Kids, don’t try this shortcut to an airline upgrade at home

Attention frequent fliers: If you can’t get a confirmed upgrade on your next flight, don’t do what Jim Downey did.

He put a “hold” on two business class seats, in an effort to secure a better seat on an American Airlines flight to Paris — something that’s against the rules — and he got caught.

But did the airline overreact? Perhaps.

He says American punished him by blocking his account and then confiscating some of his miles. But the punishment may not have fit the crime.

Downey explains,

I had an itinerary to Paris booked beginning March 27th. The 10 days prior to the trip I watched the same 7 to 8 business class seats sit in inventory, while my upgrade wasn’t being granted.

Because of my age, traveling that distance in coach is a hardship, and I rely on VIP upgrades for long haul trips. I canceled a vacation for two to Paris in June because the upgrades didn’t come through until the day of departure.

Frustrated, I put a 24-hour hold on two seats, Thursday the 25th, two days prior to departure.

Again, this is a no-no. You’re taking two seats out of inventory in order to increase your chances of an upgrade.

AA’s security department found these and canceled them by noon Friday. At the departure gate for Paris, the agent told me business class was oversold, 28 passengers for 27 places, and that I had no chance of an upgrade. Clearly, because the seats were sold, there was no damage caused by what I did.

Nevertheless, what I did was wrong. I apologize. It won’t happen again.

American blamed him for “inventory shrinkage” and blocked his AAdvantage account, apparently stripping him of 800,000 miles and eight unused VIP upgrades.

I’ve seen this kind of thing before.

Downey didn’t have a strong case. American Airlines can pretty much do whatever it wants to with your miles, including deleting all of them, if it wants to.

I recommended sending a brief, polite and apologetic letter to American. He did.

A month later, he called.

They were on the cusp of sending me a demand letter, giving me a choice of paying $22,000 for their perceived “inventory spoilage” or forfeit 100,000 miles. I took the miles ding, but will complain again in writing, since they had sold all the seats by departure anyway.

Meanwhile, United did a status match, so AA has lost me as a flyer. Since they put a hold on my account, it’s cost them over $5,000 of real lost revenue. And United’s Economy Plus is so much better that coach on AA, if I don’t get an upgrade.

So the lesson here, of course, is: Don’t break the rules. But did American react too harshly by demanding he pay $22,000 or 100,000 miles?

I think so. That’s not to say what Downey did wasn’t wrong. It’s just that he’s also a customer — a very good customer. And now, a former customer.

(Photo: boeing dream scape/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Ahgg

    If he was dumb enough to put the tickets on hold under his own name than he deserves to lose all his miles! He could have put as many seats as he wanted on hold with other peoples names!

  • doctork

    A “customer”  is no longer valued by most airlines. 12 yrs ago, living in Duluth with my very ill mother in FL, a trip was scheduled  for the next day.  At 10 pm the MD said I could stay in Duluth. I cancelled the trip.  At 0430 I had to get a seat.  I paid the full price rather than a discounted fare for emergency medical leave.  Now I will only cancel at the last moment. But booking twice is wrong.  I also have a medical problem & can’t sit in a middle seat. But, flight attendants will usually help..   He was wrong and then got lucky. Why didn’t American charge him for the seat never cancelled?

  • Tsering_l

    The guy sounds like a doosh. He is not entitled to those seats, regardless of what status he holds.

  • Bill

    I think what American is saying – is that they don’t need customers like him.  Whether or not he succeeded was not the point.  It was that he tried.

    I like my upgrades too, but we don’t need people doing things like that.

  • Jim Zakany

    Punishment should be disproportionate to the crime. It is meant to deter additional shenanigans. The punishment for stealing a dollar should be more than a dollar.

    Having the audacity to complain would make me want to void the rest of his miles.

  • Jim Zakany

    I disagree with your conclusion. I think people dislike the OP because he did something wrong. Especially when that something could cost fellow travelers a seat.

  • Dana Scheider

    $22,000? You’ve got to be kidding me. They should’ve just charged him for the business class seats or something.

  • AirlineEmployee

    They may or may not have made notation.   Nevertheless, if he plays the same game at United he will also get caught….then he can move onto Delta, then USAir, etc. etc.  

  • AirlineEmployee

    I’m sick of idiots like this who think they are “spiting” the airline by not flying them …”they will be losing $5,000 worth of my travel”…..etc.  
    $5,000 to AA is probably about as much revenue they make in just a few minutes with a lot of other passengers.  For every idiot that says to us “I’ll never fly your airline again”,  there are thousands of people online booking AA flights.   I just let them talk and yack away and think what a jerk they are when they walk away.  Oh yeah, they’ll be pounding down the door at Xmas and Thanksgiving when they can’t get a seat on another airline.

  • Thomas Ralph

    You can hold a reservation on almost any airline if you are or have access to a travel agent.

  • TonyA_says

    I think AA guarantees the price also while the reservation is held.
    I doubt a travel agent can do that (hold the price).