Delta Wants You To Pay For First Class So You’re Not Disappointed

Filed Under: Media

It’s no secret that airlines are increasingly trying to monetize their premium cabins. It’s almost not about the specific amount they’re charging for a ticket, but rather about travelers paying something to sit in those seats, rather than getting “free” upgrades.

I talked about this in a post a while back, where I explained how the cheaper premium fares we’re seeing is decreasing my overall reliance on miles. Twice in the past year I’ve booked ~$1,100 business class fares between the West Coast of the US and Europe, which is only marginally more expensive than economy.


The New York Times just published a great article, entitled “More Frequent Fliers Pay for a First-Class Upgrade That Once Was Free.” As the title suggests, the story is about airlines increasingly monetizing their premium cabins.

When it comes to US carriers, perhaps the leader of monetizing premium cabins is Delta, and the article references the statistics we’ve heard in the past about the percentage of first class seats that Delta is selling:

In 2011, for example, only 14 percent of Delta Air Lines’ first-class seats were paid for. The rest were given away or remained empty.

Recognizing that this was not a profitable use of airplane real estate, Delta and the rest of the industry began to look for new ways to earn revenue for more of those seats, even if it meant narrowing the price gap between first class and economy.

The offers are working. By last year, slightly more than half of Delta’s first-class passengers had paid to be there. By 2018, Delta says it hopes that percentage will grow to 70 percent, which would leave less than a third of the best seats available for free upgrades. Other big airlines, including United and American, cite similar shifts.

You’ve gotta love what Delta’s managing director of merchandising has to say about this trend:

“We’d rather have travelers pay a bit and know they get a seat in the front, rather than get on a list and feel disappointed if they aren’t given an upgrade,” said Andrew Wingrove, Delta’s managing director for merchandising.

Yep, Delta wants you to pay for first class so you’re not disappointed that your upgrade doesn’t clear. In reality, the reason your upgrade isn’t clearing is because people are increasingly buying those seats, likely due to the fear of upgrades not clearing. I suppose it’s a never ending cycle.


There’s nothing in the article that’s truly earth shattering, but rather they just share how different travelers are approaching upgrades getting more difficult. Some travelers continue to play the upgrade lottery, some are paying for upgrades on longer flights, while others are just outright buying first class in most cases nowadays.

If you have the time I’d recommend giving the article a read.

(Tip of the hat to Jim)

  1. Please stop whining about ‘upgrades cleared’. In most of the world seats are simply being paid for so I don’t exactly see the problem here. You want to sit in front? Just pay up for it.

  2. This entire website (And hobby in general) is about taking advantage of ways to get said upgrades and benefits below market or for a discount. Coming on here and telling people disappointed by this new to “stop whining” is like going on a New York Knicks fan forum and chastising the posters for their disappointment about their team. Is it a right to have a winning NBA team? No, but why the F are you on the Knicks forum, then?

    Same goes. We get it, you’re so much more mature and principled than the rest of us. Is THAT why you’ve decided to bless us with your wisdom?

    People like Ron are tied with the “OH NOES YOU’RE RUINING THE HOBBY” people as the worst on BoardingArea. Please eff off to Flyertalk with your sanctimony.

  3. The change itself is understandable, but Delta’s explanation of it is disingenuous. They should just say “we want to make first class great again”.

  4. I’d like to get a sense of how corporate policies are changing. Several of my co-workers have been able to expense first as it seems the only push-back is on total ticket price not class of service. Another friend has noticed that it used to be C-level folks who could expense first and now it’s down to director level that can expense it.

  5. I’m ok with this if it means lower premium cabin prices (aka the Mint effect.) From time to time, Delta has brought down their premium cabin prices domestically to the point where it’s been a good value at times, especially once checked bags, priority boarding, etc. is factored in.

  6. I make this mistake all the time, “The New York Times just published a great article, entitled” should read “titled.”

  7. This is great. I’ve purchased the ug on a couple trips this year (most recently $65 to ug on JFK->CHS) and felt it was well worth it. Sure, i’m not getting as many free upgrades but i’m a gold medallion and the bulk of my flights are short hops from LGA (where theres not much benefit to F) or flights JFK->LAX/PHX where the upgrade is nearly impossible anyways.

    Unless its Delta 1 TCON or TATL the seats really aren’t worth thaaat much more anyhow.

  8. “John says:
    July 12, 2016 at 10:17 am
    I’d like to get a sense of how corporate policies are changing. Several of my co-workers have been able to expense first as it seems the only push-back is on total ticket price not class of service. Another friend has noticed that it used to be C-level folks who could expense first and now it’s down to director level that can expense it.”

    – I work for a marketing company and the policy has always been to book my own travel through the corporate site, economy only and must book flights within $150 of the next best offer (obvious exceptions such as times needed and direct flights needed etc can be easily approved)…

    Anyway, in the past year I have booked 3 flights on the site with my corporate card and then called into the airline and paid out of pocket to upgrade to 1st. In each case the flight was 4-5 hours and I paid $85/$110/$155 as that was the fare difference each time.

  9. It is unfortunate, but recessions are actually better for people in this hobby. More upgrades and award tickets when airlines sell less seats.

  10. Isn’t this good for the consumer? No loyalty, mileage runs and the stress of maintaining status with airlines and yep probably spending less on business/upper class travel is a win for the consumer.

  11. It’s great news and finally the airlines have realized (thank you Delta) that people will pay a reasonable price for premium cabin travel. I now buy discounted international J because the price has dropped dramatically. As a lowly PLT, my upgrades rarely cleared unless I was traveling in low season(s). And the irony is I will now make EXP because my EQM has increased due to premium cabin purchasing.

  12. About time indeed! First Class should be something paid for, and enjoyed by those willing to do it.

  13. I support the airlines monetizing first class. I’m happy to pay a reasonable premium for it and I frequently do — probably 75% of the tickets I buy myself (as opposed to my employer) are in premium cabins. Now the problem I see is that many of the F flight attendants behave like everyone is on an upgrade and should be grateful to be in the cabin. I will admit that my expectations are a bit different when I pay vs when I’m on a free upgrade. I don’t want those on upgrades (sometimes me) to be branded with a scarlet letter, but rather the airlines need to educate their staff that half the folks in the cabin paid to be there and shift their attitudes appropriately.

  14. Just to give a little perspective on what it’s like down here in Australia. There are only two carriers with premium cabins, Qantas and Virgin. I’ve been a Platinum FF with both carriers. Both carriers will, generally speaking, never upgrade pax for the sake of upgrading – they would prefer to have the cabin fly empty than give out freebies (of-course with the exception of overbooking etc). Very much a user-pay system here. Then again, the cost of purchasing (or using a points/points upgrade) a premium ticket in Oz than the USA is incredibly more expensive.

  15. Mind you, Delta’s first is oftentimes better than AA or United, but that is not saying much. I actually am MORE disappointed when I have paid full price for a lackluster product than when I have gotten a “freebie” like an upgrade. Pure baloney on Delta’s part – this move won’t reduce the price of first. And AA and United will probably copycat. Just watch.

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