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Unlimited Free Upgrades on United? Really?

Dear Tim—

I need your expert frequent flyer advice to confirm something. I got this email from United, where I have Premier status:

Upgrades. They’re complimentary. They’re unlimited. They’re yours.

Dear Erica,

Unlimited Domestic Upgrades are here! Starting today, you can enjoy this exclusive new privilege. We’ll automatically request an upgrade for you and up to one companion on every eligible domestic flight you book on United. If an upgrade seat is available, it’s yours—with our compliments.

Does this mean that I’ll never get upgraded because there will always be higher elite people on the flight who will get priority? I can book Economy Plus, so I’m mostly happy, but they’re touting this promotion like it’s some great thing and I’m very skeptical.


Dear Erica—

What’s being promoted here is United’s new elite upgrade policy, which took effect on March 19.

It has become standard industry practice to tout these upgrades using such adjectives as “complimentary” and “unlimited.” The all-important qualifier that never makes it into the headline is “space-available.”

You will almost certainly have considerable difficulty being upgraded on United flights as a Premier member, since that’s the lowest of United’s three elite levels. On the priority list, Premier elites are behind paying first-class customers, of course, as well as United Global Services, 1K, and Premier Executive members.

And it will get worse before it gets better. With the new reciprocal frequent flyer relationship between United and Continental, United Premier members also have lower upgrade priority than Continental Platinum and Gold elites.

It’s not only your entry-level elite status that’s the problem.

During 2009, United and other larger airlines awarded double elite-qualifying miles for fully half the year. Even with the fall-off in travel due to the global economic slump, those extra miles surely will have swelled the ranks of elite-level Mileage Plus members.

Compounding the problem, the airlines’ capacity cuts over the past two years have disproportionately affected first-class seating. That’s because downgrading from a wide-body jet to a narrow body not only reduces the absolute number of first-class seats, but also the ratio of first-class to coach seats. And downgrading to a regional jet often results in the loss of first-class seating altogether.

So yes, United’s promise is more marketing than substance.

On the other hand, if you fly often enough, you should snag the occasional upgrade that you wouldn’t have enjoyed without your elite status.

Just before filing this, I heard back from Erica with a follow-up on her first experience of United’s new upgrade policy, as follows: “On my travels this weekend, I was 13 in line out of 17 for an upgrade between San Francisco and Washington, so obviously that didn’t happen. I did technically get an upgrade from Washington to Boston on some larger-than-average regional jet with six ‘first class seats’ that were more like Economy Plus. Also, didn’t get upgraded today from Boston to San Francisco, where tons of first class and elite people boarded before me—I’m sure I didn’t have a prayer there either.”

So, of her three flights, Erica was not upgraded on the two cross-country flights—where a comfortable seat would have been most meaningful—and she was upgraded to a marginally more comfortable seat on the shortest of her three flights, between Washington and Boston.

That’s not much reward for her loyalty. And it’s certainly not what the average English-speaker would expect to be delivered when the promise was of “unlimited” upgrades.

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