Complimentary Upgrades – Why, who and how?

The complimentary upgrade is perhaps the most highly sought after ‘perk’ when it comes to air travel. The thought crosses everyone’s mind when flying…How can I get more for free? The thought of sitting in a small seat next to 300 others for the next 15 hours can be a real mood-killer for anyone jetting off on a holiday, heading home, or off on business. Especially after seeing countless videos, pictures and advertisements of the “luxurious flat bed Business Class” with “champagne and a 3 course meal”, the desire to experience such products grows even higher.

Business/ First Class fares can cost anywhere up to 20 times the price of an Economy ticket, but those seats are in fact more achievable than most might think. When luck flows your way, and you’ve played your cards right, you’ll never look back after winning that upgrade lottery.

WHY do airlines upgrade?

The single most common reason for offering complimentary upgrades is overbooking. All airlines overbook flights, as a certain percentage of people are always expected not to show. There is an immense amount of extra revenue to be gained from overbooking, and when handled correctly, it’s very much justified. It’s something that’s used throughout many industries, not just airlines. Check out this video for more:

In circumstances where overbooking has occurred, but more passengers show than expected, the airline needs to find a way to deal with this excess. The best scenario is when seats in a higher cabin (Premium, Business or First) are available. Passengers are bumped up one cabin class in order to make room for all those overbooked customers.

Other than this, some airlines have the philosophy that they would rather fill a Business Class seat, rather than let it fly empty. If seats are available in Business, even when there is no overbooking issue, some carriers will upgrade people, either at random or based on status, perhaps more to entice customers than anything else. After having such a pleasant experience in a premium cabin, passengers instantly have something more to aspire to. Bear in mind that this sort of practice is becoming less and less common very day.

WHO gets upgraded?

This varies from airline to airline. Most carriers are all about elite status. Singapore Airlines, for example, highly values their loyal passengers, and so, whenever there is any oversell in a lower cabin, complimentary upgrades are automatically awarded to passengers, based purely on their frequent flyer status. An upgrade priority list will show PPS members at the top, followed by Gold, Silver and so on. Singapore Airlines receives a very high number of high-paying, high-value Business Class passengers, and so does everything they can to protect the ‘exclusivity’ of these premium cabins. Only in the most exceptional circumstances will they offer complimentary upgrades.

Other airlines use different priority lists. Emirates, for example, disregards elite status completely, and offers upgrades based purely on how much a passenger paid for a ticket. On any one flight from Sydney to Dubai in Economy, despite sitting in the same seat and receiving identical service, people could have paid anywhere from $750 to over $2000. This is due to airlines’ price discrimination techniques, and efforts to maximise producer surplus. So when Economy is oversold, the most expensive ticket is upgraded first, even if there are Platinum and Gold members below.

Many airlines use a combination of both status and price paid, to form a fair and just priority list. Each airline has their own preference for what suits their image, and aligns most closely with what they try to promote as a brand.

The third reason for complimentary upgrades is the more ‘typical’ one, and simply involves giving empty seats to elite frequent flyers, as a deserved benefit of their loyalty. The 3 big US carriers tend to offer unlimited complimentary upgrades for domestic flights to all their highest tier members, meaning premium cabins are almost always filled with elites. The trouble here is that elite frequent flyers become accustomed to receiving these products free of charge, and will hence stray way from paying the premium, as they know the chances of an upgrade are so high.

United displays an upgrade priority list at all their boarding gates (source)

HOW can you score an upgrade?

Given what was explained above, maximising your upgrade chances comes primarily from achieving elite status and paying a high price for your ticket. If you’re at this stage already, you can maximise your chances even further by booking flights that are showing to already be quite full. A good tool for this is ExpertFlyer. This provides a general idea of seat availability on flights. On a Sydney – Singapore sector with Singapore Airlines, for example, here are two different flights:

SQ212 F4 A4 Z4 C4 J4 U0 D0 Y9 B0 E0 M9 HW0 Q0 N0 G0 L0

SQ222 R4 F4 A4 Z4 C4 J0 U0 D0 S8 T1 P0 YB9 E9 M9 H9 W0 Q0 N0 G0 L5

For those who aren’t in tune with airline inventory language, each letter represents a different fare class, and the corresponding number means there are at least that many seats available. For ease of viewing, red – First Class; blue – Business Class; purple – Premium Economy; green – Economy. They are shown in descending order from left to right, meaning “R/F” is the most expensive, and “L” is the cheapest.

On flight SQ222, there are seats available in the cheapest economy fare, as well as a large number in some higher fares. In this instance, just a few days out from the flight, it is unlikely there will be any oversell, as seats are still available. Meanwhile on SQ212, all the cheapest economy fares have been sold, and only two expensive fare are available. Whilst this still shows there are seats yet to be sold, there are far fewer left, and there is hence a higher chance that oversell may occur.

The other thing to be wary of is aircraft configuration. Almost every airline has a one-class upgrade policy. So, on SQ222, if you were to be upgraded from Economy, you’d only move to Premium Economy. Meanwhile, on SQ212, if you had purchased the same fare and were upgraded, you’d jump all the way to Business Class.

There is also a commonly spoken ‘myth’ that if you dress nicely and are polite to the check-in agent, you have a higher chance of being upgraded. There is, in fact, some truth to that. On airlines that use an elite status priority list, once all elites have been exhausted, agents begin choosing any revenue passengers who check-in. In these instances, presenting yourself nicely actually does work to enhance your chances.

Finally, upgrade chances are always higher if you are travelling by yourself. Even if you are with others, if you sit in a separate booking, you are much more likely to be system-upgraded. This is especially true for elite status priority lists, where the reservation system will automatically upgrade elite travellers.

So there you have it. Complimentary upgrades are tricky, and vary greatly from airline to airline. But pay attention, make the right choices and invest in elite status, and you’re sure to be rewarded.




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