A free airline upgrade to business class or first class is the holy grail for many travellers. We would all like to buy a dirt-cheap discount economy ticket and then get ourselves upgraded or ‘bumped up’ into a premium class. After all, who doesn’t want the free airport lounge access, flat seats and superior VIP service both on board and on the ground.
Now free airline upgrades happen to be a rather emotive subject for a number of reasons:
- Airline classes have a top-down hierarchical structure with the masses mainly flying in economy (coach) class.
- Economy class is generally cramped and uncomfortable, particularly on long flights.
- Business class and first class airfares often sell at a significant premium to economy fares. The average flyer will happily pay £450/$600 for a coach seat on an international long-haul flight but would certainly not pay £2,200/$2,900 for a business class seat. That’s happens to be a fare ratio of almost 5:1.
- A free upgrade to the more comfortable business class cabin is perceived as very valuable to an economy passenger.
- However the actual cost to the airline to upgrade an economy passenger to an empty seat in business or first class is marginal, perhaps $50-$100 more – hence the reason that free airline upgrades can often happen.
- With millions of passengers flying worldwide in different classes it is inevitable that airlines will sometimes have to upgrade passengers to a higher class.
Whilst the free airline upgrade is sought-after, the reality these days is that it rarely happens to the “average” passenger. Such operational upgrades (or “op-ups”) are mainly the result of overbooked cabins. These upgrades are often already decided automatically by computer algorithms well before the flight.
But first, let’s take a closer look at the mechanics of an operational upgrade process.
Let’s Play Musical Chairs (Airline Style)
Airlines routinely oversell seats on flights in order to maximise revenue and increase load factors. This causes some consternation amongst the travelling public however it does probably help keep airfares a little lower.
Most airlines use yield management software which calculates the predicted number of no-shows on a specific route at a certain time and date. In other words, it works out how many tickets they can oversell on a flight.
On occasion the airline miscalculates. Every so often there will be too many passengers turning up at the airport and not enough available seats on the flight.
For example, consider an aircraft with a seating configuration of 127-39-42-8 in economy, premium economy, business and first class, respectively.