Until recently, if you had even mid-tier elite status with an airline, you could bet on getting upgraded from economy to business or first-class on many, if not most, of your flights. Not anymore. These days, scoring a free upgrade has become the exception rather than the rule of frequent flying. Here’s why—and what you can do about it.
“Upgrades are getting harder to come by,” explains Gary Leff, founder of the points-and-miles blog View from the Wing, “because airlines are monetizing first-class seats in a way they didn't used to.”
A healthy economy in the United States and other countries means there are more premium fliers—and more people with cash to lay out on paid upgrades. Plus, says Leff, first-class fares aren’t as expensive as they used to be, so it’s easier to lure travelers into buying.
Some forty airlines, including Singapore, Etihad, and Virgin Atlantic, are now offering up premium seats for auction through a bidding platform called Plusgrade. Most of them let you make a bid a week before the departure date and notify you within a few days if you've won. And unsurprisingly, each successful bidder claims a seat that might have once gone to a frequent flier—for free.
American legacy carriers have thus far resisted the auction trend, but upgrade availability has thinned for other reasons.
For one thing, major airline mergers—like those of Delta and Northwest, United and Continental and, most recently, American Airlines and US Airways—have concentrated the number of elite fliers into fewer programs. While the number of elites vying for upgrade spaces has ballooned, the number of premium airplane seats has remained constant.
All of this changes the dynamics of supply and demand. Says Leff, “Given how difficult it is to get upgraded, it incentivizes passengers to confirm their upgrades, for instance by redeeming miles, in advance. There are more miles in circulation now, too, so that's become easier as well.” The more fliers who redeem those miles for upgrades ahead of time, the more elite fliers there are commiserating in the back of the plane.
How to Become a VIP in the New Era of Upgrades
Even with the dwindling upgrade space and fiercer competition, you can still try your hand at an elite upgrade. If you understand how airlines dole them out, the system is yours to play, although by and large, carriers prefer to be cagey about their algorithms.
Each airline makes its own rules and weights various factors such as elite-status tier, specific fare codes, how much you’ve spent on your tickets, and whether you have a co-branded credit card. Parsing the terms and conditions of each carrier on your own could be a full-time job, so we’ve done the legwork for you.
Delta lays out what is probably the most detailed, and thus complicated, formula of factors for processing upgrades. The airline prioritizes Medallion status as the foremost factor. Then it ranks individual elites by the fare codes of their tickets. Those purchasing higher fare classes (a full-fare economy ticket instead of a discounted one, for example) have a better shot.