United: How Often Your Upgrade Clears Influences How Often Your Upgrade Clears

A year ago United introduced free domestic first class upgrades farther in advance, and free international business to first upgrades to high value customers.

But here’s something I didn’t know about — the number of flights in a row that a 1K misses an upgrade can influence their upgrade priority on an upcoming trip.

According to this interview with Tom O’Toole (HT: Cranky Flier):

The most valued benefit of being a Premier member of MileagePlus for many people is the complimentary upgrade. The availability of complimentary upgrades on a given flight is a function of the bookings on that particular flight and the resultant seat availability in the front cabin. It sometimes happens, just by circumstances, that a 1K member can have an extended series of flights without a complimentary upgrade. This can put us at increasing risk of losing a high-value customer.

Now, we track if an individual has had a run of X number of flights in a row and their upgrade never cleared. We can then automatically override the algorithm and intervene to be sure that the individual gets upgraded. This has been proven to result in a measurable business gain.

Does anyone know about how this is implemented in practice?

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 would make me crazy. It is no wounder UA is in such a mess. At least with Delta we know the rules and can follow them. This kind of airline SHENA is just not OK. IE what about the person who did all the things to be top of the list and yet is bumped down due to UA just giving it to someone just cuz!

  2. Do you realize the lack of sense in the title of your article? “How often your upgrade clears influences how often your upgrade clears”. It is like saying “how you swim influences how you swim”. What about “How often your upgrade HAS clearED influences whether your NEXT upgrade WILL clear”. Just saying…

  3. JD – I’m sure he quite well understands it…while your suggestion is technically more correct, it’s also more boring

  4. mmmh — I have yet to see a single datapoint of this happening. Maybe for Global Services, but for 1ks? I rarely get a complimentary upgrade – maybe once a year? and when I get it, it’s always on flights with no elites, so I don’t think it’s due to them bending the rules. Usually I buy up to first class at check-in, or use certificates.
    Thats’ not to say that they don’t sometimes bend the rules in other good ways (waving change fees very occasionally, opening up saver award availability for me, extending upgrade certificate expiration dates…)
    UA 1k is a great status to have – I wouldn’t trade it for delta diamond or AA Exec-Plus…

  5. ” I rarely get a complimentary upgrade – maybe once a year? and when I get it, it’s always on flights with no elites, so I don’t think it’s due to them bending the rules. UA 1k is a great status to have – I wouldn’t trade it for delta diamond or AA Exec-Plus”

    UMM OK as a EXP I have missed 2 out of 75 upgrades this year, not sure why you think 1K is so much better.

  6. Yup, my AA Plat UG percentage is always better than my UA 1K one. And I don’t think that’s uncommon.

  7. Well, it doesn’t seem like they’ve overridden any algorithms for me. When my 1K upgrades clear, it’s at the gate after they’ve tried as hard as possible to sell somebody my upgrade. 🙂

    That said, they do seem to be trying to “profile” and assist their 1Ks. Last week in Chicago, they met me at my gate with a Mercedes and drove me to my connection. It was silly, though, because I had more than an hour to make my flight and I just wanted to go to the lounge (where I then had a “service failure”: I had to wait in line to get into the lounge because they’ve got a bunch closed and now don’t have enough capacity). The driver knew I’d been a 1K (or equivalent) for a long time.

    Overall, I do think it’s nice (and a good business practice) to eyeball my profile and try to give me a few frills. I remember a few years ago (before some recent improvements) thinking: “Jeez, if this is the service I get as a 1K, I can only imagine how they treat regular customers.”

  8. It soooo depends on where you are going and how many other elites are on the flight. I was traveling to ORD from Tokyo last year, and the size of the line for Group 1 was greater than all other groups combined. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there are a lot of business folks on a flight like that. Compare that with an early Tuesday morning flight from Milwaukee to Cleveland — I’m the only person in Group 1.
    I simply accept the fact that the seat that I purchased is likely to be the seat I get, and cherish the occasional upgrade.

  9. This is merely anecdotal, but I’m a 1K and I’ve suspected this happening before. I generally am on the same runs each week fod an extended period and so I have the opportunity to observe my upgrade behavior in the same route and times over several months. While I obviously don’t know for sure, I’d say that I think this happens when it’s been awhile since I recieved an upgrade (maybe if it’s been a month ish?).

    And while I don’t have a ton of evidence to the contrary, I’d say my upgrade opportunity as a 1k is significantly better than it is as a AA Platinum. I recieved an offer for instant status at this level and some 500 upgrade certs with the opportunity to keep it through Jan 2018 if I flew a defined number of miles in the next 90 days. Since I already had reupped at 1k, I decided I would try it since I’d never had status with AA. I’ve been flying essentially the same route and have tried varying my departure times, connections, even days, everything and I haven’t even sniffed an upgrade as an AA Platinum yet, (best I’ve gotten was mid-teens on the upgrade list). As a 1k on the same route, I’d say I’m upgraded about 50% of the time. So again, this is just my experience but I’d say my upgrade opportunity on the same route flying into the same city (LAX) with different airlines, albeit at different levels (1K vs AA Plat), is noticeably different.

  10. Will hit 1k this year. Everytime fly DL out of Cincinnati, it’s smallest “hub” I have a flight with over half the plane is platinum or higher and a ton of them don’t even get comfort+. Even as a UA gold I always get a better seat than I payed for and am about 50/50 for upgrades up front as a platinum for mostly short hauls out of Chicago.

  11. Nice in theory, must be new as I never saw this when I was 1K. Maybe 20% cleared at most, vs. almost 100% as EXP.
    So I think this falls in the “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

  12. Sounds like publicity stunt … I get upgraded with AA exec platinum 75% of the time and about 5% with my united 1k … the united philosophy of offering a $50 upgrade to a total stranger at check in, rather than a 1k customer is standard SOP at united … even though I fly from a united hub … I always give preference to buying an AA ticket

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