Should Employees Be Upgraded Before Elite Passengers?

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Domestic upgrades aside I would like to know your opinion on the following situation with international upgrades:

    Assume 2 open seats in First and 2 open seats in Business class. An EXP wanting to use his eVIP to upgrade from Coach to Business but happens to be number 3 on the standby list and nobody has requested for an upgrade from business to first. Is it OK to let the 2 First class seats go empty or give it to a non-rev vs. doing an operational upgrade of paid business class passenger to first so an EXP can use his eVIP to move up to business class.

  2. Just to clarify, AA NRSA standby passengers that get first are not getting it ‘for free,’ they actually have to pay a nominal fee to sit up front (coach is free). So AA is getting some revenue out of employees on leisure travel if they sit in front, albeit maybe at a lower rate than what an elite might pay for stickers (I don’t remember what the employee premium cabin surcharge is). UA is the same way, and they do have unlimited comp upgrades.

  3. @Unclesam selfishly I would love to see someone upgraded to first, even if it wasn’t operationally necessary for the airline to do so. I’m not sure I can fault an airline that does not bump up a business class passenger who has not requested an upgrade to first in order to free up a seat so they can accommodate someone’s upgrade request to business. Nice, yes, but required… not obvious.

  4. Just because a flight crew member (especially if from another carrier) is in F or J, everyone assumes they are non-rev. Not so! The interline agreements allow positive space travel and many times the fare for that seat is higher than “revenue fares”. So the airlines will sell that “seat” to accommodate another airlines’ employee, because they have to. Interline agreements are broad and extensive, and have to be fulfilled. The Big 3 do everything possible to accommodate elites using upgrade instruments. But once a seat is sold to a “positive space” interline passenger, that seat is out of inventory, just like any other revenue passenger.

  5. I’m EXP and also interviewed for a job with AA last year. I was so bottom of the upgrade listing on my flight it wasn’t even funny; 30 something is not where an EXP is use to being, especially for midweek midday RDU-DFW. I don’t think non revs are seeing the front cabin much domestically.

  6. I’ve worked for several US and international carriers. The employee travel policies can be extremely different. In general though, for US carriers (as Gary points out) elite passengers requesting upgrades would be accommodated before any non-rev airline employees. What Jason might be getting at is different. A colleague at DL once suggested something along the lines of the domestic F cabin never going out empty because they would surprise passengers by doing complimentary upgrades before any non-revs were cleared. I was against this because it meant I would never have been able to fly F! That was years ago.

    AF used to have a policy similar to what I think Jason is hinting at. Generally, if an employee was standing by for a seat, and the only seat available was in a premium cabin, then a passenger would be upgraded from Y and the standby employee would be given a Y class seat. This might have been different by level, but I remember as an EK employee getting confirmed J class on AF from the AF General Manager in Dubai, and he remarked that it was ironic that when he flew his own airline he could only fly in Y class, but he could give me J class.

    When at EK, I was quite senior, so nearly always flew F class. Most employees at EK though are eligible for Y class only. Now I’m a paying customer flying AA hoping for comp domestic upgrades. It’s a long way to fall from A380 suites!

    I don’t think there is a right way and a wrong way. Just different ways to do things.

  7. I flew AA BOS-PHX recently on a Saturday morning in paid F and there were actually two empty seats in F including the seat next to me. It’s the first time in years I’ve seen a flight on AA or US of that duration with an empty seat up front. (Fwiw, I credit primarily to BA for reasons we agree to disagree on 🙂 )

    The point being, to see an empty seat on that route, to me, confirms your suggestion that lower level elites may actually get upgrades again.

  8. While Delta offers “Unlimited Complimentary Domestic Upgrades” to ALL Medallions; the far greater problem is the inconsistent and opaque method in which Delta sells upgrades to non-Elites. In many markets Delta will fill the (domestic) first cabin with low cost upgrades that are only offered to non-Elites. I’ve mentioned many times that these offers should be available first to Medallions; but, of course, if that was done it would be in conflict with the policy of “Unlimited Complimentary Domestic Upgrades.” So, in essence, a Delta Diamond Medallion will miss a gate upgrade due to the fact that the upgrade was “sold” to a non-Elite for $50 (early in the week). Now. on the international front; Delta’s limiting of upgrades and processing (seems even mileage upgrades are NOW properly being handled at the gate) is much more equitable. It is also a system of “if you really want it, you pay for it.” Since limiting upgrades to M-fares is quite restrictive. More so ex-USA since the ex-EU (as an example) M-fares are often not that much more than lowest priced economy class.

  9. I would add that at my own company (non-US airline) we do the opposite of AF. If a staff passenger is eligible for Y class, and there in only a seat in F class, the staff passenger will get it; no passenger will be upgraded to accommodate a staff member in the back. The reason is to protect the integrity of the product – and on the whole it works. Full fare passengers resent nothing more an a Y class passenger who has been upgraded when they paid thousands of dollars for their ticket. If it is a staff member taking that seat because there are none others available, the commercial passenger usually understands the situation. And a staff passenger will never talk of their “free” upgrade, while the upgraded commercial passenger often feels they have to tell everyone – usually on their cell phone – what they scored…

  10. Forgive me, but aren’t upgrades a privilege (by virtue of earning status) and not a right?
    If you really want to travel in a higher class then pay for it; otherwise stop fretting why someone got an upgrade and you didn’t: just because they don’t flash their status card, they may be more privileged or – heaven forbid – more deserving than you.
    And, if there are empty seats in a higher cabin, there possibly is a good reason – catering, faulty seats, etc; or maybe suprisingly, to give the cabin the ‘exclusive’ feel for those passsenger who’ve actually paid hard cash to travel in that cabin – they are the ones who have the rights.

  11. This morning on thisthis quiet Sunday of Labor Day weekend I flew from PHL-CLT and I sat in the exit row as a Platinum customer next to an Exec Platinum customer while two uniformed AA pilots sat in First Class. Good job, American.

  12. I don’t want US airlines to upgrade anyone.
    Packed domestic first is diluting the experience.
    If you want to fly first, pay for it w/ cash or miles.

  13. I worked for an airline years ago. I had positive space status so could book in first even on non-company business. I have no idea what the rules are today but on international flights It often looks like a large number of business-class seats are filled by non-rev employees and even family members of employees.

    To the commenters who say people should not complain about upgrades and buy first-class tickets, are you paying for your first-class tickets or getting a free ride at the expense of your employer?

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