The murky world of airline upgrades

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As airline travel becomes increasingly less pleasant in economy class, upgrades are looking increasingly appealing to travelers. Understanding how the deck is stacked will help with any attempted upgrades.

The problem for the average traveler is that even booking well in advance — and being willing to spend miles and serious money — may not be enough. With the airlines’ focus on elite big spenders, many frequent fliers are being shut out of upgrades.

Difficulty snagging an upgrade is common across many airlines. However, United is the dominant local carrier in San Francisco, so I have the most experience with that airline. Hence these stories.

A few months ago, I was traveling to London, in economy class, with two cranky honeymooners. They said they had booked coach tickets 10 months out, almost as soon as flights opened, and were trying to use 20,000 miles and $600 per person each way to waitlist for business class upgrades. They said they were told at the time of booking that not a single business class seat had been sold. But on the day of departure, not only were they not upgraded, but they were a long way from the top of the waitlist.

What happened? Quite simply, they were repeatedly passed on the waitlist by high-status fliers with higher-priced tickets. (Personally, as a relatively high but not top-level elite, I was in an attempted upgrade situation as well. But, I couldn’t do it either. A reservations agent told me that only “Global Services” members and some travelers on expensive coach fares had ended up in Business on the flight.)

United’s priority on big spenders even affects more mundane domestic tickets. I recently had two travelers on the same cross-country flight. One was a 1K — United’s second highest level behind Global Services — who had waitlisted an upgrade three months earlier. Another had booked later, for a comparable ticket price, and had “only” Gold status. But they were offered an upgrade by a Global Services friend, who had extras. So I waitlisted that upgrade about a week before the flight.

Lo and behold, the Gold person’s waitlist cleared the next day. When I called to check, I asked, “Why was a lower-status frequent flier upgraded before someone two levels higher, who had been on the list for months?”

The reservations agent was at first confused, but checked with a supervisor and confirmed that it was because the lowly Gold member had such a high-status friend. It seems friends of high-status friends trump other frequent fliers. This passenger went to the top of the list over anyone else who was not actually Global Services. The agent confirmed that even someone who barely flew at all would, if using an upgrade from a Global Services member, end up higher on the upgrade standby list than all other regular elite fliers.

But that’s not all. Within statuses, higher fares are higher on the waitlist. In addition, airlines often sell upgrades at check-in. Qantas this year offered some friends the chance to “bid” on an upgrade for their flight and apparently gave business class to the highest bidders. There was no word on what happened to anyone waitlisted for a mileage upgrade.

Of course, airlines can do whatever they want with their seats, especially their prime upgrade seats. However, understanding how the deck is stacked may make anyone who seriously wants to sit up front to either consider paying the lowest business fare available or cultivating some high-status frequent flier friends.

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