Pat's Travel Reviews

Has United Changed Their Upgrade Policy?

I do not think the answer is 100% yes, but for sure they have changed how passengers are being upgraded since the beginning of the year. (For an updated review on this subject visit;  )  Back in March or April I read a few articles or messages on forums about how 1K members (fly 100,000 miles in a year) were complaining about not getting upgraded. I assumed most of this was due to the United/Continental merger. But a few were saying they were not being upgraded because United was taking people who were paying for upgrades ahead of them. I had read, and United did state that there was a problem. That some 1K’s were not even on the upgrade list and this was due to the merger and they were fixing the problem. I personally did not experience any of these issue’s on any flight I had taken and think I was upgraded on almost every flight I took on United this year up until September. I have not heard anything regarding 1K’s not getting upgraded or United changing how people were being upgraded since then. But that may be because I haven’t read any forums or articles related to this.

Then, in early September I was on a flight from SAN to DEN. The aircraft I was on was a 757 that has 24 First Class seats. Two days before departure I realized I hadn’t received a notice about being upgraded. So I looked at the seat map and saw there were only a handful of seats available in First. I thought, Wow, United must be doing well selling so many First Class seats. The next day when I checked in online I looked at the upgrade list (this can be done 24 hr. prior to departures by looking at the flight status). To my amazement some 18 people had been upgraded ahead of me. I know a few may be using Miles, Global Premier Upgrades or Regional upgrades, but I have flown on a 757 between these two cities maybe 100 times the last 20 years and I can not recall once where I was not upgraded on a 757. So I called reservations and asked how this many people were upgraded ahead of me. Were there that many 1K’s and Global Service (above 1K – not sure how you qualify) on that flight? She said not really and that people used a variety of upgrades and that is how they were upgraded. She also told me I could use one of my regional upgrades and she could upgrade me immediately. I found that odd and declined as I did not think it was worth it for a two hour flight, plus there were three seats still available. I was upgraded the next morning, but that was the first occasion I saw that what I had read earlier in the year may be true.

Around that time I purchased a ticket to Brussels and back from LHR. I used two Global Upgrades (old Systemwide’s). I was upgraded on all legs except SAN to EWR. When I bought this ticket all twelve seats in First were free. I assumed since I was using a certificate it would be no problem getting upgraded. Well, a few weeks before the flight left there were only a few seats left in First and when I checked in there was only 1 seat left. Again, I looked at the upgrade list and saw that six people had been upgraded ahead of me. Now I was confused because this time I was using a certificate and still it was like my status meant nothing. I was not upgraded on this flight and did not bother to inquire about it as I figured Global Services Members may have gotten them. Plus, between these two flights I was upgraded on two flights to and from IAH and figured that in both the flight to DEN and to EWR it was just due to circumstances.

However, in the last three weeks I have had four separate instances where there is proof that United is at the very least is trying to do away with complimentary upgrades and seems to have gained a lot more Global Service and 1K Members. In mid October I was flying from SFO to SAN. I have taken this route many times whether in the Bay Area or connecting thru SFO. Typically I am upgraded on this route. I had flown up to SFO from LAX on Delta (was upgraded as a Gold Member) and was returning a day later. I again noticed I wasn’t upgraded and looked at seat map and saw a few seats free. The aircraft was an A320 with 12 seats in First. The strange thing was when I checked in for my flight I was offered an upgrade to First for $128 (or around that amount). I had never seen this before and since I receive complimentary upgrades I just proceeded (I wouldn’t pay $128 for an hour flight anyway). When I looked at the list I was shocked to see I was 9th on the upgrade list. Now I became concerned as never in all the years I have flown United have I been that far down on the upgrade list. My first thought was United is changing the way they are upgrading and it is no longer based on status, rather on fare or some other criteria. I decided to call United 1K Customer Service as I assumed I was not the only one asking about this. In addition, if United was changing how they upgrade 1K’s then maybe I would stop flying them for the year. It will be hard for me to re-qualify for 1K this year and I am Premier Platinum for life (as a 2 Million Miler). So why go out of the way to reach the 100,000 mile level if one of the main benefits is no longer available. The agent did not have any insight and said she had not heard of anyone addressing this issue. She also agreed that it was unlikely that many 1K’s and Global Service members where on that flight. She did state something about list being based on fare (my fare was relatively low). But in general she was no help. When I arrived at the airport I saw that now I was 11th on the upgrade list. So I again asked in the United Club. The agent said that it is based on fare and that she knew they were TRYING TO DO AWAY WITH COMPLIMENTARY UPGRADES. I said all I want to know is who is ahead of me. If all 1K’s and GS then fine, this is just a busy route with 1K and Global Service flying and I have no problem if United is selling that many 1st Class seats and has that many Elite members (well a little problem with that, because seems way more now than earlier in the year). But the upgrade policy has always been based on status then within each status based on fare, when you checked in, bought ticket, etc. As I was leaving the desk the agent told me all ahead were GS & 1K’s. So I felt better about that. Then at the gate I heard another passenger complaining about being a 1K and not getting treated properly. So I went to eavesdrop. Turns out he was complaining about being in a middle seat. But since I was there I asked the gate agent. He again said, list is based on fare. But I said I wanted to know if only 1K’s and GS ahead of me or other levels with higher fares? He looked and said only 1K (not sure I believed him). Anyway, I was 12th on list by time flight left.

The very next week, I again was flying from SFO to SAN (connecting from a USAir flight). This time a little less than a week beofre my departure I was sent an e-mail telling me there was space free in First for my SFO -SAN flight and I could use miles to upgrade. I have never received this kind of e-mail or notice. At this point I did realize United is trying not to give complimentary upgrades. When I checked in I noticed that only a few people had been upgraded and of the 8 seats in First most were sold. I am not sure why United’s A319’s only have eight first class seats, but that is another story. I actually usually try to avoid flying this aircraft for that reason (and also because there is no overhead space in First). By the time the flight left I was 15th on the upgrade list.

This last Monday I flew from DFW to SAN and again was way down the list on the DFW- IAH flight (I think #6 – again a A319). I was upgraded from IAH to SAN, but two days prior to departure and 15 people or so had been upgraded ahead of me (aircraft was 757 with 24 seats in First).

Then two days ago I purchased a ticket to Honolulu and was able to upgrade both flights using my Regional Upgrades. The point here is on the return flight to LAX there were only 6 seats free in first class (out of 24) and there were still 4 seats available to upgrade using miles or certs. They do not want to let someone upgrade for free.

My concern is not that United may be selling more first class seats (I own their stock – that is good), but rather they are not rewarding those that have earned certain status. They are clearly trying to upgrade passengers that are willing to pay, use miles, or certificates. I am even OK with that to a certain point. They have a right to make money. But if they loose their most loyal customers doing that, then it is not a way to make more money.

I am also not trying to whine about not being upgraded. I paid for a coach ticket and if I don’t get upgraded than so be it. But I have been a 1K with United for the last 15 years and I can only think of two occasions where if I was not upgraded in advance that I was not in the first few on the upgrade list at the airport. And for all of a sudden in the last month and a half to have such a drastic change is upsetting and reason to consider switching loyalties. Just these past two days I was upgraded on Alaska Airlines flights to and from SEA with my Delta status and I am only Gold.

If it is getting this hard to get upgraded as a 1K then it must be almost impossible for Premier Platinum’s, Gold’s and Silver’s, and in the long run that may not be good for United.

If anyone has any insight or comments on this subject please feel free to say so in comment section.

2 thoughts on “Has United Changed Their Upgrade Policy?

    1. Patrick Post author

      Hi Justin,
      I don’t think United really wants to 100% do away with their complimentary upgrades. They just would like to give fewer away. On most flights I take now, they sent me an e-mail that an upgrade is available using miles or $. Therefore they want me to use miles or pay, rather than get a free upgrade. Either way American is not going to change from their current model. They gained such a huge competitive edge over Delta and United with both of their changes in qualifying for Elite status (revenue based) and now how you earn miles for award use, that they do not need to. I have been a 1K with United for almost 20 years in a row and I will not qualify for it next year. I am not even trying. With the difficulty in getting upgraded on United plus their changes, AAdvantage is probably the best program even with the 500 mile upgrade system. However, that said, United still by far, has the best award redemption. It will just be much harder to have enough miles to redeem an award. Along with much fewer miles being awarded for flying, United has also significantly raised award levels on partner flights. American’s problem with awards is being partners with BA. The taxes and fees on any award seats on BA is very high. Making it no longer a “free” ticket. So, really there are still advantages to all three programs. Just less advantages than in the past 🙂 I guess the big winner in all of this will be Virgin American and Jet Blue.

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Pat's Travel Reviews

Pat's Travel Reviews