 segments yet only 60K miles. Oh and it cost 15K in airfare to get there.

    Literally no reason to go above 60 segments / 50k miles unless you know that you are going to hit EXP.

    How hard would it have been to create that 4th level and give it a day earlier upgrade request window and a different mileage bonus????

    1. Andy – Well, there is a reason to go above 50k miles in that you get an extra 4 stickers for every 10,000 miles you fly. Of course, street value on that is a whopping $120, so… who cares?

      It actually would have been hard to create a new tier from a tech standpoint. I do get that feeling that we might see another tier at some point, but not until the integration is completed.

      1. Your right – a big “meh” on the 4 extra stickers. I’ll be going from being complimentary upgraded on 95% of my flights to sticker wars with someone who flies 1/3 a year less than me.

        I know this program as layed out seems to please most people, which is a plus for American, i just happen to be in the minority group of people that it doesn’t. I’m sure you’d be hard pressed to find a current US Airways Platinum that is happy today.

        I hear you on the “hard” thing from an IT standpoint but come on, while it might be the honest answer it still don’t mean it’s a good excuse.

        American’s view is probably (and rightly so) “Well you can always just fly a little more and get Executive Platinum.”

    2. “Literally no reason?” How about actually enjoying the benefits of free MCE, priority boarding, no luggage fees, etc. once you get the status?

  3. Count me as pleased with the tweaks. I’ve never been a fan of adding the “tweener” tier between 50k and 100k EQMs, mainly because the net result is usually a watering down of the 50k level. And call me an anachronism, but I’ve always liked the sticker policy. As you’ve noted, it really increases the likelihood of an upgrade for lowly Golds (I definitely fell in the bucket of someone who didn’t waste stickers for short flights). Now, I strongly suspect major changes are coming down the pike eventually – Suzanne Rubin hinted at as much on the conference call this morning – but kudos to management for being smart and putting off big changes so they can concentrate on the integration.

    Now if only they could do something about those Lite Bites baskets…

    1. The “Lite Bites” baskets are being entirely replaced with new ones. They phase in starting November 1st. And, of course, Lite Bites on flights between 2.5 and 2.75 hours is being replaced with meals starting Saturday.

  4. Since elite members get 4 stickers for every 10K miles flown, I would guess this is the formula they are using for the initial conversion handout.

  5. Hmm. Interesting hybrid policy. I wonder if being upgraded as a nonrev will be harder or easier than it was with Legacy US Airways.

  6. 34% of flights are under 500 miles and on 2-cabin airplanes — yet I’m stuck with a 715-mile flight on a 1-cabin CRJ (ELP–LAX). I would have been happy to take a US Airways connection through Phoenix (two 2-cabin flights under 500 miles each) if it would land me at LGB. Theoretically the connecting flights should cost only 1,500 extra Avios (9,000 for two short segments rather than 7,500 for the longer nonstop), but for some reason flights to LGB cannot be booked on Avios and not even as American AAnytime awards — any search I’ve tried for awards two or from LGB returns the message “Service for the requested itinerary is not valid for AAdvantage award travel.” Any idea why LGB is excluded?

    Now given that I have to go to LAX rather than LGB, I’d rather take a CRJ non-stop than connect at Phoenix. But it would be nice if award travel to LGB were allowed.

    1. Ron – LGB can definitely be booked with Avios if there’s availability. I’ve seen it myself no problem. If you see availability and the website isn’t working, you can always call BA’s dismal customer service line to book it. But of course, there has to be low level availability. As for AAnytime awards, I don’t think those will work until next year.

  7. Call me anal, but they aren’t stickers anymore and eVIPs are now SWUs, so why do people keep using those terms? Change is good, why can’t people call them what they are instead of what they used to be? Ok, off my soapbox now!

  8. I am wondering how/when I will be able to earn miles with Alaska’s mileage program on flights operated by US Airways, anybody know how that is going to play out?

    1. Matt – That should be after the reservation system cutover in late 2015. They won’t bother to connect up US Airways and Alaska because it would just be temporary. So once the conversion to AA happens, then it’ll work.

      1. Have you heard anything about AA*/US flights? It seems like it should be entirely possible from a technical point of view to allow AA-marketed flights to credit to AS even if operated by US.

  9. Is anyone from the AA side annoyed at the EP requirement on segments is going to 120 from 100? I’m probably good on miles, but just saying.

  10. I see — I hadn’t realized AAnytime awards were not available on US metal. This explaAAins the discrepancy. ThAAnks!

  11. I’ll add to the ‘pissed’ category – was Chairman’s preferred 3 years running with US. This year, i am shy of Chairmans by 10K…So bye bye free upgrades and ‘hello to stickers’…Can’t wait to see how they’ll be making us whole…NOT

    Yes, i see the 100% bonus – who cares..i care about getting a nice seat up in front of ‘the curtain’….welcome to cattle class.

    Of course…i should have forecasted it all along…

    Thanks US Air…really appreciate it – NOT !!!!!

    1. Take two cross-country round trip flights and you’ll be set. It’s not hard and if the status means that much to you, the cost is worth it.

  12. Of course, i did see i can earn 1.5x the points on actual miles flown in business (which i will do a lot more than 66K next year flying internationally so i guess i’ll end up back in Exec Platinum before too long !

  13. I’m an exec plat based in Dallas. I always qualify with segments, so the 120 will be a little more, but I figure I will just take more connecting flights during the year where I can. That extra 20 segments can be made up by connecting once a month instead of going nonstop.

    I figure the additional folks weeded out of the status will be worth the extra stops.

    Other than that, exec plats made out well. We didn’t have to deal with stickers anyway…upgrades were free regardless of length. Keeping the SWUs is good, and I’m glad they didn’t go to the $$ basis yet (bet they will next year).

    Exec plats will also be able to do same day changes free, instead of going standby or paying $75 to confirm.

    Something else they added…on American flights the flight attendants single out exec plats in coach and thank them by name, and they bring you a drink and a free snack. US Airways started it this week, and it will continue. Nice little perk that makes you feel special.

    Generally applaud Parker and Co. On these changes.

  14. As a DL flier the AA system seems complicated, but anything to give more perks to the lowly 25,000-50,000 mile fliers is a + in my book. That said, I usually do get about one or two upgrades per year flying DL as a silver or gold. Talking with others it seems that they do throw an occasional bone to the lower tier people (to stave off an uprising my guess). Recently got upgraded on a flight from DCA where there is usually no lack of Platinum & Diamonds.

  15. Really sad for Golds on this one. Now for those shorter flights that Plats didn’t want to use stickers on that Golds were happy to use stickers for upgrades, Golds will lose out further on. Not that being Gold was ever ‘great’, but when Golds are barely any better off than credit-card holders, there’s little incentive to be loyal.

  16. Yeap….count me as another Div Miles platinum member that was swearing up a storm this morning as I read the details of the new program. I could have written the exact same comment as Andy (above). I fly 90-100 segments a year, and about 70K miles…but now I will fly only enough with AA/US to earn the “new” platinum status, and take another carrier when I can get a nonstop flt instead of taking connecting flights thru CLT. The extra stickers are worth almost nothing…and as new platinum, I can still get a MCE seat….so why would I bother to give them the extra segments?

  17. Sad to see MoveUp going away for US Elites…. Only free confirmed change to EXPs is a bummer, but fairly pleased with everything else. If I can reserve MCE at booking, I am fine with using upgrade as I see fit. Feeling lucky that I didn’t do any running to hit platinum!

  18. Sorry to come late to this …

    Has it been announced how upgrades will clear?

    In the current US system, upgrades are cleared at the window with those who have the most EQMs. If you aren’t cleared at the window, then the standby list is ranked by status and within each rank, the check-in time is used.

    It looks like AA’s system is “time of upgrade request” which seems to translate to time of booking. I guess this has the benefit that you aren’t rushing to check-in before everyone else (though it seems to penalize the higher / last minute type fares).

    With no explicit announcement, I presume the safe bet is that it will follow AA?

  19. Platinum comments are spot on. No need to fly anything over 50k if you can’t hit the exec tier. That is a lot of potential dollar shift because most people between that gold and exec are frequent business travelers, who use it for personal too in order to maximize. Now might as well earn this useless status of baggage and pre board (benefits available on all carriers by just getting their credit card) on a few carriers so you can at least get decent customer service in a few places. I eeked into exec, but am closely watching where I spend my miles. The big benefit for me on US was the international upgrade option. I was originally excited about the system wide certs, a seemingly better benefit than US Air version. But no. I have already found the certificates almost impossible to use as they don’t release the seats for use with them. If I am going to fly coach internationally, everyone knows the USA carriers are the worst for it, so I would prefer to be able to know before I am boarding a 10 -15 hour flight and just book on a better coach international carrier.

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