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Some Mysteries About Free Upgrade at the Airport

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Worked for several department in an international airlines and hence, having an insider perspective of how air travel works.

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A free upgrade to business class is something almost everyone would be dreaming of. When you are handing over your passports to the airline staff during check-in, you may be wondering whether you would be the lucky one to get a free upgrade to the business class this time.

And you may also be wondering what you can do to increase your chances of being upgraded.

Why does free upgrade happen?

First thing first. It is important to know why an airline would upgrade someone for free while they could have sold the seat for a much higher price. After all, airlines is not a charity and like other businesses, they want to maximise their profit.

That's right. Free upgrade is not something to be given out so casually. It happens for a reason.

  • Overbooking - The flight is overbooked in the economy class but seats are still available in the business cabin. Airlines like to do this often to sell as many economy tickets as possible even when the demand for business class is weak. In the end, airlines could simply upgrade their economy class passengers to business class without needing to give up the revenue opportunities.
  • Aircraft change - An airline may operate with multiple types of aircraft and each type may have a different cabin configuration. In an ad hoc aircraft change, the new aircraft may be equipped with a smaller economy cabin but a bigger business cabin. So airlines would have to upgrade some of their economy passenger to the business class.
  • Disruption - Sometimes there are operations disruption and some passengers miss their flight as a result. The airline would protect these passengers on an another flight but these flight may only have business class seats available. This is somewhat like a "last-minute" overbooking scenario.

These are considered as involuntary upgrade because the passenger does not book the upgrade by himself.

Of course when you are flying you can always book your upgrade (or book business class directly) but that kind of misses the point. Only in an involuntary upgrade situation you would get that excitement and element of surprise. Plus, you may not want to afford that price to buy a business class ticket.

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So how does the airline staff pick someone to upgrade?

Everyone wants to get that upgrade opportunity. Obviously the airline staff would not look for volunteer to get upgraded. They picked someone to get upgraded.

  • Frequent flyer - Airlines want to keep their frequent flyer members engaged and a free upgrade once in a while would certain serve the purpose. Therefore airlines tend to upgrade their frequent flyer members ahead of other passengers. The higher the membership tier, the bigger the chance of getting upgraded.
  • Airline staff - Often some airlines would upgrade their staff for free under such circumstances as a way to engage their people. The other reason is because airline staff are more familiar with the etiquette and rules so they would cause less disruption to the other business class passengers.
  • Passenger with a high "future value" - It is an emerging concept for airline to better manage their "customer value" and one dimension is to look at customers with good potential. Airlines would analyse the customers travel behaviour and their previous trips on the airlines to determine their value to the airline. They would then upgrade the passenger with high value or potential. This is a slight alteration of the frequent flyer criteria but the concept is similar.

You may be asking whether being well-dressed or being nice to the staff would give you a better chance to be upgraded. Based on the above, these are actually less relevant. BUT, these are still important because this prevents you from being disqualified from getting that upgrade chance.

  • Dress code - Many airlines still have a dress code in the front end cabins (i.e. first class and business class). So being well-dressed is a pre-requisite of being upgraded. For more details, you would need to visit the airlines website to learn about their dress code.
  • Staff's authority - The airline staff could not just randomly pick someone to be upgraded. They will have to follow the list using the criteria. However, airlines would give a certain degree of discretion for their staff when they come across someone on the list that are not suitable for getting that upgrade.
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Is there any easier way I can get a free upgrade?

There is. But it is not going to be a random free upgrade at the airport.

Airlines often give free upgrade as a service recovery, i.e. they have failed you in the first place and they are making it up to you. For example, when the flight is heavily overbooked and they need some volunteers to get off the flight, the volunteer is often getting a decent compensation plus a chance to get upgraded in future flight. In this case you are giving a voucher and you can actually book your upgrade when you use the voucher. In some other scenario, airlines would give upgrade when handling a complaint. These are all subject to the airline policies and it could deviate quite a lot across different airlines.

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