There’s a scene on the TV series Friends, when Monica fussed at an airline check-in counter so that she and Chandler could get upgraded to first class like a couple on honeymoon in line before them. Many Hollywood blockbusters also portray a typical scene in which honeymooners get upgraded to first or business class by their carrier.
We often wonder if upgrading is really happening in the real world. Do we have to be honeymooners to get an upgrade? Or is it just a matter of luck?
It is time to shed some light on how the policy works in the aviation industry. Or maybe there is no such policy at all?
Graham Hills, managing director of Wego Indonesia, said that the members of Wego's executive team are extremely well travelled and have had many years of experience in the travel industry. And the good news is that the executives of this leading travel site company in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East are more than happy to share their secrets.
Dean Wicks, Wego's chief flights officer, and Craig Hewett, Wego's co-founder and chief commercial officer, had some great insights into how upgrades work in airlines and how to secure them for yourself.
In addition to getting insights from Wicks and Hewett, we also talked to David (not his real name), who works as a flight attendant for one Middle East airline.
Know the right person
Great networking and getting yourself connected with people in the aviation industry will open a passage to getting yourself upgraded when taking a flight.
"Managing Wego's airline partnerships means I can get quite lucky with flight upgrades fairly regularly.
“We've been able to build great relationships with the teams at the carriers we work with. Many airline staff will do all they can to provide you with some kind of upgrade if you already have a relationship with them.
“In the travel industry, especially in aviation, it's generally about how connected you are as to how well you're looked after when you fly.
“Those perks come with great responsibility, too, and it's important not to abuse the privilege you enjoy," Wicks explained.
Dress to impress
It's true that especially for a long flight, the closer your outfit resembles sleeping attire the more comfortable you will be. But, David said it pays off to dress up for a flight and not look as if you had just woken up and could not even bother to brush your teeth.
"Nowadays, the upgrading policy depends on an operational basis, meaning it is given when necessary,” David explained.
David elaborated, saying that in the case of overbooked flights, the ground staff usually were already aware of the situation and had calculated for a no-show figure of 5 to 10 percent off the number who booked.
By flight time, the check-in counter staff start to screen for passengers in business attire or who are dressed as if they belong in business class.
Flattery will get you everywhere
Dressing smartly will enhance our chances to be upgraded, but Wick added that good people skills, good manners and flattery also play a role.
"Always be extremely courteous to the check-in staff and it doesn't hurt to compliment their airline, too.
You can then nicely enquire if they have any upgrade fares that are available for the flight. Occasionally, they'll work out deals for empty business class seats.
There's never any harm in trying and sometimes you might find that flattery will get you everywhere," said Wicks.
Be a Frequent Flyer
The screening for upgrades by check-in staff, as David explained earlier, is done after the screening of the passengers' frequent flyer status with the airline.
"The higher our frequent flyer status, the bigger our chance to get upgraded," David explained.
Try flying with an opposing carrier in the same alliance
"You should try whenever possible to select all your flights from a single airline alliance, which is the quickest way of accumulating a higher status faster,” said Wicks.
When a carrier shares a route with another carrier in the same alliance, try flying with the opposing carrier of the airline you have status with.
“Airlines like to compete for your custom. As an example, both Cathay Pacific and Qantas fly the Sydney to Hong Kong route and both belong to the same airline alliance (One World). If you were to have a Gold status with Qantas, then book with Cathay and the likelihood of an upgrade improves greatly," Wicks added.
And here's something to be underlined, Wicks said on some routes a full economy ticket can be costlier than a discounted business class ticket and, in these instances, the reservations department doing the pre-flights will know.
Keep on trying
However, according to Wicks, airlines now tend to offer fewer upgrades than they once did. Some full service carriers have policies about upgrading passengers on full fare tickets.
David confirms this too. He said the honeymoon trick doesn't work as well as it used to.
"We've heard it all: I have claustrophobia, I’ve had surgery recently or broken legs -- you name it. Some even dared enough to ask onboard saying it was promised by the check-in staff," David said.
"Onboard, we only give upgrades if the passenger is willing to pay for the fare difference," David added.
In spite of the chances getting slimmer nowadays, the two suggested the aforementioned insights as something travelers can actually try in order to enhance their opportunities of getting upgraded. After all, without trying, one never knows.