How Airlines Choose To Make Upgrades Available, And Why One Airline Can Do Better

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.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. United has been doing pretty well in this regard. All my upgrades have cleared in the past two months. I was originally going to switch to AA EXP in 2021 but am rethinking it. The ease of use of Plus Points for Ultra long haul flights has AA beat.

  2. This is about people maximizing by stacking guest upgrade certs on companion certs.

    People who earn ASMVP75K flying partners, then using the guest upgrades on companion tickets are likely not Alaska’s most profitable customers.

    I doubt Alaska is intentionally blocking this practice, it’s prob not material, but let’s be clear the entitlement noise is coming from the companion + upgrade cert maximizers, not Alaska metal biz travel road warriors.

    This is not the time to be whining about maximizing benefits – give them some slack while they sort out being a viable business.

  3. I had a “discussion” with a UA FA years ago traveling to Hawaii in First along with my wife. I asked for a certain meal for my wife as she has dietary restraints his response to me what that “paying ‘ passengers are given their choice first then whatever is left over we can chose to which I said did you see my status and how do you think I could afford two first class seats on points? I also asked nicely about the meal due to a medical reason. Nope. I left UA went to AS and 1.3 mm later here I am!

    Alaska has been fantastic to fly my response to this is there are changes underway and more much more coming to airlines travel.

  4. @ Greg — Why are you repeating the same complaints here as you made on No Mas Coach? I am exactly the customer you describe, and Alaska wants my business. I don’t sit in the back of the plane, and you sound jealous.

  5. “They may not be sure whether they’ll extend social distancing guidelines into November ”

    Sadly they still have U blocked out in November – even though seat maps are showing they are NOT blocking middles in Coach during that month.

    On multiple SEATPA flights last month I was told “Thanks for joining us – you are our ONLY Gold onboard” – why they wont let me have at least the -chance- of burning a guest upgrade is frustrating, flat out blocking it all seems like a short sighted solution. At least the -3- Non-revs on one of the flights really enjoyed their F seats.

    AS really needs to think about how this just turns SEA Gold/75k fliers toward DL – especially since the once valuable AS-exclusive change fee wavier is no longer a true benefit.

    Maybe its a route specific issue for me, but so few of actual frequent flyers are flying on required/emergency trips, it only seems reasonable to extend a U seat once an a while.

  6. This change is not really a big deal since everyone has complained for years on the limited “U” availability. Usually a seat or two on any given flight which then went quickly. Because I am a FF nerd, I keep stats on our AS upgrades. I am an MVPGold and 23 for 27 so far this year compared to 7 for 23 last year. My wife is an MVPGold75K and 25 for 29 this year compared to 23 for 35 last year. There is no need to complain about not having U space available. Plenty of upgrade opportunities are there.

  7. I’m not sure what happened to Alaska but my 3 year honeymoon is over sadly
    I love the company and many of its team members
    But gold guest upgrades are dead on the water and they know it covid or not
    Their revenue fares are typically now outrageous
    Their redemption for miles on their own metal domestically quadruple of some other carriers
    And many of their connecting cities and non stop flights have been cut for the foreseeable future Covid killed this once great carrier and program I expected better from them
    I’m done with a
    Alaska likely for years to come if they should recover at all

  8. I just flew AA to PDX from DCA and returned today on Delta. It was an interesting comparison. I purchased the outbound one way F ticket a week in advance that was reasonable on American. The cabins were almost full from both DCA and also the connecting flight at ORD. Not knowing until two days ago my return I tried to book AA and flights were approaching $1200.00. Delta was $490.00 via SLC. The best I could surmise was that AA was clearing upgrades causing fares to follow upwards in First while Delta was still working to sell seats and not clearing any upgrades. Delta’s approach actually makes sense to me from a revenue standpoint.

  9. Alaska does block 1st class seats at 50%. The majority of 1st class passengers are solo travelers which by current policies eat two seats. When they find they are sitting next to a stranger (typically due to computer seating errors) in the spacious first class section, such entitled passengers are throwing a fit these days. Once we can investigate that everyone sitting together knows one another and additional inventory is available then we can upgrade our highest ranked mileage plan members. What would be great is if eight couples could join us in 1st class, we would love to fill all 16 seats.

  10. Long time Alaska 75K here.

    5+ years ago the GGU (Gold Guest Upgrade, the upgrade instrument) was easy to use. Plenty of fare availability, plenty of seats.

    Things started to change about 3 years ago but really tightened up 2 years ago. It felt like an intentional change by Alaska’s management.

    This was LONG before Covid.

    Alaska started withholding upgradable seats. Then they started not processing upgrades at proper time windows.

    You can occasionally score a single upgrade but confirming an upgrade at time of booking is damn near impossible unless you book when the booking window opens.

    This is an intentional move by Alaska. Framing this as related to Covid is not accurate.

    Alaska is facing pressure from Delta at the SEA hub. So for Alaska to cripple one of the useful parts of their loyalty program makes no sense.

    I fear that Alaska is stepping over dollars (letting top tier use earned upgrades) to pick up dimes (onsey twosey sales of F seats).

    Last year I had 4 of 8 upgrades go unused. I simple couldn’t find flights with the upgrade space.

  11. @Gene

    Every frequent flier program has some small percentage of gamers / not so profitable customers to the airline who managed to qualify on edge cases of the rules.

    Usually the benefits of allowing these outweigh changing rules that would displease more profitable customers. But get the entitlement that you’re one of their top 75K members out of your head – most other 75ks are more important profit drivers for Alaska than partner metal earners who only fly Alaska stacking a cert.

  12. Agree with Ex UA-Plat. AS’ GGUs used to be worth something but now it’s a nearly useless currency. They’ve devalued the upgrades by not opening space to use them — blogs and FT are full of screenshots showing 0 availability for +/- 7d for just about every flight over 1h. Now they’ve decided not to roll them over after people have earned them.

  13. Hey Gary – thanks for starting the conversation. One thing I’d like to point out, that maybe didn’t come across too clearly in the original post, is that Alaska truly isn’t giving these upgrades away for free. I still have to buy into the upgradable fare bucket, and right now, those fare buckets are ALMOST the same price, if not higher in some cases, than buying the seats outright. The benefit, of course, being that I can use my confirmed upgrades with the companion pass whereas buying the F seat outright doesn’t work.

    It’s a shame, especially since Alaska hasn’t come out and said that they’re going to extend the certificates that they’ve made worthless. I hope that they’ll come back out and give us an extension into the end of 2021. Honestly, it doesn’t make sense for them not to, especially considering that they aren’t opening up that U space anyway

  14. I’ve been an Alaska elite for over 20 years. Never had problem using my MVPG cert until about 3 years or so ago. U space used to be available for all routes, unlimited. Then they cut it down to 4 or 5 space on each flight. But in the past 2 – 3 years, they started scaling back on U seats on most routes. Since COVID they have completely removed them. I understand they need the revenue – as they are already bleeding millions everyday. For any airlines, filling the plan 50% with revenue customers will still be a loss for that flight. You do the math. So – am I happy about the ever-devaluing of these once coveted MVPG certs? No! Especially considering I had couple dozens that I couldn’t use. But all things considered, looking at the benefits I was able to enjoy over the years as an elite, I am ok right now to contribute a bit more to their revenue. I can still afford it and for that I am grateful. I just think a bit of humility during this challenging time will go a long way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *