Operational Upgrades: How Can You Get a Free First Class Upgrade You Aren’t Entitled To?

The ultimate upgrade is the one you get for free. Here’s how to ask for and get a free upgrade from an airline when you aren’t entitled to one. And I’ll explain when the technique will — and won’t — work.

At hotels, elite status is just the entree and excuse, how you ask and act can matter a lot. So here’s how to ask for and get hotel upgrades.

The airlines though are much more structured. Most upgrades are sorted by algorithm. There are glitches in how the systems work, and sometimes you can jump the queue ::cough:: ::United:: ::US Airways:: ::cough:: but even then upgrades are going to be awarded almost all of the time to those customers with frequent flyer elite status based solely on upgrade priority and in the case of international upgrades to those willing to pay in miles or upgrade instruments — or with both domestic and international upgrades, with a cash buy up.

There’s one exception to all of this:

  • Where airline upgrades — including international upgrades — can be free, entirely apart from any sort of frequent flyer status.
  • Where your mojo can matter.

When Airlines Need to Give Out Free Upgrades

The most important thing to an airline on any given flight is getting that flight out as close to on-time as possible. Gate agents, as a general matter, are empowered to do what it takes to make that happen.

And sometimes airlines oversell coach, and have extra seats in premium cabins. In fact, the very existence of those empty seats up front allows airlines to keep selling coach (alongside business or first) even beyond the number of coach passengers they expect to show up.

When they have more coach passengers than coach seats, and empty premium seats, someone has to get moved up in order to fill the plane, not bump anyone (costly to the airline), and get the flight out.

The airline will clear the upgrade list, taking anyone willing to pay for the upgrades first, and they may sell upgrades at check-in too. The increasing prevalence of monetizing forward cabins with buy ups at check-in makes the situation of oversold coach and empty premium seats far less common than it used to be.

But once there are still people that need to be moved up, the airline will do what’s known as an operational upgrade. (They’re upgrading passengers for ‘operational’ — getting the flight out with the maximum number of passengers — reasons.)

Who Can Get an ‘Operational’ Upgrade?

These operational upgrades may be awarded based on status — an American Gold or Platinum member who didn’t request the upgrade on a domestic flight (didn’t want to use or buy 500 mile certificates), an elite member on any airline flying internationally (where the upgrade isn’t free).

But they aren’t always and may not have to be.

You’ve read the apocryphal stories about getting upgraded “because it’s our honeymoon.” This is the only occasion where this actually plays a factor — empty seats up front, oversold in back, someone needs to get upgraded and the gate agent simply has to ‘make it happen’ and close the flight.

So How Can You Increase Your Chances of a Free Operational Upgrade?

Having status, paying a high fare, you may be at the top of a list. And you may have more persuasion available to you. But these aren’t always necessary.

And this is the one time where how you dress can matter, or more generally how you present yourself because you’re hoping to persuade even subtly an agent to pick you over others.

The person I learned the most about how to approach travel from is frequent flyer forum member PremEx whom I haven’t seen many posts from over the past 7 years. But who contributed an example of how he positions himself for operational upgrades.

He suggests approaching your flight’s gate agent (when they are not busy or helping other passengers). Try to identify the one in charge at the gate if there’s more than one. Smile, place your boarding pass on the counter, and say:

Hi. I’m _____. I’m traveling with you in Economy today [insert mention of Full Fare if applicable] and I’ve got a nice aisle seat which I’m very happy with. But if at any time you should need my seat for any reason, I’d be more than happy if you wanted to move me up. I’ll be sitting right over there. Thanks!

You’re not flaunting your status and appearing as a “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” entitled jerk — they can see your status on your boarding pass.

The agent may say no. The flight could be full up front, or they may not be moving anyone up today. But things change. If they tell you it isn’t going to happen, thank them and mention that they can call on you if anything changes. People misconnect.

And you do want to stay visible, don’t pester or hound the agent but take a seat within their eyeline.

Don’t board early, either. They may be processing upgrades at the last minute and it’s a pain to come onboard and get you. They may skip over elites because they’ve already boarded, the simplest and quickest thing may just be handing you that boarding pass if you’re right in front of them.

That means you don’t go to the club. Maybe they’ll page you in the club, but probably they won’t.

And as rare as these upgrades are, they’re even more rare if you need more than one seat.

This won’t happen often, don’t count on it. I don’t suggest picking flights that are traditionally heavily sold in coach and light up front on the expectation of an upgrade. But it cannot hurt to ask.

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. I’ve had good experience, although only a few successes, over the years with this approach. Dress nice, be super polite and not a pest. The only big fail I’ve run into on this was one time with a Delta gate agent where I didn’t have any status and she said to me that she could but since I didn’t have any status she wouldn’t be able to allow it at all no matter what. So I just went on my way and thanked her. No harm in asking is my motto.

  2. I have always tried this approach, with the addition of offering my seat up during check in and to any airline rep who would listen (you never know!). It has never worked for me. my last flight to Germany was the first flight with my 8 month old son. The gate agent told me (in a nice way) they would never bump someone up with a small child, which I believe and understand so I probably won’t bother again for a while.

  3. I have received a total one op up, on the late IAD-FRA UA flights. Lots of folks had misconnected on the early evening bunch of TATL flights, and were rebooked onto IAD-FRA-original destination. Y got filled up, and as a then-1K, i was surprised with an op up, but I believe the gate agent had no discretion to choose me in particular.

  4. Wordy, wordy, wordy. Oh well.

    And, you say: “People misconnect.” Wouldn’t that lessen the chances of an operational upgrade? If the flight is oversold in coach but people misconnect, GAs won’t need to move people upfront. What am I missing?

  5. I was once on a UA IAD-FRA flight that was delayed because the entertainment system in first class was malfunctioning. We were delayed over an hour while an engineer from Panasonic(?) was called out to repair the system. I offered to swap my economy seat and its working entertainment system with anyone in first class who wanted it so we could leave on time, but there weren’t any takers.

  6. Back in the 1990’s, I was operationally upgraded on UA between the US and Europe about 30% of the time (this was back in the days before SWU’s and similar instruments; I was only a Premier or PremEx at the time). But it hasn’t happened for many, many moons.

  7. @Gary – hmm…I thought a point of the post is that operational upgrades happen because coach is oversold but business/first have empty seats so the GA will upgrade to solve the problem (and the GA will try to do it fast to get the flight out on time).

    But, when you say “People misconnect” you are saying that operational upgrades can happen if coach is oversold AND business/first are full but premium cabin customers misconnect? I guess…but, not a scenario described by you anywhere in the post.

    It’s amazing you can use so many words in this post but not fully flesh out one of your scenarios (thereby causing the reader to have to make the leap on his own).

  8. @mark yes they happen generally when coach is oversold and business not. but it’s conceivable that coach is oversold and business booked to capacity, someone no shows, you get bumped up and they can get one more passenger on. you’re saying you want even LONGER posts??

  9. Back in the day, this was known as “The Speech”. Kind of gone the way of the Dodo now that unlimited elite upgrades are part of most domestic programs. Primarily used on international flights these days where upgrade instruments are a lot harder to come by.

  10. I’d imagine that this is the type of post gate agents absolutely hate. They seem busy enough and the last thing they need is people “asking nicely” for an upgrade.

    Ultimately if they are going to op up PAX they are going to go through their normal upgrading procedure. Status and/or fare class (or whatever the airline uses). I recently got op-up’ed twice on a trip from Toronto to LGA even though I booked a super cheap fare. Didn’t happen because I asked nicely, but happened because I am a top tier in my airline’s loyalty program.

  11. Got an op-up for 3 seats (6 total in reservation) on AA for CUN-JFK back in Dec. Had asked on the way out at JFK and was told no way as a complementary upgrade. Did not even ask on the return but must have been top ranking elite (PLT) on the flight. There was a 4th seat open in F but they did not give it to me, they must have only needed 3 seats in back.

    I wasn’t going to complain, I wasn’t going to waste 5x 500m certs on the trip, was in MCE with family next to me. Gave upgrades to my parents and my sister.

  12. Getting an upgrade you are not eligible for can be a slam dunk if you know the gate agent.

  13. The fact that these “operational” upgrades even exist is a testament to nonsense and greed. If there are “any” available upgrades and there are elite members who have paid the airline thereby providing the revenue needed to continue their “operations”. Then all operational upgrades should go to those in order of elite status. I’m perfectly fine with the odd “somebody” gets lucky system but to force elites to buy upgrades while giving them out randomly from the desk in situations like this creates a very definite tension between gate agents and elite members that doesn’t need to exist. That’s totally uncool. Plenty of supposed elites can’t even find ways to use their SWU’s and have to argue over which flights are eligible. This is just some flat out dumbness but what else is new from our BK playas.

  14. Gate agents shouldn’t be empowered to give out upgrades that people aren’t eligible for. The upgrade system should work to give those upgrades out to elites in order. Elites have supposedly earned the right to an upgrade. Yet another idiotic move in an ever growing dumb industry.

  15. Think about this. You’ve created a “loyalty’ incentive program that’s decide to increase incremental revenue from customers based upon how often they choose to buy your product, and then you’re deliberately rewarding people who do not participate in your revenue increasing scheme. So then those people are of course going to tell the next group of people to never ever trust what you say and absolutely refuse to give you any incremental revenue whatsoever, and then in turn you “as an industry” are going to take every available opportunity to complain about this or that with articles like ” What your flight attendant really thinks of you” and why “pilots” are walking away from this or that contract.

    People don’t like this industry for a specific reason. You’re childish.

  16. In the 90’s, I flew a lot of IAD-SFO/LAX trips, when UA often used DC10’s and 747’s on those routes. There was capacity, and I was pretty familiar with a number of the gate agents. Getting upgraded then was not difficult. Today is a very different story. Smaller aircraft and higher loads make it very difficult to get an operational upgrade, not to mention the stress levels of gate agents. However, being polite and treating people well will still serve anyone seeking an upgrade well.

  17. I have gotten a lot of domestic operational upgrades in the past – without ever asking. However, I can’t recall any this millennium. Back in the 70’s, before frequent flyer programs, I got them as a military officer. I got some in the 80’s and 90’s as an elite frequent flyer. I don’t expect to ever see one again.

  18. The 2nd time was years ago when our (two pax) UA flight SPI-ORD was very delayed with a mechanical. We missed our connection ORD-SMF, a problem due to a business commitment the next am. I remained calm & asked the customer service agent @ ORD to get me anywhere west of the Rockies that night, so I’d have the best chance of getting to my car @ SMF in the am. As she was typing I casually mentioned that “sitting up front sure would take some of the sting off of this crappy day.” She stated that she’d put us on standby on two flights & directed us to the gate for the 1st. We were happy to hear our names called by the gate agent for clearing standby. We were ecstatic when he swapped out our ticket folders for a new color. The plane was three class equipment heading ORD-SFO-Asia. We’d been bumped to int’l business class with angled flat seats :).

    The 1st time was on the old TWA SMF-STL the day before Thanksgiving, first flight out in the am (two pax). I’ve asked for a complimentary upgrade on every flight taken as an adult, domestic & int’l. This time the agent said “Sure, why not. It’s a holiday.”

  19. As an AA exp, I got upgraded on a CX flight BOS-HKG from PE to J because of overbooking. Totally worth it for that 16-hour flight! I guess CX elites don’t fly on Saturdays at 2am that often

  20. I got an op up into Club World from WT+ a few years ago. I think it may have had to do that I’d purchased an exit row seat for $83. Also included fast track security and lounge access.

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