Playing The Alaska Elite Upgrade Lottery On Delta…

Filed Under: Alaska, Delta

I’m pretty loyal to American when it comes to my domestic travel. Do I think they have an amazing product? No. But I almost always clear upgrades, their miles are valuable, and I know what to expect. What I care about on a domestic flight is wifi, a power outlet, a seat spacious enough so I can work on my laptop, and access to bottled water. That’s about it. So I rarely have a reason to look elsewhere.

I do still have status with Alaska, however, which is back from my good old days of living in Seattle (not only do they have a great elite program, but their miles are valuable as well).


As any long time blog reader knows, for a while there has been a battle going on between Alaska and Delta, despite the fact that they partner with one another. Nonetheless at this point they’re more enemies than anything else, and we’ve seen an erosion of elite benefits between the two carriers.

I needed to fly from Tampa to Los Angeles this morning, which left me two practical options, based on availability/pricing:

  • Fly US Airways through Phoenix, with a good shot at an upgrade
  • Fly Delta nonstop

Now, while reciprocal elite benefits aren’t what they used to be between Alaska and Delta, Alaska Mileage Plan elites do still receive space available upgrades on Delta.


The catch is that you’re literally dead last on the upgrade list, and clear behind all Delta elites, Delta companions, etc. So your chances of clearing on mainline flights are slim to none.

And you don’t actually get priority seating otherwise. So it’s all (first class) or nothing. The only seat I could assign was a middle seat towards the back of economy, unless I wanted to pay extra for an extra legroom economy seat.

Nonetheless I was only booking my ticket yesterday, and noticed that first class was only about half full — only 11 of the 20 first class seats on the 737-900 were occupied.

I figured I’d take a (small) risk and book the flight.

Delta lets you refund tickets within 24 hours of booking (even within seven days of departure, which isn’t mandated by the DOT), so I figured I’d book my ticket and check-in to see how far down on the upgrade list I was.

I booked my ticket, and as soon as I checked in I found myself as number one on the upgrade list with nine seats remaining.


I felt pretty good about my odds of clearing, given that this was a 6AM flight on a Saturday, and it sure seemed like everyone else had cleared.

When I woke up this morning I found myself as number two on the upgrade list, with nine seats still remaining. Works for me!


Sure enough I cleared at the gate, just a few minutes before boarding started (Alaska elites can only clear at the gate, and not at all in advance).


I’ve long said Delta is the US airline of the business traveler, and they really do have a solid product. That being said, I do still find it laughable when Nick claims Delta is “stylish.”

Debating which US legacy carrier is most stylish is like trying to decide what type of Crocs to wear on a date.

You wanna talk about “style” on Delta? Let’s talk about the tray on which Delta serves food.


It looks like a bathroom floor you’d expect to find on SriLankan Airlines… no, really. But hey, everyone has the right to find eating off bathroom floors to be stylish! 😉


Bottom line

It’s nice that clearing a domestic upgrade on Delta using Alaska status isn’t completely impossible. However, ultimately I had everything working in my favor by only booking a day before departure, and by being able to predict how many people were on the upgrade list. If I cared about an upgrade on Delta using Alaska status I certainly wouldn’t book further in advance than that, but in this case it worked out well.

To the Alaska elites out there, what precent of your upgrades on Delta have you cleared? In the above scenario, would you have booked US Airways with a connection or Delta nonstop?

  1. Actually, AS Elites aren’t dead last – SPG Platinums are bottom of the barrel in upgrade priority.

  2. I’m curious what is on your Delta boarding pass as an Alaska elite. Does it reference that you are an Alaska MVP, fake gold medallion, or elite plus? Those slimmed down benefits don’t appear much better than having the Delta Amex.

  3. How were you placed on the upgrade list automatically? Every time I enter my Alaska number (MVP Gold) on a delta reservation I still have to go to the gate to get added to the upgrade list.

  4. @ Ben @ Matt — How many digits are in your Alaks number? There seems to be an issue withd some numbers having more digits than others. My SO and I have AS numbers of different lengths and sometimss some systems like BofA CC applications or DL SM wont recognize them as valid. Very weird…

  5. Not sure if you realize this, so just to make it clear…the upgrade list only shows folks who have checked in for the flight AFAICT. So, checking in reasonably early will always paint a rosy picture of your place in the list. Then, usually, your hopes will be dashed as the flight time nears :-).

    Glad it worked out for you this time (and it has for me in the past as well), but just something to know in the future – checking the list early in the 24 hour window is not an indicator of your true place in the queue!

  6. I would book the Delta flight as you still can’t bank us airways miles to your alaska account. I found Delta’s domestic first better than us airways and american… My experience with aa is you see the flight attendants only in the first part of the flight and not much thereafter and us airways just seem disorganized on their domestic first flights…

  7. @Gene, mine has nine as well but I noticed when you enter it that preceding zeros are added for some reason.

  8. Congrats … people with “last-place” upgrade status (companions, Alaska elites, Starwood Platinums, AF/KL elites (I think in some cases)) do clear occasionally, especially on short routes flown by E175s/CRJ900s where there is an unusually high ratio of first to economy seats, but I have definitely never heard of anyone in that category clearing on a transcon flight!

  9. Ben, I am like you perhaps unreasonably loyal to AA, but I still have to admit that Nick does have a point. DL is by no means AF or KE, but that tray looks much better and has more flair than any of the plastic trays with crumpled paper liners that I’ve seen on AA recently 😉

  10. Yeah, Ben, to echo @Andrew’s point (obviously, since he’s on Team Nick), what’s so trashy about the tray and bathroom floor? I get that it’s not 100% genuine Indonesian teak, but I actually like the “hardwood” look.

  11. Not sure what you paid for the ticket and if it was miles or money. You have to keep in mind that class of service and “ticket price” is used in determining upgrades. I’ve seen it first hand with last minute expensive tickets getting a GM upgraded.

  12. @Gene – interesting point you raised. All three accounts I “manage” have 8-digit account numbers. Wonder if we should be using a “leading zero” as standard practice…

  13. I agree that as an AS MPVG, your number in the queue the day before, has no reality to your chances at the gate. Time and time again, I was number one on-line with several open seats, only to show up at the gate and be somewhere between 10-20 down on the list!

  14. I like the tray comment! I personally do like those trays, but I’m glad you got to jab Nick.

    One correction in there, you said that AS elites don’t get priority seating in coach, this is not quite correct. They do not have access to C+ (formerly economy comfort) seats, but they do have access to the priority seating (windows and aisles closer to the front of the plane, exit rows etc.). On some planes there are some pretty good priority seats that you can snag (maybe not a day out though).

  15. I had what must be the mother-of-all DL upgrades. As an Alaska MVPG, I got upgraded both ways on SEA-HNL and the return flight also had an equipment swap to a 75S with lie-flat Delta One seats.

  16. Despite the relatively weak frequent flyer programs, JetBlue and Delta get my domestic business. Why? In-flight crews have always treated us well. Exceptional? No. But never had one be pissy either. Let’s be honest, DL’s current First domestic product is what we used to get in coach in the old days. Tickets were more, but not First-class more. I still miss those days and would gladly pay more for better service.

  17. “Let’s be honest, DL’s current First domestic product is what we used to get in coach in the old days”

    Complete with complimentary cigarette smoke? 🙂

    I don’t seem to recall WiFi and TVs and power at seats that went completely flat in coach, but perhaps you were flying a different airline…

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