“You’ve been upgraded.” Ah, no sweeter words have ever been spoken.
But no matter how much you fly, no matter how many Elite and Million Miler bag tags decorate your weathered briefcase, chances are you’ll be hearing those sweet sounds much less frequently.
I’m a victim of the trend myself. As your million-miler editor here at Proud American Traveler, I’m here to tell you why — and what you’ll need to do if you hope to ever sit up front.
Congratulations on Being Special. Now Go Sit in the Back.
It’s pretty simple really. If you want to sit in first class, the airlines expect you to now pay for the privilege — even if you’re “Super-Duper Elite”.
Never an industry to pass up on an opportunity to squeeze more cash out of its much-abused customers, the airlines have decided it’s just not good economics to give away their best product for free.
I’m kind of surprised it took them this long to catch on.
Just a few years ago, Delta claims only 13% of first class passengers paid for the privilege. Those seats were usually given away for free to frequent flyers as a reward for brand loyalty.
For me personally, I’d estimate that ten years ago, I scored a Delta upgrade 80% of the time when I was Diamond Elite and close to 50% of the time when I was Gold Elite.
In 2019? Not so much.
As I write this, I am sitting in a Delta first class seat — the first Delta upgrade I’ve received this year.
And it is almost July.
And I fly almost every day.
So much for loyalty.
But this change is explained by simple economics.
When Delta and the other major airlines were selling only 13% of their first class seats, they were pricing them at ridiculous fares — as much as 10 times the price of a coach seat.
Look, I enjoy a little more legroom, a tiny bag of mixed nuts, and a can or two of lukewarm Heineken as much as the next guy.
But it ain’t worth a thousand bucks.
Back then, the only person who actually paid for first class was that flashy wannabe rich guy trying to impress his latest trophy wife on a weekend trip to Cancun.
(Really rich people don’t subject themselves to commercial flights at all — and don’t vacation in Cancun. But I digress.)
First Class is on Sale
In recent years, the airlines have decided that rather than reward their loyal elite flyers, they would rather lower the price of first class so they can sell those seats to ordinary passengers who either aren’t elite and/or not necessarily trying to impress anyone.
Even some of my redneck friends who rarely fly now spring for first class when they come to visit me.
“I hardly ever fly and it was only a couple hundred bucks extra for first class, so I figured what the heck,” they tell me when I pick them up at the airport. “Besides, I wanted to get a head start on the weekend drinking competition.”
I have to admit — fairly compelling and rational reasons to splurge on first class.
Delta reports that over 60% of first class passengers now pay, remember it was only 13% just a few years ago. The goal is to get to 80%.
Unfortunately, as more infrequent flyers opt to pay for the big seats up front, fewer of those seats are available for free upgrades to frequent flyers like me.
What is one and a half million miles and 25 years of brand loyalty worth?
Apparently, not much.
The hope for an upgrade was one of the few tangible benefits of the loyalty I’ve shown to Delta and American Airlines over the past two decades.
Not that I am bitter or anything…
Fewer Upgrades for Elites, More “Elites” than Ever
And it’s not just fewer seats available for upgrades.
The other part of the equation has changed too. There are more so called “Elite Frequent Flyers” than ever.
Sound money advocates bemoan the mission of the Federal Reserve which prints money by arbitrarily expanding the money supply and manipulating interest rates which then drives inflation. The result is you may feel richer if you have more dollars in your wallet — but they don’t buy you as much.
Well, Delta Airlines is the Federal Reserve of “elite” status.
Good news: You are “Super Special Medallion Elite.”
Bad news: So are 110 of your fellow 145 passenger on this flight.
Thanks. I feel so special…
While Gold Elite used to score me a first class upgrade about half the time, now I don’t ever bother to check the upgrade list.
Congratulations. You are #87 on the upgrade list for the only two first class seats available for an upgrade.
As airlines give away “elite” status to every Schmo who applies for an airline branded credit card, the Gold Medallion and red Million Miler bag tags on my luggage are about as worthless as the Blockbuster Video card I still carry in my wallet.
Increase Your Odds
There are still a few strategies that might work to score one of those rarer and rarer free upgrades.
First, don’t fly Delta.
While all the airlines are squeezing their best customers out of the first class cabin, nobody is stingier than Delta. If you are an elite with American, United, or Alaska, you have a better chance of occasionally scoring a seat up front.
Second, avoid the big hubs.
Over the past decade, the airlines have eliminated many of their secondary connecting hubs and dropped point-to-point direct flights in an effort to funnel everyone onto connecting flights through one big hub.
The airlines have also shed capacity and raised fares to purposely squeeze low fare paying vacationers off their planes.
After all, that is what Allegiant and Spirit are for. I hear they have really cheap fares to Cancun.
The big boys only want higher paying frequent business travelers on their planes.
The result is that if you are connecting through Atlanta on Delta, 80% of your fellow passengers are likely to have elite status just like you, which means don’t even bother to ask about an upgrade.
However, if you can get one of those rare Delta flights that fly OVER Atlanta directly to Boston (where I am heading right now), you’ll have less competition from other elites for the upgrade.
It’s Actually Pretty Simple…
So there you go. You just read a 1,000 word article explaining why no, you are not getting an upgrade on today’s flight.
But as I’ve explained previously, if you want to understand the policies and behavior of the airlines, the only theory that works consistently is…
…the airlines HATE their customers.
And if you have been a loyal frequent customer for decades, then they REALLY hate you.
If the airlines can dream up a way to make your life more miserable — or deny you the modest pleasure of a lukewarm Heineken — they’ll find a way to do it.
The airlines hate you.
Don’t overthink it.