Travel SOS: Why you won’t get a business-class upgrade

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Beryl is a seasoned flyer who’s never been bumped up to business class, even when the pointy end of the plane seems empty – and she wants to know why.


Q. Beryl
I must have flown around 12 times in the last two years, all with Qantas, and on every flight there have been spare seats in business class. On my last four flights, I’ve asked if there’s room for an upgrade and on all occasions, I’ve been told no, and that I’d have to pay for it. My question is why can’t I get a free upgrade if I’m a good frequent flyer with the same airline; and will I ever get one?

A. Fair question, Beryl, and one that I’ve been asked before. First, on occasion, airlines will offer frequent flyers an upgrade to business class, but to do so, the airline has to be overbooked.

A business class seat costs an airline around three to four times what it costs to service an economy seat. While your requests won’t have fallen on deaf ears, check-in staff or gate agents would be more likely to give you a premium economy seat than a business or first-class berth.

Just because business class is under-booked, it doesn’t mean an airline will automatically fill those seats with bodies from economy. If that was the case, the airline would lose too much money, as anyone sitting in business class would enjoy all the services and perks of those seats, including fine dining and free beer, wine and spirits.

Also, if it got around the cabin that a passenger who paid $200 is sitting in the $800 seat next to you; well, you can imagine how that would damage an airline’s reputation.

So, unless a flight is 105 per cent overbooked, which does happen, those business class seats will remain empty. In that case, the airline will occupy five per cent in business class and 100 per cent in economy, because it’s cheaper than the airline having to pay for accommodation, transfers, meals and a replacement flight.

An airline’s generosity is largely driven by money, nothing else. Unfortunately, loyalty has its limits. But do keep asking for that elusive upgrade, as one day, you may get lucky.

If you have a Travel SOS question, send it to [email protected] and we’ll do our best to answer it, or find someone who can.

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca is a voracious reader who loves words. You'll often find him spending time in galleries, writing, designing, painting, drawing, or photographing and documenting street art. He has a publishing and graphic design background and loves movies and music, but then, who doesn’t?



Total Comments: 11
  1. 0

    If you’re prepared to pay for an upgrade in the first place, why not book a premium economy, business or first class seat when you’re booking your tickets. If you’re prepared to pay for an upgrade at check-in it could cost you up to $1,000 more than if you paid for the seat in the first place.

    Do your research. In January 2013 I paid $12,602.66 for 2 business/first class seats on Virgin Atlantic when premium economy on BA & QANTAS was $14,000! Why would you then pay for premium economy if you can get a business/first class seat cheaper?

    I always start around 36 months prior to wanting to travel and keep a detailed list of the prices on different airlines. Start your search when the return tickets become available – I travel in July, therefore I start checking the prices in November.

    ALWAYS check the luggage limits for the airlines you are looking at travelling on. Some have a maximum weight concept which is so much lower (except economy) than other airlines which have the bags & weight per piece concept. Why would you want to travel in business class on most airlines with a maximum weight of say 40 kgs when you can travel on British Airways in the same class and have a maximum of 2 bags each weighing 32kg – or 64kg all up?

  2. 0

    Interesting story but I’ve read accounts from your other other writers that it happens.

    “A business class seat costs an airline around three to four times what it costs to service an economy seat.” First thing is your photo looked like a first class seat and second I cannot see how your statement can be valid. A hostess bringing out food and/or grog is paid the same amount no matter where you sit and cleaning costs after the flight would only be marginally higher.
    I would see rewarding your frequent fliers as good business sense if seats are empty and the only reason I can see is that full paying business class customers might be upset.

  3. 0

    I agree with MICK that the cost of servicing is not a convincing argument, as the only difference is the cost of the better food – can’t be much. With everything else either sunk costs or the same as in economy.

    It would be far more sensible if the airlines stopped their greedy attitudes (of asking for full upgrade costs or in some cases by auction) and simply offered the remaining seats to interested passengers in economy and premium economy at a reasonable extra cost i.e. not the full cost for an upgrade – that would be a win-win with better customer satisfaction!

  4. 0

    My friend and I got a FREE upgrade with Emirates when we returned from Toronto, Canada to Dubai. We did query prices to upgrade a couple of times whilst in Canada and told it would cost $11,000 each. Imagine our surprise when we got to the airport and were told we had a free upgrade! The plane was not very full. Well done Emirates.



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