Are you as confused as these travelers about United’s upgrade system?

When Marco Lippman booked his United Airlines ticket for a flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt, Germany, he received a message that “four tickets were left at this price” that qualified for upgrades. But when he tried to upgrade his ticket, he found himself on a waitlist. And United’s website still contained a notation that upgraded tickets were available.

Lippman asks: Is this a “bait and switch” advertising ploy by United?

After several recent highly publicized egregious customer service failures, such as the violent removal of David Dao from a flight to accommodate airline personnel, United’s poor customer service reputation belies its marketing slogan, “Fly the friendly skies.” And United fails its customers in more subtle ways as well — one of which involves its confusing upgrade system.

As our advocate pointed out to Lippman, upgrades on United are awarded according to MileagePlus Premier membership types. Additional factors, such as geographic regions of flights and code-sharing on alliance partners such as Copa Airlines and Lufthansa, also determine availability of upgrades.

During United’s online ticket-booking process, a pop-up box may appear above the fare with additional information, such as “Mixed Upgrade.” If there is a waitlist for upgrades, that information will appear in this box. Upgrading requires payment in advance, whereupon passengers attempting to upgrade are then placed on standby lists. A customer who bids on, but doesn’t receive, an upgrade is entitled to a refund of the upgrade fee.

As Lippman puts it, he has “egg on his face” for not clicking on “Mixed Upgrade,” where he might have seen that there were no actual upgrades available before adding himself to a waitlist. But Lippman isn’t the only one confused by the way United presents its upgrade “opportunities.”

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Kathryn Goldstein contacted our advocates after purchasing two tickets to Hawaii for her 25th anniversary. She used 100,000 frequent flyer points to request upgrades to first class for her husband and herself. But United rescheduled their flights, delaying their outgoing flight from San Francisco to Honolulu. And she never received confirmation from United that their flights were upgraded.

Goldstein wants confirmation of her upgrades. She asked for contact information for United, which is available on our website.

United’s contract of carriage indicates that:

Day-of-departure upgrade fees are non-refundable, but if a flight for which an upgrade fee has been paid is affected by a flight cancellation, Schedule Change, or Irregular Operations, and the Passenger cannot be accommodated in First Class on a later flight, Passenger will be eligible for a refund upon request.

There’s no way to know whether Goldstein will get her upgrade until she boards her flight. It is known that she can request a refund of her upgrade fees if she and her husband aren’t seated in first class on their outbound flight.

So if you’re booked on United and seeking an upgrade online, go over the screens cautiously to make sure that you’re doing it right. And be prepared to find yourself on a waitlist rather than in a higher class of seat, especially if your flight schedule changes — or to have egg on your own face if you don’t get that upgrade.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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