Is Your Boss Entitled To Your Upgraded Seat When The Company Buys Your Ticket?

A frequent flyer went online to seek advice about a problem with his boss: when traveling together, the boss expects his upgrade seat. He vehemently disagrees. Is that smart?

[M]y boss and I were flying home from a conference. We were on the same flight, but our original seats were not next to each other. I’m a frequent traveler on this airline and use their credit card, so I often get free upgrades to first class. I got upgraded on this flight and my boss did not.

  • The frequent flyer flew up front, the boss in coach
  • They met back at baggage claim and she scolded that “because the company paid for [the] original ticket” the seat belongs to the company and should go to the boss. By not offering the upgrade to her, he showed a “lack of respect for protocol.”
  • To him, it’s his status, his card spending, his travel that generated the upgrade… not that company-paid coach ticket.

He’s right. But it’s sometimes little solace to be right.

There’s a certain beauty, I think, in the way that frequent flyer programs upend the usual status relationship. Domestic first class isn’t the province of ‘the wealthy’ or the ‘highest status’ Historically it’s been the middle managers slogging it out on the road who wind up upgraded. For everyone else it’s want first, buy first. I recall gifting an upgrade to a former junior employee who texted from the plane as an ex-Member of Congress and member of the 9/11 walked past her into economy.

However Redditors voted the most helpful suggestion to be documenting the incident with HR. This is a fundamental misunderstanding, I think, of a Human Resources department.

At most companies, HR will tell you that their role is to help you navigate the workplace and be your best self. It’s not. Their role is to protect the company from liability. Complaining to HR says that you’re a complainer and that what they need to document is you in order to insulate the company from liability from you if you’re ever terminated. HR is not your friend.

I think the better argument is that while you can generally trade your seat (airline depending) and there was a time you could assign the benefits of your frequent flyer program to your employer, that’s generally no longer the case. You don’t want to violate program rules by assigning your benefits to someone else, which isn’t what the program intends. It’s important to be on the safe side of the rules, no doubt not just per frequent flyer program policy but also company policy amirite?

That said, if your boss insists, you need to figure out how long that person is going to be your boss, and whether you want to stay in the employment arrangement. You can acquiesce or fight it. You might succeed fighting it or you might not, and discount your probability of success heavily. How much is your job worth compared to the next best alternative, and how much is the upgrade worth?

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 »

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  1. I would talk to the desk solo and try to ask them if that is even allowed or not. He can also let them know he’d LIKE it to not be allowed so he can just tell his boss that. Aggravating the boss can have consequences. So it’s wise to consider if it’s worth it. I am glad she’s not my boss!!

  2. If the boss is upset about not getting the upgrade, imagine how hard she’ll be to work with and for if one goes to HR.

    BTW, I don’t think she was entitled to the seat. The company paid for the seat, not her…unless she owns the company which I’m guessing she doesn’t.

  3. That’s a giant red flag, i’d start looking for a different boss immediately.

  4. I wouldn’t call myself a highly evolved person, and I have to say that one of my top moments in corporate life in the last 15 years was when I got bumped up over a senior vice president who I really didn’t like.

  5. “…there was a time you could assign the benefits of your frequent flyer program to your employer…”

    When the airline FF programs started, in mid-80’s, some employers (incl. mine) were actually requiring that the miles be assigned/given to them, because they paid for the ticket. Airlines quickly determined this is going to undermine the entire idea of FF miles (airline loyalty, etc.), and changed the rules to require that miles belong to the person whose butt is in the seat. That quickly resolved the issue for those of us who were flying and didn’t want to part with earned rewards.

  6. @ Gary — This “boss” sounds like a real jerk. The “boss” can buy his own uprade. If he were truly an important “boss”, the company would have bought him a first class ticket.

    A former colleague of mine at a conference complained he was flying home via an inconvenient connection since the comapny required everyone to fly AA. I responded that “my new compny required its employees to fly first class.” I’m the only employee… 🙂

  7. If I had a boss who had that much self importance, I would not hang around the company too long. The way a boss gains respect from employees is by lower themselves not propping themselves up. The sad thing is, most of those in leadership do not understand this principle. She displayed her arrogance by even making the suggestion. People like her should not be leading others.

  8. Strong disagree Gary. The boss is an absolute jerk and the incident should be reported to HR. The OP should ask to be transferred or find another job. I’d run, not walk, away from a manger like that

  9. The boss is wrong, but more importantly, either knows that and is a bully, or is not very smart. I’d get away from that boss ASAP.

  10. HR varies by company. Gary is right that their role is to protect the company and I’ve worked for companies that interpret that role exactly as he described. Generally I would never speak to them unless you have a major conflict where you’re pretty confident the HR team is going to be more worried about your superior’s actions than your own. This would not be one of those situations.

    However, I’ve also worked for companies where HR teams are trained and focused on employee retention. They’re trained to be approachable and ensure employee satisfaction is high (within reason of course). In this case, I think you could safely approach as not necessarily a complaint but a clarification: “hey my boss says company policy is x, and I just wanted to clarify whether that’s the case”. They’re likely going to offer to “educate” your boss on the policy, and then the choice will be yours as to whether you want to antagonize your relationship with the boss. But at the very least, next time your boss makes this statement you can state that you looked into company policy and her interpretation is not correct.

  11. I feel sorry for your toxic workplace. Even if the boss is the owner of the company it wouldn’t make a difference. I own my company and employees have company cards. I would never expect them to travel for work then hand over the miles status of their travel. Its a perk for spending time away from family and friends while on the job. I suggest a new company. Best of luck.

  12. There is a very parallel evaluation to be made that I think shines a lot on what a a**hole this boss is.

    If the staff went out to dinner, and the company provided a per-diem of $25 each person can expense for the meal… and the boss ordered pasta for $25, and the employee ordered steak for $40 *and paid the difference out of their own pocket*, would the boss have a leg to stand on arguing they should have been given the steak??!

    This boss is a POS, insecure, and preoccupied with their own importance. A toxic type to work for, and they showed their colors to the OP. OP should start updating their resume…

  13. First of all, no, the boss is not entitled to the upgrade *especially* when it was largely due to his own personal credit card – which he paid for out of his own pocket – and his credit card spending – also paid for out of his pocket – that earned the upgrade. His boss can have exactly what the company paid for – a seat in economy.

    This is like saying that if the boss brings in a cold sandwich for lunch and I bring in a steak, I should give them my steak because they’re “more senior.” That’s insane and also probably illegal.

    I would, however, happily explain to my boss how I got the upgrade and offer to refer them for the card if they want upgrades in the future. 🙂

    As for reporting the incident to HR… you’re right that shielding the company from liability is HR’s job… but if the company has a manager who is routinely bullying employees, the best way to shield the company from liability if that manager wrongfully terminates an employee who refuses to be bullied is for the company to instead terminate the manager before they can do that. And, if the company has a record of your report about the incident, that would only bolster your case if you were later wrongfully terminated.

  14. Oh wow! With everything going on in the world…this is what the “boss” chooses to focus on with a team member? Well, one thing is correct…she is acting like a “boss” and not a “leader.” A leader would demonstrate some empathy for their team member and show some understanding that the upgrade represents how much that team member flies and is away from home on company business. To expect their team member to give away that upgraded seat to the “boss”, demonstrates how this manager leads with their ego and status. Ugly but not uncommon. As a former head of hr, if this situation was brought to my attention, I would roll my eyes (again) as I suspect this “boss” acts this way consistently and I would then attempt to coach her on looking at this situation another way. It’s not about the upgrade but about the boss’s expectations of recognizing her status as a “boss.” Hello emotional intelligence? I suspect this behavior shows up in her management DNA and is triggered frequently. By the way, we normally cannot just give the upgrade to someone else. (I know that happens though). If we turn down the upgrade, it is suppose to go to the next person on the upgrade list. So she’s choosing to ignore THAT protocol in favor of her own. The ego rules again.

  15. That boss of his is an absolute witch. If she wants upgrades, get it written into the corporate handbook or pay for it yourself. Otherwise she’s just being a bully.

  16. 2 things – the boss is wrong but it could be a career limiting move to do that in the future now that you know how she feels. I’d apologize that I didn’t think of it just to not create an issue the first time even though such an apology isn’t necessary. You can report the person to HR but, again, that likely would adversely impact your employment. There are many ways a boss can “punish” an employee without drawing the wrath of HR so basically you either need to change jobs or hope you change bosses. Even if you whine to HR they will likely counsel the boss on proper conduct but, again, that doesn’t mean you won’t eventually suffer in some way.

    BTW – you can’t assign rights to another person but there is no restriction, on most flights, of letting someone sit in your seat so they could have swapped seats during boarding. Again, I don’t think the boss is right but this is a “no win” situation and I’m sure there are other traits of this boss that make them difficult to work for.

  17. I’m a man married to a woman who owns her own company, and my boss is a woman who owns her own company. I’m Platinum on both AA and DL, and until last week Gold on UA. Whenever I get an upgrade when traveling with either woman, I give her my seat. Same as I open doors for her and pull out her chair for her at the restaurant. I’m probably old fashioned, but there’s an old saying that’s true in both personal and professional situations: “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”. YMMV.

  18. This should be reported to HR and documented so that if the employee is later terminated as retaliation, the situation is in the file to bolster the wrongful termination claim. It will also help HR protect the company if they receive multiple complaints about this manager who may be abusive to other employees.

  19. Take care of your people, make sure they know it, and they will take care of you. It’s that simple.

  20. 20+ years ago I was working for a multinational software company as a 2nd or 3rd year analyst posted to an overseas secondment. I just made EXP for the first time based on my extensive transatlantic travel (on coach fares). I was flying from Dallas to Columbus and saw my CIO waiting to board the same flight. I had gotten upgraded and I was a bit concerned about what she would think walking past her junior analyst seated in F. I took a big gulp and strolled up to her and offered her my seat. She laughed, accepted it (!) and told me she saw big things in my future. LOL perhaps this guy should think a few steps ahead.

  21. Ok so the play is, you get your boss’s executive assistant to give you their PNR, call in and add the boss as your companion (assuming your status is high enough), and then if your upgrade comes in likely their does also, everyone wins, the end.

  22. I’ve got an understanding w boss when we travel together. He knows I’ll get upgraded. I just get him I to the lounge and he’s all good w it.

  23. This boss is just a big bag of Summer’s Eve. I would NEVER take an upgrade from one of my employees.

  24. The boss is a jerk, start looking for another job immediately, run, etc. – it’s all good but these are medium and long term decision. There may be lots of reasons why it is not possible or advisable right away.

    I think reporting to HR is an advise not without merit. This is pretty clear bullying. Many companies have policies against it. It’s not illegal but in grey situations one who reports first often gets an advantage. It will make much harder for the boss to take a retaliation action when an incident like this is officially reported.

    But honestly this person should have known better. When you work for a jerk, it is your job to know that. Instead of confronting your jerk boss like this, offer to change the seats and get a credit with your boss. Domestic economy doesn’t hurt that much.

  25. “Stop acting self-important, boss. If you were that important, you would be flying private.” Mic drop.

  26. This is why I purposely ensure I don’t fly with anyone from my company. Exactly for reasons like this – my plane time is sacred.

  27. The short answer is no!

    You earned your upgrade while Mr. Boss might not have done his home work of being loyal enough to said airline!

  28. Not sure I understand. Isn’t the upgrade available because of your airline loyalty status? Do credit cards offer seat upgrades based on dollars spent on the card? Your boss needs to get over herself. If she was that important to the company, they would have sprung for a first-class seat. You earned your upgrade and are under no obligation to give it away. If your company has an HR department you might want to make them aware of the encounter with her. That way you may protect yourself if she attempts to retaliate. What she said to you might not be against company policy, but what she does next might.

  29. Being upgraded is a perk for the individual who’s away from the family and living out of a suit case. I would not give my seat up to my boss, however, book the flight on the same itinerary and the boss would get an upgraded seat if available.

  30. Years ago I had this problem on only one occasion. Five days out I received my upgrade and then my boss decided to come with me. I just called up and downgraded. No one was any the wiser. Was a strange call with the UA agent though.

  31. @Airfarer – here you go, good to see a wise person. A flight upgrade just isn’t worth soured relationship with your boss.

  32. If the “boss” is as small physically as she is emotionally, she should actually be very comfortable in an economy seat.

  33. Points earned while working should be taxed as income at 1c/point.
    It would level the playing field for those of us earning status without the corporate overlord paying for it

  34. 1. The boss is female, presumably the employee is male (or even female). Toxic female boss wins with HR every time, they tend to be untouchable unless the employee is a minority HR cares about and management is looking to get rid of toxic female boss.
    2. “As for reporting the incident to HR… you’re right that shielding the company from liability is HR’s job… but if the company has a manager who is routinely bullying employees, the best way to shield the company from liability if that manager wrongfully terminates an employee who refuses to be bullied is for the company to instead terminate the manager before they can do that. And, if the company has a record of your report about the incident, that would only bolster your case if you were later wrongfully terminated.” – Very, very rare for a boss ever to be found in the wrong for mistreating underlings unless it involves sexual harassment or outright racism, let alone a female boss. And look at how long most bosses that did get fired got away with it. Things haven’t changed. SO has watched female bosses destroy scores of careers of underlings and only survived her close encounter because female boss self-destructed – chief rival became head of company, female boss got mad and quit. If she had stayed, she eventually would have gotten to her. No one ever stepped in and stopped her reign of terror, they were all too afraid of her.
    3. Employee in OP should be tightening up that resume – way easier to find a new job with a better boss than it is to change a toxic environment. If you want to report to HR, do it on the way out in the exit interview and in a letter to the head of the company.

  35. If I was this peasant’s boss, I would have him flogged for insubordination. Why can’t we just flog employees anymore? Why can’t we call in the Pinkertons when they strike? Smithers! Get in here instantly and explain this!

  36. C_M point #1 is correct. The boss is female and the employee male, therefore she wins the intersectional math contest. The only hope the guy has is to come up with some additional intersectional points (gay, trans,POC, and on and on)

  37. Most business travel is done on behalf of the client. The client is billed for travel. The client is paying for travel, not the company.

  38. this is just a petty petty person – i have been in this position several times; on both ends. Sometimes its me getting an upgrade over my VP and sometimes members of my team are the ones up front.

    the best option — call it an oops; say you didnt know the “rules” and will keep this in mind in the future. No point fighting. Keep your relationship in a good state till you are ready to quint. Start looking for a new manager / new job. This level of toxicity is not worth anything.

  39. the smarter decision would have been to not accept the upgrade when multiple employees are on the same business flight. It can look bad either way. If the company pays for everyone to fly in economy, then everyone gets upgraded or everyone flies economy.

  40. the smarter decision would have been to not accept the upgrade when multiple employees are on the same business flight. It can look bad either way.

    True. If there’s no way to decline the upgrade, then when boarding is about to complete, go back to economy and find a solo traveler and offer to trade. If you’re very perceptive, look for someone who boarded without overhead luggage so they don’t have to go back to get it upon deplaning.

  41. She laughed, accepted it (!) and told me she saw big things in my future. LOL perhaps this guy should think a few steps ahead.

    Good on you, and the silver lining to this is that you saw your boss’s true colors (NOT a leader).

    Leaders eat last.

  42. I once had a senior colleague make a snarky remark when I was in upgraded F on a transcon as he walked past. I told him he needed to learn how to book flights and would be happy to give him some tips. The odd thing is that we shared an assistant and I was aware that I had paid about half as much for my ticket as the colleague had for his because he was disorganized and had waited till the last minute to book. He also had no FF number or precheck. There are more people like that than you might think.

  43. I think whether the HR complaint makes sense really depends on how important this boss is to the company. That she was booked in coach in the first place suggests she’s probably not all that important to the company. If she’s just like a little more senior than the OP, I don’t see why anyone would take her side. And woman or no, I think most people will recognize that if you receive a free upgrade from the airline it belongs to you not the company. If the boss is really powerful maybe not worth the fight, but the powerful people in my organization are not booked in coach to begin with — and even jf they were they would never envy an upgrade since they make enough to pay out of pocket for first whenever they care to. So the pettiness suggests to me this “boss” isn’t that important and might just be damaging their own reputation if this pettiness is known.

  44. I’m the CEO of a company and would never ask any employee to give me their upgraded seat. That would be petty and show a huge lack of appreciation for their contribution to my company.

    It was an extremely incompetent and unappreciative boss that demanded the seat. But fighting the empowered incompetent boss head on is useless. The employee should surrender their seat immediately, quietly go to the boss’s economy seat, and spend flight updating their resume where the boss can’t see. If the employee is anything other than useless then they’ll have a new job with higher pay soon, especially in this employment market.

    The boss’s boss will see that incompetent boss can’t retain staff and this will eventually catch up with them.

  45. Bit different situation but I know somebody that was flying back from Mexico to Europe after signing to buy a large company. He worked for the bank financing the deal. The client was on the same flight. The client wasn’t upgraded from business to first but he was. He used his own miles to upgrade the client.

    The chairman of the bank told him a few weeks later that the client didn’t talk about the nine figure deal but getting upgraded. The chairman reimbursed him the equivalent value of the miles used to upgrade and the client did further deals.

    While in the above situation the employee had no obligation to give up their seat, it would have been good for their career to do so.

  46. I work in HR. I highly doubt it is their company protocol to give your upgrade to your manager. The company bought their tickets. The upgrade was done by the airline, and hence that is between the employee and the airline. For the boss to say her employee showed a “lack of respect for protocol” is what I would find problematic, and I would ask the boss to explain that protocol to me. My concern as HR would be the boss not showing respect to her employee. The company did not pay for the upgrade, and she is using her company status to take something away from her direct report that was not given to the employee by the company (the upgrade).

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