American launches bid-for-upgrade program

Forget those old lists of top 10 ways to get an upgrade, most of which haven’t worked in years. If you want to sit up front on your next American Airlines flight you can now get there the old-fashioned way: Pay for it. American has become the first North American airline to partner with Plusgrade to provide a cash bidding system to open up first class seats to those who otherwise would not get upgraded. The program is targeted at travelers who do not hold elite status in the AAdvantage program. They explicitly note that elites should continue to use 500-mile instruments for their upgrade needs. The airline also says that “[e]lite status member upgrade requests will continue to be given priority and will not be impacted by this program.”


The program will allow all travelers to offer a per-passenger price for access to the forward cabin. American can choose whether to accept the offer or not and will do so wholly at their own discretion. The fine print of the program includes, among other bits, “[American Airlines] makes no representation that any passenger will be upgraded regardless of whether or not seats are available in the class of service for which an Offer is being made.” And, despite the marketing page promising “An upgraded seat in a premium cabin class, complimentary food and beverage, Priority Check-in , Priority Baggage and Priority Boarding,” the fine print says “American Airlines does not guarantee that you will be offered a meal for the class of service to which you have been upgraded, nor other amenities generally associated with the class of service to which you have been upgraded.” I’m sure that’s just a CYA comment tucked in by the lawyers but it sure would be annoying to be denied some of the benefits based on the fine print.

There are a couple interesting things about the way the program is run. Customers can modify their bid or even revoke it so long as it has not been approved. To some extent this means travelers can play games with the bids and try to beat the system a little bit. But the part where American says they won’t necessarily give out upgrades makes it a bit harder to win at that game, I think.

Also interesting is that these are supposed to be prioritized behind elites getting upgraded. I suppose that for now we have no reason to believe that they won’t follow through on that plan, though it is always interesting once the dollar signs start flashing to see what happens behind the scenes.

Ancillary revenue is the way of the future. Welcome to the party.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I wonder if I have more than one pax on a reservation, do I have to upgrade both? What if I only want to upgrade my wife (I’m such a great husband) and I’m fine flying in the back?

    If I’m flying WN and there are more than one pax on the reservation, everyone must do the early boarding (you can’t break out only one).

    1. The website says, “Select the amount (per person) you would like to offer for the upgrade of each eligible segment on your itinerary.” So I’m assuming you stay together. I don’t know that reservations systems typically can handle multiple passengers in different classes of service on the same PNR.

    1. Not such a bad thing. Free domestic upgrades have made many people over entitled. Some people seem to think an upgrade is a right, not a privilege, which is sickening.

    2. Perhaps they’d stop offering free upgrades completely. This way, those that pay to sit in front can have a more pleasant experience.

  2. Etihad have such a system. The set lowest bid option is not inexpensive. So you can’t just put in a very low bid below that threshold and if you are the only one have that upgrade come to you.

  3. I can foresee a future for AA
    Paid upgrades = VIPs / Miles / then Stickers based on status
    (prob EXPs earn stickers like rest or buy at a discount)
    Paid upgrades – from bidding
    free upgrades for all elites

    1. @ffi — Yeah, this is basically the current UA system, although UA can’t seem to be honest about it.

      1. @Gene – not quite. UA (whether by choice or by technical incompetence) prioritizes cash upgrades above instrument upgrades.

        And at least for now on AA, comp EXP upgrades are ranked higher than these cash upgrades.

    2. While that may be a possible future, that removes much of the status benefits since there will be more than enough paid upgrades (at least assuming no minimum bid required). The two ways to fix that is either require a substantial minimum bid, or just forego the free upgrades entirely but count each status as a certain bid factor (e.g. EXP status = $100 towards bid, Gold = $25. So a GM bidding 110 would be first, followed by EXP bidding 5, followed by EXP bidding 0, followed by Gold bidding 70, followed by Gold bidding 0.)

      1. The T&Cs are explicitly clear that they won’t necessarily upgrade someone just because they have a bid in, even if there are empty seats. I interpret that as saying there is a minimum bid level.

  4. When Air NZ introduced bid upgrades they also assured elites that their upgrade vouchers (which expire if unused) or regular point upgrades (at fixed values only available to top elites) would have priority. Of course it didn’t take long before this was demonstrated to not be the case.

    Note Air NZ’s system is different because elites are encouraged to use the bid upgrade (makes sense as only 1 or 2 upgrade vouchers are issued annually and they apply per sector not per journey). Bids from elites are multiplied by a factor to give more weight to their bids.

    More recently Air NZ revamped their processes so bid upgrades are only processed in the day or so before departure.

    There is a thread on Flyertalk that tracks successful bids. For non-status pax, with exception of one or two routes with low volumes of premium passengers, to have a successful bid you generally need to bid considerably more than the old fixed value points upgrades.

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