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Airline Mismanagement

Some people claim to know the 'secret' for how to get effortlessly upgraded, and some people offer to sell you this knowledge.

But is there really any secret to this? Does it even truly happen.

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Free First Class Upgrades - Fantasy or Fact?

No-one is denying that it is worth a certain amount of extra effort to attempt to obtain a free first class upgrade.

But are the odds of success any better that hoping to win a jackpot prize at Las Vegas - and is the outcome just as random?



We all know someone who boasts unusual success at 'always getting upgraded'.

In the past, such boasts may have even had some underlying truth. But, what about now?

Is it still possible to smooth-talk your way into first class?

The Urban Legends of Getting Upgrades

Some people say that if you check in very early for your flight you're more likely to get an upgrade (the logic being that there are more unallocated first class seats then). But other people say that if you check in very late you're more likely to get an upgrade (the logic being that if there are still empty first class seats, the gate agent may decide to give them to you, for free, rather than leave them empty).

Another common opinion is that if you dress well for the flight, you're more likely to get upgraded, the reasoning being that you'll look more appropriate and blend in better with the other people in the first class cabin. But increasingly, 'real' first class travelers dress casually, and only those seeking upgrades wear a suit and tie!

And then there is the story of how 'if you talk nice' to the gate agent, they'll give you a free upgrade as a reward. Has that ever happened to you in the last five years?

It is perhaps true that some of these techniques worked in the past. But airlines have become very much more sophisticated in how they handle their first class seats.

New First Class Seat Allocation Procedures

A major change is that most airlines now happily sell upgrades to passengers, meaning that there are fewer empty seats on any given flight available to be given away for free. This has vastly reduced the number of complimentary upgrades that they can offer on each flight. And, it bcomes more ethically difficult for a gate agent to give a free first class upgrade when, prominently on the counter alongside them, is a placard inviting all passengers to buy upgrades!

Additionally, with the great degree of information now on agents' computer screens about each individual passenger, the fare they paid, and their frequent flier status, they have set procedures for who gets upgraded first and who gets upgraded last (or not at all!). Incredible as it may seem, until fairly recently, few gate agents had any way of knowing how much each passenger had paid for their ticket, and may not have even known who were their elite level frequent fliers.

Back then, gate agents truly could close their eyes and choose passengers, seemingly at random, for upgrades, but now they are expected to follow set procedures if/when upgrading for free.

Because of these extra procedures and extra information, it is much harder for people to get themselves pushed up the upgrade eligibility list unless they have a valid entitlement to enhanced status.

What Types of Passengers Get Upgrades

Your best chance to get a complimentary upgrade is to get yourself into one of the most desirable categories of passengers.

Frequent Fliers

The most obvious and, for most of us, easiest to achieve category of upgrade eligibility is to become a frequent flier with the airline, and a member of their highest level of elite membership.

A linked second category of passenger are those that have paid top dollar for their tickets.

Almost without exception, if an airline is going to give away empty first class seats, they will start off with their 'best' frequent fliers and/or the people that paid the highest fares.

Realistically, these types of passengers aren't getting 'free' upgrades at all - they're simply getting what they've fairly earned and are preferentially entitled to. But what about people that seek upgrades for other reasons?

Frequent flier upgrades are a special case that we'll cover in a future separate feature, and we do not consider them to be 'free' or unearned upgrades, which is the focus of this feature.

Friends and Family

The next category of person that gets upgrades are what I loosely call 'friends and family' of the airline. This can indeed quite literally mean 'friends and family' of airline staff, but it can also mean all sorts of other 'hangers on' as well.

Contrary to what you think, some airline staff get treated very poorly by their airline employer and have little or no access to upgrades when they're flying (even if they're flying on airline business). But other airline staff (such as pilots!) may get high priority access to the comfy seats, even if it means displacing passengers that would happily pay upgrade fees.

Once upon a time travel agents were also privileged fliers. Indeed, in the 'good old days' it was sometimes possible for a travel agent to turn up at an airport gate, simply show a business card, and be waved on a flight without having paid any money at all. That never happens now, although travel agents do occasionally still have slight success at getting complimentary upgrades.

Friends and family categories also include commercial partners, suppliers, and customers of the the airline.

Rumor has it that this category may even extend to travel writers, but I'm still waiting for a tangible confirmation of that rumor!

Other Special Categories

And now for the interesting other categories of people that also sometimes get preferential treatment. Note that these other categories are never 'sure thing' 100% automatically upgraded, but if all other things are close to equal, if you qualify in one of these categories, your chances of being upgraded are better than average.

One such category of people is politicians (Senators get better access to upgrades than do Congressmen, and national politicians usually get better access to upgrades than state or local government politicos).

Another category is judges. Another is sometimes ministers, and (less commonly) doctors. Internationally, if you have a title, that enhances your eligibility, particularly with international carriers from countries that place importance on titles.

Another category is celebrities - perhaps movie stars, singers, or major sports figures. However, in an interesting Catch-22, many of these types of travelers are likely to be traveling on first class tickets already!

Of course, you start breaking laws if you start to impersonate government officials or judges, so that is probably not a good strategy. But if you're the judge of your local flower show, or the minister of your own personal church, and if the airline makes an assumption based on your title, where's the harm in that!

Who Can Upgrade You

The situation is not entirely hopeless.

Click on to the second part of this feature, in which we discuss the five different places where you can try to get an upgrade, and how best to approach these different situations.

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Originally published 28 Feb 2003, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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