Why did American refuse my upgrade on a flight with empty first class seats?

When Kong Ho pays $500 for Gold elite membership in American Airlines’ AAdvantage program, he expects to reap the benefits. Unfortunately, the airline has a different idea. Can our advocates help upgrade Ko’s experience with the world’s largest airline?

Question: I signed up and paid for elite membership, which includes free upgrades on any flights of less than 500 miles. Upgrades are automatically requested when you are an elite member.

When I got to the airport, I asked if I was upgraded, and the person behind the desk insisted that I would have to use my miles for an upgrade. Of course, I would not do so as I was only flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

Once on the plane, I saw that there were empty seats in the first class cabin, where I should have been because of my status. I contacted AA’s complaint center and received an email stating that, although their agents were wrong, there is absolutely no compensation for their wrongdoing, and they will not take responsibility.

All I want is some kind of compensation. It does not have to be a free flight. Just anything as I do pay higher prices on my flights, and I also paid $100 for a 90-day challenge to achieve elite member status. If AA does not honor my status and does not upgrade me according to their guidelines, then what am I paying all this money for? — Kong Ho, Pasadena, Calif.

Answer: As a member of American’s AAdvantage program, I feel your pain. Sometimes there is no good explanation as to how some people get upgraded and others don’t. Sometime last year, I was number one on an American upgrade standby list and was shocked when the gate agents seated a nonrevenue (employee) passenger ahead of me in first class. (I am an Executive Platinum flyer, the highest level in the Aadvantage program. When I pointed out the error, I received an apology, and they quickly seated me in the first class cabin.)

Related story:   What a charge

In your case, the gate agents made multiple errors. First, they failed to recognize your Gold status, which you paid extra for. According to the terms of the AAdvantage program, you were entitled to a complimentary upgrade to first class (based on seat availability) for a flight that was only about 230 miles. You should not have been told that you needed to use your accrued miles for an upgrade.

When you were boarded into your economy class seat, you noticed that there were three seats available in the first class cabin. You should have been seated in one of those “big chairs.”

You submitted your story to the AA Complaint Center, stating, “I use my hard-earned money to pay for my flights and elite membership. If I don’t get what I’m supposed to, then what’s the point of having it?” That sounds like a reasonable question. Unfortunately, you were less than satisfied with the airline’s response:

While it is not possible to tell why an upgrade was not given, it is possible that there was an agent error. I acknowledge you were inconvenienced, and I understand your request for compensation. Regrettably, I must respectfully decline. While I agree that in certain situations a gesture of goodwill is in order, we don’t believe that compensation is due for this situation.

You were shocked to hear this from an airline to which you had recently paid extra to participate in their elite flyer challenge, which offers upgraded status in return for your increased short-term patronage of the airline. But what incentive would you have to frequent the airline if you’re not getting the benefits you rightfully deserve?

Related story:   That's ridiculous! A "free" ticket on American Airlines has $476 in fees; a "paid" ticket has $180

Dissatisfied with the airline’s response to your claim, you could have escalated your complaint to executives of the airline by writing a simple, polite letter to lower-level executives and then working your way up the list. We publish a list of American Airlines’ executive contacts on our website.

Instead, you reached out to our advocates, who contacted American on your behalf.

Shortly after, you received a phone call from an American representative, who offered you four 500-mile upgrade certificates, which you accepted.

This is a lesson to be aware of your rights as a traveler, especially one with elite benefits. And, if the airline won’t give you the benefits to which you are entitled, speak up and advocate for yourself.

Mark Pokedoff

Four-time Emmy-award-winning television sports production specialist and frequent traveler. Longtime freelance writer and travel blog enthusiast. Proud papa of four amazing kids who have been upgraded to first class more than all their friends combined.

  • Lindabator

    perhaps his mileage number was not in the record? my gold clients get the automatic upgrades without having to ask for them – but I ensure their FF number is in the record – so this does not happen

  • Chris_In_NC

    The real lesson is… are you sure you want to continue your loyalty to American Airline? After all, if this is how you are treated when you are accepting a “Elite challenge” do you REALLY expect things to improve?

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    I would like to know, in this situation what does mr. Kong Ho would consider a fair compensation?

  • Noah Kimmel

    likewise when did status challenge start? seeing as it was a paid challenge, may take some time for system to update and recognize status

  • Alan Gore

    Loyalty programs vary a lot. You have to find one that earns your…loyalty.

  • Annie M

    I would think what he got was fair compensation.

  • greg watson

    just another honest mistake ???

  • joycexyz

    Okay. Here’s the deal. Savvy travelers need to carry a briefcase full of documents–FAA regulations, EU regulations, individual loyalty program agreements….You get the picture. Necessary because the front-line employees are (willfully?) ignorant and seem to know only one word: NO!

  • joycexyz

    Let me join you in cynicism and say it’s doubtful.

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    Frontline employees sometimes are unable to read a ticket, that says Issued by ALASKA AIRLINE, and operated by UNITED……….

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    I think it was fair compensation , and he accepted it, but I’m NOT so sure he finds the compensation fair, after making such a big fuss about not being seated in First class……..

  • PsyGuy

    Gold isn’t really a very high tier of “status” with AA.

  • PsyGuy

    4 500 mile upgrade certificates…

  • PsyGuy

    It’s not like they can go back in time and redo the flight.

  • PsyGuy


  • PsyGuy

    I carry all those documents on my iPhone as photos, who uses paper anymore.

  • PsyGuy

    Since AA can change the benefits and terms of its status and PP program at anytime without explanation, notice or refund, you basically paid real money for whispers on the wind.

  • joycexyz

    Good point. But better to save them as pdf’s–easier to read.

  • joycexyz

    Apparently ability to read is not part of the job description.

  • PsyGuy

    Can’t organize them by type in my camera roll then.

  • joycexyz

    I meant save them in the first place as pdf documents.

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    Joycexyz….this is off the subject, but I just found this out myself, so I would like to share it , here it is:

    Supplemental Medicare insurance,
    Also known as a Medigap policy, a Medicare supplement is a private insurance policy that pays for a portion of the health care costs that your basic Medicare policy will not cover. Typically, supplements cover costs like deductibles and copayments, but they may also cover medical services that your Medicare policy doesn’t cover. For example, if you travel outside the United States, your Medicare supplement may cover any health care costs you incur. A Medicare supplement covers only one person, so it will not apply to your spouse.

    I did not purchase “travel insurance for my upcoming Argentina trip, because I have a “Permanent resident visa good for 10 years”, and regardless, I have IAMAT card, and just now I have received my monthly news letter from my sypplemental insurance and this was in that newsletter. So good to know. I would like to make this public to the senior (Medicare/Supplemental carriers) travelers. Where should this beposted on this ELLIOTT site?

  • joycexyz

    Well, I guess you just did post it. But you could write to Chris using the “letter to the editor” link below.

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    Great idea. It could be useful to many travlers who might not know it.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.