Airline upgrades happen less often and are more carefully targeted than they once were: that is the verdict of Rob Burgess, founder and editor of the frequent-flyer news site Head for Points.
He was speaking on the travel podcast You Should Have Been There. Co-host Mick Webb said: “In the heady old days of flying, one of the nicest things was turning up to your economy flight to check in, and by putting on your best jacket and smiling as hard as you possibly could, trying to get an upgrade.
“This happened to me three or four times – and what a great feeling it was, the tremendous sensation of having won quite a good lottery ticket.”
But, said Mr Burgess, the chance of a random passenger sitting in a better seat than the one they paid for, enjoying upscale food and drink, “is very unlikely to happen”.
One key reason: improvements in technology make it easier for the airlines to control the number of tickets they are selling.
“Back when IT was less good, with people selling tickets on different channels and not everything being reconciled centrally, it was easier for airlines to accidentally oversell – and therefore be forced to upgrade people because simply too many people turned up for their economy flights.
“The AI [artificial intelligence] skills airlines use to predict passenger volumes and the number of no-shows have got far, far better.
“So it’s a lot rarer now, unless there’s a switch in aircraft or something else which means that the seating configuration changes.
“They will still oversell, but they’re pretty darn good now at knowing how many they can oversell by.”
Mr Burgess said that the policy on filling business class is different on either side of the Atlantic.
“There’s a difference between the UK and the US in this scenario,” he said.
“In the US they fill every premium seat. So if check-in closes and there’s five empty business class seats, the five most senior status holders in economy get upgraded automatically and business class goes out 100 per cent full.
“In the UK and Europe there is a sense that part of the reason you pay for business class is that the cabin probably won’t be 100 per cent full.
“That makes it a nicer environment, you get served quicker, there’s more chance you’ll get a first choice of meal. So there’s not a desire to fill every seat at the front, even if the seats are there.”
When a carrier knows it is likely to have empty business-class seats, they often offer economy passengers the opportunity to pay to sit in the forward cabin.
The Head for Points founder said: “The airlines have also been able to use the internet to sell upgrades. So British Airways will occasionally online in their ‘Manage My Booking’ thing pop up a message saying ‘Do you want to upgrade your flight next week?’ On short haul, it’s often £70-£80.
“It can be a double win: getting people out of economy if the cabin is filling up, enabling the airline to resell the seat for more than it sold for originally, whilst also generating money from the upgrade.
“Even if you only make a few hundred pounds per flight by persuading people to upgrade, it makes a noticeable difference to the bottom line given the number of short-haul flights.”
Simon Calder is co-host of You Should Have Been There, and also presents a daily (Monday-Friday) travel podcast for The Independent