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APRIL 3 , 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 13

Illustration for TIME by Jason Ford

How You Can Get Those Airline Upgrades

You've seen them, the chosen ones. One moment they're standing cheek-to-jowl beside you in the line for economy-class boarding and the next they're skipping down that gloriously uncrowded passageway toward a world filled with signature cuisine, seats that recline into beds and cabin crew that say, "Please, call me Daphne." It's just not fair. You did everything right: wore your snappiest suit, bantered wittily with the boarding agent and inquired politely and knowingly about load levels. And yet some other guy's going to business class while you're wedged into 54E. Just how do they pick who gets an upgrade?

It turns out that getting bumped up isn't a byzantine process. Nor is it a popularity contest. Despite what you may have heard about folks schmoozing their way into the big seats, upgrades are governed largely by a structured set of unpublicized rules. It's rarely up to the gate agent to decide if he or she likes the cut of your suit or the scent of your perfume.


How You Can Get Those Airline Upgrades
It turns out that getting bumped up isn't a byzantine process. Nor is it a popularity contest

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Susanna Pik used to fly more than 200,000 miles a year as a J.P. Morgan investment banker based in Hong Kong. She qualified as a Diamond member of Cathay Pacific's Marco Polo club, which gave her an upgrade edge. "I usually flew business class for work," she says. "But for personal trips I'd book an economy seat and would almost always get moved up. It's not really a matter of asking. If the flight is close to full in economy, they look for people to bump up." J.P. Morgan spent a fortune flying Pik around the region on Cathay (more than $1,300 for a return business-class seat from Hong Kong to Tokyo, for example). Thus Cathay considered her a particularly valuable customer, and was happy to reward her loyalty with an upgrade when the opportunity materialized.

But such perks aren't just about keeping high flyers happy. To ensure a full load amid last-minute cancellations, airlines often overbook their flights. When their economy section begins to overflow, they look for upgrade fodder. Besides frequent flyers like Pik, the favored few often include people who shelled out the full fare for an economy ticket.

Beyond that, many airlines don't like to detail the precise criteria they use in selecting freebie upgrades. JAL spokesman Geoffrey Tudor says his airline has no public policy on upgrades because it doesn't want to disappoint passengers by making promises it can't keep. Indeed, many airlines try to dampen expectations: if passengers get used to being moved up, they might hold a grudge when they're stuck in economy.

Of course, you can always buy your way to a better class. On JAL, for example, you can use your accrued Mileage Bank points: a shift from economy to business class costs roughly 20,000 points for a short-haul trip and 40,000 for a longer journey. The catch is that airlines allocate a limited number of seats for point upgrades, and some carriers won't let you use them in combination with ultra-cheap tickets.

There's also the nagging reality that you have to spend your frequent-flyer points for the upgrade, instead of getting it just for being you.

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