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Strong opinions, weakly held

Getting free upgrades on airlines

Today I saw a pointer to a forum posting at flyertalk.com from DullesJason, a former gate agent for United Airlines. In it he explains how gate agents for United are supposed to assign “operational upgrades,” otherwise known among passengers as getting bumped to first class. There’s a lot of lore about the best way to put yourself in position to get such upgrades, most of it driven by the idea that it is completely up to the gate agents who they choose, and that the best approach to getting an upgrade is to suck up. DullesJason says that’s not so, and provides plenty of details about how they actually are handed out. Here’s a snippet:

Operational Upgrades are given on the basis of status and fare paid! Not personal discretion. On the rare occasion when a Global Services (UA’s top-tier) passenger was planning to fly trans-pac in Y and didn’t already upgrade, we would go look at our elite list in the computer and find a GS member is Y+. Bam! The GS passenger has been moved to C. That’s 62 expected in C (up from 61 booked), presuming all C passengers show up.

Of course, the gritty details are much more interesting. (He actually provides a lengthy hypothetical explaining how upgrades are handed out for an overseas flight that’s overbooked for coach but has seats available in first and business classes).

This post must be worth a million dollars to United Airlines. In one fell swoop, he disabuses airline customers of the notion that being a nuisance at the gate will help you get upgrades, and more importantly, that the handing out of these upgrades is completely arbitrary. Instead he confirms that the best way to get free service from the airline is to be a loyal customer who gives the airline lots of cash. The airlines make all their money on loyal customers who give them lots of cash, so this is the best kind of publicity they can get.

No marketing information on all of the airline web sites in the world could convince me of the value of attaining an elite status and then sticking with that airline as well as this one forum posting has. Such is the power of the Internet, where one authentic voice can outdo all of the marketing dollars a company can spend. Ironically, DullesJason doesn’t work for the airline any more. He quit because the pay sucked for the amount of work involved. Maybe United ought to hire him back.

1 Comment

  1. British Airways has this buried in their faq:

    Although passengers often ask for complimentary upgrades, we must decline even if seats in forward cabins are available. Not only would we be unable to accommodate everyone who makes such a request, but also, any selection process would inevitably lead to disappointment for others.
    Some further points on this popular topic:
    Occasionally circumstances dictate that we upgrade some passengers, usually because of cabin overbooking or aircraft substitution, to avoid leaving customers stranded.
    Should upgrades be required, preference is given in the first instance to our Gold Executive Club members, followed then by any members of the Silver tier. However, there may be instances when airport staff must make such upgrading decisions quickly and at random in order to avoid last minute confusion or a delayed aircraft departure.

    So they follow the same policy as United. And actually declare it, but not where anyone can see.

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