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Elite Upgrades Reconsidered

One of the most widely read of my recent columns dealt with the subject of elite upgrades. Specifically, it attempted to answer the following question: Are domestic upgrades sufficiently available to elite frequent flyer program members to justify the considerable effort required to earn elite status?

To research this column, I put out a request for feedback from elite members. My expectation, as I divulged in the story, was that we would be deluged with tales of woe. In fact, the responses were overwhelmingly positive, suggesting that rumors of widespread discontent among elite frequent flyers were overblown. The article concluded that, according to our sample, upgrades were in adequate supply.

Then the e-mails began pouring in. If the original survey respondents were all aye-sayers, those who e-mailed their comments on the story were all naysayers. According to the second wave of feedback, upgrades were scarce as hens’ teeth; our survey takers were stooges for the airlines; and your average supermarket eggplant has a higher IQ than I do.

So it seemed that a reality check was called for. Accordingly, we re-posed the question: “In the past year, how often have you been upgraded on domestic flights: all the time, most of the time, half of the time, not much, or never?” And for context, we asked responders to identify the program in which they held elite status and their elite level. Once again, the results may indeed surprise you.

The verdict: Round two

The original article concluded as follows: “In any case, the verdict is in and the airlines have been absolved of over-promising upgrades. If you were wondering whether elite status is worth pursuing, as I was, you can upgrade your expectations.” The second round of feedback paints the same overall picture, but adds some telling detail.

With more information regarding respondents’ memberships, the disparity between the upgrade policies of American and United and those of Continental, Delta, Northwest, and US Airways became more clearly defined. A telling story is that of Randy B., an elite member of four airlines, who reported that he was upgraded 100 percent of the time on Northwest, 75 percent on Delta, and 50 percent on United, and never upgraded on American.

American and United do not promise their elite members “unlimited complimentary” upgrades, as do the other mainline carriers. At American, Gold and Platinum members receive complimentary upgrades only when traveling on full-fare coach tickets; Executive Platinum members can upgrade from cheaper fares. And at United, all elites must purchase full-fare coach tickets to receive free upgrades. These restrictive approaches to upgrading elites put American and United at a significant competitive disadvantage and result in some disgruntled elite fliers.

Another find was that the decrease in first-class seats, often due to the airlines’ downsizing to smaller aircraft, has made it discernibly more difficult to upgrade in some cases. One flyer says that she “was upgraded most of the time on Continental until they reduced the size of the first class cabin on many of their planes earlier this year.” This trend will continue and should be monitored to see if the negative impact on upgrades begins to grow.

And finally, as a number of elite respondents noted, there are measures that frequent flyers can (and should) take to maximize their odds of receiving upgrades. One Continental traveler revealed his strategy: “I plan my travel to increase the probability of getting upgraded, choosing aircraft that have more first-class seats and avoiding regional (commuter) jets like the plague they are.”

The feedback: Round two

I’ve broken the feedback down by airline, so you can see how your airline fares against its competitors in upgrade generosity.

American: Predictably, since American limits complimentary upgrades to full-fare tickets, both the number of respondents and the level of satisfaction were low, considering the sheer size of the AAdvantage program. But Peter, a Platinum member of American’s program, received upgrades two-thirds of the time, “almost always into or out of ORD (Chicago).” He also reminds us that there are other reasons to pursue elite status: “In-flight first-class food and service are really poor these days (on par with coach about 20 years ago), but the elite check-in lines, phone agents, and extra first-class seat width and pitch are invaluable.”

Continental: Our respondents’ experience with Continental ranged from receiving upgrades 50 percent of the time (from Chris E., a six-year Platinum elite) to “most of the time” (name withheld). While the success rates were generally high, the overall perception was that upgrades were becoming harder to find. Chris, for example, contrasted his current 50-percent success rate with a 90-percent rate just a year ago.

Delta: Our Delta SkyMiles elites found upgrades plentiful. Dr. Ben T., a Silver Medallion member, is “nearly always” upgraded. Don L. is upgraded 80 percent of the time, and Wayne W. received upgrades 75 percent of the time between Tampa and Atlanta. But that Tampa-to-Atlanta flight is only a connection to Wayne’s Europe trips—much longer flights, where an upgrade would be more meaningful. But, Wayne found upgrades on Delta’s Europe services much harder to come by.

Northwest: Results for Northwest elites were overwhelmingly positive. Rob C. reported receiving upgrades 80 to 90 percent of the time, adding, “It’s tough to find frequent flyer seats without using ‘rule buster’ awards, but I really enjoy riding up front.” Susan H., a Gold WorldPerks member, soon to be Platinum, says, “I’m upgraded most of the time on Northwest, and about half the time on Continental. I am very satisfied with the benefits of my elite status with Northwest.”

Roger S. in Sacramento was “very happy” that his status with Northwest merited upgrades on Continental. And, Jeanne J. was similarly impressed with Northwest. “They were wonderful to me and I was upgraded on all but one flight (out of 10). When I wasn’t upgraded I was given the best seats available and in one case, sat next to a gentleman with a higher status than I had who obviously didn’t get upgraded.”

United: As a result of United’s more restrictive program, Ian D., a 1K member, can only upgrade by using his annual allotment of upgrade certificates. “I have to use eCoupons (500 miles, Confirmed Regional, Confirmed Systemwide),” he says. “As a result of this (the lack of adequate coupons) I usually travel in coach for the second half of the year.”

Carole S. in Chicago finds herself upgraded about half the time, but still appreciates the total package of elite benefits. “Besides upgrades, I find it useful to be an elite for the other perks: dedicated reservationists on the phone; special elite check-ins at the airport; use of the airline lounge if I’m flying internationally; dedicated elite security lines, etc. It saves time, stress, and makes for a better, more comfortable experience.”

US Airways: Many US Airways elites claim to be upgraded most of the time, but often this is the result of careful planning. Gold member Jason M. was “upgraded on US Airways most of the time over the last year. I have flown 75 or 80 flight segments with US Airways so far this year, and although many of the new regional jets have no first-class seating, of the 50 or 60 flight segments I have had on the big jets, I can count on one hand the number of times I have not been upgraded.”

Jason stresses that his success is no accident. “[It] is partly the result of carefully selecting flights—for example, taking a connecting flight rather than a direct flight, or checking whether you can choose a different airplane by flying at a different time. The most stark example is that sometimes you have a choice between a 757 (eight first-class seats, almost impossible to upgrade) or a 321 (26 first class seats, much easier!).”

Chairman’s Preferred member Virginia N. also mentions that “around Spring Break and Easter it was rather difficult [to upgrade].” US Airways Gold member Carol B. also is upgraded most of the time, but warns of clouds on the horizon. “Opportunities for upgrades are fewer and more far between, due to the increased use of regional jets on US Airways. On my two transcontinental trips I used miles to upgrade in advance, not trusting the seats to be available 24 hours before the flights.”

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