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How do Airlines Decide Who Gets a Free Upgrade to the Sweet Seats on Flights?



If there are three unsold seats in first class, the top three people on that list are going to get them.”

NEW YORK – Ever wonder how airlines decide who gets an upgrade to the sweet seats on flights? Airlines say it’s strictly by the book: Loyal customers are rewarded based on their status in frequent flyer programs.

But some flyers insist that once in a while, they get upgraded even when they’ve bought the cheapest seat. founder George Hobica, in an interview with the AP Travel podcast “Get Outta Here,” even suggests that how you dress and act could give you an edge.

Hobica acknowledges that “upgrades mostly go to people with status in the program. If you’re silver or gold on British Airways or United, and they have to upgrade people because they’ve oversold economy class, the first thing they do is go down the list of (who has) status.”

But he says he’s also been inexplicably upgraded when he was wearing a nice suit and tie and all the other passengers were looking like Richard Simmons.

A number of airlines contacted for comment say it never works that way.

“The list is the list and the gate agents work the list,” said American Airlines spokesman Josh Freed, referring to the “list of customers who potentially qualify for upgrades based on elite frequent flyer status.”

Gate agents, he stressed, “are not out there putting who they like, or who’s best dressed, further up the list. It’s pretty straightforward. If there are three unsold seats in first class, the top three people on that list are going to get them.”

Alaska Airlines spokesman Cole Cosgrove agreed, saying upgrades go to elite members of the airline’s mileage plan.

“If you’re not an elite member, the only way to get an upgrade on Alaska is by redeeming miles (15,000 miles one way), using a guest upgrade code given to the airline’s ‘MVP gold members’, who are permitted to share the codes with friends or family; or by paying for an upgrade at the gate ($50-$200, depending on length of flight) if first class isn’t full and all eligible elites have already been upgraded.”

Cosgrove added that Alaska Airlines’ policies “do not allow agents to make exceptions for guests who aren’t elite members of the airline’s mileage plan even if those guests are really friendly.”

Other airlines, including Delta and United, also say their agents are bound by upgrade policies as described on their websites, which explain how to use award miles and exactly what their mileage programme members are eligible for.

And yet, there are people who say they’ve gotten upgrades without status.

“To those people who say, nonsense, this can’t happen, I disagree wholeheartedly. This has happened to me from coach to business class a number of times,” said Ann Lombardi, a business English teacher and tour organiser at The Trip Chicks.

What’s her secret? “I just smile and say thank you for your help. I might tell a little story about myself. It may be the combination of being nice, dressing decently and the luck of the draw.”

She got a surprise upgrade earlier this year flying on Emirates.

“I was just standing in line, I got to boarding, the woman pulled me aside and gave me my boarding pass and it said 1B,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Is there an extra digit left out (on the seat number)?’ and she said, ‘No, we decided to upgrade you’.”

The upgrade to first class from coach put her in a private compartment. After a knock on the door, she was asked, “Would you like Dom Perignon and black caviar now or later?”

Kim Curtis, a former Associated Press staffer who’s now a content strategist for a bank in San Francisco, says she’s also been upgraded even though she always buys the best airfare deal she can find.

“I always give the gate agents and the ticketing agents compliments,” she said. “I know it sounds corny but I figure they deal with a lot of difficult rude people so I try to be the exact opposite of that. I’ve asked for and gotten upgrades to business class, I’ve gotten upgrades to a better seat. I’ve also gotten something as simple as a free glass of wine.”

As for dressing up, she doesn’t overdo it, but “it’s so easy to look good in an airport now.”

Hobica says even if you never get that magic upgrade, what have you got to lose by looking and acting your best? “You might get the whole can of tomato juice instead of half the can even if you’re in coach.”

The Associated Press

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