How United Handled a Self-Upgrading Couple on My Polaris Flight to Tel Aviv

Jan 1, 2018

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United operates two daily flights between Newark (EWR) and Tel Aviv (TLV), and scoring an upgrade — or even a discounted paid business-class ticket — can be quite the challenge on this premium-heavy route.

Still, for one reason or another, I was able to successfully use a Global Premier Upgrade to instantly clear into United’s best business-class seat at booking, and a handful of seats even ended up going out empty. Airlines would prefer to have all of these seats filled, of course, but having passengers move themselves up from economy isn’t really what they have in mind. Though that’s exactly what happened on my final flight of the year.

Our flight was delayed a bit as we waited for connecting passengers to arrive from Washington, DC. When they finally made it onboard, one couple in the group decided to grab two of the open seats in business class — 16A and 18A, as you can see reflected in the map above. Moments after they stepped into their Polaris seats, the passenger now occupying 16A asked if I’d be willing to switch seats with her companion, so they could be closer together.

I pulled up the app to see if 16A and 18A had been assigned — they had not — and the purser, who actually happened to be standing in the aisle next to 16A for our exchange, looked similarly puzzled. He asked where they were supposed to be sitting, and they sheepishly admitted they were traveling in economy and promptly moved back to their assigned cabin.

In the end, everyone handled this fairly well. The purser was calm and polite, and the passengers admitted their mistake and acted to correct it.

United’s 1-2-1 business class sure beats 3-4-3 coach!

While self-upgrades may have been possible years ago — perhaps if the crew was distracted during boarding — it’s nearly impossible to pull something like that off today. Crews no longer have to search through the printed passenger manifest to make sure everyone’s where they’re supposed to be — United’s flight attendant app, like Delta’s, makes that information instantly accessible.

Had the couple planned ahead, there’s a good chance they could have ended up flying in biz, even with tickets booked in coach. Many United elites have offered up their expiring upgrade certificates, and in a worst case scenario, these passengers could have used miles to move up had they made the request 24 hours in advance — though at 35,000 + $600 each way for discounted economy tickets, those upgrade awards don’t come cheap.

I do understand this couple’s motivation, of course — they were moving from one of United’s worst seats to the airline’s best — and with 10 hours of flying time to Tel Aviv, the self-upgrade clearly seemed worth a shot. Unfortunately for them it didn’t work out, but since they maintained their composure and followed the purser’s instructions quickly, we were all soon on our way.

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