How To Get an Airline Upgrade on Your Flight

airline upgrades to business class

A free airline upgrade to business class or first class is the holy grail for many travellers. We all want 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.

These days unfortunately, operational upgrades (“op-ups”) for the average passenger are a rarity – the reality is you have only a very very limited chance of getting one. That said, here are a few basic tips and strategies for slightly increasing your likelihood of getting that airline upgrade…

Mechanics of Operational Upgrades

Firstly you should understand what happens with respect to an oversold cabin situation. Airlines routinely oversell seats on flights in order to maximise revenue. No-shows will tend to balance out the oversold seats but on occasion there will be more passengers than seats.

For example, consider an aircraft with a seating configuration of 280-40-8 in economy, business and first class, respectively. Say the airline has actually sold 307-18-5 tickets and all the passengers check-in – the cabin seat assignments then need to be re-jigged.

Effectively we have 3 vacant first class seats and 22 vacant business class seats – plus 27 oversold economy passengers. The solution is to upgrade 3 business class passengers to first class which leaves 25 open seats in business. These can then be filled by upgrading 25 passengers from the oversold economy cabin. 2 economy passengers will be asked to voluntarily take a later flight and should receive some compensation to sweeten the deal.

Obviously this is a simplified example as in a busy hub airport with many connecting passengers the precise numbers can be more fluid with no-shows and late arrivals.

So how does the airline decide which passengers to upgrade? The standard order for processing operational upgrades will be something like this:

• Premium VIP/CIP members (Invitation only)
• Top-tier frequent flyers (Platinum / Gold)
• Alliance top-tier
• Mid-tier members (Silver)
• Alliance mid-tier
• Non-elite members
• Non-members

The above list shows that to increase your upgrade chances you should be a member of your airline’s frequent flyer program and try to attain the highest possible status. To get to the very top of the list as an above top-tier premium member could be a challenge – unless you are a corporate high flyer, senior civil servant of a banana republic or Mr. George Clooney himself.

British Airways has its invitation only Premier membership, Qantas has a similar Chairman’s Lounge program (given to all serving Australian MPs, no less) and Emirates has IO (Invitation Only). In the US there is Concierge Key from American Airlines, Delta 360 from Delta Airlines and Global Services from United Airlines.

For most flyers getting top-tier status in your program is probably the single best thing you can do to increase operational upgrade chances. In addition, top-tier members can get other upgrade bonuses – priority clearance when requesting an upgrade using points or miles and perhaps some complimentary upgrade vouchers.

For example, American gives its Executive Platinum members 8 one-way system-wide upgrades annually; Lufthansa HON Circle members get 6 e-upgrade instruments on attaining and renewing the status. Most of the US programs give top-tier flyers automatic (space-available) domestic upgrades.

One thing to note, at an airline’s hub airport there are likely to be a significant number of top-tier members ‘competing’ for any potential upgrade spoils. There are some further differentiators which varies from airline to airline that can be applied when it comes to assigning passenger or member priority. These are:

• Fare class of ticket purchased
• Date when booking (first come first served)
• Online check-in sequence
• Individual passenger profiling

In the case of individual profiling this could be scored on the number of miles flown that year. Alternatively a more complex profiling system could be in place. British Airways for example ranks each passenger by a Commercial Individual Value (CIV) score between 0 and 100 which depends on status and spend. Executive Club Gold members who fly 5,000 tier points in 1 year get designated as Gold Guest List, with a CIV allegedly of at least 97. You need 3,000 annual tier points to retain that status.

Operational Airline Upgrade Tips

OK, so apart from becoming a top-tier frequent flyer, what else can you do to increase your operational upgrade chances?

1. Keep an eye out for overbooked flights and potential op-up situations. Flights just before a holiday period can come under this category as business travel recedes. Monitor the load of your flight beforehand using online class availability tools or consider asking staff at the airport how the flight is looking.

2. Op-up chances are generally greater on a wide-body aircraft (Boeing 747/767/777/787 and Airbus A330/340/350/380) with plenty of premium cabin seating. Business class seats on standard narrow-body planes like the Boeing 737 are not much better than economy and are in shorter supply – especially on planes where convertible seating is possible.

Be aware for occasions when a larger aircraft type is substituted on your route. It could well be that some original economy seat assignments numbers are located in the business cabin of the new aircraft.

3. Travelling alone will give you a higher chance of upgrade than being in a couple or group. Travelling with children reduces your chance to almost zero.

4. Don’t order a special meal as these cannot be upgraded with you. Airline meal numbers are tightly controlled and an airline would rarely serve a special economy meal in business class.

5. Check-in online early as the airline knows you will be on the flight. Snagging a good seat (eg exit row) can give you a little leverage. On an oversold flight, an airline may need to pre-upgrade some checked-in passengers before they arrive at the airport. You may also want to check-in again using the automated kiosk machines – there may sometimes be a cheap upgrade opportunity on offer.

6. The old adage “comment if SFU” – Suitable For Upgrade – can apply on very rare occasions, where the airline pre-selects you for an upgrade but the ground agent has discretion to make sure you look the part first. So dressing in business or smart-casual attire will probably do you no harm – although this is absolutely not a serious upgrade tactic. Every week at London Heathrow there are thousands of well dressed chancers – 99.9% of which still end up flying at the back of the bus! And anyhow, many regular premium cabin flyers dress for comfort.

7. Book a premium economy ticket. There are a growing number of airlines which have premium economy seating – Air France, Air New Zealand, Alitalia, ANA, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, Eva Airways, Garuda Indonesia, LAN, Lufthansa, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Turkish Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. The number of premium economy seats is limited and you will also be deemed as a higher revenue passenger. Any potential overspill from an overbooked economy cabin could result in you being upgraded to business class.

8. The infamous honeymoon upgrades – firstly, if you are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip then why not book a business class seat in the first place?! Airlines are certainly under no obligation to give you any special treatment. Now there’s no harm getting a note put under your booking and hope the agent can bypass normal upgrade procedures. However, there’s a much greater chance of an upgrade at your hotel rather than on your flight.

9. Should you “ask nicely?” – in this day of struggling airlines and thousands of elite status passengers you are highly unlikely to be granted such a request! You will probably annoy the agent who has heard this already from many non-status economy passengers that day. Some airlines (such as Singapore Airlines) are very protective about their premium cabins and rarely give free upgrades, even to their top-level members.

10. However, one situation where you might want to ask is if you are volunteering to be offloaded from an overbooked flight. You are doing the airline a favour and may receive cash compensation. Enquire about the possibility of being upgraded on your rebooked flight.

11. Most airlines will rigidly follow their upgrade priority procedures most of the time. However there will be occasions when rules are not followed – more likely at outstation airports rather than home airports and major hubs. Tight time constraints could mean that even non-status passengers are upgraded. Ground staff are under pressure to get the aircraft departed on time and so may have to forego the usual procedures. So you might get lucky…

12. The world’s top secret for guaranteeing you sit in business class every time…buy a business class ticket! This almost never fails unless you get downgraded or offloaded. You will earn more frequent flyer miles and status points as well.