Why Elite Upgrades Are Harder to Get & How To Work Around It

Sep 16, 2014

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Earlier today, the New York Times published an article by Billy Witz titled, “Flight Upgrades Much Harder to Secure, Even for Elite Travelers,” in which I was quoted. As I point out, airline upgrades are behaving much like the rest of the economy where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, with airlines saving those almighty upgrades for only their very top-tier flyers.

Think your elite status will upgrade you? Think again!
Think your elite status will upgrade you? Think again!

Witz explains it by saying, “As planes fly closer to capacity, leaving fewer seats available for upgrades, and as airlines, with an increasing assortment of fees, do everything but shake loose seat cushions in their search for more revenue, perks like complimentary upgrades to the front of the plane are no longer handed out like steaming washcloths in first.”

Although airlines are planning to add capacity despite per-unit cost increases, as the Centre for Aviation points out in this analysis, US airlines are doing so not by building out route networks or increasing frequencies, but rather by adding more coach seats to existing routes. That assessment is supported by the latest figures from the DOT, which puts domestic passenger numbers at about 1% in May 2014 than May 2013, and the increase at 1.2% for domestic passengers in the first five months of 2013 over 2014.

Carriers like American have figured out new ways to make flyers pay for upgrades.
Carriers like American have figured out new ways to make flyers pay for upgrades.

In fact, as this Forbes article points out, one of the main reasons US legacy carriers returned to profitability after a decade of huge losses has been strict capacity control exemplified by ruthless slashes during the financial crisis of 2008-2009 – not coincidentally the time that profitability returned.

What This All Means

All that’s a statistics-heavy way of saying that there are fewer premium cabin seats, and thus fewer upgrades, up for grabs. That is a direct result of the slew of major mergers in recent years including Delta and Northwest, Continental and United, and now American and US Airways, all of which mean consolidated route networks with fewer premium seats overall, and massive combinations of frequent flyer programs (and their pools of elite flyer) so that more elite flyers are competing for fewer upgrades.

Delta also recently revamped its Medallion upgrade program and instituted both regional and global upgrades with differing requirements, and only Diamonds will get those valuable global upgrades now.

Not only that, but airlines are also making it much harder to figure out your upgrade chances by doing things like pulling upgrade inventory from ExpertFlyer, as both United and Delta did last October (and in fact, Delta recently pulled all award inventory from ExpertFlyer).

ExpertFlyer no longer shows anything Delta related.
ExpertFlyer no longer shows anything Delta related.

In my experience, airlines have also pulled back on elite upgrades a lot due to the improving economy and as they provide more options for more flyers to buy their way up to business or first class rather than holding some seats back for their elite flyers.

Since the economy started improving and credit card issuers started aggressively marketing to potential new customers, there has also been a huge influx of miles and points into the market place. That has made it even easier to earn the miles needed for premium cabin awards (despite recent award chart devaluations like those of United and Delta), and has also meant that people are willing to book these awards at non-saver levels.

Alternate Upgrade Strategies

Personally, whereas I have tended to save some EVIP’s on American Airlines (the 8 systemwide upgrades Executive Platinum elites get each year) until the bitter end, I have started using them a lot more and earlier in the year to confirm upgrades whenever possible. However, even American has seemed to be holding back more and more upgrade space outside of elite windows and making it come down to the wire, which has made trying to use my EVIP’s more stressful. For that reason, I have started to look at other options to ensure that I get the seats I need.

There are still ways to get into that business class cabin - you just have to get creative.
There are still ways to get into that business class cabin – you just have to get creative.

Although I have always used miles to fly in business and first class, rather than depending on elite upgrades quite as much as I used to, I have found that my miles have come to play an even more crucial role in nailing down the seats I need when I travel. That is true at a saver level, but also at higher redemption levels as well.

For instance, in my most recent round of credit card applications, I scored 205,000 miles and points, bringing my year-to-date bonus totals to a whopping 435,000 miles. That has made even me more willing to book non-saver awards if it means being able to confirm a business or first class seat in advance. That has also made me shift my points strategy more and more toward transferable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards so that I can shift my points to the mileage program where I need them when I need them, which helps me guard against unforeseen program devaluations as well.

I have also become more self-reliant when it comes to searching for award space, and I have been using various airlines’ websites to get a feel for award space on various routes at different that I am interested in flying rather than expecting to find all that inventory listed in a single place any more.

New revenue requirements are likely to mean fewer elites.
New revenue requirements are likely to mean fewer elites.

On the bright side, I think that once we hit 2015, elite flyers are certain airlines including Delta and United are going to see much of the herd thinned thanks to both airlines’ new elite revenue requirements. For instance, I will go from having Platinum status this year (and Diamond status in past years) to just a little old Silver Medallion in 2015, and I suspect a lot of people will be in the same boat.

In keeping with the “rich getting richer and poor getting poorer” trend, Delta and United also announced that starting in 2015 that their flyers will earn miles based on the money they spend and fares they buy rather than the distance they fly, which will mean your average bargain-hunter flyers will earn a lot less miles to redeem on mileage upgrades and potentially freeing up some of those seats for elites again. Not much of a silver lining for most of us, but still.

In the past few years, as the major US airlines have merged, elite programs continue to morph into revenue-based systems and airlines have become more sophisticated about their ancillary fee structures, we have seen elite upgrades become harder to get than tickets to the Super Bowl. While there are still ways to get around it, including being savvier about your miles and how to accrue them faster in order to redeem them for the seats you need, flying in first class is becoming a lot more difficult for a lot more people.

What has your experience with upgrades been lately? How do you get around the elite upgrade scarcity? Share your thoughts and strategies below!

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