The Ultimate Upgrade Guide for Air Travellers

The beginning of the 21st century has seen a change in airline policy. September 11th 2001 threatened to change the world of aviation “forever”. Of course it did not but it did hasten a move amongst all airlines to become much more hard-nosed about their commercial reality. If there has been a change it is in the much greater commercial focus of virtually every airline. Nowadays, they have to make sure they look after their best customers. Inevitably, this has a knock-on effect to the way in which they upgrade passengers.

So let’s be sensible about this. Getting an upgrade is getting something for nothing and, as we all know, nothing comes totally free. We are talking about substantial amounts of money. The difference between an Economy and a Business ticket or between a Business and a First Class ticket can be a thousand pounds or more. Which other commercial organisation can you visit and expect to be given goods worth a thousand pounds for free?

But passengers get upgraded every day – some individual passengers seem to manage it on almost every flight – and airlines accept that the upgrade is part of their commercial life. I would guess that by far the majority of long-haul flights have a number of upgraded passengers on board. Getting an upgrade is part of the game of air travel. The object of this report is to show you how to play the game.

So, as in any other game, the only way we will come out on top is to get into the mind of the other side – the airline. We need to understand why an airline might give an upgrade, so we can make sure we are in the right position to get it. There might be nearly 400 passengers on a Boeing 747 and only 80 or so if them in premium cabins. Clearly, not everyone can be upgraded so how do you make sure you are one of them? The answer is to plan in advance – it might not always work, but if you want to play the game you have to have a strategy.

The first thing is to understand why an airline should upgrade at all. Why do they give away expensive seats? They are not mad, but they are very commercially- driven organisations. Broadly, there are two reasons:

1. To optimise aircraft capacity and revenue

If an aircraft has 320 seats in Economy, 75 in Business and 14 in First that means it can carry a total of 409 passengers. The aim has got to be to fill as many seats as possible and get the maximum revenue. What do you do if you can sell 360 seats in Economy, 40 in Business and 8 in First? Do you actually turn away the last twenty in Economy and let the plane go with empty seats? No, of course not – you juggle the passengers around to make sure you get everyone on board and the maximum revenue. In the past, a couple of airlines have claimed they never upgrade but I am afraid I just do not believe them. If you have a full aircraft leaving Singapore for London and you have a waiting list in Business and empty seats in First do you turn away passengers who are offering to pay £1,500 per seat? Somehow, I don’t think so.

2. To please individual passengers

If an aircraft has free seats in both Economy and Business then it does not actually need to upgrade anyone. However, they might choose to do so for their own commercial reasons.

The way the airlines behave in these two circumstances is quite different. Let’s look at how they do it.

To Optimise Aircraft Capacity and Revenue

If the airline knows the booking situation in advance they can plan rationally and will probably look at the following factors:

  • Holders of the airline’s loyalty card – obviously taking higher-status cards in order. They might also look at employees of large corporate clients.
  • In theory, they should look to upgrade those with full fare Economy tickets but there are so many fare codes that this could prove too difficult to do in a hurry.
  • It is easier to move single passengers around the aircraft. A couple or a group of three or more who have reserved together could prove harder to move.
  • Passengers who have requested special catering will probably be ignored – it is just too much trouble to provide the special catering for the upgraded class.

You should note that some airlines offer special corporate deals to large customers which might mean that the company pays for Economy but its staff are put in Business on an “as available” basis.

Some airlines seek to reward their best individual customers by upgrading on a semi-official rota basis. They might look at a passenger’s history and see if it is their turn for an upgrade.

If airport staff have to juggle passengers at the last minute because too many booked passengers have turned up then they might not have time to assess everyone logically.

In this instance, single travellers will certainly have an advantage and especially high-status cardholders. Whether you asked about upgrades or not at check-in, a clerk might have marked you as “SFU” (Suitable For Upgrade). Contrary to popular belief this does not necessarily mean wearing a suite and tie but it does mean you should be reasonably dressed for the circumstances. Jeans might well be acceptable whereas track suits clearly are not. For most airlines, “SFU” means someone whose dress and manner would not look out of place in a premium cabin. Put yourself in the position of the check-in staff; they will ask themselves if the passenger appears polite. Someone who is going to make a fuss about seating is unlikely to be upgraded because they are just as likely to make a fuss about the upgraded seat. In other words, “SFU” is a person who is polite, easy-going and unlikely to give anyone a problem!

To Please Individual Passengers

When an aircraft is not full an airline might still upgrade depending on some of these factors:

  • If you have a high-status card, your number might just come up! In other words, the airline has decided that today is the day to be nice to you.
  • Your company might have a corporate deal which allows for regular upgrading.
  • The airline might have noticed that you used to be a regular passenger but have not flown with them for some time. There could be perfectly innocent reasons but they might decide to make a special effort to welcome you back. This would particularly apply to an upgrade from Business to First.
  • If you have had a problem with a previous flight (which you have complained about in a sensible way without getting hysterical as some passengers do) then the airline might make a note to upgrade you on the next possible occasion.
  • The late arrival of a group of four passengers travelling together (especially a family) might mean the staff wants to juggle passengers. Rather than just remove you from a seat you have been allocated, it is easier to upgrade you!
  • You need to remember that there are no hard and fast rules. Airlines differ as do staff within them. In particular, staff at an out-station might be much more customer-friendly than those at its base where it has a dominant position.