If You Have To Fly Now, You Should Turn Down The Upgrade

Flights are empty right now. An extra legroom seat and an empty middle next to you – for that matter a whole row next to you, and in front of you, and behind you – is just as good as first class, especially with service reductions up front on all but the longest flight.

On Tuesday TSA screened fewer than 280,000 passengers down 87% from the year before.  Here’s how passenger numbers are comparing year-over-year:

Date Total Traveler Throughput Total Traveler Throughput
(1 Year Ago – Same Weekday)
3/24/2020 279,018 2,151,913
3/23/2020 331,431 2,434,370
3/22/2020 454,516 2,542,643
3/21/2020 548,132 2,227,181
3/20/2020 593,167 2,559,307
3/19/2020 623,608 2,439,912
3/18/2020 785,110 2,249,279
3/17/2020 983,226 2,120,419
3/16/2020 1,258,772 2,393,485
3/15/2020 1,519,442 2,475,581
3/14/2020 1,486,940 2,208,044
3/13/2020 1,716,560 2,559,206
3/12/2020 1,790,791 2,428,447
3/11/2020 1,705,948 2,117,791
3/10/2020 1,619,863 2,053,707
3/9/2020 1,911,921 2,306,406
3/8/2020 2,121,424 2,415,105
3/7/2020 1,850,314 2,090,427
3/6/2020 2,203,716 2,471,524
3/5/2020 2,133,245 2,333,383
3/4/2020 1,885,349 2,080,093

United and American are reseating passengers to distance people from each other. However first class still goes out full or most to full even when flights on average are no more than 25% full.

Let’s visualize what’s happened to U.S. airline traffic, March 4 – 24:

What does this mean? In coach you can have a tray for the drink you brought on board yourself, a tray for the sandwich, and a tray for your laptop or tablet. You can stay as far away from other passengers and cabin crew as you wish, more or less. In first class you’re packed in next to people.

Why on earth are people accepting upgrades now?

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. There may be no better indicator of the severity of this crisis than Gary Leff telling his readers to turn down upgrades!

  2. How else are we supposed to look down on the unwashed masses besides sitting up front? ::sarcasm::

  3. Actually, my wife is flying AS on Tuesday with a free upgrade and she is currently the ONLY person in the FC cabin! Plenty of social distancing in FC.

  4. We have a trip planned for this weekend SJC-SAN. Of course, we’re not going. WN already cancelled the flight down on Saturday and we got refunds. Waiting for AS to cancel the return on Sunday so I can get a refund instead of a credit. However, far from cancel, we’ve been upgraded 🙂

    And, looking at the F cabin, all seats open.


  5. I am EXP so I get a free upgrade to first class.

    But the *truth* is, I would be embarrassed to sit behind the curtain, what if someone saw me (I hope you are starting to crack a smile) and said “hey, you are a EXP, why on earth are you sitting back here!!!”.

    But the real **truth** is I have no idea what it is like to sit behind the curtain as I have never (98% of the time) been back there and I am frightened what is behind the curtain. There is a curtain there for a purpose. No reason for me to look, let alone, go behind it (I hope you are laughing uncontrollably by now).

  6. I have never turned down an upgrade in my life and I don’t intend to start meow!!!!

  7. I agree . Turning down an upgrade to a potentially crowded domestic first class cabin is a no brainer. At least until domestic first is as empty as coach.

  8. I had an upgrade when I flew two weeks ago; cabin was half empty so the seat next to me was empty. That was until we were ready to push back and then Virginia, a uniformed FA from the back of the plane came up and threw her bag in the seat next to me, took 10 minutes to put up all her bags delaying pushback, and then plopped down & immediately fell asleep. Her perfume was so strong my allergies went to overdrive the rest of the day which was awesome – nothing like sneezy & watery eyes in a time when no one wants to be around someone who seems remotely sick. Thanks Virginia. Apparently an entire row in the back wasn’t good enough for you since there were like 25 people on the plane.

  9. Has there been a single documented case of ANYONE catching coronavirus on an airplane. I thought there was some suspicion that it happened a few weeks ago on an RJ in the midwest. Since most aircraft have hospital-like filtration systems, it obviously one of the safer indoor spaces to be in these days — especially since the airplanes are incredibly empty. I’d personally have to problem flying these days — including on an upgrade — but there’s not much reason to go anywhere when the world is closed.

  10. AS has said they are intentionally not filling First Class for social distancing purposes. So if I’m flying (I’m not) and upgraded, I’ll take the upgrade.

  11. This virus is not spreading by people coughing on each other. Why is everyone so obsessed and only hyper-focused on social distancing. When you travel through an airport and on to an airplane, you are touching dozens of surfaces that, without a doubt, have the virus on them. You could be the only person on the plane. It only takes one touch of the arm rest and a scratch of the nose. You can wear gloves and sanitize all day. You will not get it all and ultimately you will touch your face at some point.
    Everyone is just focused on staying away from people as they touch everything they pass and then their face.

  12. @Carlos
    don’t you know the real *truth* of EXP world is people just pay straightforwardly to sit in the front of the cabin, not to get a free upgrade! You belong to the world after the curtain.

  13. “ Why on earth are people accepting upgrades now?”

    Because the seats still suck.

    Ask anyone with back issues if they’d turn down a bigger seat.

  14. Just remember when on an aircraft at least 50% of the air is recycled. On some aircraft types this
    number is much higher. Yes, the air is filtered, but not to a “N95” hospital standard. In my case old
    murphy’s law raises it’s ugly head. No matter where I sit on an airplane, the person behind me is
    always coughing and sniffling! Good Luck with that.

  15. I was on a United flight last week and everyone had their own set of two seats in First Class. Coach was also 25% full.

    I happily took my upgrade and enjoyed my dinner and a few glasses of wine.


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