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How airlines decide who gets upgraded and what you can do to make it more likely to happen

Airlines say that they follow strict guidelines, choosing only loyal customers to reward, but some seasoned fliers say a big smile and a nice outfit can go a long way towards better food, service and legroom

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 10:27am

Have you ever wondered how airlines decide who gets a seat upgrade on flights? Airlines say it’s strictly by the book: loyal customers are rewarded based on their status in frequent flier programmes.

But some fliers insist that once in a while, they get upgraded even when they’ve bought the cheapest seat. AirfareWatchdog.com founder George Hobica suggests that how you dress and act could give you an edge.

Hobica acknowledges that “upgrades mostly go to people with status in the programme. “If you’re silver or gold on British Airways or United Airlines, and they have to upgrade people because they’ve oversold economy class, the first thing they do is go down the list of (who has) status,” he says. But Hobica says he’s also been inexplicably upgraded when he was “wearing a nice suit and tie” and all the other passengers were “looking like [fitness guru] Richard Simmons”.

A number of airlines contacted for comment say it never works that way. “Our staff follow the guidelines and procedures when there is a need to upgrade customers to another cabin class,” says a Singapore Airlines spokesman. While he declined to divulge the guidelines, he adds that customers who hold eligible tickets can upgrade to a higher class using their frequent flier miles. The airline also recently introduced mySQupgrade, where bids can be made within seven days of flying to fly premium economy or business class.

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“The list is the list, and the gate agents work the list,” says American Airlines spokesman Josh Freed, referring to the “list of customers who potentially qualify for upgrades based on elite frequent flier status”. Gate agents, he stresses, are “not out there putting who they like, or who’s best dressed, further up the list. It’s pretty straightforward. If there are three unsold seats in first class, the top three people on that list are going to get them”.

Other airlines, including Delta and United, say their agents are bound by upgrade policies as described on their websites, which explain how to use award miles and exactly what their mileage programme members are eligible for.

A British Airways spokeswoman says Executive Club members who are signed up to the airline’s reward scheme, are occasionally given special offers for upgrades.

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And yet, there are people who say they’ve been given upgrades without status.

“To those people who say, nonsense, this can’t happen, I disagree wholeheartedly. This has happened to me from coach to business class a number of times,” says Ann Lombardi, a business English teacher and tour organiser at The Trip Chicks. What’s her secret? “I just smile and say thank you for your help. I might tell a little story about myself. It may be the combination of being nice, dressing decently and the luck of the draw.”

She got a surprise upgrade earlier this year flying on Emirates. “I was just standing in line, I got to boarding, the woman pulled me aside and gave me my boarding pass and it said 1B,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Is there an extra digit left out (on the seat number)?’ and she said, ‘No, we decided to upgrade you’.” The upgrade to first class from economy put her in a private compartment. After a knock on the door, she was asked, “Would you like Dom Perignon and black caviar now or later?”

Kim Curtis, a content strategist for a bank in San Francisco, says she’s also been upgraded, even though she always buys the cheapest ticket she can find. “I always give the gate agents and the ticketing agents compliments,” she says. “I know it sounds corny but I figure they deal with a lot of difficult, rude people so I try to be the exact opposite of that. I’ve asked for and got upgrades to business class. I’ve also got something as simple as a free glass of wine.” As for dressing up, she doesn’t overdo it, but adds, “It’s so easy to look good in an airport now”.

Hobica says even if you never get that magic upgrade, what have you got to lose by looking and acting your best? “You might get the whole can of tomato juice instead of half the can, even if you’re in economy,” he says.

Additional reporting by Marissa Carruthers