Operational Upgrades: How Can You Get a Free First Class Upgrade You Aren’t Entitled To?

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    The ultimate upgrade is the one you get for free. Here’s how to ask for and get a free upgrade from an airline when you aren’t entitled to one. And I’ll explain when the technique will — and won’t — work.

    At hotels, elite status is just the entree and excuse, how you ask and act can matter a lot. So here’s how to ask for and get hotel upgrades.

    The airlines though are much more structured. Most upgrades are sorted by algorithm. There are glitches in how the systems work, and sometimes you can jump the queue ::cough:: ::United:: ::US Airways:: ::cough:: but even then upgrades are going to be awarded almost all of the time to those customers with frequent flyer elite status based solely on upgrade priority and in the case of international upgrades to those willing to pay in miles or upgrade instruments — or with both domestic and international upgrades, with a cash buy up.

    There’s one exception to all of this:

    • Where airline upgrades — including international upgrades — can be free, entirely apart from any sort of frequent flyer status.
    • Where your mojo can matter.

    When Airlines Need to Give Out Free Upgrades

    The most important thing to an airline on any given flight is getting that flight out as close to on-time as possible. Gate agents, as a general matter, are empowered to do what it takes to make that happen.

    And sometimes airlines oversell coach, and have extra seats in premium cabins. In fact, the very existence of those empty seats up front allows airlines to keep selling coach (alongside business or first) even beyond the number of coach passengers they expect to show up.

    When they have more coach passengers than coach seats, and empty premium seats, someone has to get moved up in order to fill the plane, not bump anyone (costly to the airline), and get the flight out.

    The airline will clear the upgrade list, taking anyone willing to pay for the upgrades first, and they may sell upgrades at check-in too. The increasing prevalence of monetizing forward cabins with buy ups at check-in makes the situation of oversold coach and empty premium seats far less common than it used to be.

    But once there are still people that need to be moved up, the airline will do what’s known as an operational upgrade. (They’re upgrading passengers for ‘operational’ — getting the flight out with the maximum number of passengers — reasons.)

    Who Can Get an ‘Operational’ Upgrade?

    These operational upgrades may be awarded based on status — an American Gold or Platinum member who didn’t request the upgrade on a domestic flight (didn’t want to use or buy 500 mile certificates), an elite member on any airline flying internationally (where the upgrade isn’t free).

    But they aren’t always and may not have to be.

    You’ve read the apocryphal stories about getting upgraded “because it’s our honeymoon.” This is the only occasion where this actually plays a factor — empty seats up front, oversold in back, someone needs to get upgraded and the gate agent simply has to ‘make it happen’ and close the flight.

    So How Can You Increase Your Chances of a Free Operational Upgrade?

    Having status, paying a high fare, you may be at the top of a list. And you may have more persuasion available to you. But these aren’t always necessary.

    And this is the one time where how you dress can matter, or more generally how you present yourself because you’re hoping to persuade even subtly an agent to pick you over others.

    The person I learned the most about how to approach travel from is frequent flyer forum member PremEx whom I haven’t seen many posts from over the past 7 years. But who contributed an example of how he positions himself for operational upgrades.

    He suggests approaching your flight’s gate agent (when they are not busy or helping other passengers). Try to identify the one in charge at the gate if there’s more than one. Smile, place your boarding pass on the counter, and say:


    Hi. I’m _____. I’m traveling with you in Economy today [insert mention of Full Fare if applicable] and I’ve got a nice aisle seat which I’m very happy with. But if at any time you should need my seat for any reason, I’d be more than happy if you wanted to move me up. I’ll be sitting right over there. Thanks!

    You’re not flaunting your status and appearing as a “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” entitled jerk — they can see your status on your boarding pass.

    The agent may say no. The flight could be full up front, or they may not be moving anyone up today. But things change. If they tell you it isn’t going to happen, thank them and mention that they can call on you if anything changes. People misconnect.

    And you do want to stay visible, don’t pester or hound the agent but take a seat within their eyeline.

    Don’t board early, either. They may be processing upgrades at the last minute and it’s a pain to come onboard and get you. They may skip over elites because they’ve already boarded, the simplest and quickest thing may just be handing you that boarding pass if you’re right in front of them.

    That means you don’t go to the club. Maybe they’ll page you in the club, but probably they won’t.

    And as rare as these upgrades are, they’re even more rare if you need more than one seat.

    This won’t happen often, don’t count on it. I don’t suggest picking flights that are traditionally heavily sold in coach and light up front on the expectation of an upgrade. But it cannot hurt to ask.



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