What’s Happening to the Frequent Flier Upgrades?

Most frequent fliers say the crown jewel of status benefits is the free upgrade to first class by legacy carriers. But this year the boards are lighting up with common complaints of no upgrades at the early window (usually 4-5 days before) while others are saying they are simply not receiving upgrades at all. The loudest chants come from United and Delta FFers but this should be no surprise. Often looking more like twins than competitors, these are the two largest elite status programs.

Of course, this varies depending on factors such as airline, airport, route, day of week, and time of day. Nevertheless, increasing chatter suggests looking to see if the dots connect.

So what changed? First, the airlines moved from a yield management operation to revenue management. We are all familiar with baggage fees et al but the fee that now often stands between frequent fliers and those highly desired first class seats are upgrade fees. Some airlines allow any passenger to purchase what appears to be a discounted first class seat, sometimes for less than a hundred dollars.

In truth, it is not quite that simple. Passengers can purchase upgrades to first class by paying the difference between their expensive coach fare and the first class fare, sometimes at a discount. Frequent fliers who purchased low fare buckets are losing out to non-status passengers who pay much more for their seats. Very simply, it means more revenue for the airlines and fewer seats available to elites.

How can the airlines get away with this? Because another thing has changed: Capacity.

In recent years, carriers have been operating at around 70-80% capacity, sometimes as low as 60%. That left many seats open on flights, especially those coveted first class seats. They were great times for frequent fliers but airlines were losing a lot of money.

Today, airlines have ceased or reduced operations for certain routes. In some cases, they have substituted smaller aircraft which means fewer first class seats. The end result is airlines are now at about 85% capacity, sometimes 90%. That means most flights are quite full, indeed often overbooked.

With fewer flight options, any airline delay or cancelation now has a magnified effect. Sometimes these displaced passengers are already flying first class on connecting flights, sometimes they are coach fare passengers rewarded with first class seats on a later flight. Since these events are unplanned, it is increasingly common for airlines to hold back on releasing upgrade seats early.

A third variable adds to the toxic mix. A couple years ago there were six legacy carriers. Due to a couple mergers, today there are only four. Reduced competition does not favor the frequent flier.

What used to be a slam dunk for receiving a first class upgrade by airline elite travelers is now in jeopardy for some. Before an airline even gets to the upgrade list pecking order, others have already cleared and they include passengers who purchased first class tickets, re-routed passengers, and those who paid the upgrade fee. Add in certain elite passengers who are allowed to upgrade to first class with certificates or miles or purchase full coach fares, along with possibly smaller aircraft, it is no surprise there are few – if any – first class seats remaining.

Yes, frequent fliers have been spoiled over recent years by purchasing low fare coach tickets while still receiving those prized upgrades. Those days are probably gone for many, especially for popular routes on heavy travel days which typically include Monday, Thursday, and Friday.

How well I know. I have been flying the same route week after week for the past five years and that precious upgrade was always there for me. That is, until this year when I joined the ranks as a surprised top tier flier who no longer impresses an airline with my status.

No doubt some will say just pay for a first class seat if you want it. It so happens that the airlines agree with you. This is all about revenue now so if you want to sit up front, plan to pay for it one way or another.

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  1. DFW-SFO on AA is nearly impossible to upgrade. I’m a 3MM ExecPlat and my upgrade frequency on that route is below 50%. Because the upgrade benefit has been diluted, I may revert to just finding the cheapest flight regardless of carrier.

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