How to take the mystery out of airline attempted upgrades

Obscure rules add mystery to attempted upgrades

attempted upgradesToday, airline travel is increasingly less pleasant in economy class. Upgrades are looking more and more appealing to travelers. However, 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 airline focus on elite big spenders, many frequent fliers are being shut out of attempted upgrades.

United Airlines and its travelers are not alone in the attempted upgrades situation. However, in San Francisco, they are the dominant local carrier. United is the airline I have the most experience with, hence these stories.

Being jumped on the waitlist

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. This couple was trying to use 20,000 miles and $600 per person each way to wait-list for business class attempted upgrades. They told me they were told at the time of booking that not a single business class seat was sold. But on the day of departure, not only were they not upgraded, but they were a long way from the top of the airport wait-list.

Click here to subscribeWhat happened? Quite simply, they were jumped on the waitlist repeatedly 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. I couldn’t do it either. A reservation agent told me that only “Global Services” members and some travelers on expensive coach fares had ended up in Business on the flight.)

Sometimes who you know makes a difference with upgrades

United’s priority on big spenders even affects more mundane domestic tickets. This week I 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 back in February, 3 months ago.  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.

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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 not actually Global Services.

The agent confirmed that anyone who barely flies at all, but uses an upgrade from a Global Services member, would end up higher on the upgrade standby list than all other regular elite fliers.

Your status may trump your airfare for upgrades

Global Entry Primer DownloadNow, add to this complication the twilight upgrade world. Within statuses, higher fares are higher on the waitlist. Plus, airlines often sell upgrades at check-in. Qantas this year offered some friends the chance to “bid” on an upgrade for their flight. The highest bidders apparently won a business class seat. 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, anyone trying to upgrade should understand how the deck is stacked. It may change approaches for anyone who seriously wants to sit up front. They should either consider paying the lowest business fare available or cultivating some very frequent flier friends.

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