Air India Threatens Pilots Who Upgrade Friends & Family For Free

Filed Under: Air India

Almost any time I take a flight I’ll take a look at the seatmap and how many seats are for sale, just to get a sense of whether the flight will be full or not. This is something I’m always especially curious about in international first class, given how few seats there are (there’s nothing quite like getting a cabin all to yourself). Of course there are sometimes last minute upgrades (either using miles, paid upgrades, or operational upgrades), so that will never be 100% accurate.

As I’ve reviewed more “random” (from a US perspective) business and first class products lately, I’ve noticed some interesting patterns when it comes to airlines that seem to consistently upgrade friends and family. I realize many airlines provide travel privileges to friends and families of employees, and they’re entitled to those seats. That’s not what I’m talking about. Rather I’m talking about instances where people are very clearly upgraded after the cabin door closes. Not surprisingly, it’s typically the airlines that seem to have not-great service where this happens, probably due to a lack of rules. I’d attribute that to little oversight or training, as you’d never see anything like that on Singapore Airlines, for example.

The Hindustan Times has a story about how Air India has allegedly been having issues with pilots upgrading friends and family. It seems that this isn’t as much of a problem with flight attendants, and it’s actually the flight attendants who are complaining. Per the order sent by Air India’s chairman, Pradeep Singh Kharola, on March 13:

“It has come to my knowledge that operating crew carry out upgrades to business and first class unofficially during the flight for their friends and relatives. This is viewed seriously. It is reiterated once again that officials/crew members responsible for all such unauthorised upgrades shall face strict disciplinary action.”

Air India’s 787 business class

Here’s what a former Air India executive director had to say about this:

“This has been a very old menace with pilots exercising their authority wrongly. You need to have discipline and pilots must concentrate on flying. If a boarding card is issued by the commercial staff for a certain class, and plane doors are closed, a pilot has no power or authority to upgrade the seat,” said Jitender Bhargava, a former executive director with Air India.

While sending out the memo probably makes sense, I highly doubt anything will change. After all, this is the airline that got strict in 2016 about drinking and flying. They realized they needed to do something to ensure that pilots weren’t showing up drunk, so they decided they’d start punishing pilots the second time they showed up drunk to fly. In this case there’s even less oversight, as it will be a case of “he said, she said,” since the main cabin door is closed when these upgrades happen.

  1. There is a protocol if you have a friend/family who is a pilot with Air India and want to be upgraded.

    He/she writes you a note addressed to the pilot of the flight you are on and then once boarding is completed and the door is closed you slip the note to the flight attendant saying “this is a note for the pilot” and then the f/a gives the note to the pilot and once approved, the f/a comes and gets you and takes you to your new seat in business class.

    There is a similar process if you are a civil servant in the government, as you are usually able to negotiate an upgrade in a similar way.

    I can see how from a f/a perspective this is annoying because they got other shit to do during this time, but basically it has meant that for many years, if you had a close friend or family member that is an Air India pilot, you were more or less always able to get upgraded on a space available basis.

  2. Can they afford to? The Indian government is selling their 76% share in AI, including a $5bn debt. Moreover, El Al is taking them (or the Israeli government, rather) to court because AI gets to fly over Saudi airspace, calling it an unfair advantage.

    Friends & relatives given free upgrades is the LEAST of AI’s problems

  3. Air India is like the United Airlines of India…
    I’d rather fly Jet Airways or even Vistara in that case…

  4. Marginally better than FAs deciding to take unoccupied premium cabin seats for themselves, as happens on some of the dodgy carriers ( and been discussed on this site).
    The problem with Air India is that it’s not close relatives doing this in the main but rather all manner of hangers-on and assorted ,loosely connected sleazebags. That’s India.Good luck trying to stop it.

  5. im not sure how this would cost the airline money. If the door is closed, that would mean certain seats are opened already.
    My thought is the food, but arent business/first class meals loaded to the number of passengers? I would think they be eating whatever class they were in before.

  6. I’m not sure it’s just the lack of rules and discipline…

    Dig a little deeper and look at the salaries of crew and pilots on these “unruly” airlines, and you’ll find them highly paid and entitled! Case in hand, that it’s the much better paid pilots that are upgrading on AI and not the crew. In many countries crew still see themselves as Civil Servants/Government employees! Need I say more?

  7. Last week on Delta flight. I’m last row in first class overhearing as FA comes to pilot in uniform in comfort+. “Why don’t you come up to 1C its empty? ” and he did, as I would too. So it isn’t just India I guess. The difference is that people don’t expect it in the US and FAs are doing it proactively.

  8. And then the FA tells you – the paying pax in First – that the meal choice you want is gone because the others (free upgrade) were asked first.

  9. @Endre, I supposed the pilot was deadheading. This is not the same as upgrading a family or friend.

  10. @Endre — I agree with others that the situation with the Delta pilot wasn’t the same situation.

    A pilot in uniform could be: (1) deadheading; or (2) commuting as a non-revenue passenger either back home or to work. If the pilot is deadheading, he’s being paid. He may be based in ATL but his assigned route is to deadhead to JFK and then fly the plane to LHR. From ATL to JFK, he’s being paid at a reduced rate. When deadheading, the pilot actually has a higher priority than a revenue passenger (but not necessarily for an upgrade). He’s commuting if he lives in Atlanta but is based at JFK. When commuting, the pilot has a non-rev priority which is under any revenue passenger’s priority.

    But what many don’t seem to understand is that non-revs have the ability to fly first or business class. They do not bump anyone on the upgrade list, even the lowliest silver. But they are on the upgrade list ahead of anyone who isn’t on the upgrade list. So our deadheading pilot who got on the plane with his high priority may have been first on the upgrade list (probably was). A commuting pilot also may have been first on the upgrade list as well. But, if you are on the upgrade list somehow, you are going to be ahead of every employee who is nonreving.

    What the Air India pilots seem to be doing wouldn’t be tolerated by the other employees at a US airline.

  11. I believe most airline outside US don’t really have a policy to allow/deny family upgrades. Just that the Captain has the ultimate authority.

    It is more of a courtesy to the captain.

    Now if you read between the lines I think this is what happen.

    Cap: bring my 7 people family to sit in F or C.

    FA: My BF is in last row middle seat next to lab can he come up too.

    Cap: Oops premium cabin is full. Maybe next time.

    FA: I’m telling the CEO.

    And that people, is probably what happen.

  12. On nonrev bashing, I think most airlines have a clear policy about nonrev.

    But fellow readers would think like this.

    REV: Spent $10k sitting in F drinking champagne

    Nonrev: My dad works here so I spend few bucks sitting in F drinking champagne

    REV: That is not fair, DYKWIA.
    REV: I spent $10k and a kid got it for free.
    REV: I will never fly … again.
    REV: I will write the CEO
    REV: I will write to bloggers
    REV: rant rant rant
    REV: rant rant rant
    REV: ……..

  13. @ Eskimo
    but complaints are usually from the non-rev’s… especially those who demand status recognition and priority boarding ahead of pax who require assistance.

  14. A curious incident on SQ last year. F on SQ494 SIN-DXB. 1 Hr before boarding, cabin occupied 1/8. On board, the crew told me I was the only F for the flight too. But 5 minutes later, 7 individuals showed up in F and cabin was filled. I was very confused. The crew was confused too. But the 7 pax did hold F tickets. I thought SQ never does Op-Up – especially in the regard of FILLING the F cabin? (btw the J cabin was not anywhere close to being full)

  15. I got upgraded with an american carrier recently since Im friends with a cabin crew member who wasnt even on the flight, but told the team ahead of time to take care of me. I dont see why this is wrong if theres empty premium seats.

  16. Personally the best is no upgrades for non rev! The airlines should uphold a strict policy in ensuring that premium rev pax get the right service and products in which they have paid for. Airlines should not watered down their premium products and their rules! Otherwise the rev pax just spend their money somewhere else.

  17. Not only on Air India. This was a very common thing on Thai too. It has improved a bit, but it still comes to my ears that not much has changed, but there were days, when some friends of mine were the only paying passengers in business or first class, the rest was either friends and family of the cockpit crew or of management!
    Also, it is known that a FA recently caused some trouble because he refused to upgrade a friend of the Captain. It all went on FB.

  18. @ JPT
    Thai is among the worst offenders but perhaps that’s unsurprising given that corruption/nepotism/cronyism is endemic at BKK, extending from duty free concessions to baggage handlers to security. For example, the case of the security screener who was physically assaulted by a senior official for requiring him to go through the usual screening procedures; the fact that confiscated liquids turn up for sale on eBay ( by individuals); literally thousands of examples of it but the whistleblowers are victimised and the corruption continues unbridled.

  19. This is a common occurrence.In a cultural context pilots act as gods gift to mankind and exercise their authority unnecessarily.

  20. Had seats 1HK on a SAA flight JNB-HKG. Turned out the VOD had a missing headphone jack. Crew actually switched us to 5HK because friends of the crew were occupying those seats.

    I did actually have to ask about other seats available before they revealed that a switch was possible. Our new seats were not ideal as row 1 is always better for so many reasons but at least we had the VOD for 16 hour flight.

    I also reminded the crew that since we were originally row 1 that they should ensure that our meal choice was available which it was.

  21. British Airways is the worst at this. Every mixed fleet new joiner sticks their family or bf up in First Class.

    The Flight Deck also get inundated with messages from employees on staff travel asking to be ‘looked after’.

    Check-In staff work in cliques to upgrade people they know.

    It’s a case of, you scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours – and consequences for those that don’t play along.

    I’ve seen a BA crew put a travel agent in First who promised to advertise their B&B business.

    BA IT staff, with access to the system, just simply change the booking reference of their friends/family from Y to F. The perfect crime.

    It’s rampant – because it costs these people nothing to give something with a lot of value.

    I would never ever pay for a premium cabin in BA knowing all this stuff is going on.

    Take another glance around the BA J/F cabin – just who do you really think is sat in those seats?

  22. I was the only paying pax on Lot Polish in business class. Yet entire business was filled with friends and families of the crew. They were going shopping to NYC before Christmas. It doesn’t make you feel good as paying pax. Since LOT Polish business is priced higher then competitors I stopped flying them after this incident. While it is a minor inconvenience to forgo nonstop flight between NYC WAW one has to stick to the principle of no freeloaders. I perfectly understand where CEOs memo is coming from.

  23. @BobbyT I myself experienced twice this ” upgrade cliques” with BA in the past. Once the CSM and the other one the gate manager were involved. I was shocked and angry how evidently easy for these people to misuse their power. As a consequence I stop flying BA as a premium rev pax for years now. Let alone Food&Service and the outdated C seat and the F seat which is more a C seat in reality…the list of negatives is endless! The only good in BA is their FFP when only getting the Oneworld Emerald status. So once a year I do the much hated 4 flights with BA and everytime I am always disappointed. So I learned to take the best from them and spend my money wisely to other Oneworld carriers.

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