Back on January 17th, US Airways made a major change to its fare class booking codes to align with its merger partner, American Airlines. What this meant is that booking codes used to book US Airways flights into a passenger’s itinerary would be converted to the syntax in use by American at the time. This was done to make it easier to transfer/translate passenger bookings to the new AA once the integration is completed.
One of the more interesting implications of this change, as it relates to both US and AA elites, is how upgrades and awards are handled. I’ve observed several changes to my US bookings post-alignment, and while I thought everything would be business as usual on the US side of house, there actually have been some pretty significant changes. And I’m very, very unhappy about them. BUT, there’s one hidden benefit in all these changes that will actually help US and AA elites when traveling on US.
Upgrades on US Airways pre-alignment
Note that when I’m talking about upgrades here, it is in the context of domestic elite auto-upgrades (currently free pre-departure for all US elites and 24 hours prior to departure for AA elites). Prior to the fare alignment, US had a pretty easy and simple system. All upgrades, no matter if they were complimentary elite or confirmed using mileage, came out of the same ‘O’ fare class that was used for first class awards. It was very easy to keep track of inventory due to this.
US was VERY generous, maybe too generous, with how much first class award space they made available 7 days prior to departure. If there was O inventory 7 days out, Chairman’s members were auto-upgraded. I am a Chairman myself and have witnessed flights like SFO-CLT and LAX-CLT filling up in F class 7 days out. It wasn’t uncommon on certain routes, and US published ALOT of award space close to departure. This was probably one of the only nice perks US had over the competition, the easy upgrades.
Upgrades on US Airways post-alignment
Now that AA got involved, everything has changed for the worse. I figured that the status quo would remain. Once US aligned booking codes, the Z bucket first class award code would be used for upgrades as well. That is not what occurred. In fact US has gone for 90% the AA-way and that’s not a good thing, albeit with one exception (I’ll explain in a bit).
The auto-upgrade bucket has now been defined as ‘X’ which is the same bucket AA uses for its elite upgrades.
Mileage, Instrument, Revenue upgrades
The mileage and instrument bucket is now defined as ‘A’ which is the same over at AA. It is also a bookable first class revenue bucket as well. This always confused me as an AA Executive Platinum, but they’ve left it alone.
First Class awards
These now book into ‘Z’ class, just as with AA.
What’s going on?
So in total, we have F, A, P, X, and Z booking codes for first class on both AA and US (I may have missed one?). Here’s why these new booking codes are a very bad thing, and an unfortunate sign of AA’s chosen direction:
1. US is now able/wanting to ‘manage’ (that’s airline-speak for restrict) its first class upgrades given to elites. This is unfortunate for two reasons. One is that US’ first class sucks when it comes to hard product (no power even though there’s wifi, no IFE, horrible seat pitch, limited recline), and one reason US has any loyal elites is due to its generosity with upgrade percentages. Second, US and AA are increasingly monetizing first class as opposed to offering empty seats to elites. I’ll get back to this second point in a minute, as I know there are differing opinions out there.
2. US has now adopted the AA approach of holding back first class upgrade space until the last minute. Instead of dumping all upgrades and award seats into one fare bucket, it is now spread across three different ones that allows US to control/restrict who gets what, and when. I am speaking as a an AA EXP the past couple years, and I have noticed a marked change in the way AA handles upgrades. The monetization has gotten to a ridiculous point. Although I’ve experienced it many time over the past 2 or so years, this is a prime example: I was booked on a DFW-LAX 757 flight in January and AA had 14 F seats left for sale 12 hours before the flight (and I had that figure verified when I asked an EXP agent). AA decided finally released 10 upgrade spaces (X class) at -4 hours prior to departure. That’s just absurd, and it’s happened multiple times to me across many routes, and it has now propagated to US.
Up until now I haven’t really paid much attention to what’s been happening at US behind the scenes. Last month I had many, many flights with them and was getting my upgrades pretty regularly. Then about 2 weeks ago I noticed a change. The upgrades weren’t happening at the 7-day mark as usual. I thought it might just be a one-off thing. Then I looked closer and…that’s when I saw what US was doing! My last few elite auto-upgrades were coding as X class, just like AA does, and I noticed the new A bucket.
How this benefits US/AA elites traveling on US
Here’s where you’ll really want to pay attention. There’s a BIG difference between how AA and US handle A class, and it works in elite’s favor. We all know by now that US elites get auto-upgraded ahead of time if there’s space (X class) when the robot runs at the window. AA elites are only eligible at check-in if there’s space.
Previously all there had to be was O class on US for an elite to be able to select an F seat at check in. On AA, there has to be X class available for an elite upgrade, no exceptions. Wouldn’t you think that X class restriction would apply for US as well now? Nope, as long as there is A space available at check in now, a US/AA elite can upgrade for free. Remember how I said previously that A class is also a revenue class? That means more than likely if there is an F class bookable, there will also be an A class available too.
How I found this out
I am booked on US going home from Europe. I connect in PHL and have a long transcon after that. A week ago my upgrade didn’t clear. It didn’t clear at 4 days, 3, 2, etc. The seat map kept filling up, which means alot of Chairman Preferred are on this flight. At -24 hours from my US bound flight there was only 1 F and 1 A class available on the transcon flight, no X class (btw, US agents can see X class in availability). I went ahead and checked in for my first flight and during the seat selection process, low and behold I was offered a first class seat on the connecting flight for $0. When I pulled up the reservation after checking in it showed I had been re-booked in A class.
Another Important Point and why it’s important
This is going to be very beneficial US/AA elites, but there’s another loophole layer to this as well (I know...). We all know that traditional online check in starts -24 hours before departure right? Well, did you see my example above? I’m in Europe, so I get a huge head start on check in being that I’m connecting to this flight versus another elite that is originating on that flight and has to wait until -24 hours prior, when all the seats may be be gone already (to people lie me :-))
The implications of this are quite clear to me. US is going to be holding back more and more advanced upgrade space as the merger nears, to align itself with AA’s unfortunate trends. This is good for AA elites though, as they’ll have a better chance of there being F seats available at the -24 hours check in period to grab.
So in conclusion, US and AA elites should take advantage of this while they can, as it likely won’t be around once the two carriers combine.