I saw something happen on an American Airlines flight last night that I haven’t ever seen happen before: departing with an empty first class seat when passengers were on the upgrade list.
Empty first class seats on domestic flights happen more often on American than on United or Delta because for flights of 500 miles or more they require Gold and Platinum elites to use 500 mile upgrade certificates (which are earned through flying or can be purchased) rather than offering ‘unlimited complimentary upgrades’. To a large extent other US airlines will fill the seat with any elite on the plane, whereas any non-100,000 mile flyer on American has to ‘pay’ for it in some fashion.
Short flights on American, though, rarely go out with empty first class seats. And this was a short 190 mile Dallas – Austin flight. On a Friday evening. You’re not going to expect that to happen since all elites receive complimentary unlimited upgrades on flights under 500 miles.
And when final upgrades clear at the gate, after boarding, I’ve seen gate agents come on the plane and move passengers up. They bring a new boarding pass. They’ve done it for me. They didn’t do it last night.
Seat 6B was empty. An elite sitting in the bulkhead row of coach claimed to be first on the upgrade list, and asked a flight attendant – as they announced ‘last opportunity to get off if you aren’t traveling to Austin’ – whether they could move up? (I was in row 5 so this was easy to overhear without trying to do so.)
The flight attendant said that since the door was still open they’d go check with the gate agent. A couple of minutes later they returned reporting that the gate agent “didn’t want to deal with it” and so the passenger would just have to write to customer service.
The flight departed several minutes early. This wasn’t a matter of rushing to get the flight out on time.
Sometimes it makes sense not to process an upgrade:
- The most important thing is to get the flight out on time. An agent shouldn’t delay a flight to process a last minute upgrade.
- On longer flights catering considerations can be an issue — not enough meals ordered for the cabin, special meals that were ordered but cannot be accommodated. Personally I’d take the upgrade and the meals I would have received in coach, but some airlines won’t do that.
Neither situation applied here, though of course I don’t have all of the information that the gate agent may have had — though the version of the story the flight attendant relayed seemed pretty damning.
This was just a 190 mile flight, and last night just 30 minutes wheels up to wheels down. So the upgrade hardly mattered. (In fairness, I say that having been sitting in a first class seat myself.)
And yet passengers are promised complimentary upgrades on the flight when seats are available. There was a seat available. And the airline – through this gate agent – didn’t deliver.
I do think the passenger should complain. My prediction is that they don’t receive any compensation and that the airline doesn’t investigate. Am I wrong? What – if anything – should HAR/D receive?