From which cabin are you most likely to get upgraded?

Jan 5, 2020

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Upgrades on flights are both magical and mystical. Most travellers — certainly those who have had the taste of premium cabins before — hope for that beep at the boarding gate to indicate that there’s been a seat change. But the understanding of why and when an airline upgrades a particular passenger over someone else is slim. It’s sometimes a dark art — even for the experts.

As we have previously explained in how to improve your chances of getting an upgrade, unlike in the U.S., where free upgrades are part of loyalty programmes, European carriers typically only upgrade passengers when they have to. There are a number of things that can be done to improve the chances of getting an upgrade, but overall the likelihood is very small.

La Compagnie's product isn't industry-leading, but is definitely an upgrade from economy.
La Compagnie’s product isn’t industry-leading, but is definitely an upgrade from economy.

Airlines will always try to maximise revenue and oversell flights, taking into account an estimated number of no-shows, likely mis-connecting passengers as well as last-minute ticket changes or cancellations. That’s done by complex algorithms based on historical factors and a number of other data points and forecasts. What that means in practise is that an airline might be willing to sell 220 economy class seats on a particular flight that can only accommodate 200 economy passengers with the expectation that those extra 20 will not end up showing up or making the flight. If they (or some of them) do, the airline will either upgrade passengers or offer incentives or compensation to take a later flight.

The chances of such an upgrade vary from cabin to cabin, given it’s a numbers game and cabin sizes vary significantly.

Let’s take a look at a British Airways Airbus 380, the biggest aircraft in its fleet. The double-decker plane accommodates 14 passengers in first class, 97 in Club World, 55 in premium economy and 303 in economy class. Assuming BA’s algorithm suggests that 10% of economy passengers will not end up making the flight, it might be overselling that cabin by up to 30 seats. The exact number varies based on the airline’s modelling and also on seats available in higher cabins.

Let’s assume, as unlikely as it is, that everyone in economy turns up — in this example, 333 economy passengers when the aircraft only seats 303 in economy. BA will only likely have oversold by that much if there are seats available in higher cabins (where it’ll also oversell but will presumably have similar no-shows, misconnections and last-minute changes). So, assuming that there are 30 seats available in higher cabins, BA will begin upgrading 30 passengers from economy to premium economy. If there aren’t 30 seats in total available on the flight, it would be offering compensation or incentives to fly later.

The premium economy cabin on the A380 has space for 55 passengers. If that cabin was full, potentially more than half of the passengers from premium economy would be upgraded to business class. Potentially, that’s with some business-class passengers being upgraded to first class. This upgrading is called “rolling forward”, as waves of passengers get moved a cabin up, triggering more upgrades.

In the above example, 10% of economy class passengers are being upgraded, which in turn triggers a whopping 50% upgrade of premium economy passengers.

(Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

So, the chances of upgrades are typically highest in the premium economy cabin, given most airlines have larger economy cabins, larger business-class cabins and depending on the route, load factors in lower cabins tend to be higher. The percentage of passengers being upgraded from economy is usually in the single digits whilst on busy routes, it’s not unusual for a third (or even more) of the premium economy cabin to be moved forward.

Of course, if you you want to travel in style, there are a number of other things you can do without praying for that mystical upgrade. This includes starting your trip in mainland Europe to save big on flights, upgrading your British Airways flight with Avios or using Avios to upgrade American Airlines or Iberia flights.

Featured photo by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy.

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