Domestic Upgrades are Getting Harder and Harder to Get

A reader that didn’t want to be identified asked me why it’s so hard to get domestic upgrades as an elite frequent flyer?

It used to be that 100,000 mile flyers found themselves in first class nearly all the time, and even mid-tier frequent flyers found themselves in first class most of the time.

Some still do of course, it depends on the routes they fly — and when they fly them.

But there’s little question that upgrades are harder than they were 5 years ago and 10 years ago.

  1. Airlines are selling discounted first class fares far more than they ever used to.
  2. Airlines are making aggressive buy up offers to first class.
  3. The economy is doing better.
  4. Airlines aren’t expanding. As air travel grows, and the number of seats stays constant, there’s more demand for a dwindling number of available upgrade seats.
  5. Lots of people confirm their upgrades in advance – in part because of all the miles that are out there, and in part because of how tough the competition is.

All of these things combine to depress your upgrade percentage.

A decade ago discounted first class fares were rare. People paid $2000+ for an airline ticket up front, or they got the upgrade for free with their coach ticket. Back then revenue first class was usually less than 10% of the cabin, although on some routes of course it was higher.

There was very little in-between. Now airlines are more aggressive in taking some incremental revenue for the seat instead of only offering first class at full fare. Lower prices mean more people outright buy them.

Not only are airlines selling the seats cheaper, they’re making it easier for people to buy them. Go to or to buy your ticket and you’re likely to be prompted with the suggestion that it’s “only” a certain amount more for first class. When people don’t look for that cheap price, it’s suggested to them. Some say yes.

Didn’t buy first class? If there are seats left the airline may try to sell it to you in person. While airlines usually say they are trying to accommodate free elite upgrades before selling those first class seats for “tens of dollars” to non-status frequent flyers, it doesn’t always work out this way. United’s systems are notorious for the cheap buy up offers, sometimes made only to non-elites. But it’s not limited to United.

American has a program known as “Load Factor-Based Upgrades” or ‘LFBU’ where they look at how many seats are open in first class and if they expect to accommodate everyone on the upgrade list they’ll make seats available for sale at check-in to everyone. Sometimes the algorithm gets it wrong. There may be a cancelled flight, or last minute changes by full fare first class passengers mean that some upgrades don’t clear — while some passengers who were offered the buy up do sit up front.

All of this is in the name of maximizing revenue. What was once given to frequent flyers for free is now something that airlines are extracting money from. It’s part of how they’ve turned unprofitable to profitable.

And whether paid, paid at a discount, or purchased at a deep discount last minute, the fact that people have more money these days — and that more people are traveling while the airlines have maintained capacity discipline — mean that there are more elites chasing a fixed or even declining number of seats for upgrade.

Elites know that, so the times when they really care about the upgrade they may use miles to confirm the upgrade in advance (without a co-pay at United, with one at American and US Airways) or elite upgrade certificates. And more and more people have the miles to do it from their co-branded credit card, elite or not. This increases the demand for those first class upgrade seats earlier, so there are fewer seats left still.

All of that leaves elites clamoring for extra legroom seating in back. Oh, did I mention that American is reducing those, too?

I still almost always clear my upgrades as an American Executive Platinum flying over 100,000 miles per year. My United 1K colleagues do not do nearly as well. Lower tier elites? Better be avoiding peak business travel routes and times if they hope to see the front cabin.

Fortunately there are things you can do if you want to make sure your upgrade clears! Here’s How to Make Sure Your Free Upgrades Clear on Domestic Flights. Read it, live it.

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. I guess this could also be the US airlines coming to adapt the European model. European airlines have much less generous upgrade policies (most only upgrade if absolutely necessary in case of overbooking), and historically European airlines haven’t gone bankrupt quite as often as American airlines (lower case a) have.

  2. @Christian comparing North America and Euro first policies is comparing apple to oranges. Limited competition in markets because of flag carriers and smaller distances created a very different airline environment in Europe.

    GLeff get this right, it is getting harder to sit upfront without paying. As a 1K on United my experience was less than 50% last year. Concentrate your flying to one airline that works and rewards your loyalty, presently that is AA for me and I hope it continues.

  3. “As air travel grows, and the number of seats stays constant, ”

    There are fewer Available Seat Miles today than there were in 2007.

    This is total ASM’s, Domestic + International:

    2007: 1,060,081,279
    2013: 1,025,599,750

    Difference: (34,481,529)

  4. Several times this year, I’ve bought closer-in coach tickets that were less than $100 cheaper each way compared to the discounted F fares being offered. At that price, if someone is paying for themselves (i.e. with no corporate travel policies that prohibit F tickets), it’s almost a no brainer.

  5. And there’s one more reason. Coach cabins are getting denser, and some F cabins are getting smaller. Removing those MCE seats means an extra 6 or more coach seats. That could be 6 extra elites competing with you for that last upgrade…

  6. As a UA 1K, I can attest to the difficulty of obtaining an upgrade on a discounted fare. Of course, I’m not really losing much because the quality of the first class service has diminished proportionately to the difficulty of getting upgraded. Why folks would pay a lot more for first class strikes me as foolish.

    I am still hoping that the airlines see the wisdom of pampering their best customers in coach. AA does this by giving their ExecPlats a free sandwich. I’m amazed the other airlines don’t do more. Extra legroom, some free food and a drink would seem the minimum of what a top tier elite should be worth. Consistently give me those benefits and I feel appreciated, and not pining for your sucky first class. If a 1K isn’t worth a sandwich to UA, why have an elite program anyway?

  7. Also I think all the airline mergers means more competition. I’ve seen UA flights where it looks like half the flight is on upgrade list.

  8. on top of that, there are fewer airlines. Which means each one has more elite fliers in each tier. When 2 flights are consolidated into 1, you generally have similar seat counts but smaller proportion of F to Y seats, and you are competing with more people. DL and AA are removing F seats in favor of more premium economy. Want to upgrade through a hub as a 100,000 mile flier? Forgeddaboutit

  9. While the phenomenon exists across the board, UA has the unfriendliest terms for 100k+ elites. EXP’s and DM’s seem generally satisfied with their upgrade percentages, while 1k clearance rates are abysmal. Large numbers of GS, prioritizing pax at any level who use those fast accumulating CC miles to upgrade, cheap upgrade offers… it all adds up to the back of the plane for 1k’s. I’m downgrading to Plat next year after decades as a 1k… don’t expect to see any tangible difference since I rarely get the upgrade now.

  10. Slightly OT but I’m hoping Gary can use his influence to get AA to correct a really ridiculous oversight (?) where award tickets don’t have access to Economy Plus seats. I’ve been stuck in a middle seat or back of the plane on flights that had plenty of affordable EP seats but they do not show up on the seat chart for award tickets for some really inane reasons – every agent gives a different nonsensical reason like they have no way to collect on a free ticket, when I’ve just paid my fee from the same app. If a dude as cheap as me would have bought a dozen of them in the past year, imagine what kind of revenue they’re completely fumbling by not simply allowing purchase of Plus seats from the seat chart like every other customer can.

  11. Number 3, “the economy is doing better” is false. The economy is worse than it is by more people spending less; hence, less flights for those that remain. This is all because of the racist Obama, which is why upgrades are harder to get—-he’s anti-any race except his own.

    When he’s either thrown out (i.e.: impeached), resigns, or his term ends in Jan 2017, then the economy will be better and more flights will be added.

  12. @ED – I think you’re on to something. Currently, the four (soon three) major airlines are all painted predominately in white. Have you heard about the government legislation to force the airlines to paint planes in different colors with a minimum number in darker colors? Its only a matter of time before upgrade policies face affirmative action lawsuits. What’s worse is the political agenda behind the airline names-United: obviously an attempt at race integration. Delta: well, we all know what the triangle symbolizes. And don’t even get me started on American-obviously an attempt at pandering to immigrants.

  13. I would like to know the general stats for free upgrades for elites on COPA. Similar to UA domestic? I have no idea.

  14. Yes, Gary, unfortunately while I fly almost monthly I don’t fly enough with a single airline to gain much status. So I’d like access to buy Economy Plus seats on AA when I use my miles for a Saver award ticket as I do to fly all over the world. That they have no way to do this is really a costly oversight because as I said I would easily have bought quite a few Economy Plus seats over the past years on award ticket.

  15. @Clarence and mbh,

    Well kids, remember when you’re in the airport, it’s the anything but Obama voters, and when you’re on the public trains to get to the airport, it’s the Obama and nothing else voters.

    When it comes to upgrades, just look at the charts before ObamaCare, and then after ObamaCare. Just use the Bloomberg (or Thomson Reuters if you have that one). Numbers don’t lie.


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