For most travellers, getting an upgrade is the holy grail of air travel. Yet outside of the airline industry, very little is known about the mysterious world of upgrades, how they work, or who decides why and when they are given. Tom Perry gets the inside word on the much-coveted sky-high perk.
A cabin crew member emerges from behind the curtain. They are carrying a passenger list and scanning the seat numbers. They arrive at your seat and begin to smile. Kneeling next to you, they look you in the eye and ask the question you've spent your travelling life hoping for: "Would you like to join us in business class, sir?"
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Surely every airline passenger has dreamed of this moment. I do it nearly every time I shuffle through business class on my way to the back of the plane. No doubt most people have heard a story of a friend, or a friend of a friend, who has told of boarding a flight to London and getting "the nod", before spending the next 20 hours drowning in champagne and caviar, and seeing how many different positions that supremely comfy German-engineered flat bed can be adjusted to.
Yet the disappointing reality is that while upgrades do still happen, these days they are very rare.
"The good old days where check-in staff could say, 'Oh, he is a friend of a friend' — and then they are bumped up to business — are over," says Steven Palombo, Australian manager for Air Mauritius.
"Most airlines now have to report to the senior management on every passenger that gets upgraded," he says. "Business class service — with meals, lounge access and all the extras — costs an airline more to deliver. When the passenger has not paid for that service, there needs to be a good reason for them to be up there."
The good news is, however, that upgrades do still occasionally occur. The single most likely reason for passengers to be offered an upgrade is if economy has been overbooked, or the flight has to take on additional passengers, "forcing" a select lucky few to move up the plane.
"If a flight needs to take on additional passengers but is already sold out of space in a particular class, then a last-minute decision may be taken to allow a certain number of passengers to upgrade from one class to another," an Emirates rep tells me.
For Emirates, the upgrade decision is usually always made at the airline's management level, and that priority will normally be given to frequent flyer members, with gold and silver members getting first opportunity.
With that all in mind, here are the best ways to improve your chances of getting an upgrade:
1. Be loyal
They are called loyalty programs for a reason: airlines reward loyal customers. If you fly to Europe twice a year, fly with the same airline each time and rack up some points, it will help your chances of one day getting "the nod".
2. Fly at peak times
Upgrades are most likely to happen at the peak air travel periods of Christmas, Easter and mid-year, when flights are at their fullest.
3. Pay full fare
It's a pretty simple equation: if you are travelling on a low-cost airline or on a sale fare, you are not going to get an upgrade. Airlines will always reward full-fare paying passengers ahead of those who have booked a sale fare.
4. Dress well
As the name suggests, business class is mostly frequented by business people. People who look sharp, or at least look like they are working even when they are travelling. While a suit and tie is definitely not necessary, looking snappy certainly helps.
6. Be friendly
There is something about air travel that turns even the nicest of people into fire-spitting tyrants. And it's because of this that a friendly smile, a polite "How is your day?" can make a big difference. But keep in mind there is quite a fine line between being charming and being obviously-seeking-an-upgrade overbearing.
7. Be unlucky
Bad luck can have its rewards. In the airline industry they refer to it as a "Customer Recovery". Maybe you're flying long-haul economy and your in-flight entertainment system isn't working, or your bag ends up in the wrong destination. For most airlines, this will result in an apology, a voucher or a free pass into their airport lounge. Ever so occasionally however, an upgrade may be the result.
8. Celebrate a milestone
If there is an old-fashioned "secret weapon" for anyone aiming for an upgrade, then this is it. For those who are travelling for a big celebration — a milestone birthday, a honeymoon or an anniversary — don't be shy: tell the check-in staff. They are people too, and they know how much more special a big trip can be with the added luxury of flying business. If the flight does happen to be overbooked, you may just be in luck. But remember not to get caught out making something up: your birth date is listed in your booking and on your passport.