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

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James Larounis
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James Larounis

Senior Content Contributor

Countries Visited: 30U.S. States Visited: 35

James (Jamie) started The Forward Cabin blog to educate readers about points, miles, and loyalty programs. He’s spoken at Princeton University and The New York Times Travel Show and has been quoted in...
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Keri Stooksbury

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With years of experience in corporate marketing and as the Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, Keri is now Editor-in-Chief at UP, overseeing daily content operations and r...

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

In this post, we’re going to discuss what a systemwide upgrade is, including how to earn and use one. We’ll also review strategies for maximizing systemwide upgrade use.

What Is a Systemwide Upgrade?

A systemwide upgrade is one of the ways American Airlines allows you to upgrade your flight experience. In total, there are 2 such “instruments:”

  • Miles and Cash Co-pay: Any AAdvantage member can upgrade any itinerary in advance by using a set amount of miles and a set amount of cash — determined by the routing and destination — so long as specific, confirmable upgrade inventory is released by the airline.
  • Systemwide Upgrade: SWUs can be earned only by Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro, and ConciergeKey members and can be used to upgrade any route American flies, with no cash co-pay. These upgrades allow a passenger to confirm an upgrade in advance so long as specific, confirmable upgrade inventory is released.

A systemwide upgrade allows the flyer who has it to upgrade in the following ways:

  • 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 flyer to go from any type 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 give you an advantage over a regular Main Cabin ticket, and you can’t upgrade from Main Cabin to premium economy.

AA Domestic First Class
You could consider using a systemwide upgrade on a long domestic flight. Image Credit: American Airlines

How To Earn a Systemwide Upgrade

Systemwide upgrades are perks reserved for American’s top flyers, but there are some ways for those without top-level status to earn and use the upgrades.

Executive Platinum members can earn 4 systemwide upgrades when they qualify or re-qualify for status as part of the elite choice rewards benefits package. It normally takes $15,000 in spending on American or Oneworld airlines and 100,000 miles flown to earn Executive Platinum status. Members will need 200,000 Loyalty Points to earn Executive Platinum.

Hot Tip: Learn all about the new changes to the AAdvantage loyalty program!

Members who reach the Platinum Pro level (the tier just under Executive Platinum, achieved with 125,000 Loyalty Points) can choose up to 1 systemwide upgrade annually when choosing among several benefits on their choice rewards list.

ConciergeKey members can 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 it. However, it’s 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 get anywhere near this level.

In the Loyalty Points system, you’ll be able to earn extra systemwide upgrades at the 350,000-, 550,000-, and 750,000-point levels.

In addition to being an Executive Platinum or ConciergeKey member, 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, whether or not you’ve met the requirements for Executive Platinum/ConciergeKey. 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 Airbus A321T, American’s premium 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, including basic economy. This means you could purchase one of the cheapest Main Cabin tickets and receive an upgrade to business class for free when you use an upgrade. 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 available.

To use a systemwide upgrade on any flight, you need 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 to be available.

If you’re upgrading from business to first class on any 3-class plane — such as American’s Airbus A321T that operates transcontinental domestic flights or a Boeing 777-300ER on a flight from New York (JFK) to London (LHR) — you need “A” inventory. 

As a general rule, it’s 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 member, you’ll be able to see upgrade-eligible flights when you search on aa.com.

If there’s upgrade space available at the time your ticket is issued, an agent can apply the upgrade immediately and you’ll be confirmed in the premium cabin. This is the 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 confirm the upgrade on some of those segments, but not all. Typically, this translates into you not finding a confirmable upgrade on the long-haul transoceanic segment 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 (read: longest) segment, and if that clears at a later date, go back and waitlist the shorter segments.

For example, let’s say you’re flying from Dallas (DFW) to Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD), and there’s only confirmable upgrade space from Los Angeles to Sydney. The best course of action is to not confirm the Dallas to Los Angeles leg. 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 a relatively short domestic flight.

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

Many times, your upgrade will not be confirmed in advance and will require you to be placed on an airport list, which processes upgrades automatically if your upgrade doesn’t clear before.

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 upgrade priority:

  • VIP1: ConciergeKey on a systemwide upgrade
  • UPG2: ConciergeKey on a complimentary upgrade
  • UPGA2: Concierge Key on an award ticket requesting a complimentary upgrade
  • VIP2: Executive Platinum on a systemwide upgrade
  • UPG2: Executive Platinum on a complimentary upgrade
  • UPGA2: Executive Platinum on an award ticket requesting 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 status 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’s no method for 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 and you’re unable to call.

If you need to cancel a reservation for which you’ve used your upgrades on or before the expiration date, 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’ve used — and for what flights — both on aa.com and the American Airlines app. Your count of systemwide upgrades will be updated within a few hours of ticketing.

Be very cautious when calling in several times to ticket a reservation — multiple systemwide upgrades can 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 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.

Departing From the U.K.

When you depart the U.K., you’re charged an Air Passenger Duty tax on your upgrade. This applies to all departures from the U.K. departures.

According to the U.K. government, when flying from the U.K. to the U.S., you’re charged an additional £172 (~$243) to use your confirmed systemwide upgrade. If you waitlist 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 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, as the upgrade certificates approach their expiration dates, you’ll see many elite members 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 for another passenger, simply call 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 (i.e. a ticket that isn’t an award ticket or one that’s been booked using any sort of miles). Any revenue ticket is upgradable, including basic economy tickets.

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. They can’t be used on any codeshare flights, or those purchased through another carrier, even though the flight may be operated by American.

The exception is British Airways. Systemwide upgrades can now be used on British Airways flights as long as there is at least 1 segment on AA metal and the ticket was purchased through American. Upgrades on British Airways are to the next class of service.

This is a point that many travelers don’t realize, and it 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 the legs of a reservation, so long as those legs are in 1 direction and don’t exceed 3.

Take, for example, a flight from Washington, D.C. (DCA) to Sydney, Australia (SYD) via New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX). 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: Lengthy itineraries with multiple stops can maximize the value of a systemwide upgrade — especially when you have multiple long-haul segments in the itinerary.

When You Can’t Use a Systemwide Upgrade

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

  • Codeshare flights, which include flights “marketed by American and operated by other airlines” (with the exception of some British Airways flights)
  • Government or military fares
  • Fares ineligible to earn mileage credit, such as award tickets

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. In these cases, the flight is not flown by an American Airlines aircraft and thus is not eligible for an upgrade. The exception to the rule is British Airways, which allows the use of systemwide upgrades in some circumstances.
  • You may purchase a flight through British Airways, for example, that is marketed by British Airways but operated by American, in which case it 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 Vienna (VIE) via New York (JFK) and London (LHR). The DFW to JFK and 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. 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 for Using Systemwide Upgrades

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

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

Assuming you’re trying to get maximum value from your upgrade, here are some examples of the best domestic flights for using a systemwide upgrade:

  • 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 destinations
  • Los Angeles (LAX) to San Francisco (SFO), since this is a high-profile business route
  • New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX), since complimentary upgrades are hard to come by
  • Miami (MIA) to Seattle (SEA), since this is American’s longest domestic narrow-body route

Here are some of the best international flights for using a systemwide:

  • Dallas (DFW) to Hong Kong (HKG), since this is the longest flight in American’s network (the flight is currently suspended)
  • 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
  • Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) or Auckland (AKL), since these are routes with limited seats and very expensive 
  • 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.

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

In general, it comes down to 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? 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, larger jets are more comfortable than regional jets. You also may find wide-body aircraft a better use of an upgrade than a narrow-body plane, where things are tighter.
  • What kind of service will be on board? On some flights, you may receive a meal or some sort of extra service, such as being offered an ice cream sundae, pajamas, or a third meal service. You may want to use a systemwide upgrade on flights with extra amenities or services to enhance your experience.

Systemwide Upgrades vs. Mileage/Co-Pay Upgrades

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 a 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 all the same and will follow the same rules. When it comes to your place on the upgrade list, each method has equal priority. For example, an Executive Platinum member using a systemwide upgrade and another Executive Platinum member using miles and a cash co-pay will be listed according to their rolling spend with the airline, since neither the systemwide upgrade nor the miles-and-cash method takes priority over one another.

AA 787 Business Class with headphones
American operates several domestic routes with lie-flat seats each day, all of which are candidates for using systemwide upgrades. Image Credit: American Airlines

Protections

Unlike competitors Delta and United, American provides “protection” for your upgrade when you successfully apply a systemwide upgrade. In essence, this means that your seat in the premium cabin is retained should you need to move flights due to an irregularity.

Let’s take a look at 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, however, 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 successfully, you’re now confirmed in the premium cabin, and when you attempt to search for new flights, you’ll retain your premium cabin seat.

Following this example, if you choose to take a flight with partner British Airways, you’ll be re-ticketed in business class on its aircraft without question. Alternatively, if you choose to move to an itinerary on American Airlines that involves a connection in Chicago (ORD), you’ll remain “protected” in business or first class, whichever you were originally seated in.

This is a very customer-friendly benefit and can be hugely valuable 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 driving up the value of your systemwide upgrades even further.

American’s app is designed to show premium cabin options if your original flight should be delayed or canceled. When you go to rebook, it will present other premium cabin options, just as if you’d purchased a business or first class fare in the first place.

Note that if your upgrade clears at the gate, the ticket will not be automatically reissued and you won’t be able to be protected on other flights. If this happens to you, work with the gate agent directly 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 the premium cabin.

Systemwide Upgrade Expirations

In most cases, systemwide upgrades expire 1 year from the date of issue.

If you have a reservation made for after the expiration date and that flight has available, confirmable space available, you can call American and apply 1 of your certificates. For 2022, expiring SWUs for all customers can be applied and confirmed before the expiration date, even if the flight is after.

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 very important to understand 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.

The airline’s corporate security team 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 you have within it.

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 status in the AAdvantage program, and its value can be in the several thousands of dollars if used to its maximum potential.

Now, you know how systemwide upgrades work, so you can use them more strategically to secure spots in premium cabins on the itineraries where it matters most.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an AA systemwide upgrade?

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

You’re able to upgrade from economy class to business class, or business class to first class in many instances, making these certificates incredibly valuable, depending on the itinerary they’re applied to.

Do AA systemwide upgrades expire?

Systemwide upgrades on American Airlines do expire, traditionally 1 year after the date they’re issued. However, you are able to use an upgrade for a flight after this date, so long as you can confirm the upgrade before the certificate expires.

Can you use an AA systemwide upgrade on British Airways?

Yes, you can now use systemwide upgrades on British Airways flights as long as there is at least 1 American Airlines flight in your itinerary and you booked your ticket through American Airlines.

How do I check systemwide upgrade availability?

If you’re an Executive Platinum or ConciergeKey member, you can check to see if upgrade space is available on aa.com. If you don’t have either of these status levels, you can call American to manually check or you can utilize a third-party service such as ExpertFlyer, which can check upgrade inventory on any given routing.

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About James Larounis

James (Jamie) started The Forward Cabin blog to educate readers about points, miles, and loyalty programs. He’s spoken at Princeton University and The New York Times Travel Show and has been quoted in dozens of travel publications.

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