Free Flight Upgrades

Are They Just An Urban Myth?

Ten years ago, you could watch people arriving at an airport and predict which class they would be travelling. But now, in these straitened times of corporate budgetary constraints and capped expense accounts, the pattern is more fluid.


In recent years we have seen a growing trend of business travellers downgrading to premium economy or even economy-class, and there are several reasons for this. In a struggling economy, any organisation that is perceived as spending excessive amounts of public money on luxuries for individuals is likely to arouse widespread disapproval; consequently some institutions find it politically expedient to pack their executives off economy-class. Other mega-corporations are under pressure from shareholders to squeeze overheads. And a lot of businesses have been told by their accountants to cut costs wherever they can. The result: more empty seats in first and business class, and more travellers chafing at the bit to upgrade.


Getting a free upgrade is a no-brainer ... or is it?


Recently we’ve seen a mini-explosion of books and blogs promising to tell you how to get a free upgrade. Apparently it’s easy; you simply need to know a few closely-guarded secrets – which they will share with you, me, and anybody else who asks.


Let’s take a look at some of the ruses they suggest. We’ll start with a couple of myths that have been in circulation for a very long time, and which, like all the best myths, happen to be founded on a grain of truth.


The ‘check in late’ approach


The most common myth of all goes something like this:Airlines are so incompetent that they lose track of how many tickets have been sold. If you check in late for economy class on a busy flight, there’s a good chance they won’t have a seat left. The airline will be so embarrassed that they’ll offer you an upgrade.


There might possibly be an outside chance that this will work. However, it’s more likely that if the airline does decide to upgrade somebody, it will bestow the favour on a frequent traveller who checked in early, and you’ll get their economy seat if you’re lucky. There’s also a sporting chance that they will point to the clock, point to the small print, and offer you an economy-class seat on the next flight.


The grain of truth in this particular myth is that technically airlines do overbook flights on a regular basis. However, they do it by design, not by mistake, and usually they get away with it. In an ideal world – ideal from the airline operator’s point of view, that is – every seat on every flight would be sold at its advertised tariff, and every passenger would turn up and check in like clockwork. But when you translate a business model from the ideal world into the real one, with real people are involved, it never is quite perfect. People are unpredictable. People book tickets, then change their mind and cancel them at the last minute. Or they simply don’t show up; maybe they were detained at home by some last-minute drama, or their car broke down, or they missed a connecting flight.


Having monitored this phenomenon over the years, airlines can predict fairly accurately the percentage of passengers who will fail to turn up. They then maximise revenue by double-booking on the number of seats they believe would otherwise go unclaimed. If you told them this was unethical, they could argue that it keeps ticket prices down.


Unfortunately for the airlines, people are unpredictable even in their unpredictability, and so there may be occasions when not a single passenger has any problem with making the flight.


This is bad for the airline operator because turning away customers who have made a booking generates bad PR. It’s good news for the passengers because this is when the free upgrades are handed out. But since this is a situation that the airline knows will arise every now and then, there are procedures for dealing with it. There is no reason to expect the airline to panic, giving away upgrades willy-nilly out of sheer embarrassment. Upgrades will as far as possible be used as positive PR, targeted at loyal customers, frequent flyers and clients on that flight who are, for whatever reason, flagged up as key accounts. It is highly unlikely that any airline will decide to give a passenger a valuable upgrade for no reason other than that he has arrived late, as this would be of no benefit to the airline.


The ‘all you have to do is ask at check-in’ approach


This may have worked in the dark ages when there were fewer people ‘in the know’. Now that the secret is out, it doesn’t take much imagination to work out that check-in staff get extremely tired of being asked the same question time after time. Like the pretty barmaid who is asked a hundred times a night what time her shift finishes, they develop an automatic response mechanism, and the question barely even registers.


The grain of truth here is that making a good impression at the check-in desk might improve your chances. There are occasions when the check-in staff have discretion to allocate upgrades. However, asking straight out is not the way to make a good impression. A more effective approach with a busy person working in a stressful environment is to be calm, polite, and treat them like a real person rather than a stuffed uniform. If you’ve exchanged a few pleasantries and made them smile, and happen to be hovering conveniently nearly, aloof but alert and ready to catch their eye, then realistically you have done all you can to maximise your chances of getting an upgrade at check-in.


The ‘re-arrange your diary around getting an upgrade’ approach


There are other well-recommended ruses that pre-suppose you can pick and choose flights according to type of aircraft and how busy the flight is likely to be, rather than because you need to get to a certain destination by a certain time. The thinking here – which does make some sense – is that if you always fly on a wide-bodied aircraft like a 777, you have a better chance of being upgraded simply because there is more business and first class accommodation available. Flying on a 777 that is heading to a popular holiday destination, on a weekend in August, raises your chances still higher. But for most business travellers, this isn’t really an option.


Another trick that may work, when a flight is heavily overbooked and not all passengers can be accommodated, is to volunteer to stand down and take a later flight. Yes, you probably will be offered an upgrade. But there comes a point when you have to ask whether it’s worth it. One could make it one’s mission in life to practise and perfect these ruses; indeed, it appears that some bloggers do just that. They deserve to succeed. But quite frankly, by the time you’ve gone to so much time, effort and inconvenience to get something, it’s no longer free. And if in the process you are jeopardising business appointments or risking delaying your return to the office, you stand to lose considerably more than you gain.


The reality


As a genuine business traveller, there are three very good reasons to suppose you are already in pole position to receive a flight upgrade without lifting a finger.


Firstly,you probably travel alone – or if you happen to be travelling with a colleague, it probably wouldn’t take more than half a second to persuade you to trade his/her company for a more comfortable seat. Lone travellers are far, far more likely to be offered an upgrade because they are more amenable to being moved round and slotted in; they won’t try to insist on partner or friends being upgraded too.


Secondly, you probably look respectable. The youth wearing a tee-shirt with a provocative slogan writ large across his chest may be a lovely lad underneath, but unless he’s paid for a first or business class ticket, the airline is unlikely to want him and his tee-shirt there.


Thirdlyand very importantly, you should be a member of the airline’s loyalty scheme. If you’re not, join it, because this is the very best route to getting a free upgrade. By collecting air miles assiduously and patronising retail outlets and service providers who are partners in the same scheme, you can earn ‘free’ upgrades. Even if you don’t collect many points, the very fact that you are in the scheme makes you a valued customer in the eyes of the airline.


As a postscript to this point, if there is a designated person who makes all your company’s travel arrangements, he or she ought to have developed a good relationship with the backroom team at the airline. Should your company ever have cause to complain, you will benefit. It all hinges on relationship management; airlines don’t want to lose good customers to the competition.


Finally - how to feel smug even if you can’t get a free upgrade


As a very rough rule of thumb, a first-class passenger takes up about one-and-a-half times more space than a business-class passenger, who takes up about twice as much space as a premium economy passenger, who takes twice as much space as an economy passenger. By not upgrading, you make a far smaller carbon footprint. So if it turns out not to be your lucky day, you can always console yourself with the knowledge that whilst you may not be in the best seat in the plane, you are in a very superior position in terms of eco-credentials.


Company : 1902 Media