A reader that didn’t want to be identified asked me why it’s so hard to get domestic upgrades as an elite frequent flyer?
It used to be that 100,000 mile flyers found themselves in first class nearly all the time, and even mid-tier frequent flyers found themselves in first class most of the time.
Some still do of course, it depends on the routes they fly — and when they fly them.
But there’s little question that upgrades are harder than they were 5 years ago and 10 years ago.
- Airlines are selling discounted first class fares far more than they ever used to.
- Airlines are making aggressive buy up offers to first class.
- The economy is doing better.
- Airlines aren’t expanding. As air travel grows, and the number of seats stays constant, there’s more demand for a dwindling number of available upgrade seats.
- Lots of people confirm their upgrades in advance – in part because of all the miles that are out there, and in part because of how tough the competition is.
All of these things combine to depress your upgrade percentage.
A decade ago discounted first class fares were rare. People paid $2000+ for an airline ticket up front, or they got the upgrade for free with their coach ticket. Back then revenue first class was usually less than 10% of the cabin, although on some routes of course it was higher.
There was very little in-between. Now airlines are more aggressive in taking some incremental revenue for the seat instead of only offering first class at full fare. Lower prices mean more people outright buy them.
Not only are airlines selling the seats cheaper, they’re making it easier for people to buy them. Go to United.com or AA.com to buy your ticket and you’re likely to be prompted with the suggestion that it’s “only” a certain amount more for first class. When people don’t look for that cheap price, it’s suggested to them. Some say yes.
Didn’t buy first class? If there are seats left the airline may try to sell it to you in person. While airlines usually say they are trying to accommodate free elite upgrades before selling those first class seats for “tens of dollars” to non-status frequent flyers, it doesn’t always work out this way. United’s systems are notorious for the cheap buy up offers, sometimes made only to non-elites. But it’s not limited to United.
American has a program known as “Load Factor-Based Upgrades” or ‘LFBU’ where they look at how many seats are open in first class and if they expect to accommodate everyone on the upgrade list they’ll make seats available for sale at check-in to everyone. Sometimes the algorithm gets it wrong. There may be a cancelled flight, or last minute changes by full fare first class passengers mean that some upgrades don’t clear — while some passengers who were offered the buy up do sit up front.
All of this is in the name of maximizing revenue. What was once given to frequent flyers for free is now something that airlines are extracting money from. It’s part of how they’ve turned unprofitable to profitable.
And whether paid, paid at a discount, or purchased at a deep discount last minute, the fact that people have more money these days — and that more people are traveling while the airlines have maintained capacity discipline — mean that there are more elites chasing a fixed or even declining number of seats for upgrade.
Elites know that, so the times when they really care about the upgrade they may use miles to confirm the upgrade in advance (without a co-pay at United, with one at American and US Airways) or elite upgrade certificates. And more and more people have the miles to do it from their co-branded credit card, elite or not. This increases the demand for those first class upgrade seats earlier, so there are fewer seats left still.
All of that leaves elites clamoring for extra legroom seating in back. Oh, did I mention that American is reducing those, too?
I still almost always clear my upgrades as an American Executive Platinum flying over 100,000 miles per year. My United 1K colleagues do not do nearly as well. Lower tier elites? Better be avoiding peak business travel routes and times if they hope to see the front cabin.
Fortunately there are things you can do if you want to make sure your upgrade clears! Here’s How to Make Sure Your Free Upgrades Clear on Domestic Flights. Read it, live it.
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