My American Airlines flight had empty first class seats. Why didn’t they upgrade me?

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.)

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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?

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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.

Editors note: This was another 2017 favorite. How many more disappointed “elites” will we see this year? More, I’m sure. Many more.

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. Read more of Mark's articles here.

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