How Many Domestic First Class Seats Are Actually Sold, Versus Left Over for Upgrades?

A decade ago conventional wisdom was that 10% of domestic first class seats were occupied by passengers on paid first class tickets.

Airlines used to charge sky high rates for first, didn’t really discount (other than through certain corporate agreements), and as a result they’d sell a few seats but most would be empty — and filled with upgraders, awards, and in the era before unlimited complimentary upgrades, employees.

When Alaska Airlines contemplated abolishing their first class cabin entirely, they ultimately decided to keep it to differentiate themselves among frequent flyers but determined they needed to earn a revenue premium for it.

Carriers started restricting the fare classes eligible for upgrades (Delta has for over a decade required a minimum fare domestically to use miles to upgrade if you aren’t elite) or adding a cash co-pay in addition to miles. United charges it only to non-elites, American and now US Airways even to elite frequent flyers.

And the airlines started selling first class seats at a lower multiple relative to coach. Instead of, say, 8x you can often buy first class for less than double. On a $300 roundtrip between DC and Miami I’ll frequently see certain flights available on American for ~ $550 in first class. This is restricted inventory, not last seat availability, but there’s no waiting out the upgrade game.

Of course carriers also sell cheap buy ups on day of departure, United flyers know this as upgrades for ‘Tens of Dollars’. But those are upgrades. The outright sale of first class at booking has been on the rise as first class has been priced more reasonably.

Brian Sumers updates on what that’s meant at Delta.

  • In 2011, 31% of domestic first class passengers have paid to be there
  • In 2012, 36% of domestic first class passengers have paid to be there
  • In 2013, 40% of domestic first class passengers have paid to be there
  • This year it’s about 45%

Delta’s goal for 2015 is to have half of their domestic first class seats occupied by people paying to be in first. Note that this includes post-purchase upsells but the point remains that they’re clearly monetizing the cabin.

As air travel has risen, there are more elites (although Delta is thinning out their ranks) and more competition for upgrades.

But the increase in discounted first class fares also means far fewer seats available for upgrade.

That’s one of the key reasons why domestic upgrades are becoming harder to get. And why you need to plan ahead so that you can fly up front every time.

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. As a casual flyer, I enjoy this policy, having splurged on a few flights myself. Discounted paid F is a win win for both consumer and airline. Unless you are on business travel paid by employer, no point to be loyal anymore.

  2. How many seats are the in an average Delta FC cabin today compared to 2011? That will impact how meaningful Delta’s ‘improving’ numbers are. I genuinely have no idea (hence the question) but if they’ve been reducing the number of FC seats then that changes how one views the figures.

  3. Is Delta the only domestic airline that has the target goal of 50% paid first class passengers? Or United and AA/US as well?

  4. Any thoughts on international? A friend of mine thinks that almost all (except one or two seats) on international are upgrades or airline employees.

  5. This is long overdue. It used to be that I’d see prices like $400 for coach and $2200 for first on a four-hour flight. Who would do that? Nowadays, it’s me, because the price difference is often small. Especially if you’re booking close to departure, you might see $700 for coach and $1000 for first. It’s still not strictly speaking “worth it,” but it’s far easier to justify.

  6. I love buy-ups <24 hrs OLCI because I usually fly 2 segments on a particular airline; one a very VERY short hop, which then xfers through a major international airport. More than once I have been offered the last minute buy-up on the first segment for $35–which is fabulous, because then I get to send my bags through for free (normally $25), so the total cost for me to sit in front is $10-.

    I did this for my daughter who was flying to a Caribbean island for a 6-month job stint, and she needed to bring 2 full-size suitcases. Again, to fly up front it was $35- for the first (domestic) leg–but she checked her 2 bags through for free to the final destination.

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