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How To Find American Airlines Systemwide Upgrade Availability — Best and Worst Routes

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James Larounis
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James Larounis

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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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If you’re a top-tier American Airlines elite member, you’re probably familiar with systemwide upgrades (SWUs). While earning a “free” upgrade to a fancy seat may seem like a dream, redeeming these certificates can be challenging as there is often little to no award availability.

Despite this, there are a few ways you can search for upgrade space and ways you can be a bit more strategic in finding upgrade availability. Here are a few of the tips and tricks to maximize systemwide upgrades to elevate your next American Airlines flight.

What Is a Systemwide Upgrade?

If you’re an American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum, or ConciergeKey, you’ll have the opportunity to choose systemwide upgrades as part of your Loyalty Choice Rewards (starting at 175,000 Loyalty Points). These certificates are extremely valuable, allowing you to upgrade your ticket for free to the next class of service, so long as there is upgrade availability.

A systemwide upgrade is meant to be used primarily on American Airlines. Still, there are opportunities to use it on British Airways as well, and certificates are good for up to 3 segments. So, in theory, you could use it to fly from London to New York to Los Angeles to Sydney on 1 upgrade certificate.

Best American Airlines Routes With Systemwide Upgrade Space

Let’s draw an example here. Suppose you want to travel to Sydney, Australia, during the Southern Hemisphere summer (our U.S. winter) and just before New Year’s. During this peak travel season, you likely won’t find much upgrade space available on American’s nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Sydney.

If you’re willing to be flexible, however, there are some ways you could find upgrade space on popular routes. The first thing you need to do is choose a strategic routing and look at positioning flights, as some of American’s flights have a lot more upgrade availability than others.

  • New York (JFK) to London (LHR) — This is a surprising route that tends to have lots of space to use a systemwide upgrade as there are up to 22 daily frequencies, giving you better upgrade chances. Even if a particular flight doesn’t have it, it’s likely that there’s a New York to London flight within a few days that does have the space. The daytime flight from New York to London tends to have more upgrade availability than other flights, as do the later departures from New York.
  • Boston (BOS) to Los Angeles (LAX) — For transcontinental flights, you’ll find more space on the Boston to Los Angeles route than on the New York to Los Angeles flights. Consider hopping up to Boston if you want an elevated cross-country experience.
  • Flights to Spain — Flights to Madrid (MAD) and Barcelona (BCN) also seem to have more upgrade availability than other routes in Europe.
  • Flights to Venice and Athens — Smaller European markets like Venice (VCE) and Athens (ATH) tend to have much less business class upgrade availability. Similarly, flights operated by Americans that operate seasonally or only once a day, such as those to Copenhagen (CPH) or Nice (NCE), will have fewer upgraded seats available.
  • Flat-Bed Routes to Hawaii — These routes, mostly out of Dallas (DFW) or Phoenix (PHX), are very tough to come by for upgrades. If you’re willing to sacrifice a flat-bed seat, you may want to consider narrow-body planes out of Los Angeles, where there are more frequencies and upgrade space is more plentiful.
Hot Tip:

Upgrade availability can change at a moment’s notice. When you see upgrade space, take it or risk losing it if it disappears.

Upgrade Your British Airways Flight

One of the newer ways to use systemwide upgrades is also among the best ways. It’s now possible to use a systemwide upgrade on a British Airways flight, so long as there’s at least 1 American Airlines flight in the record.

For example, you could fly:

  • Washington, D.C. (DCA) to New York (JFK) on American Airlines
  • New York (JFK) to London (LHR) on British Airways
  • London (LHR) to Nice (NCE) on British Airways

All legs can be used with a systemwide upgrade since the first leg is flown by American Airlines.

Do note that British Airways only allows upgrades from one cabin to the next, and the airline treats premium economy as an entirely separate cabin. This means you can upgrade from main cabin to premium economy, premium economy to business, or business to first — but not from main cabin to business as American Airlines allows.

British Airways A350 1000 Club Suites review LAS LHR cabin
The larger, front business class cabin of the British Airways A350. Image Credit: Ryan Smith

British Airways determines if you can use a systemwide upgrade or not based on award availability. Fortunately, British Airways has phenomenal award availability in all classes. This means that you could book a premium economy flight and then upgrade to business class without having to hunt around for upgrade space since British Airways tends to release a lot of seats. In comparison, American Airlines is rather stingy with award availability.

To look for the opportunity to be upgraded on British Airways, the best way is to perform a normal award search on the American Airlines website as if you were using miles. In the image below, we can see there is a business class award flight available from Washington, D.C. (IAD) to London (LHR), so you’d be able to upgrade a purchased premium economy ticket to business using a systemwide upgrade.

IAD LHR BA Business Availability
Image Credit: American Airlines

However, remember that at least 1 segment of your entire trip, either outbound or return, must be on American Airlines.

Use ExpertFlyer To Find Systemwide Upgrades

One of the best ways to view American Airlines upgrade availability is to use a service like ExpertFlyer, which requires a $99-a-year subscription.

To do this, head to the Awards and Upgrades tab and enter your desired flight information:

Award and Upgrade Availability Search Expert Flyer
Image Credit: ExpertFlyer

Under classes, be sure to select the one that says Business – Upgrade (C). When you search, you’ll be presented with the availability for that day.

In this example for New York (JFK) to London (LHR), we see that 4 flights are offered, 2 of them have upgrade space (noted by the C inventory), and how many seats are available. The 8:30 p.m. flight has 2 seats for upgrade from main cabin to business class, and the 10:25 p.m. flight has at least 7 seats. (ExpertFlyer will not display more than 7 seats available, even if more are available).

ExpertFlyer C JFK LHR
Image Credit: ExpertFlyer

With this information at hand, you could call American Airlines and instantly confirm into business class using a systemwide upgrade on either flight. Should you wish to take the first 2 flights without seat availability, you would need to waitlist and hope the upgrade clears later on, so it’s generally advisable to book a confirmed flight when you can.

Upgrade to First Class on American’s 3-Class Aircraft

American Airlines is slowly phasing out true first class on its widebody planes and domestic premium flights operated on the A321T aircraft. For now, you can use a systemwide upgrade on these planes to go from paid business class to first class.

It’s entirely up to you whether you think this type of upgrade would be worth it and a good use of your SWU, but the option is certainly there.

In this case, you’d search for A inventory in ExpertFlyer’s award and upgrade search tab. You can also call American, and they can check the space for you. Generally, there is far more A availability than C.

My Experience With Systemwide Upgrades

I have a personal rule of thumb that I will not use my systemwide upgrades unless they can be immediately cleared. I do not like to waitlist flights and hope that the upgrade will clear, as American has been very aggressive lately with buy-up offers. Furthermore, there are many elite passengers with more Loyalty Points than I have, so I might not be at the top of the upgrade list.

American Airlines 777 300ER First Class Seat with IFE
The first class seats on the 777-300ER are the largest and most spacious seats American Airlines offers on their aircraft. Image Credit: James Larounis

That said, I have had great success upgrading (and confirming) flights with systemwide upgrades. Some of these flights include:

  • Chicago (ORD) to Tokyo (NRT) — Back when this flight existed
  • London (LHR) to Washington, D.C. (IAD) — Upgraded from premium economy to business class
  • New York (JFK) to London (LHR) — The flight I’ve used an upgrade on the most
  • Philadelphia (PHL) to Zurich (ZRH)

Upgrades are becoming more difficult to use because it’s harder to find available space, though with some persistent searching and flexibility, it can certainly be done. I personally find it a lot easier to use an upgrade to or from Europe than the South Pacific (Auckland (AKL) or Sydney (SYD), for example), so I’m strategic about where and when I decide to use these certificates for maximum redemption.

Final Thoughts

While it can be tough to find ways to use your American Airlines systemwide upgrades, there are a few ways you can make it easier on yourself. With a few tricks under your sleeve, you’ll be able to quickly find seats available for upgrade so these SWUs don’t go to waste!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are systemwide upgrades on American?

Systemwide upgrades allow you to go from 1 class of service to the next cabin for up to 3 segments. You can use these certificates for domestic or international routes, including some British Airways segments.

How long are systemwide upgrades good for?

Once the upgrade certificate is deposited in your account, it is valid for 1 year. However, it cannot be extended.

Can I use American Airlines systemwide upgrades on British Airways?

You can use a systemwide upgrade on flights operated by British Airways, so long as there is at least 1 American Airlines-operated flight in the itinerary.

Why are systemwide upgrades not available?

Systemwide upgrades are capacity controlled, and American Airlines decides if and when to release seats for upgrade depending on a number of factors. If an upgrade is not immediately confirmable, you can waitlist and hope to receive the upgrade if space opens.

James Larounis's image

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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