Starting Today United Will Hold Back More First Class Seats To Sell At Check-In

Effective today United Airlines plans to stop offering some seats that used to be available for upgrade to members of their MileagePlus program, holding those back to sell to infrequent customers at check-in instead. This helps the airline generate extra short term cash now as they prepare for a drop in revenue of as much as 70%.

United Airlines has a long history of selling upgrades at check-in to passengers who aren’t frequent flyers, bypassing upgrades for their elite MileagePlus members. This practice isn’t new. In fact these upgrades have become known as “TODs” because they’re sold for ‘tens of dollars’. I’ve seen United sell upgrades for as little as $59, even pointing out the number of frequent flyers waiting for a complimentary upgrade as part of the sales pitch.

Now it seems that with bookings down, United is going to increase the number of seats they hold back for sale at check-in. According to an internal United document that I reviewed,

Change coming to upgrade seat inventory for sale at check-in
Starting March 13, we will be increasing the number of upgrade seats we hold to increase availability for sale at check-in. This will be a trial in which we will measure CSAT and revenue performance by having more seat upgrades available to offer at check-in. By increasing the number of available seats, we provide the opportunity for more customers who would like to purchase an upgrade at time of check in.


United Airlines Domestic First Class

The total number of upgrades may still stay the same or even go up with this change. While the number of seats the airline withholds from being available as upgrades is increasing, there are fewer seats being sold in this environment. Without knowing the exact new formula it’s impossible to say they won’t be delivering upgrades at least as often as before.

Indeed, confirming the change, a United spokesperson offers:

We often clear upgrades before members arrive at the airport. We clear the balance at the gate, and until then, always hold some seats for a number of reasons – including operational issues like allowing for aircraft changes, ensuring we can offer these seats to Premiers that want to change flights at the last minute, and to accommodate members that purchase last minute revenue or award tickets. Given the precipitous drop in paid demand due to COVID-19, this month our number of upgrades are up and this change maintains the availability of seats for upgrades before arrival at the airport vs at the gate.

Based on the internal explanation it seems the airline wants to monetize the drop in first class sales rather than making those additional empty seats up front available to elites. Like deciding not to honor refunds when they make major changes to a passenger’s schedule the priority at this point is capturing revenue. Don’t expect the lack of first class seats sold to be as good for upgrades at United as you might have thought.


United Airlines Domestic First Class

By contrast the American Airlines practice has been not to sell upgrades at check-in at all until it appeared that all upgrade requests would be able to be accommodated. As a result, while United’s practice is to sell upgrades at check-in on most flights, at American these only represent 5.6% of upgrades. So unless American has a change in policy elites will fare better on their upgrades before with American.

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. This is a great opportunity for airlines to unload the liabilities on their books with frequent flyer miles by just eliminating the program.

  2. Another way for United to screw it’s loyalty program members.
    Scott Kirby will make sure this temporary change is permanent.
    Thumbs down.

  3. I will say that UA’s policy on this, I think, got a me a job once upon a time.

    Due to scheduling constraints, I needed to take a redeye SFO-JFK flight for a job interview. I was booked into E+ on one of UA’s PS 757s. When I checked in, I was offered an upgrade to C for $149. I entered my cc number as quick as I could. Being able to lie flat and sleep, arriving in NY rested and ready, I think, made all the difference in getting the job.

    But, I’ll also say that I’ve never been a UA elite for a reason.

  4. United is as short sighted as they come. Kirby is single handily destroying the brand. So sad to see. On the other hand I can understand why they need to push revenue right now. On the other hand. Why piss off all the elites you are requiring to spend to much tome to earn status just to sell the seat cheap from under them ? Seems like it’s a desperate move and rather stupid.

  5. Other than the past week, this frankly is how UA has been operating for several years now

  6. This won’t be a popular opinion but I don’t think unlimited upgrades should be offered. Give a few to each status level (increasing with the level) and allow a couple to be applied at ticket purchase (i.e., give some guaranteed upgrades).

    As much as people think loyalty programs really keep someone flying a certain airline, the reality is that prices, schedule and convenience are the main drivers. Sure someone may try to fly a bit more to attain a status but it isn’t enough to give away the revenue they are. And with a few guaranteed upgrades that may pacify a few. I know when I had status it was always checking and wondering if you were going to be upgraded (I had various levels of status over the years from the top to the bottom). I found it better if I simply bought the seat I wanted and got my upgrade by buying it, or had no chance because I had no status.

    For all the rants of various airlines, people go flocking back to them because they really have limited choice. A few have collected a lot of goodwill (e.g., Southwest) by generally doing the right thing but most are interchangeable over the decades.

  7. I dont think anybody here really understands how dire the situation is for United and for all airlines. They’re literally trying to survive because all the business has dried up/ is drying up.

  8. @jason, yeah it is rough and I have sympathy for employees but in life you need to have an emergency fund and plan for bad times and not just count on endless profits rolling in. You can’t count (well you shouldn’t be able to) on bailouts everytime something bad happens.

    Except for the lowest earners, everyone needs to have an emergency fund of 6-12 months in case of job losses or other disaster. This should be true of all businesses. If you cut it close to the edge, well then you are going to get burned and management should be thrown out and replaced with people who know how to run a business.

    And sometimes in order for a business to survive everyone has to take a cut until things recover. After 2008 one guy was telling me his company had two options – get rid of people or get everyone agree to take a 20% cut. They agreed to the cut and survived and eventually made the money back.

    And the situation is even more dire for people that are sick and/or dying.

  9. In the current circumstances, this seems entirely sensible. The need for cash is paramount.

    But in summer and fall, they will need to reach out to those elites they’ve driven away – as they could well be the key to rebuilding the shattered business.

  10. Lol, ok, so hold back an upgrade from a biz traveler flying expensive full fare or flexible Y so you can sell it out from under them for tens of dollars to a leisure traveler on a bottom-of-barrel fare. Then the biz guy walks away and net revenue drops. Makes perfect sense.

  11. I’d say they need cash, but they need loyalty more than anything. They seem to be on a mission (much like AA has done) with punishing their best customers. Companies NEED loyalty now more than ever.

    As for doing short term cuts to save cash is that companies get too used to it and those changes never stay short term and become permanent. UA is clearly short-sighted and looking at the next dollar exclusively.

    I’d gesture to say that at least a good portion of this is self-induced. If they would have a better product with more loyal customer base that could actually trust them, they may be in a better situation. But their actions as of late have greatly helped them get into the situation they are in.

  12. As a silver via Marriott Who doesn’t check bags this encourages me not to enter my MP number until after the flight. Having been CK with AA and Platinum now with Delta airlines should realize what this does. I would at least like the offer of “pay $50 or stay on free list”

  13. Normally when the airlines are on the ropes they offer better deals through their FF programs.
    Do you remember when free upgrades started? Eastern Airlines, after the machinists went out on strike. They were the first to have an F cabin with 24 first class seats on a 757. I remember one of those flights when a captain came out and shook everybody’s hand in the front cabin and thanked them for flying.

    This kind of gratitude is unknown at Kirby’s United.

  14. @Kevin: “I would at least like the offer of ‘pay $50 or stay on free list'”

    You do get an offer. Not sure if non-elites get a lower dollar value offer but you can always pay to confirm an upgrade. But despite tales of $59 upgrades that is only for DFW-IAH shuttle flights and the like. Mostly it’s $149+ depending on how many open seats are left.

    Maybe my rose-colored glasses haven’t cracked yet but it’s my first year as a 1K and I’m at like 90% upgrade success (2 flights where I did not upgrade). This does include 3 flights so far where I’ve used PlusPoints in the 24-48 hour departure window to jump to the front of the line when I saw I wasn’t going to make it.

  15. I love watching first class PASSANGERS wipe down seats and trays and everything they see with sanitize wipe then still accept a meal on a tray that was touched by the kitchen. Then catering and finally your flight attendant with no worries. Be worried we don’t have hand sanitizer because crazy people bought it all. Just saying.

  16. So whiners expect United to give away premium seats when they are hemorrhaging money so a few can upgrade economy tickets?!? Who are the real ingrates in this instance?

  17. So a virus that kills old people huh? What about a virus that kills off rich people? Something good for the society and for the people. I await an age of humanity where viruses do good for us.

  18. Is this Kirby fellow related to Doug Parker ?
    Stick it to the fools who fly the airline loyally!

  19. Longtime United 1K member here. I was a Continental (miss them) platinum before then. I spend $30-50k per year with United…in Houston that’s nowhere near Global Services qualifying however, understandably so. This change has me furious. I’ve personally loved United weeding people out of their status levels, there were way too many 1ks and way too many platinums, making those status all but worthless.
    I’m preparing to go on vacation tomorrow and have used plus points to request upgrades to first for my family of 4. It’s a 767 so first is huge. 90% of it was empty until today, the day of check in. We still aren’t cleared, instead the dick wads are asking $179 per person to upgrade. It’s the damn day of and they still won’t upgrade me. Even more frustrating is I paid cash thinking we’d be upgraded with the plus points, instead of using miles for the trip. Absolutely ridiculous.

    The big problem is, United is hands down the best domestic airlines, and that’s not saying much. Living in Houston, it’s also has the best routes. Fortunately, revenge is a dish best served cold. If anything ever comes up and poses a threat to United I will jump ship in a heartbeat. At the very least, I’m finished being a slave to United and chasing status. I’ll be using whatever airlines I need given where I’m traveling, no more Star Alliance loyalty. Shame on them.

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