Jon Nickel-D’Andrea writes that Alaska Airlines has pretty much eliminated confirming first class upgrades in advance. They have the ‘U’ inventory bucket, which has been for upgrades since 2002, mostly zeroed out across the board.
He asked Alaska Airlines about this and they confirmed the change, pointing the finger at Covid-19.
As you know, safety of our employees and our guests is always our #1 priority, and we’re currently limiting the number of guests on our flights and blocking seats (currently through October 31st) to better allow for personal distancing in flight. To ensure we’re better able to distance guests in flight, temporary changes have been inplemented…
Jon isn’t buying it, suggesting Covid-19 is just an excuse,
[A]llowing people to upgrade before the flight has absolutely zero to do with safety and security, nor does limiting seats. If you have 8 seats to sell in first class instead of the normal 16, whether you get money or get it for free via upgrades, how you got IN the seat doesn’t matter for the safety and security of your employees and guests.
I’m going to differ here. Alaska may be being too conservative with its algorithms, but it comes down to blocking half the first class cabin for social distancing and having fewer seats to sell, so they don’t want to take away inventory that could be sold when they’re desperate for revenue.
How Airlines Decide To Make Upgrades Available
Here’s how airlines decide to make confirmable upgrade space available. They project how many first class seats they may sell in the cabin, and leave a buffer. Seats that they know won’t be sold for cash might be given away as upgrades – but they also want to make sure that frequent flyers don’t confirm upgrades instead of paying cash so they’ll limit upgrades even still (often to when first class seats are available inexpensively – then the revenue tradeoff isn’t great, and the temptation not to pay cash is small).
When the airline guesses wrong and finds they still have seats available up front as travel approaches, that becomes the pool for complimentary upgrades (or to clear confirmable upgrades off of a wait list).
Shouldn’t Confirmable Upgrades Be Even Easier Now With No One Flying?
Now, of all times, confirmable upgrades should be easier. After all,
- If you cut the number of seats you offer in first class by 50%, your algorithms say not to make any available for confirmable upgrade – because traditionally you’ve sold more than the number of seats you still have available.
- However the number of passengers has fallen more than 50% – it varies on some days between having fallen 67% and 74%.
- And first class sales are worse. There’s virtually no business travel at all – that’s fallen off more than 95%.
So you’d think that airlines could make confirmable upgrades available, knowing their first class ticket sales have plummeted. But they also are living in an era of uncertainty. They don’t know what the future holds, and once they give away a confirmed upgrade they cannot sell the seat. So they may play it conservative.
Alaska Isn’t Acting Unreasonably But Can Still Do Better
I’ve seen plenty of reports of Delta not even bothering to clear first class upgrades at the gate, so Alaska is hardly among the problem airlines here.
Nonetheless the airline can’t possibly expect to sell all of the first class seats it has at this point. And while they don’t have a lot of data to go on for what to expect, they do know with some degree of certainty that there’s almost no business travel now and for the next couple of months. They may not be sure whether they’ll extend social distancing guidelines into November and December, or whether they’ll see business travel recover in early 2021. But they can certainly offer confirmable upgrade space in September and into October.
Guest upgrade certificates and mileage upgrades are benefits that their frequent flyers earned. They’re going to need their best customers to drive recovery. So throwing up their hands at uncertainty isn’t good enough. They have to deliver on the promised benefits of their program, because it’s the Mileage Plan program – their primary marketing vehicle – that will drive consumer choice as travel recovers.