2 Quirks About British Airways Upgrades: I Steal Premium Cabin Space From Elites

Yesterday I wrote about snagging a first class upgrade on British Airways. I have an upcoming paid business class roundtrip from the ‘deal of the year’ airfare sale. And British Airways even lets discount business class tickets upgrade with miles (and most discount economy and premium economy tickets as well). There are no cash co-pays.

I’m watching inventory for the possibility of an upgrade on the return.

  • First class is wide open. The flight is “F9” meaning at least 9 first class seats are for sale. The seat map shows 2 out of 14 first class seats occupied.

  • Other classes are selling out.

With business class selling out, and first class wide open, you might expect an airline to open up first class upgrade seats close to departure. There’s a good chance they’re going to need to operationally upgrade folks for free. So they might as well let customers pay for the upgrade instead.

But British Airways has two interesting anomalies with their upgrades.

  1. The upgrade availability bucket is the same as the award availability bucket. Making first class upgrades available means making first class awards available. So if they open upgrade space, it could just as easily go to a new passenger for miles instead of rolling forward a business class customer who might have gotten the upgrade for free anyway. They don’t want to give away a free premium seat on a mostly full flight, making it even more full.

  2. British Airways doesn’t have an upgrade wait list. So when they do open up upgrade (award) seats, it’s first come first served. Instead of prioritizing it based on who has paid full fare and isn’t yet upgraded, or who their top elite customers are, a ‘British Airways nobody’ like me can snag the seat…. especially by staying vigilant, like setting up an Expert Flyer alert.

British Airways may be hesitant to release first class upgrades, when it would make sense for other airlines to do so, since they don’t have separate upgrade and award buckets.

But if they do, I’m likely to score the upgrade even with a full business class cabin of folks who would have a higher priority than me on another airline.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Probably a bit of a stretch to say: “There’s a good chance they’re going to need to operationally upgrade folks for free.” Good chance? Without knowing the flight load, I wouldn’t say “good chance.”

  2. I agree that the ExpertFlyer addition of award availability is great, but your analysis is a great oversimplification as you’re missing three key options for BA:

    1. Gold Guest List priority awards (aka jokers), which allow you to force award availability in your cabin of choice for up to five people.
    2. Gold double avios awards. Up to 30 days in advance, gold members can force availability by using double the standard miles.
    3. Paid airport upgrades. BA will offer paid upgrades sometimes at a fairly reasonably price (e.g. $600-1000 for Club World to First).

    Also, to upgrade in advance using avios, the ticket has to be issued on BA ticket stock, and many times AA offers a cheaper fare or more flexible ticketing options, so this can further limit advance upgrade options for BA status holders.

  3. Question — I bought these tickets as well, on AA stock, using cash + Avios, but my outbound flight is on AA metal. Can I use Avios to upgrade a flight that’s on AA metal? I assume the answer is no but figured I”d check. Thanks.

  4. @Gary, the point was more that top tier BA elites have different mechanisms that we use to upgrade.
    @without bacon, avios can be used on AA flight if it was originally booked with BA and the AA flight is showing saaver level availability. I would not expect it was issued on AA stock if it was booked with cash + avios, so it should be possible.

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