Forget Upgrades. If You Want to Fly First Class, Buy It.

by Anthony Losanno
Delta A321

Advertiser Disclosure: The Bulkhead Seat earns an affiliate commission for anyone approved through the links below. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. We work to provide the best publicly available offers to our readers. We frequently update them, but this site does not include all available offers.

This morning, Gary at View from the Wing wrote about why upgrades are so much harder to get these days. The allure of elite status for many has been the elusive upgrades to Business and First Class. These used to be much easier to score (especially for top-tier elites). These days, airlines are better monetizing their premium cabins and that leaves lots of elite members sitting in the back of the plane.

I abandoned the hope of upgrades several years ago and now either buy F/J directly or pay the difference when I’m traveling for business (my company’s policy dictates Economy for most flights). But, how did we get here?

American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines all offer complimentary upgrades for their respective elite members. These are tiered with the highest-level members receiving access first as the upgrade process works through the ranks in the days and hours before the flight and during boarding. There are other certificates and ways to upgrade with miles, but pure complimentary upgrades based on status are pretty defined. Here are the policies for each US carrier (with complimentary upgrade schemes):

American Upgrades

American Airlines

American Airlines offers complimentary upgrades to all elite members starting at 100 hours before a flight for AAdvantage Executive Platinum® members.

Alaska Upgrades

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines members can receive complimentary upgrades up to 120 hours in advance of a flight.

Delta Upgrades

Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines is perhaps the most specific in its upgrade process, priority, tiebreakers, etc. The carrier also starts at 120 hours before a flight.

United Upgrades

United Airlines

United follows a similar pattern to the others, but starts later with top-tier elites beginning to clear at 96 hours before departure.

United Upgrades

All of the airlines have gotten much better at monetizing premium cabins. The cost on some flights is much more incremental than the 10x plus it was years ago, so more people are buying seats than ever before. Airlines are also making offers to buy up right until the door closes and more passengers are taking advantage of these offers. When this happens, there are obviously less seats to offer on a complimentary basis.

Plus, it seems like airlines are holding seats until closer to departure. There are countless messages across social media with people complaining that they were not upgraded even with seats for sale. Revenue management looks at yield, history, and determines how many seats (if any) to release. Just because an airline has a seat for sale does not mean you’re getting it.

United Seats

My Strategy

I try to use my PlusPoints and upgrade certificates, but often use them for family and friends. I have found that the stress of waiting for a complimentary upgrade is not worth it. I buy the fare or buy up at booking to ensure that I am flying in the bulkhead seat. It’s costly and I’m thankful that I can do it, but the value of my Diamond Medallion and Premier 1K status has diminished significantly through the years.

Anthony’s Take: It’s counterintuitive to what the airlines want you to think about their loyalty programs, but if you want to be in First or Business Class, buy the seat. The chances of an upgrade, especially on popular routes during peak times, are slim.

User Generated Content Disclosure: The Bulkhead Seat encourages constructive discussions, comments, and questions. Responses are not provided by or commissioned by any bank advertisers. These responses have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the responsibility of the bank advertiser to respond to comments.

Leave a Comment

Related Articles