I Got an Upgrade This Week I Didn’t Deserve

I was in Las Vegas Thursday morning taping something for a television network. We wrapped earlier than expected and I headed to the airport with the show’s producer. And since I didn’t want to spend 3 hours in the Centurion lounge if I didn’t have to, I worked to get rebooked onto an earlier flight.

I flew Southwest Airlines non-stop out to Vegas, but the only non-stop option back would have been at nearly 8 o’clock at night.

Southwest Airlines – View of the Wing

I was booked onto a 2:42 p.m. American flight to Dallas. My upgrade cleared on that flight.

I traded my first class seat to Dallas and Main Cabin Extra aisle seat (and listed upgrade) on to Austin for coach Las Vegas – Phoenix – Austin. I was given seat 20B to Phoenix but managed to change to 6A at the gate. I’ve forgotten just how tight coach can be on those legacy US Airways aircraft (no extra legroom coach seats other than the exit row).

I had no seat Phoenix – Austin. The flight wasn’t oversold, and seats were open, but they weren’t assignable in Las Vegas. I was priority listed for a seat.

Since I had no seat assignment for the regional jet flight to Austin I couldn’t be added to the upgrade list. Naturally my first stop when I landed in Phoenix was American’s Admirals Club next to my arriving gate to get a seat assignment. They popped out an aisle seat towards the front of coach.

I asked them to now add me to the upgrade list but they couldn’t. I was told ‘once you are listed for a seat assignment you are not allowed to become listed for an upgrade.’ This was confirmed by a colleague who said it did not matter that I now had a seat assignment, ‘each customer only gets one wait list, that’s the rule.’ (I hate made up rules.)

American Airlines Planes in Phoenix

Why fight it? I walked over to customer service. But they couldn’t do anything for me, they said, and told me I needed to address it at the gate. While waiting at customer service an agent appeared at the gate, so I walked over to try again.

That agent couldn’t figure out how to add me to the upgrade list either, and asked me to go try customer service (!). Since they sent me to her, she agreed to figure it out. I told her I needed her to ‘off me’ and then re-add, but she wasn’t confident enough to do it, very unsure of the proper procedure, and wanted someone else who ‘knew more’ to confirm and take ownership. Legacy US Airways agents working in Qik can follow standard procedures but aren’t great at fixing things. She walked over to customer service for help.

A few minutes later she hands me back my boarding pass and tells me it’s been fixed. I didn’t look at the boarding pass at first, I looked at the board at the gate and didn’t see my name on the upgrade list. I said it wasn’t on the app either. She said “it’s taken care of” and that’s when I noticed I was now seated in 4D, the last remaining first class seat.

They ‘solved it’ by just giving me the upgrade. I didn’t actually expect to clear I figured I just wanted a shot of being on the list in case there were misconnects.

During the flight I asked a flight attendant whether there were any Executive Platinum members seated in back? She said there were. That means I shouldn’t have gotten the upgrade.

  • American still prioritizes upgrades based on status and then time added to the upgrade list. (They haven’t switched over to ‘total qualifying dollars over the previous 12 months’ instead of time added to the list yet.)

  • Since I would have been the last Executive Platinum added to the list, I should have been below other Executive Platinums.

Lesson: Gate agents do process upgrade lists improperly — not all the time, but semi-regularly.

Often customers who don’t get their upgrade think the gate agent is doing some sort of favor for someone they want to upgrade, but that’s not usually the case (and they can get in real trouble if it is).

Instead they’re usually doing something for expediency — to solve whatever issue is in front of them, to get a flight out on time, without regard for the consequences of someone that winds up not getting the upgrade as a result.

I feel pretty guilty about that upgrade, since it meant another passenger who was supposed to be upgraded sat in back. I insisted the agents solve a solvable problem and get me on the list. When they handed me a first class boarding pass I was grateful, and didn’t know that I shouldn’t have it. But I knew there was a chance I shouldn’t.

What would you have done?

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 won’t worry about it. Karma will catch you later.
    I do find the upgrade process at PHX with AA to be odd at times. I’ve seen where no upgrades clear on a regional jet only to have it leave the gate with empty first class seats.

  2. I’m not sure I’d feel as guilty, but if I did, I suppose I could ask the FA to approach the EP who deserved the seat, and say you offered up your seat. Then switch when/if s(he) accepted the offer. Pay it forward…cheers.

  3. This is why I’m looking forward to the day US carriers stop giving away upgrades and people *gasp* receive the service and cabin germane to what they paid. Gary may like burying his head in the sand and celebrating victories like this but he’s likely keenly aware it is trending in this direction rapidly.

    In other parts of the world passengers don’t have a sense of entitlement to sit in a higher cabin, if they do upgrade it’s with considerable restrictions and requires a cash component and/or something else tangible that is limited. None of this unlimited complimentary business like AA EP, AS, DL, UA, etc.

  4. Jeepie: F/As at AA aren’t supposed to move passengers between cabins onboard absent circumstances like an inop seat with no other accommodation available in same cabin. The F/A could potentially get disciplined for doing such a thing, once the flight is dispatched and closed out on the ground it’s out of their hands.

  5. i would have no way of knowing who was next on the list so I would take it and fly . i am sure I have missed many more upgrades that i should have gotten

  6. It’s also worth noting that, when this happens as a GLD/PLT, your stickers don’t get deducted.

  7. The fact that there were ExPlats in the back doesn’t mean that you were improperly upgraded. I’ve spent plenty of time in the back as an ExPlat on award tickets and am still recognized for my status.

  8. Once again @JoshG makes broad claims he knows nothing about, did you know Australia has airlines for instance? Or about the upgrade policies in Central and South America?

  9. Your lucky day, you found a shiny penny face up. Someone lost that penny. One day you’ll lose a penny and someone will find it…nothing to worry about here.

  10. What seems common in the service industry, including the airlines, is that the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Like you said, they want to solve the problem that is in front of them within extreme time limits and will find the easiest pathway to resolve the issue, fair or not. I believe, that is why you can see some extreme behavior by people demanding something they don’t deserve. (You were perfectly fine in your conduct) Yes, some of these people feel entitled to getting something they don’t deserve. But many others have learned (trained?) that if they complain or demand or even politely but persistently ask, they will get something they didn’t deserve. Keep rewarding the behavior and, surprise, people will continue that behavior and get upset when the don’t get the reward they are used to. Gary, you seemed polite, but persistent and you got a surprise. I think that is fine, but the big question is, will you now do this again and again knowing you might get that reward again?

  11. Newsflash here. As far as the lowly traveler is concerned, the gate agent is all powerful! Corporate rules and policies be damned.

  12. @ Josh G,
    Based on your sentence ‘In other parts of the world passengers don’t have a sense of entitlement to sit in a higher cabin’, I would suggest that you have never been to the Arabian Gulf. I have been on many flights where the locals plop themselves in business class seats or in the front of economy, not because it was their allocated seat, but because they felt they were entitled to the seat. It is always an awkward discussion for the cabin crew to get the offender to take the seat printed on the ticket.

  13. @Gary- it’s not so much JoshG’s observation that other airlines don’t give free upgrades that bothers me, as inaccurate as it may be. I live in a market served by one of those operators, and haven’t been upgraded in over 300 flights (fortunately, SQ economy is better than US economy…).

    It’s the basic meanness looking forwards to the day that US carriers do not offer free upgrade that grates on me. Why would you want that? How does it harm JoshG for others to get free upgrades to empty seats in the front?

  14. I mean by the last person who just gave you the upgraded seat for nothing after trying to do things by the rules. Unless I misunderstand something here.

    I think your name is quite out there in the traveling world. I think it not impossible that you get favors sometimes.

    Not accusing you of wrongdoing, of course.

  15. This post for some reason made me think of St Augustine’s “Confessions” when he steals a pear.

  16. Any chance that when you rebooked the flights – you were put into the Y fare class? I believe Y gets priority over everything else within a status group for upgrades.

    And did the PHX-AUS flight post as an upgraded main cabin fare, or did the agent just put in a F fare class?

  17. I would take it as compensation for likely not receiving an upgrade on previous flights when someone else took yours. I’ve had this happen to me twice on Delta. Once I was told by both the diamond desk and the red jacket that my upgrade would clear — it was about 10 minutes prior to boarding. I had used a global upgrade certificate to improve my chances. Somewhere in those ten minutes I went from No 1 with 1 seat remaining to No 2 with 1 seat remaining when boarding started. They would never say it but I suspect an Air Marshal or non-rev airline employee took my seat.

    They had no explanation. Even the diamond desk agent and her supervisor (I called from my seat) couldn’t explain what happened. Delta one business-class special request meal catered with my name on it.

    Delta ended up giving me 50,000 miles.

    The other time, also with a global upgrade certificate, I was flying Guam-Tokyo-Honolulu-Los Angeles-Detroit. Because of flight schedules I would have about 24 hours in Honolulu before my departing flight to Los Angeles — a free stopover. My global certificate cleared in advance for all segments except Guam-Tokyo.

    It was supposed to be a 757 but a mechanical resulted in Delta using a 747. I was No 1 on the list. My upgrade should have cleared.

    But then something happened with a crew member. They ended up not having enough crew for a 747 with its two-level business-class and claimed, as a result, my upgrade wouldn’t clear. I protested.

    Eventually, the station manager said she would clear me if I fine flying the upper desk with no service. That’s what happened. I had the entire upper desk to myself. The purser was kind enough o bring me drinks from downstairs. It was amazing.

  18. This is almost totally off topic – except that it relates to American Airlines. I recently made some disparaging comments on this blog about Admirals Clubs – – especially those undergoing remodels. I said that the new club in Miami was austere in the style of USAir.
    I’m embarrassed to say that the clubb I saw was not yet fully opened – and now that it’s finished it is 5 times the size I thought and actually very modern and pleasant.
    In fact, I just had the best Caprese Salad that I’ve had in quite a while – right at the club bar.
    Maybe I need to take a step back and give American Airlines a chance at the full reveal.
    Go figure.

  19. Despite all the corporate policies, late upgrades are almost always, at least in my experience, he who nags the most wins. The alternative is you annoy them so much you get the last row in Economy in front of the bathroom.

  20. There are other reasons an EXP might not have gotten the upgrade while Gary did. If their fare class didn’t qualify for the upgrade, or qualified behind him (such as if they were flying on an award ticket, or Gary is on a better class of ticket); if the other EXP was travelling with a companion who could not also be upgraded; if the other EXP had a pet, if the other EXP had given up their upgrade to someone (such as a servicemember or first responder), the EXP would be in the back.

  21. @Andrew M makes an excellent point: it’s possible that the other EXPs in the back were on award tickets.

    Also, @Bob asks a great question: when you were rebooked, which booking code were you booked into, and when you were upgraded (possibly unfairly), which booking code was on your BP?

  22. Now that’s what I call thinking too hard. Way too hard.

    You forgot to mention that there might have been an EXP with an odd numbers phobia and only even-numbered rows were available.

  23. I have been flying internationally for over 40 years between 8 different countries that I have lived in between Asia, the Far East, Europe, the UK and the United States. What I have found is that if coach is packed full and First is not then they will sometimes upgrade well dressed, well mannered -travelers thus creating a “win-win” situation: that is, it alleviates the “sardine” packed back cabin pressure cooker environment in tourist class while at the same time creating good-will with the afore-mentioned well dressed clients who look like they would fit in nicely in first class. It makes good business sense especially when there are several free seats in first. I have been seated in first when there are no others there and have had 3 flight attendants waiting on just 3 First Class paid travelers (myself, my daughter and one other traveler). The airlines are smart to get their front cabin staff something to do with their time.

  24. …another win-win for the airline and passengers is that by upgrading certain coach travelers they get a “loss-leader” effect in that the upgraded traveler gets to have a taste of what First Class or Business Class is like and may then splurge on better seats in the future.

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