All about Airline Upgrades – Part II

In Part I of this article on Airline Upgrades, I discussed the different types of airline upgrades airlines offer and how to get them. One has to understand here that there are only two reasons airlines offer an upgrade:

  1. They have unsold First or Business class seats that they are trying to get revenue for (either cash or unredeemed miles)
  2. They have unsold First or Business class seats and they are using them to reward their customers with Elite Status

There is no third reason. While there is some discretion a Gate Agent has in handing out an upgraded seat to a passenger they deem deserving, upgrades are not an entitlement. Unless your name is Patrick Jane, talking the gate agent into giving you an upgrade for free is not likely to happen. Even when paying with cash or miles, you can be trumped by someone with the same cash or miles but a higher Elite status.

Here are some factors to watch out for before you attempt an upgrade:

Is the ticket you have purchased upgradable?

Certain low fares cannot be upgraded at all. If you want to upgrade them, you will need to ‘fare-up’ to a higher fare bucket, increasing you ticket cost. I flew a 12 hour non-stop to Dubai last year. I was hoping to upgrade but found out when I tried to apply for an upgrade that the ticket was not upgradable. The fare difference to an upgradable ticket made my economy seat suddenly look much more comfortable than it really was. Thankfully it was a United EconomyPlus seat. a white airplane on a runway

Is there a co-pay to upgrade?

Several airlines charge a ‘co-pay’ to upgrade any ticket using miles. American Airlines already does that. United just started charging co-pays this year. This co-pay amount depends upon your ticket’s fare basis and your elite level. Either way, it increases your ticket price.

Seat availability

Upgrades have limited availability. Business/First class seats have to be available. You might spend all the money to buy an economy ticket – that too an expensive economy ticket that is upgradable – only to find out that the upper classes are sold out.

Do you have the necessary upgrade instruments or miles?

Most airlines will require you to have the necessary miles or upgrade instruments needed for the upgrade to be in your account and available to use (not held for another upgrade you have applied for) before you can apply for an upgrade or be put on a waiting list for an upgrade. If you do not have them, you will need to purchase the instrument with no guarantee that the upgrade will clear. For example, on United, if you want to upgrade to First class using the (soon to be defunct) e500s; United requires you have enough e500s be in your account at the time of checking in, even when your upgrade has not cleared, in order to be waitlisted for the upgrade. I have heard horror stories of people who purchased e500s at check-in time, only to have the upgrade not clear eventually. They had to keep the e500s and hope to use them in the future.

Do you have a multi-segment or multi-carrier itinerary?

It is also important to note that if you flying on a multi-segment itinerary, each segment’s upgrade will clear independently. Also, if you are on a multi-carrier itinerary, each airline you are flying on will have its own upgrade policies, terms and conditions and will treat your upgrade request differently, based on your status and fare bucket for that particular airline.

Are you trying to upgrade on a code-shared flight or one operated by a Partner

Airlines typically do not allow you to use an upgrade instrument or even miles from another airlines program. So, if you are flying on a code shared flight that is operated by another carrier, upgrading using your airline programs instrument or miles may not be possible. There are exceptions to this. For example, some Star Alliance airlines participate in a program that allows you to upgrade on one airline using another airlines miles. First of all, not all the Star Alliance airlines participate in this program, secondly, the terms and conditions under which you can upgrade are typically very restrictive. In most cases, only full fared economy or business class tickets can be upgraded to the next class. As per instruments, it is even rarer. An example that comes to mind is the ability to use United Airlines SWUs to upgrade Lufthansa seats. Again, this is only possible on some types of tickets.

United and Continental recently formed a partnership that allows for full recognition of each other Elites and unlimited domestic upgrades for all Elites of both airlines on either carrier. This is indeed good news and hopefully a precedent other airlines will pick up on.

Till then, it is in the ‘cattle’ section for all of us when flying an airline we have no Elite status on.

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