United Airlines Will Sell More First Class Upgrades At Check-In

Filed Under: United

While United Airlines is no doubt in a rough situation, they sure are taking this time to introduce some policies that most people won’t be happy about.

United is notorious for selling first class upgrades

Among US airlines, United Airlines is perhaps most disliked for the way in which they sell upgrades. The airline offers unlimited complimentary upgrades to elite members in most domestic markets. These are cleared on a space available basis, starting several days before the flight date.

However, the airline is also known for selling upgrades at steep discounts at the last minute. Now, it’s one thing to offer someone a buy-up that’s somewhere around the fare difference between economy and first class, but United sometimes sells really cheap upgrades.

Obviously this frustrates some elite members, as the upgrades are sold out from underneath them. Some wonder what the point is of spending thousands of dollars per year to earn status with an airline when they’ll just sell the upgrade to a non-elite member for $50 (or whatever amount).

United is known for the way in which they sell upgrades

United increasing first class upgrade sales at check-in.

View from the Wing notes that per an internal memo, as of today United Airlines will start holding back more first class seats until check-in, so that they can sell them last minute, rather than upgrading people to them. As the memo explains:

Change coming to upgrade seat inventory for sale at check-in
Starting March 13, we will be increasing the number of upgrade seats we hold to increase availability for sale at check-in. This will be a trial in which we will measure CSAT and revenue performance by having more seat upgrades available to offer at check-in. By increasing the number of available seats, we provide the opportunity for more customers who would like to purchase an upgrade at time of check in.

As United Airlines explains the decision:

  • The airline has always held back some seats until the gate for a number of reasons, including operational issues like aircraft changes, ensuring they can offer the seats to people who want to change flights, and to accommodate those people purchasing last minute tickets
  • Because there has been a big recent decrease in demand, United’s number of upgrades is up, so the airline can hold back more seats for the airport while still clearing as many upgrades as in the past

United will try to sell more first class upgrades

Bottom line

While this is only a trial for now, with Kirby in charge at United it seems highly likely that this will stick. It might not be so bad right now, with significantly reduced demand, but if this sticks around when demand picks up again, expect a significant decrease in the number of upgrades for elite members.

United is willing to sell upgrades for really cheap, so yes, you can expect that some people will take advantage of this, and since United is incredibly short-sighted when it comes to loyalty, you can guess how this is going to end…

What do you make of United’s policy of holding back more first class seats?

  1. Given Social Distancing concerns these seats just became more valuable. Recently I was on a United Flight with an empty Biz cabin and they did not give me a single offer to buy an upgrade which is different from the past where they aggressively sent buy up offers. The Biz cabin flew half-empty from IHR to IAD.

  2. If it’s that bothersome to someone that another guy is getting a better deal on an upgrade, maybe they can’t afford to be elites in the first place. Real UA GS ballers are not fretting about some guy getting a $50 upgrade once a year on MCI-ORD or whatever.

  3. I dont think you understand how dire the situation really is for airlines. LITERALLY people are not flying. they need anything they can get. Do not underestimate this.

  4. Their business class really only is a bigger seat. Service is usually more personable in the back. Free booze but 1k usually gets free anyway and the food? I opt for a stroopwaffle and Bisco cookie or w/e. Sucks they value the upgrade to an elite so little to sell it so cheaply to anyone else but even with 1k this year I’m flying other airlines as much as UA and wont miss them after this year.

  5. It’s a loyalty program. If you don’t like it, fly with another carrier.

    In this environment, United and all airlines must maximise revenue stream to help survival, which protects jobs. If they go out of business, your status and points will be worth diddly-squit.

    This “it all about me” article sadly reflects on frequent flyers who think they’re a cut above the herd.

    Get over it.

  6. I’m with Jay1951, it’s time to quit whining that your miles or status isn’t appreciated or rewarded as much as you believe it should.

    If you want that business upgrade that’s being offered so cheaply? Then thank whomever for making it so cheap. I’m sure you can afford it, and I’m sure you have 4 to 5 credit cards to choose from to maximize that purchase for points.

    Then take those points and use them to purchase that seat next time, instead of hoping that your butt will get kissed at the gate with a free upgrade.

  7. I personally love a sausage sandwich and a stroopwafel, free for 1k/GS in the main cabin.
    I don’t mind not getting the occasional upgrade.
    Another bash-United article.

  8. YES! I’ll take that cheap upgrade at check-in! (By the way, airline loyalty and elite programs are frequently just a bait-and-switch. They don’t want you to get outsized value from them…I thought everyone knew that.)

  9. no one will upgrade for $250 on a 5hr flight on a 737 from EWR to PHX .

    Show me a roundtrip fare from US to Asia in business class for $1200.

  10. They should be left open. You want F, buy F. I always buy F/J and think upgrades should be a thing of the past.

  11. its only a matter of time before airlines stop giving complimentary ugrades away and sell them to the highest bidder. You want first class guarenteed then pay for it. Adios “your upgrade has been cleared”.

  12. Yay! More chances for a poor schmuck like me to fly in style up front with the big boys (and ladies)! I like this site however OMMAT forgets how 99% of the world actually travels and it is not always first-class suites, 5* dining and private limo transportation. And yet we somehow find meaning and joy in life. Good for us!

  13. I flew biz class from FRA-IAD and it was half empty, my wife flew a few days later, flight was empty as well. They offered $550 plus miles and more $$ for others. On the way back before all the flights get cancelled it was 15000 miles no copay. I am United Gold.

  14. Who cares about majority of GS and 1K (I have seen and known) as they are travelers with contracted companies and their salaries wouldn’t afford to purchase direct first or Polaris.
    There will be tons of other travelers who can afford than GS and are willing pay for upgrades.
    In the end United is s private coorporation and it’s a revenue generating scheme.

  15. This is very short term thinking. In the coming weeks and months, those customers who will continue flying will be those who need to, those who travel for work, those with budgets to spend and with elite status. Souring that pool may make sense today for the bottom line but is setting themselves up for reciprocal disloyalty in the next few months as leisure flying dries up. Bad decision long term.

  16. Seriously the airlines need to get as much cash as they can. I appload this approach as a Silver Elite.

  17. I flew yesterday on United. I was on the upgrade list with one another. We are both gold members Instead of upgrading us, they left both seats empty. The gate agent refused to assign us upgrades. You could still buy the seats online for $219. This might explain a lot but still seems odd that they would leave the seats empty.

  18. don’t like it. It’s unfair to those who have purchased a first ticket at a much higher cost.

  19. I think one issue with UA selling upgrades at check in has been that UA offers it to a non-elite for say $50, but offers it to an elite for $200 or not at all.

    Although i have seen UA offer an update on ORD-DCA to anyone for $100. Once I took it, but not really worth it – with a bag of potato chips from the snack basket.

  20. I think these legacy carriers should just move away from their programs and go with a JetBlue type program with fixed point earnings based on revenue and fixed redemption value (with sometimes a little savings). There just is no point to the current system if elite flyers aren’t going to have seats available to upgrade and have to be worried about not getting upgraded and debating to use miles to do a mileage upgrade if space is available or one of the upgrade certificates depending on the program. Airlines are leaving money on the table because people are willing to pay for their first class or business class internationally just not the exorbitant rates they have to charge for international business because half the cabin is using miles or are elite upgrades. A lot of the domestic travel where people get status is unprofitable in the first place for many of the routes. Business people earning status on unprofitable routes and upgrading to international business class is costing these airlines. Airlines wouldn’t have to rely on credit card programs if they can be more profitable flying.

    The good thing about JetBlue is you know exactly what you get.

  21. Making PlusPoints even more useless. It’s almost impossible to confirm an upgrade at booking with them now.

  22. United are not doing anything different to airlines in the rest of the world. Outside of the USA if you want business class seats you pay, regardless of your status. The airlines don’t fill the empty business class seats with upgrades for status members. If they always fill the empty seats with free upgrades it discourages people from buying business class seats in the first place.
    If I paid for a business class seat and the cabin would otherwise be half empty it would also be really annoying to have the empty seats filled with people on free upgrades.

  23. I just hope they don’t go with their hands out for a bailout.

    They’ve nickel and dimed us for the last so many years years.

    If they don’t survive, let a start up give it a shot….God knows there would be a lot of aircraft available from repo’s.

  24. Dave G – 1k here on all personal travel. It pisses me off even more because I am completely loyal to the airline having nothing to do with corporate contracts. Also after the change to PlusPoints I would really like to understand how those waitlisted upgrades are prioritized. I have to assume they will never clear.

  25. This was predictable with the recent change in moving to their new point based upgrade system. Now less seat upgrades for the GS and 1K and Gold elites because everyone who flys less will use their points as soon as they earn any. Points also have problems in the connecting flights since it could cost you as many points for a 100 mile flight as for a 1500 mile flight if you aren’t able to get an upgrade on a long flight segment on a combination with one short and a long segment connecting itinerary. All this erodes the value more of the frequent flyer program

  26. Cool. Always loved when USAir did this. $50 or $60 up to the bigger seat up front while checking in. And that was until I think 2014.
    Nowadays on AA, it’s the same price just to pick a seat.
    As for FFs – get over it. Let us commoners up front.

  27. These ” elite” cry babies, ” oh i want it for free but i don’t want to pay for it” big wheels , stop being CHEAP !!!!

  28. United has been pushing me harder and harder in to the arms of spirit. At this point I don’t even care about getting million Miler which im close to. For the past couple of years I’ve been just buying f right from the start but they keep f’ing with the product and the loyalty program. These days I’ve mostly been flying spirit and paying for big front seat. It’s cheaper than economy on united even after I pay all their unbundled fees and frankly the crews are consistently much nicer. And boarding is so much faster because of how they charge for carry-on bags!

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