How Systemwide Upgrades Work on American Airlines [In-Depth]

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The systemwide upgrade (SWU) is one of the most coveted benefits to the American Airlines AAdvantage program. These upgrade instruments allow users to upgrade to the next class of service, allowing many people to save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

To earn one of these upgrades, you must be a top tier elite in the airline’s frequent flyer program. 

In this post, we’re going to discuss:

  • What a systemwide upgrade is 
  • How to earn a systemwide upgrade
  • How to use a systemwide upgrade 
  • Strategies for maximizing systemwide upgrade use

What Is a Systemwide Upgrade?

A systemwide upgrade is one of American’s upgrade “instruments” — allowing users to sit in the premium cabin.

As a reminder, there are several different types of these instruments:

  • 500-mile upgrades — earned by all elites in the AAdvantage program, these allow members to upgrade in 500-mile increments on itineraries within the continental U.S., to Hawaii, to Alaska, and select local international destinations, such as the Caribbean. These upgrades are space-available and only confirmed within a few days before departure.
  • Miles and Cash co-pay — these can be done by any AAdvantage member to upgrade any itinerary. Members use a set amount of miles and a set amount of cash, determined by the routing and destination, to confirm an upgrade in advance so long as specific, confirmable upgrade inventory is released.
  • Systemwide upgrade — these are earned only by American Airlines Executive Platinum and ConciergeKey flyers and can be used to upgrade any route American flies, with no cash co-pay component. These upgrades allow a user to confirm an upgrade in advance so long as specific, confirmable upgrade inventory is released.

A systemwide upgrade allows a user to upgrade into the next class of service:

  • Main cabin to first class, on a domestic 2-class flight
  • Main cabin/premium economy to business class, on an international 2-class flight
  • Main cabin/premium economy to business class, on an international 3-class flight
  • Business class to first class on a 3-class configured plane

It’s important to note that these upgrades will allow a user to go from any form of economy class to business class or a premium cabin. In other words, no matter if you’re in the main cabin (traditional economy class seating), Main Cabin Extra (extra-legroom economy class seating), or premium economy (larger economy class seats), you can still upgrade to business class.

Holding a premium economy ticket doesn’t get you any more of an advantage than a traditional main cabin ticket, and you can’t upgrade from main cabin to premium economy.

AA Domestic First Class
You may want to consider using a systemwide upgrade on a long flight in domestic first class. Image Credit: American Airlines

How to Earn a Systemwide Upgrade

Systemwide upgrades are reserved as a perk of only American’s top flyers, but there are some ways folks without those status levels can earn and use the upgrades.

Executive Platinum members earn 4 systemwide upgrades when they qualify or re-qualify for status. It takes $15,000 in spend on American or Oneworld airlines and 100,000 miles flown to earn Executive Platinum status.

ConciergeKey members earn 6 systemwide upgrades when they qualify or re-qualify for status. ConciergeKey is an invitation-only tier, and there are no published requirements to earn this status, though it is traditionally reserved for travel managers with a lot of corporate buying power or major influencers who can sway travelers to purchase on American. 

For both ConciergeKey and Executive Platinum members, there are additional opportunities to earn additional systemwide upgrades:

  • If you fly 150,000 miles in a calendar year, you can earn an additional 2 upgrades (for a total of 6 for Executive Platinum and 8 for ConciergeKey)
  • If you fly 200,000 miles a year you can earn a further 2 upgrades (for a total of 8 for Executive Platinum and 10 for ConciergeKey).
  • If you’re a really big flyer — flying 250,000 miles a year — you can add 2 upgrades to your count (for a total of 10 for Executive Platinum and 12 for ConciergeKey).
  • If you fly beyond the 250,000-mile threshold, there are no additional upgrades you can earn, so there’s little incentive to fly beyond this amount, though most typical flyers won’t ever reach anywhere near this level.

In addition to being an Executive Platinum or ConciergeKey, you can also earn systemwide upgrades for every million miles you fly, beyond 2 million.

  • At 1 million miles flown, you earn AAdvantage Gold status for life, but no systemwide upgrades.
  • At 2 million miles flown, you earn AAdvantage Platinum status for life and 4 systemwide upgrades, regardless of if you’ve met the requirements for Executive Platinum/ConciergeKey or not (but, if you have, those 4 upgrades are added on top of what you earn with your status).
  • For every million miles flown beyond that, an additional 4 upgrades will be deposited into your account.
AA Trancontinental Business Class
One of the best uses of a systemwide upgrade domestically is on the A321T, American’s transcontinental aircraft. Image Credit: American Airlines

Using a Systemwide Upgrade

The great thing about systemwide upgrades is that they can be used on every fare class, except for basic economy. So, you could purchase one of the cheapest main cabin tickets and receive an upgrade to business class for free when you use an upgrade. Some other airlines require you to purchase a certain type of ticket to be able to use an upgrade and many times these tickets are far more expensive than the cheapest options available.

To use a systemwide upgrade on any flight, you need a particular upgrade inventory to be available. This is a specific fare class reserved just for these types of upgrades.

If you’re upgrading from main cabin to first class on a domestic flight, main cabin to business class on an international flight, or main cabin to business class on a domestic flight, you need “C” inventory available.

If you’re upgrading from business class to first class on any 3-class plane (such as American’s A321T from JFK to LAX or a 777-300ER from JFK to LHR), you need “A” inventory. 

To put it simply, it is much easier to find “A” inventory than “C” inventory.

You can search for the specific inventory you need using ExpertFlyer, or, if you’re an Executive Platinum or ConciergeKey, you’ll be able to see upgrade eligible flights when you search on AA.com.

When you purchase your ticket, if there is upgrade space at the time you ticket, an agent can apply the upgrade immediately and you will be confirmed in the premium cabin. This is the most ideal scenario since you can secure the upgrade without having to be placed on a waitlist, potentially behind other flyers.

Sometimes, if you’re on an itinerary with multiple segments, you can only confirm the upgrade on some of those segments, but not all. Typically, you may find that you cannot confirm the upgrade on the longest of those segments, or the one that is the long-haul international one, if on an international itinerary.

If this is the case, you have 2 options: you can apply the systemwide upgrade and confirm some of the segments when you ticket your reservation and then waitlist the other segments, or you can choose to waitlist only the most important (traditionally longest) segment, and if that clears at a later date, go back and waitlist the shorter, less important segments.

For example, let’s say you’re flying from Dallas to Los Angeles to Sydney, and there is only confirmable upgrade space from Los Angeles to Sydney. The best course of action is to not confirm the Dallas to Los Angeles — doing so will use a systemwide upgrade, and if the Los Angeles to Sydney segment ends up not clearing, you will have “wasted” an upgrade on the shorter, less important of the 2 segments.

If there is no upgrade space, as mentioned, you will be placed on a waitlist. This waitlist can be cleared at any time up until departure, so it’s advisable to re-check your itinerary several times in the weeks and months before your trip.

Many times, your upgrade will not be confirmed in advance and it will require you to be placed on an airport list, which is automatic if it doesn’t clear prior.

This waitlist is ordered by status, followed by the type of upgrade, followed by rolling spend within the past 12 months on American or Oneworld partners.

Here’s the order of this list:

  • VIP1 – ConciergeKey on a systemwide upgrade
  • UPG2 – ConciergeKey on a complimentary upgrade
  • VIP2 – Executive Platinum on a systemwide upgrade
  • UPG2 – Executive Platinum on a complimentary upgrade
  • VIP3 – Platinum Pro on a systemwide upgrade
  • UPG3 – Platinum Pro on a complimentary upgrade
  • VIP4 – Platinum on a systemwide upgrade
  • UPG4 – Platinum on a complimentary upgrade
  • VIP5 – Gold on a systemwide upgrade
  • UPG5 – Gold on a complimentary upgrade
  • VIP – any non-elite status member on a systemwide upgrade

As you can see, systemwide upgrades always take priority within each tier but do not take priority over lower elite levels. For example, a ConciergeKey on a complimentary upgrade always takes priority over an Executive Platinum on a systemwide upgrade.

There are several important things to note when trying to use a systemwide upgrade:

  • You cannot use a systemwide upgrade online or through the app, as there is no functionality to do so. There is functionality for an Executive Platinum or ConciergeKey member to see if an upgrade is available to use, but there is no electronic method of applying it online.
  • Using a systemwide upgrade requires speaking with an agent over the phone, as they will need to confirm if the upgrade is available to use and then actually re-ticket your reservation. Sometimes, you can ask the American Airlines social media team to apply an upgrade, especially if you happen to see upgrade space available when you are unable to call-in.

If you should need to cancel a reservation that you have used your upgrades on before January 31, your upgrades can be redeposited back into your account (where they will retain their original expiration date) at no charge.

AA Flagship First
You can use a systemwide upgrade to move from business class to first class on a 3-class aircraft. Image Credit: American Airlines

Tracking Your Systemwide Upgrades

You can track how many upgrades you have used, and for what flights, on both AA.com and the American Airlines app. The count of how many systemwide upgrades you have left will generally be reflected within a few hours of ticketing.

Be very cautious when calling in several times to ticket a reservation — it is possible for multiple systemwide upgrades to be used on a single reservation, even though this isn’t necessary. Check your balance often to ensure that only the necessary amount of upgrades are used on your flights.

Bottom Line: You can track your systemwide upgrades in the American Airlines app or on AA.com.

Waitlisting More Systemwide Upgrades Than You Have

It is possible to waitlist more flights than you have systemwide upgrades for.

Let’s say you have 4 systemwide upgrades, but 6 upcoming flights you wish to attempt to upgrade. If you can’t confirm the upgrade, you can waitlist all 6 trips, even though you have 4 systemwide upgrades.

As your upgrades clear, the amount you have available will be reduced and depleted from your account. If upgrade space becomes confirmable on any remaining reservations, you’ll need to use miles and a cash co-pay, or some type of other means to be able to upgrade the reservation.

Earning Mileage on a Systemwide Upgrade

When you use an upgrade, you always earn frequent flyer miles on the original class of service. So, if you’re ticketed in economy class and use an upgrade to move to business class, you will earn miles based on the economy class ticket.

A Note About Departing From the United Kingdom

When you depart the United Kingdom, you’re charged an “Air Passenger Duty” tax on your upgrade. This applies to all U.K. departures, which include Manchester and London as the most often departed cities.

According to the U.K. government, when flying from the U.K. to the U.S., you’re charged an additional £172 to use your confirmed systemwide upgrade. If you list for the upgrade but do not receive it, you do not need to pay any extra Air Passenger Duty tax.

Keep this in mind as you try to use your upgrades. Many passengers will opt not to use an upgrade out of the U.K. for this reason, and instead look for departures from nearby foreign cities such as Amsterdam or Paris where the fee doesn’t apply.

The tax does not apply for departures to the U.K.

Using a Systemwide Upgrade on Another Passenger

A systemwide upgrade can also be used on any traveler, even if the account holder is not traveling. An important rule to note is that at no time can a systemwide upgrade be bartered, sold, or traded, but so long as none of these activities occur, the upgrades can be given to any traveler.

Often at the end of the year, near to the time these upgrades expire, you’ll see many elite status passengers offering to give them away to others. On many message boards and social media sites, you’ll see hoards of travelers asking for these upgrade instruments on tickets that have booked where the upgrades can clear. Certainly, it’s a nice gesture if another passenger gifts you an upgrade.

If you’re given an upgrade, and it doesn’t clear before the airport, you’re waitlisted according to your status level. If you don’t have elite status with the airline, you’ll be at the bottom of the list to be processed — which could be problematic on high profile routes such as Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) or New York (JFK) to London (LHR).

Bottom Line: If you want to use a systemwide upgrade on another passenger, simply call into American Airlines with that person’s reservation info and the agent will apply and confirm the upgrade.

Important Rules for Using a Systemwide Upgrade

To use a systemwide upgrade, you must be on a revenue ticket —a ticket that isn’t an award ticket or using any sort of miles. Any revenue ticket is upgradable, except for basic economy tickets. If you wish to upgrade your flight, make sure you aren’t booking a basic economy fare, even though it may be cheaper than other ticketing options.

A systemwide upgrade is valid on any American Airlines or American Eagle operated and marketed flight. In other words, the upgrades are only good on planes where it says “American” on the side of the plane.

The upgrades are only usable on flights that are marketed by American, so they can’t be used on any codeshares, or when you purchase the ticket from another carrier, even though the flight may be operated by American. This is a point that many travelers don’t realize, and can be confusing — if you want to use a systemwide upgrade, it’s best to purchase the ticket directly from American to avoid any issues.

One of the little known “secrets” to using a systemwide upgrade is that it can be applied to up to 3 legs on a reservation. This means you can be upgraded on any/all 3 legs of any reservation, so long as those legs are in 1 direction.

Take, for example, Washington-Reagan (DCA) to New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD). You can upgrade all 3 segments — DCA to JFK, JFK to LAX, and LAX to SYD — on 1 systemwide upgrade. To maximize this, however, you want to include as many international, long-haul segments as possible.

Hot Tip: You can travel from London (LHR) to New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) all on 1 systemwide upgrade. Another option would be Hong Kong (HKG) to Dallas (DFW) to Philadelphia (PHL) to Paris (CDG), for example. These routes maximize how far a systemwide upgrade can go and how much such an upgrade can be worth.

American Eagle First Class Meal
Some select regional routes included meal service, one of the several perks of upgrading. Image Credit: American Airlines

When You Can’t Use a Systemwide Upgrade

You can’t use a systemwide upgrade in these scenarios, according to American:

  • Codeshare flights, which include flights “marketed by American and operated by other airlines”
  • Government or military fares
  • Fares ineligible to earn mileage credit, such as award tickets
  • Basic economy tickets

Be careful when you book your reservation — there may be a particular flight you wish to use an upgrade on where there is only a marginal difference in price between a basic economy fare and that of the regular main cabin. In an instance such as this, it may be worth paying slightly more for the privilege to upgrade.

Also, you should be cautious of codeshare flights, which fall into several different scenarios:

  • You may see a flight on AA.com that is marketed by American but operated by another carrier, such as British Airways. In these cases, the flight is not flown by an American Airlines aircraft and is not eligible for an upgrade.
  • You may purchase a flight through British Airways, for example, that is marketed by British Airways but operated by American, in which case it truly is an American Airlines aircraft. Even in this scenario, you cannot use the upgrade since the ticket was not purchased directly from American. British Airways is selling this ticket as a codeshare and it is ineligible for upgrades.
  • You may have certain flights in an itinerary that are operated by another airline. For example, you may be flying from Dallas (DFW) to New York (JFK) to London (LHR) to Vienna (VIE). The DFW to JFK to LHR flights may be operated by American, and are eligible for an upgrade, whereas the LHR to VIE flight won’t be since it is operated by another carrier (in this case, British Airways). Assuming you purchase the ticket directly from American, you’d be able to use your systemwide upgrade on all of the American operated flights in the itinerary, even though you may have some segments on another carrier (which you can’t use the upgrade on).

Bottom Line: The general rule of thumb is that if you purchase the ticket through American, and the plane says “American” on the side, you can use a systemwide upgrade.

The Best Flights to Use a Systemwide Upgrade On

The best uses of a systemwide upgrade are subjective to the flyer. There are many people who don’t travel internationally who would prefer to be upgraded on a domestic flight, and for those people, they see a lot of value being able to confirm an upgrade in advance.

There are other flyers that only use their upgrades on long international flights, trying to get the most value compared to what the flight would have cost if purchased in cash. 

Assuming you’re trying to get the most value from your upgrade, here are some examples of the best flights to apply a systemwide upgrade to domestically:

  • New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX), since complimentary upgrades are hard to come by
  • Los Angeles (LAX) to London (LHR), since this is a high profile business route
  • Miami (MIA) to Seattle (SEA), since this is American’s longest domestic narrow-body route
  • Dallas (DFW) to Hawaii, since these flights feature lie-flat seats and are often purchased in advance by leisure travelers. Honolulu (HNL) and Maui (OGG) are the most popular.

Here are the best flights to apply a systemwide upgrade to internationally:

  • Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) or Auckland (AKL), since these are routes with limited seats and very expensive 
  • Dallas (DFW) to Hong Kong (HKG), since this is the longest flight in the American system
  • Dallas (DFW) to London (LHR), since this is a high profile business route
  • Los Angeles (LAX) to London (LHR), due to the length of flight and aircraft type
  • New York (JFK) to Rio de Janeiro (GIG) or Buenos Aires (EZE), due to the popularity of the flights

Some travelers will prefer to use their systemwide upgrades to go from economy class to business class, and others will prefer to use their upgrades on 3-class flights where they can upgrade from a purchased business class seat to first class. There’s no right or wrong answer in how to use your upgrades — whichever way makes sense for you and make you feel like you’ve received the most value is the best.

Many travelers also prefer to use their upgrades on redeye flights, where having a better seat is more important than a daytime flight where you’re awake.

In general, you’re looking at a few deciding factors:

  • How long is the flight? If the flight is over a few hours, you may want to be seated in the premium cabin for added comfort.
  • What kind of seats are on the flight? Having lie-flat seats are certainly more comfortable than traditional recliner seats, so you may want to select a flight with better seating options.
  • What kind of aircraft is the flight? Usually, the mainline, larger jets are more comfortable than regional jets. You also may find widebody aircraft a better use of an upgrade more than a narrow-body plane, where things are tighter.
  • What kind of service will be onboard? On some flights, you may receive a meal or some sort of added extra service, such as being offered an ice cream sundae, pajamas, or third meal service. You may want to use a systemwide upgrade on flights with extra amenities or services to enhance your experience.

How Systemwide Upgrades and Mileage/Co-Pay Upgrades Differ

There are 2 ways to upgrade any American Airlines flight: using a systemwide upgrade (only given to top tier elites or those meeting million miler requirements) or using a combination of miles and cash co-pay.

Any passenger, regardless of elite status, can use the mileage and cash co-pay option. You’ll also find many top tier elites who have run out of systemwide upgrades also use miles and co-pay.

In essence, using either method will upgrade your ticket the same and will follow the same exact rules. When it comes to your listing on the upgrade list, both actually take the same (equal) priority, so when it comes down to it, an Executive Platinum using a systemwide upgrade and an Executive Platinum using miles/co-pay will be listed according to their rolling spend on American, since neither their systemwide upgrade or miles/cash take priority over each other.

AA 787 Business Class with headphones
American operates several lie-flat domestic routes each day, which are great for using a systemwide upgrade on. Image Credit: Dallas Morning News

Protections

Having your upgrade protected is one of the best benefits to using a systemwide upgrade since neither Delta nor United follows this style.

In essence, what “protection” means is having your seat retained in the premium cabin should you need to move flights due to schedule irregularities.

This is best illustrated by an example. Let’s say you’re traveling from New York (JFK) to London (LHR) and you were able to successfully apply and clear a systemwide upgrade for the route several days in advance.

On the day of your flight, you’re notified that your aircraft has been taken out of service due to maintenance and the flight has been canceled. Because you’ve used a systemwide upgrade, you are confirmed in the premium cabin, and when you attempt to search for new flights, you will retain your premium cabin seat.

So, in the example, if you want to move to the British Airways flight, you will be re-ticketed in business class on their aircraft without question. If you choose to move to an American flight to Chicago (ORD) and then London (LHR), you’re still once again protected in business class or first class, whichever you were seated in. 

This is an absolutely phenomenal benefit and will be a huge value on days where things go wrong. Even if there is only 1 business class seat remaining on a flight you wish to move to, you’ll be allowed to take that seat, potentially making the value of these upgrades into the several thousands of dollars apiece.

The app is designed to show premium cabin options if your original flight should cancel or become delayed; the app will display other premium cabin options, just as if you had purchased a business or first class fare in the first place.

It’s worth noting that if your upgrade clears at the gate, the ticket will not automatically reissue and you won’t be able to be protected on other flights. If this happens to you, work with the gate agent to have the ticket reissued before attempting any rebooking options.

Bottom Line: Your upgrade will be protected if you use a systemwide upgrade on a flight. This means if your flight gets canceled, you can move to another flight and stay in a premium cabin seat.

Systemwide Upgrade Expirations

In most cases, systemwide upgrades expire on January 31 of every year, for those earned the preceding year. Per American, “Upgrades earned based on your 2018 flight activity are valid through January 31, 2020; upgrades earned based on your 2019 flight activity are valid through January 31, 2021.”

Also according to American, “All travel must be completed by midnight (CT) of the expiration date.”

That said, there are some cases where you may be able to use an upgrade for travel after this date. If you have a reservation after January 31 and that upgrade has upgrade space available and is confirmable, you can call American and apply one of your upgrade instruments. For 2020, these expiring SWUs for all customers can be applied and confirmed prior to the expiration date even if the flight is after.

In prior years, you may have been able to use an upgrade that would ordinarily have expired on a flight with confirmable upgrade space after January 31, but this was only reserved for passengers that may have been at-risk from moving business away from American, or other related scenarios. This wasn’t for all customers.

Upgrades not used by the expiration date will be forfeited and there is no way to earn them back.

American Airlines Flagship Lounge LAX - Flagship First Dining
Flagship First Dining at American Airlines’ Flagship Lounge LAX. Image Credit: American Airlines

Don’t Ever Sell an Upgrade

It’s really important to note that “Upgrades are void if sold or advertised for sale for cash or other considerations,” per the AAdvantage terms and conditions. You cannot, under any circumstance, offer anything for an upgrade, including cash or trading of any miles or favors. Additionally, you cannot post your upgrades on eBay or any other similar website, as this is strictly against the terms and conditions of the AAdvantage program.

American Airlines corporate security constantly monitors channels where people attempt to sell or trade upgrades, and your AAdvantage account may get flagged if you participate in such behavior. While the payout may be quick in the short term, it’s best not to partake in such behavior as it could jeopardize the status of your entire frequent flyer account and any miles inside.

Many people lose their accounts each year due to selling or purchasing these upgrades, so make sure you’re wise to the rules of the program!

Final Thoughts

The systemwide upgrade is certainly one of the most coveted elite benefits of top tier frequent flyer status in the AAdvantage program, and its value can be in the several thousands of dollars if used correctly on long premium flights.

Knowing more about the systemwide upgrade process will help you better use the upgrades for more strategic flights and be able to sit in the premium cabin on the itineraries that matter most to you.


FAQ

What is an AA systemwide upgrade?

An AA systemwide upgrade is an instrument given to American’s top tier ConciergeKey and Executive Platinum flyers, as well as those who have crossed a million miler threshold, which allows the holder to upgrade 1 class of service on any American Airlines flight, regardless of the ticket price (with the exception of basic economy fares).

You are able to upgrade from economy class to business class, or business class to first class in many instances, which allow these upgrade instruments to be worth a considerable value depending on the flight they are used on.

Do AA systemwide upgrades expire?

Systemwide upgrades on American Airlines do expire, traditionally on January 31 of each year. You should use your systemwide upgrades by this date, however, in some limited circumstances, you may be able to use an upgrade for a flight after this date, so long as you can confirm the upgrade at the time of ticketing, prior to January 31.

Can you use an AA systemwide upgrade on British Airways?

You cannot use an American Airlines systemwide upgrade on British Airways. You must use the upgrade on a flight purchased through American, and operated by American.

Even if you purchase an American flight through British Airways, you still cannot use the systemwide upgrade.

James Larounis

About James Larounis

Jamie first got his hook on miles and points during a high school choir trip to Europe, where he flew in Lufthansa First Class (thanks to his dad’s then US Airways miles) because economy was sold out.

Disclaimer: Any comments listed below are not from the bank advertiser, nor have they been reviewed or approved by them. No responsibility will be taken by the bank advertiser for these comments.

2 comments

  1. Gary Leff · November 15, 2019 · Reply

    Y’all need to update information about use by expiration date with the latest details which can be found here.

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