The New York Times has a piece on how airlines are monetizing premium seats making first class upgrades harder to get.
The perks of being a frequent flier are not as valuable as they once were. That is especially evident to travelers hoping to score a free upgrade to first class.
Airlines, more and more, would rather get money for those upgrades. So they are using last-minute deals to entice passengers to pay to move to the front of the plane, while leaving frequent fliers languishing on the waiting list.
Why First Class Upgrades Have Gotten Harder
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 with first class upgrades most of the time.
- 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 has doing better than it was.
- Airlines aren’t expanding as quickly as they used to. As air travel grows, and airlines ‘practice capacity discipline’, 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.
Airlines Sell First Class Cheap Instead of Giving Them Away to Elites
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.
The technology has changed, too. There used to be coach fares and first class fares. Now airlines can sell first class as an add-on to the cheapest available coach fare (indeed to any coach fare).
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.
Upgrade Success Has Fallen Dramatically
- Diamond 125,000 mile flyers: 85%
- Platinum 75,000 mile flyers: 75%
- Gold 50,000 mile flyers: 55%
- Silver 25,000 mile flyers: 40%
Since then however first class upsells have been on the upswing. When Delta began upselling into first class, only 11% of premium cabin passengers had paid something to be there. Since then:
- In 2011, 31% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
- In 2012, 36% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
- In 2013, 40% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
- In 2014, 45% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
- In 2015, 57% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
In 2018 Delta expects to be up to 70%. And they expect to go from selling 36% of extra legroom coach seats to over 50% by that time.
Delta Investor Day Presentation
How to Still Score First Class Upgrades
If you want to have the best change of first class upgrades, you want to fly when there’s the least amount of competition for scarce upgrade seats.
- Stay away from premium routes with limited capacity. People actually pay for business class between the US and Sydney. London is a premium route, but from New York there are tons of flights. Timing will matter, but there are enough seats, more so than Sydney.
- Stay away from the highest status upgraders. Don’t fly when most business travelers do, Monday morning first flight and Thursday and Friday afternoons between 5 and 7:30pm. If you want to upgrade without competition, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are your best bet and middle of the day.
- Fly during the holidays. There are fewer business travelers on the road.
American Airlines New Domestic First Class
First class upgrades don’t generally go to those who ask. They don’t go to those who dress well. And they don’t go to complainers. In other words, everything you read about upgrades in popular media is wrong.
Five Strategies for Sitting Up Front
Here are five less exciting, but more realistic, strategies for sitting up front.
- Jump Ahead of All the Elites By Confirming First Class Upgrades With Miles. Several airlines, like United and American, let you upgrade domestically with miles on any paid fare. If you have elite status with United (25,000 mile status or higher) you can spend miles and they will waive the cash co-pay that’s charged in addition to miles.General members of United’s MileagePlus, and all members of American AAdvantage, have to pay the cash co-pay when redeeming miles for the upgrade. United’s price is variable based on your fare, American’s is fixed (except for full fare tickets).
American will charge you $75 plus 15,000 miles to upgrade in one direction on a domestic ticket.
- Book an Award Ticket. Use your miles outright. Some programs charge less than others. For instance you can use 40,000 Korean Air SkyPass miles to book an Alaska Airlines domestic roundtrip.
- Just Buy the First Class Seat… at a Discount Airlines used to charge full fare for first class only, and didn’t discount. They sold fewer seats that way, and had more left over for upgrades. Now they frequently sell the seats at a discount, and it’s worth looking to see what the price of first class is when shopping for flights.If you were going to spend miles and cash to upgrade, it may be ‘cheaper’ to just buy the ticket. For instance on shorter flights I’ll often see American price first class at ~ $120 more than coach. I’d rather spend $120 than spend $75 plus 15,000 miles (because in that case the miles would only get me 3/10ths of a cent in savings). Of course I’d usually rather hold out for a complimentary upgrade, and will often settle for extra legroom seats if my upgrade doesn’t clear.
- Avoid Your Competition for First Class Upgrades. If you’re eligible for a complimentary upgrade or to be bumped up to first class with e-upgrade stickers, you want to maximize your chances. A 100,000 mile flyer will usually get their upgrade, a 25,000 mile flyer won’t… but the tables can be turned by picking and choosing your flight times.
Business travelers fly the most and have the highest status, usually. So flights that are popular for business travel have the most elite frequent flyer competition for upgrades.That means you want to avoid flying when business travelers fly. Monday mornings and Thursday and Friday evenings can be toughest. There’s a not insignificant number of business travelers starting their weeks on Sunday nights, too.
- Fly mid-day
- Fly mid-week, or Saturday
The noon flight on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday won’t encounter many business travelers, and thus won’t encounter many elites fighting you for your upgrade.
- Pick Flights on Planes That Maximize Your Chances of First Class Upgrades. More first class seats mean more upgrades, so pick the planes that have the most seats — or, more specifically, have the greatest percentage of premium seats.You may not be in the top 6% of flyers looking for a first class seat either paid outright or upgraded, but you might be in the top 12%. A cabin with 12% premium seats gives you a much better shot at the upgrade.
Unquestionably upgrades are harder as airlines sell more seats, including selling them cheaper than before. And that makes loyalty less valuable than it used to be.