United Now Upgrading Pilots Before Paying Customers

Filed Under: United

If you’re a United frequent flyer, you may miss out on your next first class upgrade not due to another paying passenger, but due to a pilot…

United & pilots reached deal to avoid furloughs

Recently United Airlines and its pilot union reached an agreement that avoids any pilot furloughs through at least June 2021. Previously 2,850 pilots were supposed to be furloughed as of October 2020, when the first round of CARES Act funding ran out. 58% of pilots voted in favor of this new agreement.

As you might expect, there’s some compromises on both sides here:

  • Pilots had to agree to more limited flying hours, allowing the limited existing flying to be spread out across a lot more pilots (this translates into a significant reduction in pay for many pilots)
  • Once United again earns at least a 5% profit margin, pilots will get a one-time pay raise of 5%
  • Pilots temporarily have an improved scope clause, which limits the amount of flying that regional airlines can do on behalf of airlines

But there’s one other change that I wasn’t initially aware of, which could have long-term implications for United frequent flyers.

United Airlines has managed to avoid pilot furloughs for now

United pilots now get first class when deadheading

View from the Wing shares this tidbit from JP Morgan’s Jamie Baker:

“Pilots also achieved permanent, positive-space First Class deadheads, with stand-by eligibility before paying passengers, addressing a union goal dating back at least a decade (and effectively representing a devaluation of frequent flyer Elite benefits that travel bloggers haven’t picked up on ‒ yet).”

In other words, United Airlines pilots who are deadheading will now get first class seats ahead of any frequent flyers who are trying to upgrade. Frequent flyers can upgrade in all kinds of ways, from redeeming miles, to receiving complimentary space available upgrades within several days of departure.

There are a few things worth clarifying here:

  • Deadheading is when pilots are traveling as a passenger in order to position somewhere as part of a trip (in other words, a Chicago based pilot has his/her first flight out of San Francisco, so needs to deadhead from Chicago to San Francisco)
  • This is different than commuting, which is where a pilot is based at one airport, but chooses to live in another city, and then needs to commute to base (commuting is a choice, while deadheading can be part of a standard “trip” for pilots)
  • For short haul flights, pilots have historically only received first class on a space available basis after all other eligible customers have cleared upgrades; given how many passengers are eligible for upgrades, this meant first class upgrades were extremely rare for pilots

United pilots now get first class ahead of frequent flyers when deadheading

Is this policy change unreasonable?

With this change, I believe United will be the only major US airline where pilots get positive space first class on non-long haul flights (typically if a flight is over a certain length pilots at all airlines get positive space travel in a premium cabin).

I can see both sides to this. My primary issues are the following:

  • The optics are bad — no matter what line of business you’re in, it’s not a good look when you are denied something (in this case an upgrade) and it’s instead given to an employee
  • This is a permanent change, so long term this will make upgrades tougher in some situations
  • Taxpayers have given airlines billions in payroll support, and this is a time where the airline is introducing what’s objectively a customer-unfriendly policy

The argument on the other side is that:

  • Pilots are skilled professionals, so just as others may get elite status through their travel, it’s not unreasonable for pilots to get similar perks
  • It makes sense for pilots to be able to rest when deadheading, since they’ll potentially be piloting a flight afterwards, where they have others’ lives in their hands
  • Pilots finally have a chance to negotiate what they wanted, so they’d be stupid not to

Bottom line

If you see some pilots in uniform in first class on your next United flight even though there were lots of people on the upgrade list, now you know why. As part of current negotiations, pilots have managed to secure positive space first class when deadheading, while previously they only got first class after everyone on the upgrade list cleared.

This will no doubt lead to quite a few situations where pilots get first class, while those on the upgrade list don’t.

What do you make of United pilots now getting first class upgrades ahead of other passengers?

  1. This is reasonable and fair. Employees of many companies receive benefits whilst working which customers might not get.

  2. My Saftey is in pilots hands so I want pilots to be well rests and attentive when they do their job.

  3. “It makes sense for pilots to be able to rest when deadheading, since they’ll potentially be piloting a flight afterwards, where they have others’ lives in their hands”

    IMO this is the argument that plays most into their hands and understandably so. I’m not an expert, but doesn’t deadheading also include those flights positioning back to their base? If so, I wouldn’t really understand the need of having them be upgraded ahead of someone who should be more entitled to that seat.

  4. I’m generally okay with it because I’m not a UA FF and I would prefer a rested, relaxed pilot at the controls of all my flights, especially if they had to deadhead. But what this really tells me is that the pilots union and United are aware of just how shitty UA’s Y/Y+ experience truly is that pilots won’t/shouldn’t be flying it.

  5. So in UA admitting that economy seats are stressful and uncomfortable, and thus shouldn’t be used by professionals expected to work at their destination?

  6. You say pilots are “given” these seats. But it sounds like the pilots are paying for these with a concession in hours worked. I suspect they would have been happy to keep their wages and the coach seats. As mentioned previously if you want a first class seat they are still for sale.

    I never understood the airlines giving away their best product. When you go to a steak house and order hamburger do you expect to get the prime rib for free as an upgrade?

  7. @ Ben — What Justin said. Upgrades were effectively eliminated as a UA elite benefit when CO took over. That is why we rarely fly UA.

  8. Delta pilots have had this in their contract for years, but only for transoceanic flights.
    i.e., if they were deadheading from CDG-ATL they would have a positive space upgrade, but if they were deadheading from ATL-MSP they would more than likely be in the back.

  9. I’m confused by the mechanics of “standby eligibility ahead of paying passengers” bit. Positive space deadhead I understand (the seat is removed from upgrade inventory since the pilot is confirmed into it at time of booking). Does the standby bit mean that pilots non-revving (not deadheading) will be added to the upgrade list in front of paying passengers? Or that deadhead pilots booked on flights where first is already sold out will have F waitlist priority over paying passengers?

  10. Will they now de-upgrade people when there’s a list minute change on the flight a pulpit is dead heading on?

  11. GS here. Considering that this is for deadheading, I think it’s totally fair. To me, getting to the job is part of the job.

  12. @Gene, I used to be a CO plat (highest tier Onepass provided that wasn’t by invitation) and almost got upgraded on every domestic flight out of EWR. After the merge, somehow it was a lot harder to get an upgrade especially between CO-UA hubs. Anyways, I do think domestic first class fares are a lot more affordable nowadays compared to 10 years ago so I agree with others that if you want the seat, just buy or pay the upgrade for that seat.

  13. How often is this even relevant? My understanding is that they were previously entitled to upgrade instantly when space is available on 3-8 hour flights, and they were already guaranteed business on 8+ hour flights. If so, this change would only make a difference from the prior policy for 3-8 hour flights that were full in business but something opens up close to departure. Out of the 1,000’s of United flights/day under normal circumstances, how many of them are within the 3-8 hour time frame AND have a deadheading pilot AND were completely full in business at the time the pilot booked the flight AND have a seat open up for the waitlist? The average elite flyer may never lose an upgrade due to this. Even if so, as a 1K (former GS), if it helps improve the labor difficulties brought about by the pandemic, I’m all for it.

  14. Air Canada fills front cabins with non-revs first all the time. Not just pilots

    The point here is that pilots – i.e. employees – are now at the top of the priority list for upgrades, above both rev and non-rev pax. I personally don’t care since I’m not a UA frequent flyer, except to the extent that this sets a precedent for U.S. carriers…

  15. Surely it is about time airlines recognize the frequent flier status of pilots.
    Pilots have the ultimate frequent flier status level.
    They travel for business just like the rest of us,
    Only they measure their travels in hours vs miles.
    They need to be well rested for their next “meeting”

  16. @ah: that actually happened to me recently: I was notified (via the United app) that I had been upgraded to first class (morning flight to CUN) but, as I was about to board, I was informed that my upgrade had been pulled. I couldn’t get a straight answer from the gate agent as to why. The whole thing became a cluster*ck because they couldn’t re-assign me the Economy Plus seat I had prior to the upgrade (since it had been assigned to someone else) and I couldn’t be seated on an exit row seat because I was traveling with my infant son. After 15+ minutes of dealing with the (rude) gate check-in agent, I ended up with a crap seat (middle seat, to boot) but the agent ended up issuing me a $500 travel voucher for future use. The boarding agent was the only one honest enough to explain what actually happened (I was bumped out of first class by the pilot deadheading to CUN) and that was that.

  17. Wow, not only is this insulting to UA elite members but it’s also insulting to the other labor groups at the company.

    Way to build a cohesive team, United.
    (sarcasm intended)

  18. To be fair, these pilots are booked into first class to begin with (unless its full to begin with), and have enjoyed this benefit when traveling to and from training for almost a decade.

  19. To best understand the impact of this change, data is needed. For example, if only .5% of all seats otherwise available to FF’er is taken, then the impact to any single FF is low. If it’s 50% of all seats, that’s a huge impact. I’m guessing it’s closer to the former than the latter.

  20. @Bill – not true on a permanent basis. Hours will theoretically come back eventually, this is a “permanent” policy change

  21. First off – I work for a major consumer products corporation. Yes, I do get some benefit of products which my company makes. However, I DO NOT receive that benefit at the expense of our customers. If inventory is low, I get nothing. Customers first!

  22. It only makes sense if the pilots are flying to work. Maybe from work as well. But if it’s just leisure or for fun as they get those benefits as well as my friends who work for airlines, then even pilots shouldn’t have priority than the elite customers who paid to reach that level. Simply because the message it sends to them aren’t very customer friendly to me. All about company benefits but only for work related makes sense.

  23. Decades long 1K here. This pure BS IMHO. Putting employees over high revenue, higher profit, loyal, paying customers?? No successful consumer facing product or services company puts its employees over the customer in their right minds. But, UA is not exactly a successful company. Way back when, LUA gave the pilots partial ownership of the company, the pilots got priority F seating over customers, and the airline went bankrupt shortly thereafter. History repeating itself?

  24. Delta and American crewmembers enjoy this benefit on international flights as well. They are also guaranteed water on the flight, which takes away from customers!

  25. @ Justin

    I also agree if you want it buy it. I work for a major airline and I am so sick of the little elites who get upset when they don’t get a upgrade. I rarely non rev, so I buy my seats so most of the time coach, and if I get a upgrade great if not oh well, if I wanted it I should have bought it

  26. So first off this is deadheading only, ehoch means they are on the clock and doing that for work, not for fun. Second, deadheading is not very common and this wont change alot. If you want first class then buy it or upgrad a head of time. This seems like they will only be upgraded at the gate. Also to the people saying that they should pay that makes no sense, why should they have to pay for a seat that they are required to be in for their job?

  27. Seems completely fair, and an inexpensive concession by the company for pilots who are accepting massive pay cuts. This is for deadheading only – travel that is being required by the company, for a smaller pilot roster that will likely have even more deadhead travel demanded of them in the future. I

    The next couple years see going to require all of us who have the privilege of flying at all to stop taking everything for granted, especially non-guaranteed ancillary benefits like the occasional status upgrade.

  28. 1. “Deadheading” is part of the working crew. It’s “on the clock”, not vacation, leisure, fun. Deadheaders are working.

    2. UA Pilots are positive space in F Class only while deadheading. If they’re non-rev (traveling on their own time, commuting, vacation, etc.) they’re upgraded only if there’s an empty seat, and even then, by company seniority, meaning that other company employees who are senior will be upgraded ahead of the pilots.

    3. Deadheading is rare. In my career of 30 years, I’ve deadheaded as much as three times a year. Pilots and Flight Attendants are being paid full pay for every hour aloft, including deadheading. UA doesn’t want to pay people who aren’t physically working. So schedules are built to minimize deadheading as much as possible. Again, deadheading a pilot is rare.

    This will have a very tiny effect on upgrades. For a person who flies 500,000 miles a year, it might happen to them once every few years… maybe. So while some may think it’s dead wrong to “put employees ahead of customers”, the ramifications are so slight as to be nearly immeasurable, making their objections, in my opinion, a tempest in a teapot.

  29. I demand an upgrade. I’m #11 on the list any chance of an upgrade today. The cabin is already checked in full. I better go check with the gate agent just to make sure.

  30. no problem here since UA first class cabin is below average anyway,
    if Etihad or Emirates do this then someone will cry…LOL

  31. Flying right now sucks in general. Being crammed into economy on a full flight during the pandemic is stressful. I flew in first yesterday and the guy next to me left his mask off for 25 minutes while he sipped a Jack and coke and coughed intermittently. I had to ask him to put his mask back on between sips. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “but I’m following the rules.” I’m not surprised the US infection rate is high.

  32. As a (pre-Covid) once-a month domestic United flyer (i.e. never getting past Gold and totally fine with that), I am mature enough to know that my upgrade benefits are for an opportunity for an upgrade, not a guarantee. You never know who is going to make a last minute flight change, so until you get a seat assignment, it’s not a sure thing (barring equipment change).

    Honestly, for my kind of predictable business travel that I can buy in advance, buying my own domestic first is not that expensive, nor usually are single leg upgrades, so I don’t have much sympathy for the ungrateful. And, honestly, I’d rather lose my upgrade to a pilot on a tough run than one of those GS pax that flys no more than me but got it as a corporate benefit.

  33. I work in UA pilot scheduling and this will be something I will be dealing with very soon.

    The pilots will only get first class AT THE TIME OF BOOKING, which in most cases is far in advance. Nobody will be bumped from their paid seat for a pilot to sit first class (unless long hall in which case it is contractual).

  34. Ahh this explains my last flight. I was #1 and my friend traveling on my reservation was #2 on the upgrade list with 10 open seats. Next thing we know we aren’t upgraded because all 10 seats are taken by United staff who were also on the standby list as well. I’m not mad I guess but definitely clears up that part of why that happened. Never seen that before honestly.

  35. It’s up to the airlines and within their right to do so. I know at one time even F/A deadheading got P/S First, but I think that is no longer in their contract. I even used to get P/S in First on UA when I worked for UAX Sales when traveling on company business (my superior though only got S/A Coach because they didn’t like him… Haha). UA also gives P/S to individuals flying in for a job interview. Delta also does the same — P/S First even for individuals that are flying in for an entry level job interview! So nothing surprising here – it’s not unheard of within the industry. They just don’t advertise this and for good reason!

  36. I have the same concern as @ah and @marcos. I have no issue not getting upgraded so a deadheading pilot can rest enroute. But I too would be upset if I were upgraded, then de-upgraded and put in a worse economy seat than I had to start, especially if I had given up an exit row or extra-legroom seat, and especially if I had paid extra for it.
    They should give that good seat back to me and whomever got it after I did should have to take the crappy seat. But sometimes their systems can’t seem to do that. If its a quick one hour hop with no delays I can get over it, but on a longer flight I wouldn’t like it.

  37. Re: Bob says:
    “Air Canada fills front cabins with non-revs first all the time. Not just pilots.”

    That is simply not true for non-revs other than most pilots on business travel (which includes deadheading.) Note, these seats are always available for $$ tickets first, should anyone want to book them.

  38. @Milage Runner: I am also a decades long lifetime 1K and a CO Infinite Elite before that. I do buy P class often so I do not have to play the battlefield upgrade game. It’s a fact of flying: Upgrades are harder to get than they were in the good old days.

    What I truly resent is your nasty characterization of top revenue producers/best customers who pay your paycheck as “little elites” (insinuating with scorn that we are looking for a handout). Whichever “major airline” it is you work for would be better off without your attitude towards its best customers. I hope you are tucked away on the ramp and away from the paying passengers.

  39. I do not understand frequent flyers who refer to the potential upgrade as their “right”. The first class seats are available for purchase- and if you purchase it you will go ahead of both upgrades and pilots. However, you MAY be eligible for an upgrade based on the travel that your company purchases for you. The company that is United Airlines is now providing that perk for their employees that operate their $100 million dollar asset aircraft. I guarantee those pilots have more miles than you!

  40. It’s not uncommon for an employer to provide premium cabin travel for certain employees’ business travel… It’s no different when an airline does it. United is buying its pilots premium cabin travel when they fly for work, just like many other companies buy some employees premium tickets.

  41. It would have been nice if UA would cap the number of pilots deadheading in First…. On some flights Ive seen up to 7 pilots deadheading… On a A319 that would be most of the First cabin!

  42. Funny seeing this today as I just flew this morning on UA and had 2pilots in J on the 787-10. Dead heading to Newark

    Btw for anyone wondering AA is far better premium transcon option during Covid. Printed menu, 4 entree options, fresh fruit plate and cheese plate United had none of that today

  43. If you want a first class seat, then pay for a first class seat.

    Any upgrade whether free or gained by using your miles or points is a benefit and not a guarantee. If you want something, buy it.

    Same for hotels – I’m top tier for all major chains, but I don’t expect to get upgraded to a suite every time I book a standard room. Airline are not different.

    You are not entitled to a first class seat if you buy economy. You are entitled to a first class seat when you buy first class.

    Case closed. Rant over.

  44. There has got to be a better way to reward loyalty than upgrades. Without lounge access and a guaranteed warm meal, F seats are not what they should be, and those who think they deserve an upgrade simply because their company buys them a lot of tickets have a big head. Personally, I’d rather get a $$ rebate on every ticket purchased to be used on future cash fares, as the value would then be material to me. An upgrade is always of dubious value, as airlines do not value price F seats.

  45. Good for the UA pilots. First Class seats are still available for passengers who actually PAY for them.

  46. Everyone saying whoever wants a first class seat should buy one does not get the point of this website.

  47. I work for United. I can fly standby for free. I frequently purchase a first class ticket for myself instead because I like a confirmed seat and I prefer first class. I also have frequent flyer status that usually gets me somewhere in the middle of the upgrade list when I buy an economy ticket, but prior to this year, hasn’t gotten me an actual upgrade. It’s been over a decade since I received an upgrade when deadheading since there are so rarely seats available. If the pilots were able to negotiate this perk in exchange for their enormous pay cut, good for them. Deadheading used to be rare, but in Covid World, almost every trip has at least one segment of deadhead and sometimes several. If they’re going to spend so much time in a passenger seat, they might as well have a little leg room.

  48. You had me at “The optics are bad”. Somehow (eventually) this is going to keep many of you out of an F seat. Let the whining resume. This is a permanent change. That detail is the kicker.

  49. The choice is easy, if United puts customers last, I’ll just start flying another airline.. Pilots will have all the premium space that they want, but maybe will be more difficult for them to actually keep their jobs

  50. I am a United Captain and I commute to work on my own airline. Many times I have purchased 1st class tickets to get to work. I also have status with United, so I do get upgraded, just like everyone else. I know a lot of pilots that do the same. Chances are if you see a pilot in First, but their name is not on the upgrade list, they likely were booked in First and paid that that ticket.

  51. Ben, you should have contacted the United pilots’ union to get the correct details. You did not get the entire story.

    Deadheading pilots only go in front of COMPLIMENTARY upgrades. If you use points or miles, you’re still in front of pilots.

    And since most of the time that pilots are deadheading, it’s a last minute schedule change, pilots will only get an F seat if there are seats available. That mean thatif complimentary upgrades cleared the list 24/48/72 hours prior to the flight, they will not be bumped by a deadheading pilot.

    I don’t know your source of this information, but they obviously did not show you in writing the specifics of the agreement. It’s not as liberal as you make it out to be.

  52. @Luana – They aren’t putting you last! You simply may not get a complimentary upgrade. If you want that first class seat, just buy it.

    But hey, give Spirit a try, I’ve heard the experience is entertaining. I’m sure United won’t miss you.

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