First Class Upgrades - Fantasy or Fact?
The rewards of a first
class upgrade can be substantial - a profoundly more
pleasant flight with good food, good wine, and a much more
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
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.
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
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
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
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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7 Mar 2003, last update
20 Jul 2020
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