Reader Jason asked,
You’ve long supported [American]’s no-complimentary-upgrade policy for lower elites. You’ve said this policy keeps the [first class] cabin emptier for top elites.
But on my last two AA flights the [first class] cabin was completely full — and occupied largely by non-revs.
I find it an insult to gold/plat passengers that AA would upgrade a non-rev instead of op-up’ing a lower elite and giving the non-rev a Y seat. What do you think?
Actually the reason I think that lower tier elites are better off in a system without unlimited complimentary upgrades — where elites earn upgrades for a portion of their travel by flying, or buy additional upgrade certificates — is because those elites have a greater chance of getting the upgrade when they actually want it as a result.
With unlimited complimentary upgrades, every elite is competing against every other elite for an upgrade every time. That means every Platinum competes against every other Platinum. And every Gold is beneath every single Platinum and competing against every Gold.
- When elites are rationing their free upgrades or they have to pay some amount, they actually have to make a decision when they care about getting the upgrade.
- The upgrades go to the people who want them most.
- And Golds don’t have to compete against all Platinums, and Platinums don’t have to compete against every other Platinum for the upgrade. That means upgrade percentages go up. You’re more likely to get the upgrade when you request it.
Unlimited complimentary upgrades mean fewer upgrades for lower-tier and mid-tier elites. Just ask most United Silvers and Golds what their upgrade percentages are like.
That’s very different from saying I like “[American]’s no-complimentary-upgrade policy for lower elites” to keep “the [first class] cabin emptier for top elites.”
I’ve noted on (rare) occasion when the first class cabin isn’t full, and how that underscores the policy American has. But wanting empty seats in the cabin isn’t actually the goal.
American does offer complimentary upgrades on flights up to 500 miles for Golds and Platinums, which is a third of the flights in the American/US Airways network.
Occasionally you’ll see employees up front domestically but it is rarely ‘non-revs’. Non-revs and deadheading crewmembers aren’t upgraded until all eligible revenue upgrade requests have been accommodated. So you have to have a flight that would otherwise have empty seats up front (rare, I don’t even clear all of my upgrades as a 100,000 mile flyer) and have employees seeking the upgrade.
More often you’ll see employees on company business confirmed in the front cabin, or a pilot from another airline in uniform who is on a revenue ticket and perhaps an elite frequent flyer themselves.
Internationally is a different story (where American doesn’t do complimentary upgrades anyway), where pilots do have contractual rights to fly in business class when commuting to their assignment. That’s a different matter.
As to what I think of the rare case where an employee gets an upgrade while an elite passenger who did not request an upgrade sits in back? The elite passenger could have had the first class seat if they wanted it enough to request the upgrade and use an upgrade certificate for it so no – this doesn’t really bother me.
Whether it’s a good or bad business decision, that’s a matter for debate, Delta and United both offer complimentary unlimited upgrades. I won’t weigh in on which passenger is ‘more entitled to’ the seat. I’ll just say that the system American has is, in my opinion, a better one for lower-tier elites. I don’t have to have an opinion on any given flight’s distribution of upgrades to think that the system which produced it is a good one.