This Should Make Every United Elite Furious

It seems there’s always a first class seat still available whenever I’m checking in for a United flight. Perhaps it’s the routes I’m flying.

I’m not a United elite, and a first class seat is offered to me as a buy up.

Here’s a recent check-in offer I received:

Historically American Airlines has offered “Load Factor-Based Upgrades” or “LFBUs” where non-elite members can buy a first class seat only when they expect to accommodate all elite upgrade requests.

Here United Airlines is offering me a first class seat while 13 elites are waiting to be upgraded into the last 2 seats.

There’s no question that United wants to monetize its first class. What United, American, and Delta are moving to is ‘paying for what you want, and getting what you pay for.’

That re-commoditizes air transportation. Frequent flyer programs were the most successful marketing innovation in history, taking what is essentially a commodity product (a seat that gets you from A to B) and creating a brand preference. Customers pay more for one airline’s product than another. They choose their preferred airline even when that airline is more expensive on a given trip.

Brand preference makes sense, and paying a premium makes sense, when there’s a value proposition across trips — where by staying loyal you’re going to be treated better, primarily through upgrades.

When upgrades are off the table — when Delta is pushing to sell 70% of first class seats and United will unload those seats for $59 while elites sit in back — there’s very little value proposition to spend more to stick with an airline on the belief that doing so will be worthwhile over the course of the year.

It’s important for United elites to understand that their loyalty is worth less than $59. Although for what it’s worth on this one hour regional jet flight I didn’t spend $59 for first class — or even $22 for economy plus. After all, there are stroopwafels in coach in the morning.

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. “It’s important for United elites to understand that their loyalty is worth less than $59.”

    I think we’ve long understood that to compute the worth of our loyalty to most companies we need to invoke the mathematical concept of epsilon.

  2. This is nothing new UA has been doing this for years.

    And while this practice is obnoxious, your comment that (paraphrase): “your loyalty is worth less than $59” is patently absurd.

    That’s only true if domestic upgrades are literally the only elite benefit you use is domestic upgrades.

    There are other useful parts of the elite program that have nothing to do with domestic upgrades.

  3. Gary –

    As @Bob said, this is nothing new at UA. The real problem is that Premiers regularly get offered buy-up upgrade availability at a price higher than that offered to non-Premiers, so their loyalty actually affirmatively harms them.


  4. Received today a buy up offer for $249 on a transcontinental LAX EWR redeye United flight in lie flat J seat from a saver reward economy seat can’t get better than that

  5. Bob, what other benefits do you say make it worth it? To me, if I couldn’t even get upgraded on a crappy one hour flight, what are my odds on an international flight? So you get to board earlier and remain seated until everyone else boards? Then you do get off the plane earlier but don’t see big bonuses if upgrades are off the table.

  6. UA has been doing this since 2012… As a UA elite I have no issue with this and actually it has benefited me numerous times. For example, I fly on a Y ticket from USA – Asia frequently. Depending on the route and day it may be very, very hard for my GPU to clear. However, at check in I am offered the ability for around $500 to upgrade to business. I think that is a fair price for a 14 hour flight – and it’s something that I will do if my upgrade does not clear. I don’t think that this should make any elite mad. Flying in first class is something the airline gives me for FREE .. If I get it great, but I understand the need to sell the seats (however, I am willing to take unsold seats for free – isn’t that the idea behind upgrades anyway?)

  7. What A has left out is that he/she is such a masochist that to complete the torture upon arrival he/she has himself/herself mounted on a life size cork dartboard in Tokyo while random tourists both Japanese and American take random pot shots at his/her midsection with all manner of devices and weapons.

    And he pays an Extra 5000 for the pleasure. LOL

  8. The other important thing is that the $$ for the buy up vary constantly. I’ve seen the same flight go $619 to $2400 to $399 within the last 24 hours. I keep checking until I find a fare I like.

  9. @A – putting elite customers in unsold first class seats isn’t something that is ‘free’, it’s earned. You earned that privilege by being loyal and, probably for the most part, bought most of your airfare with that one carrier.

    The issue is that the modest incremental revenue generated by selling the upgrade (to anyone, even without status) is worth more to the airline than the overall value of what you may have paid over and above another carrier flying the same route in order to remain ‘loyal’ to your preferred carrier.

    And you’re ok with that?? I guess that is what Delta and United are counting on . . .

  10. Getting something better than what you pay for due to “loyalty” doesn’t “de-commoditize” a product, it just cheapens it. It’s discounting, de-commoditization.

    Commoditization comes from reducing the product to bare bones transportation (with everything on top as fee).

  11. This is why I buy first class if I want to be upgraded, which is almost all the time. Kiss loyalty goodbye…

    I am by no means furious with any airline that wishes to do do what you describe above. I have NEVER understood why airlines give away any free upgrades other than op-ups. If you stand and chit-chat with an airline club lounge agent, you will observe that about 90% of the questions they field are regarding the chances of upgrades clearing. Any airline that gives away what is clearly its most popular product is run by a bunch of idiots.

  12. Oh, but they should at least be honest about what they are doing, which means offering the same $59 upgrade to a 1K as to a non-status flyer (which, AFAIK, Untied doesn’t do). So, I guess what you describe above DOES make me furious…

  13. I’m pretty glad AA hasn’t started doing this in earnest but i think it’s a matter of time

  14. if there’s a sucker who’s willing to pay $59 for a 25-min take-off-to-touchdown flight for a slightly wider seat and faster soda service, his gf/wife should be the one who’s furious, not the elites. it’s only in the aviation world where the customers are so trained on entitlement that they get upset when the merchant attempts to actually sell the product at market value.

    There are still some stuck in the ancient mentality where airlines purposely overpriced their F cabin so that no one would buy it and it’s essentially used a freebie for the road warriors. News flash, there are tons of folks (me included) who are very happy to pay cash for domestic F right at booking if it’s roughly 2x that of econ, but I definitely won’t shell out 4-5x econ price for a 38″ recliner. The old setup has entirely ignored that market.

    And as much as people love threatening to leave airline XYZ because of change # 123, I’d say good luck. The industry is an oligopoly at this point.

  15. I have stopped chasing elite qualification. I now buy F, or buy up to it when I can, or pay for E+ (or equivalent) when I can’t. So I’m now happy that these new rev programs are in place, but just a few years ago I would have had a different take.

    I depend on the credit cards for miles (and for priority boarding when I can’t get F). I’ll buy miles if the cost is less than the price of the Biz or F ticket for vacation travel (since I book that about a year out, I can get seats. I have a pair of F to Hawaii for Xmas, for example).

  16. As an AA exec platinum I heard that the same thing was happening on AA, so I booked a flight without signing in to see what would happen, and the exact same thing happened to me on AA. I think that all airlines have decided not to give a shit about their elites and squeeze whatever revenue they can generate. It seems to be their logic that since they are all doing the same thing, elites have no benefit in switching their allegiance to anyone else.

  17. This is exactly why United’s execs were reminding investors (yesterday) that they’re planning to increase premium cabin seating by 30% by the end of 2018 – it’s because they want more seats they can up-sell to passengers and not because they want to improve the elite flying experience (not that any sane person would have though United would do that anyway).

  18. My husband had silver status with United last year. He got upgraded to Econ + on a trans Atlantic award. As he is 6’6, it was a great perk. Obviously, it was due to the availability of the product.

  19. This post is unnecessarily over the top, especially since what we are talking about here is a “one hour regional” flight. It is the same sort of negativity that leads to this type of false logic:
    “To me, if I couldn’t even get upgraded on a crappy one hour flight, what are my odds on an international flight?”

    Consider, e.g., this trip to ICN I am taking next week, for which I requested Global Premier Upgrades (GPU) both ways:

    Outbound: LGA – IAH – NRT – ICN
    Inboud: ICN – SFO – DEN – LGA

    Guess which segments cleared upgrades at booking or shortly thereafter? Precisely the one’s that I had hoped and prayed would clear:

    — IAH – NRT (TPAC): 13h20min flight, GPU to BusinessFirst cleared shortly after booking
    — ICN – SFO (TPAC): 10h45min flight, GPU to BusinessFirst cleared at booking.

    The upgrade for SFO-DEN has also cleared (as will be the one for DEN-LGA since it is the same flight #). All other segments (outbound) are still waitlisted, but I really could not care less because they are short flights which I’ll fly in E+, at worst.

    Therefore, the notion (a) that ” if I couldn’t even get upgraded on a crappy one hour flight, what are my odds on an international flight?” is clearly a non sequitur because, as shown, I cleared intl flights upgrades first; and (b) that United elites’ loyalty “is worth less than $59” is way over the top because the RT ticket cost me “just” $1,560, which is a fraction what I would have paid to fly in BusinessFirst to ICN and back. The value proposition should be clear…

  20. loyalty is dead- well, unless you live in an Alaska served area- ie: SEA.

    the comments above by people who actually buy first class (with your own $?!?) are kinda missing the other point. if people who don’t even have elite status are being offered cheap upgrades to first as a matter of policy, the airline is playing you for a schmuck for actually paying for it. you’re a lemming. and if we’re talking about a domestic flight, except for transcon on certain aircraft with lice lie flat, the product you’re overpaying for isn’t much better than economy plus.

  21. @DCS for starters, you overpaid by $500-700 for that W fare to be able to use that GPU- not exactly ‘free’. further, had your GPU not cleared (as is often the case), then you’re really a schmuck for paying 2x more for that W fare and NOT getting upgraded. and… Gary is talking about free upgrades. your upgrade was neither free nor unlimited. you only get 4 one way’s a year that you’re allowed to overpay for in hope of using the often worthless GPU’s.

  22. I have zero status with United and have, on 4 occasions this past year, been able to upgrade with a Buy-up at the gate. These were TA flights on middle-week days, and I could tell when booking a month out that the flights were not going to fill in Biz class–at that point only 2 or 3 seats had been taken. So as a non-elite I take my chances and ask at the gate. Ony 1 trip I was charged $550 and 20K points, on another I was charged $399 and 20K points, and 2 other trips I was charged $550 and no points. Average that over 2 r/t tic each costing appx $800- and I, as a non-elite, am getting a pretty good deal, while those loyal elites are being shafted. .

  23. Worse than offering an upgrade to non-elites at check-in, I’ve been at a gate waiting to board and a United agent gets on the PA to announce that there are first class seats available, and to come to the counter if you want to know the cost to upgrade. All this while the boarding screen is listing the United elites who have status and are on the airport upgrade list.

    I’m not a united elite, but I am an AA elite. Upgrades rarely clear prior to check-in, but often clear pre-boarding. I’d be furious if I was first on the list with a couple open seats, and they made a pre-boarding announcement trying to sell those seats.

  24. @Abby — The notion that I “overpaid” for a W fare when that has always been UA’s policy is silly [I stuck with them being fully aware of this policy so do not compare it with another airline that allows SWU to be requested on any fare class because that already figures in in my loyalty program choice].

    The premise has always been that I pay for a W fare in order to fly in J (mainly on intl flights) and it has usually worked. The hypothetical that ” had your GPU not cleared (as is often the case), then you’re really a schmuck for paying 2x more for that W fare and NOT getting upgraded” is just as silly because, as far as I am concerned, nothing has really changed with respect to how frequently I clear GPUs on intl flights, which is 80-90% of the time. This year I started with 7 GPUs and am down to just 2 after clearing one for a TATL trip, 2 for a RT trip to SIN in May and now 2 have cleared for a RT trip next week to ICN — i.e., I have a perfect record clearing GPUs so far this year. Add all the costs of flying in BF after being upgraded from W tickets and you can see how silly is the notion that I “overpaid”…

    I still play the upgrade lotto the way I have always played it. Book early, request the upgrade right away, forget about it and you’ll be pleasantly surprise… 😉


  25. In comparison, here’s what I got for a $22 one-way Jet Airways economy ticket for a MAA-BLR flight (flight time of 45 minutes):
    – Relatively comfortable seat with sufficient legroom (I’m 6’3″)
    – a full lunch meal (a chicken curry, with rice, and a veggie stir fry, and a roti) – quite tasty unlike the usual tasteless, ammonia-washed chicken crap served in UA domestic first class
    – follow up coffee/tea service
    – a young, agile, polite flight crew
    – plenty of overhead baggage space
    – No fees for checking bags
    – on time departure & arrival

    Didn’t require mileage status for any of this, nor do I have any with Jet. This experience is what every single passenger on that flight got. Note that this 45 min flight experience was on a fully loaded A320, and served by 4 flight attendants in total (2 for business class and 2 for economy). Did I mention that the ticket for this flight cost me $22?

  26. I do not know where the notion that UA elites are not offered buy-ups came from. I am a 1K and practically for every one of my flights, even when I have an upgrade pending, I am always offered the option to buy up to a premium cabin. The option is always there and it usually gets cheaper closer to departure. In fact, for my May flight to SIN and back, to avoid using 3 GPUs because I decided to include a stopover in HKG on the way back, I did buy up to BF from SIN to HKG for ~$300, then from HKG to ORD and finally to LGA, I used a GPU to get cabin upgrades…

  27. Good for UA.
    All airlines should do away w/ comp upgrades.
    If you want to fly up front, then pay for it w/ cash/miles.
    Tired of the front cabin being jam packed by comp upgraders and more tired of whiny little babies crying about their missed upgrades.

  28. As someone who has enjoyed hundreds of complimentary elite upgrades, I certainly miss the ability to buy cheap airline tickets and sit in first class. These days, I rarely clear the UA upgrade list as a 1K. That said, I struggle to think of any other business that gives away its best product to its lowest paying customers. It makes no business sense, What probably does make sense is to give very frequent customers some extra legroom, some free food and drink in coach, and first crack at stowing their carry-on luggage. That’s what UA currently does, and it seems pretty reasonable to me. It doesn’t earn UA my undying devotion — I fly other airlines when they’re more convenient or materially cheaper — but it does seem like a reasonable approach to keeping me happy. I’d certainly fly UA less if they gave me nothing. Seems like a win-win; under the old system, I won but the airline lost.

  29. Hell must have froze over, because I find myself nodding in violent agreement to an iahphx post!

    There’s no reason why airlines should give away their premium product for free when they can generate extra revenue from it. As long as elites are given the option to buy upgrades and do not, then I think they have no complaints when they don’t get free upgrades. Its not that their loyalty is worth $59- rather, there’s another customer willing to pay that $59, while they are not.

  30. My biggest beef, is if they pre-sell all of their F seats, what happens in IROPS. I have purchased F and because my inbound flight was delayed, missed the connection, and there was no flights where they could re-accommodate us in F.

  31. I only fly maybe 4 times per year, so elite status is a non-starter and airline loyalty means nothing to me (but it used to). Flying out of EWR it makes sense to have the U+explorer card, otherwise I throw my money at the airline with the most competitive first class fare.

  32. Oh dear, what a tiz elites get themselves into! Surprising as it my seem the airlines are – supposedly – in business to make money So what is wrong with any airline, not just United, in trying to actually sell vacant seats in a higher cabin, rather than giving away the seat to one of many elites, who appear to think an empty first class seat is theirs by rights. It would appear that many elites confuse ‘privilege’ with ‘rights’.
    Loyalty works both ways: United, et al is happy to upgrade the elite IF they have not sold all the seats in the cabin you crave.
    Can you truly be an elite if you’re one of 10 or more chasing 2 upgrades? Do the math and you’ll have answered the question.
    If it’s imperative to travel in First, then pay, it really is that simple.
    I shall now wait to be shouted down ☺ (FWIW and before the warriors start – I am an elite and either pay for the higher class of travel or book the appropriate reward, all with my own money!)

  33. I agree with those who have argued that airlines are in the business of making money and that it does make business sense for them to try to sell as many premium seats at they can before they consider giving any away as elite upgrades. In fact, that has always been my understanding of how elite upgrades work. Airlines have a statistical model, based on actual data for each route, that they use to estimate how many seats they are likely to sell in each cabin and how many would go unsold and can be given away as upgrades, sometimes weeks before departure. It based such a model that the GPU for my ICN-SFO flight on July 7 cleared at booking on May 28, i.e., more than 1 month before departure. By the same token, upgrades might not be available for other routes because prior data and the model indicate that premium seats could still be sold up to the departure date. Like I said, it all makes great business sense.

    However, for someone like @Gary, who believes in “confirmed” or “guaranteed” hotel room or airline seat upgrades [or other perks], when there really is no such thing, United trying to sell as many premium seat as they can, as they have for years, seems like a slap in the face that should make all their elites furious.


  34. 1st Class seat domestic is a lousy product on United – large seat and free non-premium cocktails, snack from a tray on almost every flight. I understand that they should see of they can sell the seats ahead of complimentary upgrades and I really don’t care if they upgrade me anymore (becoming rare anyway.

    However, what does piss me off is for United to issue me Global Premier Upgrades as my “big “reward” for flying over 100,000 miles with United and they do the same thing as above. Getting an international GPU upgrade is almost impossible. They don’t offer any inventory ahead of time, up-sell those seats and my GPUs expire unused unless I use them for a plane without lie-flat seats.

Leave a Reply

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