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Airline Mismanagement

Airline computer yield management systems make it difficult to 'beat the system' and get an upgrade that you're not truly entitled to.

But the human factor still does exist, and just possibly, you might be able to use it to your advantage.

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Free First Class Upgrades - Fantasy or Fact?

Part 2

The rewards of a first class upgrade can be substantial - a profoundly more pleasant flight with good food, good wine, and a much more comfortable seat.



You can get an airline upgrade at several different stages in the process between starting your booking and boarding the plane.

Here are your various key points of opportunity.


Who Can Upgrade You

Increasing your chances for an upgrade can occur at several different stages in your reservation and travel process.

When You Book

The first step is when you book. If you are booking through a travel agent, then (if you have a valid reason!) you can ask them to add an 'OSI' message to your PNR (booking record). This 'OSI' (Other Significant Information) message might say something like 'CIP CEO Very Big Corp'. CIP means 'commercially important passenger' and there is a slight chance that someone in the airline might see it, especially if they're looking through the passenger manifest to decide who to upgrade.

This is one area where travel agents can still help you - by entering such information into your PNR.

Rumor has it that some travel agents may occasionally exaggerate your importance in such OSI messages, but - of course - only if you are truly important to them.

Airline Sales Rep

The next step is if you have any direct dealings with the airline and its sales representatives; if you know someone at the airline that can enter a commercial upgrade authority into your record.

For example, if you are a corporate travel planner - but if you are such a person, you already know about this!

If you have a direct contract with an airline, you might be also able to include some upgrade entitlements as part of the contract.

Terminal Check In Counter

The next step is when you check in for your flight. Obviously if you do an electronic check-in, there is no way of enhancing your chances of an upgrade. But if you meet with a human at a check in counter, some people would suggest that if you act your smarmiest, you have a chance of getting a gratuitous upgrade.

It has almost never been my experience to get an upgrade at the checkin counter in the front of the airport (where you check your baggage) when checking in for domestic flights. The reason for this is because usually these people have little authority to upgrade passengers - this authority is usually reserved for the gate agents.

An exception to this is with international flights, where often all seat assignment issues are handled by the front counter checkin agent.

Gate Agent

For domestic flights, if you go to the gate agent, you are dealing with the person that has complete authority to seat anyone, anywhere, and for any reason. That is the person to focus your maximum charm on - maybe!

For every person that successfully talks their way into an undeserved upgrade from the gate agent, there are probably ten thousand who do nothing other than make a fool of themselves, wasting their time, the gate agent's time, and irritating the people waiting in line behind them. Read on for the key issue as to how to best charm a gate agent :

Only try your charms on a gate agent when he or she is not busy, and when there aren't other people waiting behind you. Quite apart from anything else, the agent isn't going to upgrade you 'for free' in public when there are other people listening in on your conversation immediately behind you. Be subtle and discreet.

Note that on international flights - and in particular, with foreign airlines - the gate agents do not always have as much individual flexibility to upgrade.

On Board the Plane

There is one last chance for an upgrade, and that is after you board the plane.

This is very difficult to succeed at. Increasingly, these days, airlines don't load much spare food for their first class (and business class, if a three class configuration) cabin, and so if the flight attendants allow a person to upgrade on board, they run the risk of not having enough food for everyone.

So, if you find yourself in a situation that might give you a chance of a cabin upgrade onboard, immediately tell the cabin crew that you don't mind missing out on the meal. That degree of flexibility, and showing them that you understand how these things work, might make all the difference between getting the upgrade and not.

Note that this same issue can be a challenge when trying for an upgrade with the gate agent. Be quick to volunteer your willingness to forego the meal as part of your upgrade patter.

What sort of onboard things will win you an upgrade? Frankly, not very much; especially if you try the 'this is wrong/that is wrong; therefore I deserve an upgrade as compensation' approach. But if you do have a genuine problem (or a problem passenger nearby!) then get up and discreetly go to a cabin crew member, out of earshot of the other passengers, tell them your problem and good naturedly ask if there's any chance of a courtesy upgrade as a quick and easy solution to the problem for all concerned.

Your chance of an upgrade on board the plane is vastly increased if you have a favorable OSI comment in your booking record. This will likely have been printed out onto the passenger manifest, so you'll want to subtly encourage the person you're dealing with to refer to the manifest to discover your importance.

You might get lucky, but remember the next point -

They've Heard It All Before

Remember that your average airline employee probably interacts with 500-1000 travelers every day. If only 1% of those people are trying 'every trick in the book' to get an upgrade, that still means that, each and every day of their working life, they come across five to ten such people.

Please, absolutely believe me when I tell you that there is nothing you can say or do that hasn't been tried before, and some of what you think are the cleverest strategies to get an upgrade are the most transparent, especially when viewed through the cynical eyes of a twenty year veteran of the airline industry!

Honesty and sincerity are the best techniques to adopt, but in these days of increasing ill-will between airline employees and airline customers, even these skills are unlikely to do you much good.

Dress for Success?

Does it help to wear business/professional attire? Very marginally. For sure, if you're in your weekend gardening clothes, that will definitely not help at all. However, these days, 'real' passengers in first class are usually dressed casually, so there's no imperative need to wear a suit and tie (or the female equivalent).

But some of the old business snobbery does remain, and while wearing a suit and tie won't automatically get you an upgrade, it is a minor point in your favor that might help increase your chances.


In the past, in the 'good old days', I've been upgraded, at one time or another, at every step of the process that I've described above. But these days it is very much harder to get an undeserved upgrade, and apart from getting an OSI entry put in my PNR, I no longer even bother trying. Oh, one other thing - I do make sure they put my full name in the PNR, too.

Judge, The Right Honorable, Most Reverend, Professor, Doctor, General, His Grace, Archbishop, Archduke, Senator, Sir David Rowell.

(Just joking. Maybe.)

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Originally published 7 Mar 2003, last update 20 Jul 2020

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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