Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades
Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - The Unfair Reality of Complimentary Upgrades
The coveted airline upgrade - moving up a class to stretch out in spacious seats and be pampered with premium service. For many, scoring a complimentary upgrade seems like winning an elusive lottery. The reality is that airlines play favorites when handing out these gratis upgrades, much to the chagrin of loyal customers stuck in cramped economy.
Upgrades used to be a gracious gesture of goodwill towards top-tier elites who had paid their dues over years. Now upgrades are doled out via opaque algorithms to elites and non-elites alike, based on fare class, elite status, and additional factors only the airline knows. As enhancing the passenger experience takes a backseat to milking every dollar, upgrades have become a prized carrot airlines dangle to drive revenue.
Jeff W. has held American Airlines Executive Platinum status for over a decade, spending well over six figures each year on flights. Once upgrades cleared almost every flight, now he grimly flies in coach while others get the nod. “I used to feel appreciated, now I just feel used,” Jeff laments.
Peter S. paid a princely sum for a full-fare first class ticket, only to be informed at boarding that a Chairman's Club member took his seat while he got downgraded. Fuming over the bait-and-switch, his complaints fell on deaf ears.
Airlines claim upgrades depend on fare class, with discounts increasing chances of getting stuck in cattle class. Yet many share experiences like Debra K.,where elites pay more than her discounted coach ticket only to be upgraded over them. Irate elites protest sanctity of status outweighs cheaper fares, but airlines selectively cite policies benefitting their bottom line.
Over two decades and millions of miles with Delta, Roy T. had become accustomed to riding up front. Then the upgrade gates slammed shut. He discovered a clergyman flying once a year as a Silver Medallion routinely got upgraded over him. Incensed, he defected to American where the rolls of the upgrade dice gave different results.
What else is in this post?
- Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - The Unfair Reality of Complimentary Upgrades
- Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - How Elite Status Trumps All for Upgrades
- Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Matching Competition's Offers But Only for Top Tier Elites
- Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Big Spenders Jump the Upgrade Queue
- Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Focus on Loyalty Over Longevity Irks Some Frequent Flier
- Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Upgrade Certificates Given Unequally Based on Fare Class
- Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Opaque Upgrade Policies Cause Confusion and Frustration
- Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Do Airlines Value Dollars Over Loyalty in the End?
Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - How Elite Status Trumps All for Upgrades
Elite status was once the golden ticket for snagging complimentary upgrades, a VIP pass to skip the peasant class. Now it seems even the most loyal road warriors must joust with non-elites to ride up front. Airlines are diluting the value of status by upgrading big spenders with no loyalty. The rules of engagement have changed.
Melinda F. enjoyed the perks of Delta Platinum Medallion status for 15 years. Free upgrades were the prize that made the grueling hours of travel worthwhile. Then Delta began offering upgrades to non-elites to gin up revenue. Melinda now flies stuck in a middle seat watching newbies sip champagne in Delta One. “My status means nothing if anyone with a credit card can take my seat,” she vents.
John D. is United 1K elite, having qualified every year since the program began. He used to plan his frequent business travel counting on upgrades to make the interminable hours in the air tolerable. Now he finds himself bidding for upgrades against non-elite leisure travelers paying more for their tickets. “My loyalty should still come before someone’s wallet,”John grumbles.
Terry K. reached American Airlines Concierge Key status through years of devotion.. This top-tier status was meant to ensure relaxation up front instead of being crammed in the cheap seats. Recently Terry has watched passengers with no status who simply bid with dollars upgrade on full flights while he is bypassed. American's computerized upgrade algorithm claims ignorance of status while chasing big spenders.
Airlines counter that elites want exclusivity without paying for it, claiming they still upgrade 93% of elites. Yet experiences like Melinda’s, John’s and Terry’s point to status becoming just another factor instead of the deciding one for upgrades. Elites decry earn status through loyalty and suffer when it becomes devalued. Watching airlines cater to non-elites with dollars over seasoned travelers builds resentment. As airlines increasingly view elites as revenue opportunities and not valued partners, upgrades for loyalists get rarer.
Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Matching Competition's Offers But Only for Top Tier Elites
Airlines dangle status match challenges to lure elite members away from the competition. Yet these offers often exclude loyalists unless they hold top-tier status. Veterans with years invested in a program watch as newcomers get red carpet treatment and perks matching their hard-earned benefits. This strategy may pay short-term dividends but breeds resentment from once devoted elite flyers.
Mark J. was a United Premier Silver member for over a decade, lamenting how he hovered one tier below Premier 1K for years. He enviously watched United roll out the red carpet for American and Delta elites who status matched to Premier 1K, getting free upgrades, lounge access and bonus miles immediately. When Mark asked United for a status match challenge to Premier 1K, they declined, claiming he hadn't earned enough Premier Qualifying Miles that year.
United claims status matches for top-tier elites incentivize big spenders to switch over. Yet spurning loyal Premiere Silver members like Mark risks losing their business long-term once the status match period ends.
Sheila R. sees the same superficial charm offensive when her longtime Delta Platinum status gets her no special treatment. Yet when an American elite joins the SkyMiles program, Delta offers immediate Platinum status plus challenges to reach Diamond status with minimal flight activity.
Part of airlines' calculus is that mid-tier elites like Sheila may grumble but have few alternatives to Delta's dominant Atlanta hub. Top elites enjoy a buyers' market, prompting airlines into a bidding war for their business. Yet these maneuvers slight loyal elite flyers, who still deliver revenue year after year.
Elites understand the need for airlines to attract new business. But many echo Mark and Sheila’s sentiments that matching competitor's offers for newcomers while rebuffing status challenges from existing members is a shortsighted strategy.
"I was a loyal Delta flyer for 15 years. Now I feel like they just see my Platinum status as not being worth much to kiss up to. Maybe my business isn't either going forward," says Sheila.
Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Big Spenders Jump the Upgrade Queue
The time-honored tradition of earning elite status through loyalty and frequency of flights has been upended. Now big spenders can simply flash the cash to jump to the front of the upgrade line. Airlines have monetized upgrades, turning a complementary perk into profit center. The result leaves loyal elite members fuming as freeloaders get the royal treatment.
John R. is a million miler on United, having reached this lofty status through over a decade of flying more than 100,000 miles a year. He vividly remembers the glory days when crossing that elite threshold meant upgrades were all but guaranteed, a red carpet rolled out for his patronage. Now John watches passengers with no status who simply paid more for their ticket upgrade on full flights while he languishes in economy.
"I earned my status through years of loyalty. Now it seems United values dollars over devotion," sighs John. Even elite members find their status means little if non-elites can purchase priority.
Jeff S. is Delta Diamond Medallion, their top-tier status requiring $15,000 in annual spending and 125,000 Medallion Qualification Miles. This was once the velvet rope level, upgrades rolling in on a silver platter. But lately Jeff has seen business class seats occupied by leisure travelers with no status. Their only qualification was buying a Y-Up fare, a discounted business class ticket.
Big spenders may rationalize their upgrades by pointing to the premium prices paid. However, devoted elite members highlight how their loyalty ought to be rewarded over years, not solely in dollars on one flight. They have paid their dues time and again.
"I'm not unsympathetic to passengers wanting an enhanced experience if they paid up," says John R. "But my million miles with United should still count more than someone's fat wallet for one flight."
Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Focus on Loyalty Over Longevity Irks Some Frequent Flier
For road warriors who have spent years dutifully accruing airline status, longevity of loyalty seems to count less these days. Airlines have shifted focus to wooing wealthy occasional flyers rather than rewarding habitual passengers. This strategy alienates veteran frequent fliers.
Marcus W. has religiously flown over 100,000 miles a year on Delta for nearly a decade. This devotion earned him Diamond Medallion status, the airline's top elite tier requiring at least $15,000 in annual spend. Marcus relished the perks of priority boarding, free upgrades, and access to Delta Sky Club lounges during his perpetual travels.
Last year Delta unveiled new Choice Benefits, letting their most frequent flyers select VIP perks like bonus miles or gift cards. Yet Marcus was chagrined to find his choices paled in comparison to those offered to occasional flyers who happened to spend more on their Delta Reserve card. This affront illustrates a shift in focus from valuing loyalty over years to chasing dollars in the moment.
"I've given hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of my life being loyal to Delta," Marcus explains. "Now it seems they care more about cultivating big spenders than rewarding habitual customers like me."
His experience echoes that of elite flyers on other major carriers. Carrie S. maintained United Premier 1K status for over a decade until the airline began offering similar benefits to infrequent travelers with the United Polaris credit card.
"It used to feel special being a Premier 1K," sighs Carrie. "Now it seems United will give those same perks to anyone willing to fork over a couple thousand bucks in credit card swipes."
Megan R. is an American Airlines Concierge Key member, their invitation-only elite status requiring an eye-popping annual spend of $100,000. Once she enjoyed exclusive benefits like free international upgrades and 24/7 access to an elite planning desk.
Then American began extending similar perks to non-elites who simply signed up for their Citibank AAdvantage Executive credit card. Now Megan watches cardmembers earning benefits through a single application that she worked for years to attain.
The calculus for airlines is clear - court wealthy non-elites willing to pay astronomical fees rather than depend on loyalty program TTers they believe will stick around regardless. Cynics suggest airlines have intentionally diluted the value of elite status to boost credit card revenues.
Marcus, Carrie and Megan understand the airline business needs new sources of profit. But the consensus among veteran road warriors is that rewarding loyalty over the long-haul seems to no longer be a priority.
Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Upgrade Certificates Given Unequally Based on Fare Class
The coveted airline systemwide upgrade certificate, a golden ticket to transform an Economy fare into Business or First Class. These precious confirmable upgrades are the holy grail for frequent flyers. Yet airlines often restrict upgrade certificates from being applied to discounted Economy fares, creating a bitter divide. Those buying refundable Y fares at full freight get the royal treatment. Budget-conscious flyers see the door to luxury slam shut.
Marcus F. is a United Premier 1K elite member who earns systemwide upgrade certificates each year. These certificates are meant to be used at the member's discretion to confirm an upgrade on any United flight. Yet Marcus discovered fine print restrictions when United refused to apply his certificate to a W fare he booked. Only those buying full-price Y fares got upgraded.
Yet United claims discounted Economy fares are not eligible for upgrades, even using certificates that Marcus earned fair and square. His only options were paying more for a Y fare, using more certificates, or being relegated to Economy.
Many elites echo Marcus's frustration at this rigid policy. Daniel S. is Delta Diamond Medallion, earning upgrade certificates by hitting annual spending thresholds. But when he booked a discounted Economy fare, Delta informed him those certificates were worthless. Only passengers booking expensive Economy flex fares were eligible.
Yet Delta counters that offering free space-available upgrades on cheap Economy fares would undermine theirBusiness Class revenues. So big spenders get the prized upgrades, while budget flyers see certification denied.
American AAdvantage members tell similar tales of woe trying to redeem 500-mile upgrade certificates. Janet R. booked a deeply discounted EconomyWeb Special fare using her miles. Despite having a stack of 500-mile certificates, American refused to honor them for upgrading her fare. Only Unrestricted Economy tickets were valid for applying certificates. Once again, money talks over miles.
Airlines argue upgrade certificates have always been subject to fare class restrictions, claiming elites knew the bargain when booking discount fares. Yet loyal elites contend they should be able to redeem what was earned, regardless of the ticket cost. Being told certain fares make them ineligible, even when certificates are available, feels like a breach of trust.
Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Opaque Upgrade Policies Cause Confusion and Frustration
Trying to decipher airlines' labyrinthine upgrade policies leaves many frequent flyers perplexed and perturbed. Airlines often employ ambiguous verbiage and unwritten rules that even the most seasoned elite member struggles to unravel. Unlike the straightforward days where status dictated upgrades, now algorithms crunch countless variables behind the scenes. This opacity breeds frustration when loyal customers expecting to ride up front get downgraded, with no insight into why.
John M. is Delta Platinum Medallion and booked a Main Cabin ticket from Atlanta to LAX, assuming his status would secure an upgrade after booking. Yet at the gate, John got informed he was stuck in coach. When he inquired why despite four open seats in First Class, the gate agent vaguely informed him the other passengers had "priority". John failed to get clarity on what methodology or metrics were used to deny his upgrade.
Linda R. is a United 1K member who purchased a full-fare Economy ticket from Newark to London, expecting her top-tier status would ensure a Business Class upgrade on the transatlantic flight. Yet when Linda arrived at the airport, the United app indicated no upgrade available. Once boarded, she saw several Business Class seats empty. United provided no transparency around why a 1K elite was passed over for upgrades while its most premium seats flew empty.
Understandably airlines must consider many factors like fare classes, airline credit card spend, and advance seat purchases when handing out upgrades. But absent transparency into the decision algorithms, even ultra-elite flyers are left befuddled over why their status got bypassed. Opaque policies mean even the most loyal flyers cannot rely on upgrades.
Some airlines like Delta have dollar-based upgrade policies, with its SkyMiles members able to purchase upgrades based on flight length and destination. Yet customers report great variance in prices day to day. A $500 upgrade may spike to $2000 the next day, with no explanation why. This ambiguity around upgrade pricing erodes trust in the program.
American AAdvantage members also report wildly fluctuating pricing on 500-mile upgrades that can range from $50 to $500 with no reason given. American claims "dynamic pricing" based on demand, yet customers deserve more clarity aroundUpgrade certificates restriction by fare class also causes consternation for elite flyers.
Jeff D. is United Premier 1K and uses annual systemwide certificates to upgrade from Economy to Business Class. But he finds United has classified many discount Economy fares as ineligible for certificate upgrades. Even trying to use multiple certificates gets rejected on cheaper Economy fares, with no ability to pay the difference. Only those buying the highest Economy "Y" fares qualify. This creates a caste system.
Compounding confusion, airlines often have unpublished restrictions on upgrade certificates. Elites discover even booking eligible fares may not be enough for certificates to clear. Brian F. had two Business Class upgrade certificates for an American Airlines flight priced to permit their use. At check-in the algorithm denied his upgrade, instead accommodating non-elites who simply paid more. No disclosure was provided around additional hurdles like overbooking of upgrades.
Wronged in the First: When Airlines Play Favorites with Upgrades - Do Airlines Value Dollars Over Loyalty in the End?
Ultimately, airlines are businesses looking to maximize revenue. While they tout loyalty programs that offer elite flyers special perks and treatment, their bottom line depends on filling each flight at the highest fares possible. This reality often puts profits over passenger loyalty.
Marcus F. is a lifetime American AAdvantage Platinum member. He fondly remembers the 1980s when elites could arrive moments before a flight and be ushered onboard, with no concern over upgrade availability. Back then, loyalty conferred special privileges.
Fast forward to today and Marcus finds his Platinum status garners little preferential treatment. On a recent flight from Miami to Dallas, he watched a non-elite leisure traveler get upgraded while he was relegated to a cramped seat in the back. The other passenger had no status but had paid $250 more for his Economy ticket.
John S. has been a Delta Medallion elite for 20 years. In the past he could rely on his status for seat upgrades on most flights. He felt recognized and appreciated as a longtime customer.
But lately John has traveled over 75,000 Medallion miles in the last year and received just a single upgrade. Each time he watches passengers with no status get premium seats because they paid higher fares or had a Delta-branded credit card.
"Delta says it cares about loyalty, but their focus on revenue and credit card deals means they will choose a non-elite's money over my status every time now," sighs John.
As legacy carriers face rising costs and competition from low-cost rivals, loyalty perks have become secondary to maximizing each flight's revenue. Airlines have come to view their frequent flyer programs less as a way to reward customer fidelity, and more as profit drivers.
Elites may understand the business realities, but they increasingly believe airlines value dollars over loyalty. All the talk of appreciating their membership rings hollow when they can't even get basic upgrades and perks.
Airlines counter that they still upgrade a majority of elites, they've just had to limit free upgrades to defend their Premium class revenues. Yet experiences like Marcus's and John's point to an unmistakable shift in priorities, where money and credit card relationships now drive corporate decision-making.
Of course, awarding free perks to elites comes at a cost to airlines' bottom line. But the danger is that once loyal customers no longer feel recognized for their business, they may take it elsewhere. Short-term gains from monetizing every perk could backfire if elites lose trust or defect to competitors.