Flight Attendant Dishes On Self-Upgrading: Why That Empty First-Class Seat Isn’t Yours

You cannot self-upgrade. If you see an empty first class seat, you can’t just take it. I have never, ever seen it actually work. What I’ve seen it passengers who tried it being embarrassed, and I’ve seen passengers escalate matters when they’re sent to the back and get kicked off the plane.

You used to be able to take any empty seat in coach once doors closed. That was great because sometimes you could grab a row of seats to yourself on a long haul flight (I used to do this myself flying to Australia as a kid in coach), or maybe there’d be an empty exit row seat. Sometimes you just want to spread out.

But now that airlines sell specific seats for more money, including extra legroom seats, the rules are a bit more complicated. You can probably move around within the coach cabin as long as you’re not taking an empty extra legroom seat. You should probably ask a flight attendant, because your ability to change seats is really at their discretion. They might even allow one of those better seats!

You Can’t Just Sit Down In An Empty First Class Seat

You’re still not going to be able to just move up to business or first class, though, sorry. A viral flight attendant video shuts down passengers trying to self-upgrade, and explains how she handles those who do.

  • She tells them that upgrades have to be handled by gate agents. She doesn’t have to be the one telling them no. It’s similar to how my dad taught me to sell cars as a kid. You’re always on the side of the customer, it’s the faceless ‘guy up in the tower’ or manager who’s being difficult.

  • It almost works, though, when customers try to charm their way into first class.

    Just a few months ago, this guy walked on the flight and was like, ‘You’re so pretty. Like, this is the most beautiful cabin crew I’ve ever seen

    But then when he asked for a first class seat she realized he wasn’t being genuine with his compliment.

  • Upgrading someone on board could get them fired.
@destanieaaa Replying to @LilyNoa Hehehe… go back to 34B now :))) #flightattendant ♬ Aesthetic – Gaspar

Some airlines do allow on board upgrades. First, gate agents for U.S. airlines are usually supposed to come on board and upgrade someone on a wait list if a first class seat winds up empty (for instance, a passenger doesn’t make their connection or no shows). Second, some carriers like Emirates will even process upgrades – including mileage upgrades – on board.

You Can Upgrade Into An Empty First Class Seat On Emirates

But in these cases it’s never about picking someone you like, or letting a passenger aggressively self-upgrade. Sometimes a gate agent will upgrade at their discretion. Usually everyone on an upgrade list has already been bumped up, and either for weight and balance reasons or because coach is oversold someone has to get bumped up. There’s usually an order (such as based on status) for these upgrades, but in order to get a flight out on time there may be some latitude such as upgrading someone that hasn’t boarded yet. This is called an ‘operational upgrade’. It’s still not a self-upgrade!

American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER First Class

The flight attendant in the video suggests using an airline’s co-brand card for upgrades. That’s not entirely wrong. Having help towards status and having miles is part of getting upgraded. You can sometimes redeem your miles, and be higher up in the queue if you have status, though usually not just the credit card alone.

In the end dressing nicely and whispering revenue management won’t get you first class, and neither will pretending to be a cocktail even though cocktails are free in first class.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 successfully self-upgraded once. My spouse was in domestic F on AA, I wasn’t. We were stuck on the plane at the gate after boarding for over 2 hours due to a mechanical issue. During that time, I sat in the empty seat next to her. When the plane eventually took off, the FA let me stay there, undoubtedly due to the extended delay.

  2. One way that does work is to know the pilot in command. Once the cabin doors close and the aircraft is under his/her control, that person’s the boss. That has worked for me several times with one friend — who upgraded me into an open first class seat once — another time when that was not possible, as I was clearing security, I texted him my drink order and first/business meal preference order, if any remained unclaimed. The drink appeared without a word; also, the premium cabin FA brought me a white napkin tablecloth for my emergency row coach seat and provided my meals… along with an offer of any snack boxes from the back. Every flight attendant working that flight visited my seat. Honestly, those were the best domestic flights I have had since deregulation! Everyone around was trying to figure out who I was… special, for sure!

  3. I find it hilarious every time someone writes a review or complains and then they humble brag that they are a (insert airline or hotel program) “member”.

  4. Only time it worked for me (and I was upgraded so in my seat) was on a DL flight ATL to Aruba. Weather meant that many missed connections and there were over half the seats in first empty. I got upgraded but my wife and 2 kids were in coach (she told me to take the seat or I wouldn’t have). Going back to see them I ran into my old college roommate who happened to be on the same flight with his family. Anyway he came up to first w me (asked FA first an d also clear w both families) and the FA was perfectly fine w it. Did ask if my wife and kids could come up (more than enough empty seats for them) and she said that was pushing it but my old roommate and I sat up there and drank all the way to Aruba. This was a unique situation w the missed connections and I was a lifetime elite so may have gotten a little extra discretion. Also about 8-9 years ago and likely wouldn’t happen now

  5. Great article dealing with reality, policy, and professionalism.
    Some commenters live in a self-enthralled world of unverifiable anecdotal stories.

  6. > The flight attendant in the video suggests using an airline’s co-brand card for upgrades

    The flight attendant is paid to sell credit cards and will lie with impunity

  7. Qatar Airways will sometimes block a middle seat if the seat next to it is occupied by one of its Platinum Members. In theory, it’s a nice gesture when the plane is not full. However, the reality is that passengers from further back on the plane just upgrade themselves to the front economy seat and the crew does nothing about it.

  8. Air Canada is absolutely horrible for this. They will fly the plane with the entire business class empty while a whole bunch of their most loyal customers with high status are stuck in coach, due to how their archaic upgrade system works.

  9. The self upgrade person is the same as the narcissistic passenger that think that I really give a crap that she’s been nominated for a Grammy and that I (or anyone else on the plane) wants to hear her screeching, preaching and wailing. Sit the f*** down and shut the hell up. I’d rather listen to the jet engine noise! You buy the seat…it’s yours BUT, regardless of which cabin you sit in, you don’t just move to ANY another seat for more whatever.

  10. Retired flight attendant here. Just take the seat you paid for and stop creating problems! Most flights will have a who is where seat chart. The keep those in their computers. If there is an incident such as a crash,it can be used to identify bodies etc…good reason to not move?????

  11. It’s so ballsy & narcissistic to think you can just plop down & the FA won’t notice! There are people pay who pay extra or earned that reward. Crews have a name chart, they know who’s supposed to be there & if it’s not you, go back where you are supposed to! Your jig is up!
    Also reply to AC: WoW. Just wow…you & your buddy drank your way to Aruba?! Horrible fathers & humans to just leave your family in the rear for your own comfort & pleasure. That’s really pulling a fast one on your loved ones. The FAs should’ve given ALL the perks to your wives & family as they have to put up with such selfish behavior! Then to ‘invite’ your college buddy up?! Double whammy to those families!!! I’m sure the FA did NOT enjoy serving you in the least & now you are an infamous story they tell their other Flight crews & families members on how NOT to behave if ever on an airplane. So very sad….

  12. Last year, I got upgraded to a “more leg room” seat of a flight to Barcelona. I don’t know why, I am assuming it was because nobody had paid for the upgrade so all 3 seats were empty and they needed someone next to the door incase of an emergency, and I was travelling alone so my attention wouldn’t have been distracted by kids if the worst situation did happen, but that’s just ke speculating…..

    I didn’t find out about the upgrade until I got to the gate and scanned my boarding card….. and the computer made a really loud alarm noise. Everyone turned and looked and panic set in, I thought I was going to be dragged away for a strip search.

    Anyway, it turned out that I had a small, but appreciated upgrade, so thank you Jet2, and if you ever need me to snooze for 3 hours next to the door with my legs kicked out full stretch again, I’m your man

  13. Very funny scene about this topic in the movie, “Out to Sea.” Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon boarded their flight just before the doors closed and Matthau convinced Lemmon they could get away with taking the last two empty seats in first class. Nope. Two passengers boarded at the very last second and Matthau and Lemmon were humiliated and kicked back to their coach seats. I guess you have to see it, but it’s a funny couple of minutes.

  14. I agree about self upgrading, but I never ever seen it as an issue to move from one economy seat to another. People do it all the time, no one cares, it’s the same class of service – even if the fee for ASR is higher.

    The only time you can’t pick any other economy seat is on small turboprops when there’s not many pax and they need to keep the balance.

  15. It’s funny how people think they should be upgraded just because first or business class is empty but coach is full. That doesn’t mean anything. If you wanted a first class seat you should have paid for a first class seat period!!!! I think anyone who is caught self upgrading need to be kicked from the flight and not allowed to fly that airline again for a year. YOU SIT IN THE SEAT YOU PAID FOR SO SIT DOWN, AND STFU!

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