The dos and don’ts of flight upgrades

July 07, 2018
Flight upgrades
Flight upgrades are harder to get.

Once, getting an upgrade to business class was about who you knew, not what you know.

A call to a mate who had a direct line to the airline’s state manager would have you turning left, and not right, in a flash. Fast forward to the era of accountability, and in most cases, you have to battle with a very sophisticated computer system which does not care less who you know but only what your FF status is and how many points you have.

And with aircraft cabins almost always full, the game of airline seat monopoly has become more difficult.

According to The Points Whisperer aka Steve Hui, chief executive at,  as passenger numbers grow and airline profits shrink, the day of free and unscripted handouts are long gone.

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“Today, upgrades are run by an airline process, involving both staff and systems working together,” says Mr. Hui. “Most airlines allocate them based on a ranking algorithm that considers the following from each passenger; loyalty status, fare type/class; the size of traveling party, the timing of your request and original booking and type of flight, length, connecting route.”

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Mr. Hui points out that not all upgrades happen at the last minute. “Airlines in recent years have been improving their pre-flight upgrade options by developing ‘bidding’ systems that are run by algorithms to offload (sell) business class seats on specific flights.”

This is particularly the case for holiday periods when business class traffic is low and school holiday passenger loads are high.

Upgrades are all about FF status
Upgrades are all about FF status. Air Canada 787 business class

Many airlines now have bidding systems built into the online reservation with sliders to give you an indication of your potential success level.

“You may (also) be invited by email or SMS to upgrade using cash, or more often – your points, “says Mr. Hui.

However, he points out that that number of points needed for an upgrade is now very close to that needed for a full business class redemption. For example, to bid for an upgrade on a Perth to London flight with one airline is 120,000 points and you don’t know until 24 hours before if you are successful.

“However, an outright points redemption in business class oneway is just 128,000 points.”

For just 8,000 points you have the comfort and enjoyment of knowing you’re flying up front. And just to make things confusing the systems vary significantly between airlines, with some not having the sophisticated reservation computers to orchestrate complex points upgrades or bidding.

That is where at holiday time, dressing to impress can help, suggests one Perth airline airport manager responsible for handing out upgrades.

“There is no question at holiday time there are a few spares seats up front,” he says. “Dress like you belong in the back and that is where you will stay. A middle-aged well-dressed couple is our target.”

So here are the tips:

Prior to the airport

  • Applying with Frequent Flyer points
  • Bidding with cash / FF Frequent Flyer points

At the airport

  • Last minute cash / Frequent Flyer points upgrade deal
  • Frequent Flyer status with the airline
  • Frequent flyer status with airline’s alliance partners (Oneworld / Star)
  • Single traveler
  • Well dressed, middle age couple

What will not work

  • It’s my birthday
  • It’s our anniversary
  • You lost my baggage last time
  • The state manager said he/she would fix it
  • Abuse