How do airlines decide who gets their seat upgraded?

  • FILE - This May 1, 2013, file photo, taken at JFK airport in New York shows a first class seat set up for a passenger's meal in American Airlines' new Boeing 777-300ER airplane. Conventional wisdom holds that free seat upgrades are reserved for frequent flyers and other passengers with elite status, but there's another school of thought that contends how you dress and how you behave can occasionally result in a magical move from the back of the plane to the front. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File) Mary Altaffer

Associated Press
Friday, November 03, 2017

Ever wonder how airlines decide who gets a seat upgrade on flights? Airlines say it’s strictly by the book: Loyal customers are rewarded based on their status in frequent flyer programs.

But some flyers insist that once in a while, they get upgraded even when they’ve bought the cheapest seat. AirfareWatchdog.com founder George Hobica, in an interview with the AP Travel podcast “Get Outta Here,” even suggests that how you dress and act could give you an edge.

Hobica acknowledges that “upgrades mostly go to people with status in the program. If you’re silver or gold on British Airways or United, and they have to upgrade people because they’ve oversold economy class, the first thing they do is go down the list of (who has) status.” But he says he’s also been inexplicably upgraded when he was “wearing a nice suit and tie” and all the other passengers were “looking like Richard Simmons.”

A number of airlines contacted for comment said it never works that way.

“The list is the list and the gate agents work the list,” said American Airlines spokesman Josh Freed.