Denied an Upgrade When a First Class Seat is Available: Did the Gate Agent Go Too Far?

I saw something happen on an American Airlines flight last night that I haven’t ever seen happen before: departing with an empty first class seat when passengers were on the upgrade list.

Empty first class seats on domestic flights happen more often on American than on United or Delta because for flights of 500 miles or more they require Gold and Platinum elites to use 500 mile upgrade certificates (which are earned through flying or can be purchased) rather than offering ‘unlimited complimentary upgrades’. To a large extent other US airlines will fill the seat with any elite on the plane, whereas any non-100,000 mile flyer on American has to ‘pay’ for it in some fashion.

Short flights on American, though, rarely go out with empty first class seats. And this was a short 190 mile Dallas – Austin flight. On a Friday evening. You’re not going to expect that to happen since all elites receive complimentary unlimited upgrades on flights under 500 miles.

And when final upgrades clear at the gate, after boarding, I’ve seen gate agents come on the plane and move passengers up. They bring a new boarding pass. They’ve done it for me. They didn’t do it last night.

Seat 6B was empty. An elite sitting in the bulkhead row of coach claimed to be first on the upgrade list, and asked a flight attendant – as they announced ‘last opportunity to get off if you aren’t traveling to Austin’ – whether they could move up? (I was in row 5 so this was easy to overhear without trying to do so.)

The flight attendant said that since the door was still open they’d go check with the gate agent. A couple of minutes later they returned reporting that the gate agent “didn’t want to deal with it” and so the passenger would just have to write to customer service.

The flight departed several minutes early. This wasn’t a matter of rushing to get the flight out on time.

Sometimes it makes sense not to process an upgrade:

  • The most important thing is to get the flight out on time. An agent shouldn’t delay a flight to process a last minute upgrade.

  • On longer flights catering considerations can be an issue — not enough meals ordered for the cabin, special meals that were ordered but cannot be accommodated. Personally I’d take the upgrade and the meals I would have received in coach, but some airlines won’t do that.

Neither situation applied here, though of course I don’t have all of the information that the gate agent may have had — though the version of the story the flight attendant relayed seemed pretty damning.

This was just a 190 mile flight, and last night just 30 minutes wheels up to wheels down. So the upgrade hardly mattered. (In fairness, I say that having been sitting in a first class seat myself.)

And yet passengers are promised complimentary upgrades on the flight when seats are available. There was a seat available. And the airline – through this gate agent – didn’t deliver.

I do think the passenger should complain. My prediction is that they don’t receive any compensation and that the airline doesn’t investigate. Am I wrong? What – if anything – should HAR/D receive?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Shame on the flight attendant for telling the passenger the gate agent “didn’t want to deal with it” even if that was what was said. That’s just terrible customer service all the way around.

    Couldn’t the FA simply have moved him up to first with the understanding that he might have limited catering options? And really, what was on the menu for such a short flight?

  2. This has happened to me more than once on AA. The worst was when the two of us were the only two on the upgrade list and they sent the flight out with 2 empty FC seats, and we were using 500-mile upgrades. When I contacted customer service I got a “sorry you were disappointed” reply only.

  3. I am more concerned with the behavior of passengers who waiting at the bulkhead to stake their claim to a first class seat than I am with the decision of a gate agent to not process an upgrade on a 30 minute flight. People just need to take it down a notch with their meticulous accounting of benefits and demand for recompense whenever they see someone else getting a benefit they are not getting. The next step is going to be two people standing at the bulkhead waiting to stake their claim before the door closes, and that’s going to end badly 9 times out of 10.

  4. If I’ve spent thousands of dollars with “my” airline to get status based on a promise of upgrades when eligible and available only to be told “sorry we just don’t wanna deal with it” I better get compensation for them going back on the promise jut because they felt like it.

  5. There is only one way to be entitled to a FC seat: book it with cash money. Any claim on an FC seat based on elite status or upgrades are 100% at the discretion of the airline.

    If Smisek taught us all anything, it’s that frequent flyer benefits are NOT an enforcable promise.

  6. @Kokomutz frequent flyer benefits aren’t an enforceable promise, but it’s Northwest v. Ginsberg that taught us that — Delta’s counsel argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that no state contract claim could ‘superimpose a duty of good faith and fair dealing’.

    However, legal remedies notwithstanding, the published upgrade procedures of an airline do create an ‘entitlement’ in the limited circumstance when a seat is available for upgrade.

    And buying a first class seat doesn’t guarantee you’ll sit in one either, since an airline is free to downgrade you. Depending on how they publish those first class fares (coach with free upgrade vs discounted first) they either will or will not be required to offer you compensation for this.

  7. @Another Steve – they weren’t waiting at the bulkhead, I believe the passenger asking about the upgrade (I do not know if they were in fact next on the list though they said so) was seated in an bulkhead seat.

  8. American is just following Delta’s “lead.” Delta’s partner KLM does this on international flights all the time. I’m Delta DM since they’ve had DM, I paid for an upgradable fare, I have the certificate, and I’m first on the waiting list (all in place weeks ahead of time), and from premium economy I can see the empty seats in Business. For about 18 months I (and my employees) have stopped using Delta and their partners for our frequent trips to the Middle East or Asia because of this (and the “I’m sorry you were disappointed” response).

  9. @Mike that’s a different issue, and I didn’t watch the upgrade list earlier to be able to discern the specifics of what happened. Lots of things can cause an upgrade list to appear to process out of order — people can decline upgrades (eg “We’re traveling together and only want to be upgraded if both of us will clear”), people can be added to an upgrade list after upgrades have been processed, also on 3-cabin aircraft [not the case here] there appears to be a combined list, and business-to-first upgrades may clear but appear as though they were lower than folks waiting for economy-to-business upgrades. To name a few. So I won’t read too much into that without more detail/specifics.

  10. @Mike D – I wasn’t suggesting catering was an issue here, this 190 mile flight had the snack basket pass and beverages only. The flight attendant isn’t empowered to upgrade a passenger, they would have been breaking rules by doing so, and may not have known the circumstances about who ought to be upgraded next in any case [though I do think with their tablets they could easily be trained to handle this].

  11. @Gary I’m not asking why they processed out of order, but why it appears out of order. I’ve never seen anything in the app but standard 1,2,3,4,5… ordering. (And what happened to 3 and 4?)

  12. I saw this happen once on US, but the most egregious part was that crew later quietly moved up a non-rev in coach to the empty seat after 10,000 feet. I almost wrote in, but since it wouldn’t have been my seat anyway, I sort of let it go. I guess in the flight attendant’s mind, it was a waste of an empty seat and it’s the gate’s responsibility not hers to get it sorted, and all professions have professional courtesies, but the smarter thing to do in that circumstance would have been to at least leave the seat empty.

  13. this Happened to me on a recent delta flight from DTW to BNA. I got a prompt Reply from delta saying “processes were reviewed with the gate agent”, an apology and 10k miles (not mqm’s unfortunately. I was quite pleased with the response I got.

  14. Sounds like US influence has touched that GA, since the door MUST be closed 10 minutes before departure and they get written up if they don’t. Longtime US policy, now applied to AA personnel.

  15. Not sure exactly what the reference is @john, but with a couple hundred US segments under my belt in the last couple of years, I can count probably on one hand the number of times the door was closed 10 minutes before departure time. It may be the aspirational desire, but if someone’s getting written up every time it doesn’t happen, they are doing an awful lot of paperwork.

  16. I don’t think we know enough about the situation. We know what the FA said about the agent but that person could’ve been dealing with other issues with other flights. Besides that though, it’s all a drop in the bucket. Not enough flight time in first to be worth the time to complain. Not enough of a lost to warrant an AA investigation.

  17. I’m getting so sick of status -chasing and not knowing if you are upgraded, I’m just paying to travel first/business in the future, and using miles when I can get more than 2 cents in value.

    It was fine when i could pay $3000 for Chairman’s status on US, but I’ recently decided the discounted first/ business fares offered most of the time are easier than all the crap of routing through hubs when I could travel non-stop , and not knowing if you are going to get upgraded.
    Besides, there are going to be too many Exec Plat members with all the EQP’s being given away, and no way I’m flying cross-country in economy.
    I wouldn’t make my dog fly economy (she had a flat bed to Tel aviv) . Friends don’t let friends fly coach .
    What the hell am I going to do with 44 500 mile upgrades?

  18. One of the reasons passengers don’t get upgraded, particularly on lightly-loaded flights, is “weight and balance”. That used to be common on America West. While the underlying cause may be “the agent doesn’t want to deal with it”, the excuse given is that they don’t have enough load behind the wings, so upgrading a passenger shifts the center-of-gravity too far forward, and that reduces safety margins.

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