United Airlines Will Start Giving Customer Upgrade Seats To Pilots Instead

JP Morgan’s Jamie Baker writes in an investor note that the deal United Airlines struck with its pilots union to avoid 3000 furloughs includes giving the pilots first class seats that might have gone to customers as upgrades.

Pilots also achieved permanent, positive-space First Class deadheads, with stand-by eligibility before paying passengers, addressing a union goal dating back at least a decade (and effectively representing a devaluation of frequent flyer Elite benefits that travel bloggers haven’t picked up on ‒ yet)

United pilots got tightened scope restrictions (limits on United Express flying) and a wage increase when the airline returns to profitability in exchange for reducing pilot minimum hours. This way United can keep more pilots on the job and reduce retraining expenses. But it’s the positive space first class deadheading that means fewer first class seats available for customers.

In the near-term this shouldn’t be much of an issue. Premium cabin demand is low enough that as long as United maintains the size of its forward cabins upgrades should be easier than they used to be for a little while. Over time though this means pilots do trump passengers, and that’s not good for passengers who are last in line – elites looking to upgrade.

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. The heck with those mere plebeian paying passengers
    It has to be United personnel first!When will all the little people understand that?

  2. FC exists to realize revenue. If it becomes employee class they will just shrink it. Here comes another row of Y.

  3. Let’s not forget the good old days of “employee class” on United circa late 90s/early 2000s (before bankruptcy)

  4. THIS is one of many reasons why then can pound sand when asking for billions more in taxpayer money.

  5. As @DWT states, Deju vu. When the LUA pilots were owners, they got it written into their ownership agreement so that they got priority F seats ahead of us hi yield paying passengers. If I recall, LUA went into BK shortly thereafter and the pilots had their equity and their F seat guarantees wiped out.

    Pretty amazing chutzpah in a time when they have a need for high yield passengers!

  6. If it’s only for deadheading, I suppose I’m not quite as troubled by it at the moment, but time will have to tell. If they have priority when commuting, I’d be much more concerned.

  7. Another difference between CO pilots and UA pilots. CO pilots knew who wrote their paychecks!

  8. As a pilot who deadheads and travels for work… why can’t I compete for 1st class as well? Why should we not get to travel to work in comfort? Just like your employer pays for your ticket, our employer is covering the cost of our travel, even though our employer is also the carrier. Pilots work long days…long TIRING days. Deadheading 4 hours then flying passengers for 6-8. Why should we not be sitting in 1st class as well? You want your captain sitting middle seat in the back then flying you around blizzards and landing in gusty 30 knot crosswinds right after? Think about it….

  9. You buried the lede Gary. The news here isn’t the deadheading upgrades. It’s scope changes. Scott Kirby has been saying publicly for the past couple years that United needed scope relief. Now he’s done a complete 180 on scope and tightened it up even more…thus making it even harder to undo. That is bigger news for the airline’s future than upgrades…

  10. Second what Greg said. Commuting and personal non-revving are the real worries for us, deadheading not so much. Amazingly, I believe they can fudge the reason they are flying, or at least they can on ID90, which seems absurd to me, but that could be a real pain for paying custumers if they start fudging their reason for travel.

  11. I take back what I said a few minutes ago. Gary’s post didn’t indicate that the scope restrictions are temporary, which apparently they are. So the scope battle will live to see another day I guess…

  12. @Ryan, can show me a schedule where you DH 4h then fly passengers for 8h in the same day?

    If this does happen, your airline need a new pairing optimizer and/or re-balance their bases.

  13. This provision is ONLY for deadheads and cannot be abused. It only applies to flights that the company schedules for its pilots as positive space when the company needs to reposition the pilot to work a flight. It does not apply for a pilot commuting from home to his base or from base back to home. This type of flight is called space available flying and is not being changed. With a SA flight, the pilot only gets an empty First seat after all revenue passengers, who are eligible are upgraded. After revenue upgrades, the pilot would still have to compete with all other employees based on company seniority.

  14. Ryan,
    YOU foolishly made a choice to not live in a city where your pilot base is located. Therefore you need to deal w/the trials & tribulations of getting to/from work & if sitting in Economy is the way to go, then so be it.

  15. David,

    Deadheading is not commuting. Let’s say they are based in EWR, but are needed to fly a flight from STL to EWR. They would Deadhead to STL and then work the flight back to EWR.

  16. @texasoilfields, everything you said is wrong. And if you’re flying on an ID90, you’re flying on another airline. You really shouldn’t just state things when you don’t seem to have any knowledge of how it works. Also, I’m sorry to hear now you might be #43 on the upgrade list for 2 available seats instead of #41. Maybe you should just buy a first class seat if its that important.

  17. @David – what Ryan is referring to is company requesting the pilot to reposition from base or wherever in order to operate another flight, not commuting. However….

    @Ryan Do you agree, then, pilot does not really need that first class seat to deadhead back to base, since they are not working after traveling?

  18. @Ryan I can’t tell if you’re disagreeing with me or not. I’ll be clear with my concerns. I don’t have a problem if UA puts you in F in front of me while they’re paying for you to be positioned to fly a flight, i.e., you’re deadheading. I agree that you need to be fresh.

    Where I have a big problem is if a pilot bumps ahead of me as a 1K for an upgrade when the pilot is not on duty and just commuting or going to HNL for the weekend. As @David said, your choice to commute is yours and I shouldn’t be bumped from a seat that would otherwise be mine to upgrade into if you’re not paying a normal revenue fare.

  19. Did pilots upgrade their ability to get 1st class? Yes, but it’s limited, and ONLY for deadhead, NOT commuting! In other words, only when being moved/repositioned to work a specific flight. Not if said pilot lives in say Denver but is based out of and commutes to San Fran. That’s non-rev/standby, not deadhead. Probably 80%+ crew you see on the plane is commuting, not deadheading.

    The limitations of the deadhead first class in the new agreement are that it’s only if it’s available at time of deadhead booking, and it’s doesn’t apply if within 3 hours of departure… 50%+ of deadheads are inside of 3 hours, since they’re repositioning an available crew to cover another flight that lost a crew member/aircraft due to weather or some other scheduling conflict.

    Re: Texasoilfields, you’re wrong. Employees cannot “fudge” reason for travel for Deadheading purposes. These (deadhead) are booked by the company schedulers, and pilots have no ability to edit/adjust this type of bookings. You are thinking of non-rev/space available bookings, which the employee does book themselves and selects their type of travel, but these are not priority standby or upgrade over paying passengers! They would only be screwing over other employees or other airline employee (ID90) standbys!

  20. @greg, this Whole subject has nothing to do with personal travel or pilot commuting!! Only when the company is positioning/repositioning a pilot to work a specific flight outside of their domicile! NO employee ever has priority for seats or upgrade over an paying passenger when traveling for personal reason, except in some cases on a vacation pass, which is not different than previous. This agreement only changed Deadheading priority.

  21. @Greg,

    What you’re describing at the end is a commute, not a Deadhead, which, by definition, is duty. Any pilot commuting will have to use their nonrev benefits and be behind all revenue upgrades.

  22. Pilots will only get FC when they are deadheading. IE repositioning for an assignment. They will not get FC while commuting or non-revving to Maui unless there is a seat empty. Maybe some of you self proclaimed ” elites ” should actually pay for a First Class seat if that’s what you actually want. Just like your own business operates.

  23. It doesn’t bother me that I’m sitting in economy for DH or commuting, but for the people saying I foolishly decided not to live at base is an ass thing to say. You have no idea why people can’t live in certain areas, families being a huge factor. My wife has 50/50 custody and we can’t leave this area, I’m also still serving in the military and my unit is where I live. I also don’t make enough to live in the high dollar areas where domiciles are located.

  24. Another poorly conceived Kirby move. Customers lose again. You have to give the guy props for consistency anyway I suppose but isn’t the whole idea of an airline to make it so that customers actually choose you over the competition, thereby earning you profit? I guess Kirby missed that part.

  25. Minor price to pay instead of laying of pilots for gain of payroll savings.
    The retraining cost to obtain their
    Their licensing requirements is higher if they are layed off coming back into the company vs. Keeping the pilots current .and employed.. Before the covid 19 came into play the airlines were faced with a shortage of pilots after the next levels of retirements happened.

  26. @Ryan – I read your post and tried to understand your position. After reading it twice, I have to say that you are seriously disconnected from your customers and what is going on in the world in general. My take away for your comments is that you are too good or feel your are above customers to not not sit in your product in economy. Wow.

    Please allow me to give you some context, I have been global services for over a decade. That said, my company has a policy of economy class regardless of origin/destination because we want to pass that savings on to our customers. Yes, you fly through weather safely which I am thankful. You were trained for that and when you land, your work is done. What you need to keep in mind after your 6-8 hour day is that most of your PAX depart the plane and go TO work upon arrival (assuming it ever arrives on time and I have hundreds of screen shots from your mobile app showing delays not for weather related issues).

    My advice is that sitting in economy with your customers is a great thing to help your organization. Sit with your customers and engage them about their experience. Perhaps that will give you first hand “voice of the customer” and you can make positive change. Did you think of that?

    You should consider not biting the hand that feeds you or at a minimum keeping your selfish opinions to yourself? Just saying. Oh, and your employer covering the cost of your travel is complete crap. That plane would fly from EWR to LAX regardless of you being on it or not. It’s a benefit. Should my employer pay for my car, gas, and parking every day when I go to work based on your initial logic?

  27. Your crybaby article demands a comment. As others here have pointed out, this is for DEADHEADING purposes ONLY. Now consider that deadheading makes up only a small percentage of any average pilot’s duty time (and yes, deadheading is considered “on-duty”). Sometimes these deadheads are scheduled, sometimes they are not, but it is not common either way. Now, multiply that rarity by the number of pilots on duty on any given day, and think about how many flights are operating on any given day. Do you still think your little tantrum, including smearing United Airlines, is valid?

  28. Man what a bunch of grown men and woman just talking nothing that they know about!!!
    With out going in to details
    With many other factors and negotiation.
    Bottom line it’s called perks for working with an airline.
    People get over yourself the world does not evolve around your pitty , selfish, crying and your self centered commitments.
    Wow !!!

  29. How do American and Delta handle this situation? I don’t even have to ask about Southwest….

  30. Passengers stopped buy the seats. The pilots bought the seats with the money they gave up in their contract. The company can buy the seats back from the pilots in the future if they decide to do so.

  31. It used to be the policy before bankruptcy. The policy only applies to working pilots traveling to operate a subsequent flight. Just like any other large corporation paying for it’s employees FC ticket. Cannot be “gamed” by a commuting pilot.

  32. Since this is deadheading only (despite the numerous comments that seem not to understand what deadheading even is), how often is this even relevant? My understanding is that they were previously entitled to upgrade instantly when space is available on 3-8 hour flights, and they were already guaranteed business on 8+ hour flights. If so, this change would only make a difference from the prior policy for 3-8 hour flights that were full in business but something opens up close to departure. Out of the 1,000’s of United flights/day under normal circumstances, how many of them are within the 3-8 hour time frame AND have a deadheading pilot AND were completely full in business at the time the pilot booked the flight AND have a seat open up for the waitlist? The average elite flyer may never lose an upgrade due to this. Even if so, as a 1K (former GS), if it helps improve the labor difficulties brought about by the pandemic, I’m all for it.

  33. Why are you guys so pretentious that you cannot sit in economy? My airline, my seat.. I knew UA should have never started GIVING away free upgrades. I am glad we are starting to get it back.

    BUY a seat in 1st if you want FC!

  34. How sad this is even a debate…..partially because it’s being taken out of context by so many.
    It’s deadheading pilots, period. Example…. when a pilot based in LAX has to be sent to ORD
    to pick up a trip to fly to MIA then the reservation they make for him will be in First rather then
    anywhere in coach. It’s only one or two seats we are talking about and yes it does mean your pilot will be better rested when when he sits down in the cockpit to fly you to your destination.
    Management routinely travels space positive First Class, they just don’t deplane and go straight to a job that if they screw up a a lot of people could die.

  35. someone mentioned SWA….they don’t have a first class option.
    They DID negotiate a 1 2 3 rule though, their layover hotels have a deal for the flight crews
    for one dollar beers, two dollar glasses of wine and three dollar mixed drinks, priorities I guess!

  36. Whether its only for deadheading or not seems irrelevant to me. How you can pyritize an employee over revenue paying passengers is bananas. It’s customers who have through their loyalty and dollars earned the first class seat. We live in a strange world where we are even discussing whether this makes any sense. But sadly, as the saying goes, common sense is no longer common.

  37. I never fly United or American. Not the most passenger friendly of airlines. Hardcore Delta fan, here.

  38. Well Ken you are right, in our country now anyone with a different point of view is an idiot.
    Used to be people with different perspectives could come together and create great ideas.
    We all know that’s not true now and we all know who is responsible for stirring that pot.
    I see what you are saying and my take just happens to be that this is no different than
    pilots getting a first class seat for long flights that require an extra pilot. They get a comfortable seat because the resting pilots comfort needs to be maximized for the overall safety of the flight. When the Captain comes back from his/her FAA required rest do you want him/her to have had a good rest or are you OK if potentially sat in coach crammed between two people and a baby before taking command of your safety?

  39. Many customers on planes have lost friends or family, lost their jobs, are flying because they are forced to commute or relocate to find jobs, etc. Everyone has been affected by this pandemic, not just airline employees.

    I have been the only paying customer in First Class many times over the last few months on both United and American, surrounded by upgraded Flight Attendants and Pilots who spent the entire flight complaining about how few segments, flights or days they get.

    Several of my flights were to visit family on respirators in an ICU, then return to take care of cremations and burials. Hearing airline employees in First Class complaining about their tough lives saddened me.

  40. American Airlines pilots are contractually guaranteed business class seats for international deadheads. If they are deadheading to work a trip, there will be at least a 24 hour layover before that work trip. If they are deadheading back to base, no work to follow. Full fare passengers will be downgraded to accommodate them.

  41. @ SB everything i said is wrong? I said: A) this shouldn’t matter so much, since it only concerns deadheading, and B) employees can fudge the reason for travel on ID90 (Ive witnessed it). I was merely speculating that it would be bad if it started happening when employees non-revved on their own airlines. It seems you cannot read, and send messages to strangers looking for fights. You are a weird sad man

  42. I’m with Greg. I want my pilots who are dead heading and potentially working a flight after landing to be rested and comfortable so they can fly me safely.

  43. It is inane as an argument that a deadheading pilot should get a first class seat so that the pilot is better rested, more relaxed, etc. to begin working the next segment. Is the next step to send a chauffeured limousine to their residence so that they arrive at the airport calm, cool, and collected? Where does the insanity stop?

    l disagree that deadheading pilots should be bumping revenue based passengers out of first class and there’s absolutely NO reason that could ever convince me otherwise. Customers should always be “first”.

    If the coach product isn’t sufficient for employees (pilots or otherwise), then modify it for everyone. Another nasty whiff of unwarranted privilege.

    If first class seats remain open after all revenue based passengers have been accommodated, then of course pilots and crews should (and often do) have priority.

  44. Ken
    I guess you didn’t get the memo.
    Working for the airlines does have its perks.
    Maybe your job doesn’t offer any perks.
    So sorry about that!!!

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