This Flyertalk thread discusses a new Airtran procedure. Airtran elite members have long been able to confirm upgrades to the front cabin for a fee a day in advance, subject to availability. And while as far as I know complimentary upgrades were not a formal benefit of the program, they usually happened at the gate — but you’d have to ask the gate agent to upgrade you.
I was an Airtran elite years ago, they ran a status match promo and I sent in my elite credentials from another airline. Used to be that Airtran elite status was lifetime, once obtained it was never taken away. So I had my Airtran status for years, though I only used it a handful of times. I never sat in back.
It came out on Flyertalk that elites were being automatically upgraded at 25 hours out, given first class seat assignments much to their surprise, with the advance upgrade charge waived (though this apparently is not entirely clear to the member at time of checkin from the website).
What’s interesting is that with Airtran’s pending acquisition by Southwest, it’s clear that Airtran’s front cabin will be going away as they migrate Airtran over to a more standard Southwest one-cabin product.
One hypothesis offered by a Flyertalk member is that getting rid of paid upgrades is part of that integration process. That they’ll just give away the domestic business class seats while they’re still there. My addition here is that when they retrofit the fleet to get rid of these seats, it would be exceptionally awkward to have charged someone for an advance upgrade and then an aircraft substitution means that the plane has no business seats. You’ve got upset customers and a logistical nightmare in having to refund the payment.
Still, it’s rather strange to introduce a new frequent flyer benefit with the intention of taking that benefit away in a short period of time. And to do so without very clear member communication in order to attenuate expectations.