Friday, July 23, 2010

Airline Talk: Operational Upgrades

By Mike Grasso

In most cases upgrading from one cabin (such as economy) to another (such as business) requires an upgrade instrument. This may be in the form of miles, cash, a combination of both, or automatically as a perk of an airlines' loyalty program. Each of these options are generally cheaper ways that outright purchasing a ticket in the higher class of service. In addition to these, there is another method - called an operational upgrade, which takes place behind the scenes. That is to say, your miles, money, and elite status are less important (at least directly) than the immediate operational needs of the airline.

A typical operational upgrade happens when the flight is oversold in economy. With inventory left in business/first, the airline can "bump" select passengers from economy to the front of the plane - a free upgrade. More often than not, this is handled at the gate just prior to boarding, once agents have a handle on how many ticketed passengers will actually show up for the flight. It is true that customer loyalty goes a long way on these types of upgrades, and therefore holding elite status may put you at the top of that "list." But in other situations, the "op-up" as it is called, happens when its least expected. A friend of mine was trying to negotiate a better economy class seat with the gate agent, when suddenly by surprise the agent presented him with a first class boarding pass. Why? The agent needed his original seat because a family of 3 (including 2 children) were going to be separated on different parts of the plane. Little did he know at the time how much easier he had just made that gate agents job. In another case, a few years ago I misconnected on a Northwest Airlines flight due to a mechanical issue; the gate agent rebooked me into first class because no economy seats were available onto my connecting flight. In each of these examples, the needs of the airline (and the need to quickly board the plane for an on time departure) meant operationally, the complimentary upgrades made good business sense.

In summary, operational upgrades are a necessary part of the airline business. The are however, rare. If you are an elite traveler, and/or find yourself in irregular operations, such as an oversell or a last minute plane change (to a larger plane), an op-up may be in your future.