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The science behind an airline flight upgrade

Airline upgrades – every traveller’s silent wish as they make their trip to the airport and approach the airline counters. Is there anything that could help us mere mortals get upgraded to Business Class or Premium Economy?

Upgrades are science, not art

Here are the cold hard facts: upgrade decisions these days are made almost exclusively by computer algorithms, with little to no discretion extended to check-in or gate agents. Modern software and years of experience have helped airlines perfect revenue management techniques and forecasting. They know with almost unerring accuracy how many seats will be filled on a given flight, how to goose demand to fill up empty seats and how to consolidate flight schedules to maximise loads.

Upgrade decisions these days are made almost exclusively by computer algorithms, with little to no discretion extended to check-in or gate agents

Moreover, if a premium cabin still has empty seats close to departure, airlines are more likely to try and monetise them through bid-to-upgrade programmes or release them to frequent flyer members than just give them away for free.

This means that free upgrades, when they do happen, are reserved for situations where a flight is genuinely oversold. These are called “operational upgrades”, and even then are given out based on a well-documented formula that considers elite status, ticket value, connections and a whole host of other factors. we can assure you that how you dress and how much you smile are not factored into the equation.

With that in mind, let’s look at what does and does not work when trying to get an upgrade.

Getting an airline flight upgrade: What doesn’t work

1. ‘Dress nicely’

Theory: Airlines are more likely to put you in the First or Business class cabin if you look the part. So show up at the airport wearing a suit!

Fact: This enduring myth seems to have come from the days when air travel was something people dressed up for. But if you ever steal a glance at a fully-loaded Business Class cabin, you’re going to realise that the demographics these days are extremely diverse. Yes, you may have a few business-looking types in full suit-and-tie regalia, but you’ll also see Silicon Valley CEOs in sweatshirts and jeans, casually-dressed honeymooning couples, and vacationing frequent flyers with family in tow. There is no “Business Class look”, and assuming you’re not just wearing a loincloth, clothing simply isn’t a proxy for where you “belong”.

2. ‘Let them know it’s your birthday/honeymoon’

Theory: Tell the check-in staff it’s your birthday or honeymoon to get a free upgrade!

Fact: As mentioned, upgrades are a highly algorithmic process and your birthday and/or recently married status doesn’t feature anywhere in the equation. If you’re lucky, the check-in associate will congratulate you.

3. ‘Sit next to a baby’

Theory: If you’re seated next to a screaming baby, the cabin crew will take pity on you and move you into the First or Business Class cabin.

Fact: If you’re next to a baby in a full cabin, you’re just going to have to suck it up and ask for earplugs. The crew may move you to another seat within the same cabin if one is available, but you can bet they’re not going to let you through the curtain on account of your eardrums.

4. ‘Check your seat for breakage’

Theory: Look for a defect in your seat, however small. Then report it to the crew and ask for an upgrade as compensation.

Fact: If your seat has a broken reading light or a defective IFE screen, the first option your flight crew will take is to move you to another seat in the same cabin (which may mean trading your aisle seat for a middle one). It’s simply unrealistic to expect them to move you up a cabin because of a seat defect — you may, however, get an inflight shopping voucher as a compensation for your trouble.

5. ‘Be nice and ask’

Theory: It doesn’t hurt to smile and ask for an upgrade — you never know what may happen!

Fact: We can tell you what will happen. You’ll either be told “no”, or offered a paid upgrade (see below). Counter staff simply don’t have that level of discretion to upgrade “nice” people. Be nice because it’s the right thing to do, not because you want an upgrade.

Getting an airline flight upgrade: What works

1. Fly with airlines that offer bid-to-upgrade systems

To reduce the opportunity cost of empty premium seats, many airlines (Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Etihad, Air New Zealand, and Qantas to name a few) have signed up with “bid-to-upgrade” providers like Plusgrade or Optiontown. Malaysia Airlines does the same with MHupgrade.

Image from Singsaver

The actual bidding process varies, but in general, you’ll receive an email inviting you to bid for an upgrade. You submit a bid and your credit card details, and between 24-72 hours of your departure, you’ll receive an email letting you know if your bid was successful. If your bid is not successful, your card will not be charged.

The screenshot above is an illustration for Etihad. Note that all airlines will have a “minimum bid” amount to prevent lowball offers. Of course, you’ll want to do a quick check to see how much Business/First class tickets are going for before you place your bid. There’s no sense in your base fare + upgrade costing more than buying a Business Class ticket outright.

2. Use your miles for upgrades

Sometimes, you are able to use your frequent flyer miles to upgrade your ticket, but do check if the fare class you bought is eligible for upgrading with miles.

For example, on certain Malaysia Airlines flights, travellers can use their Enrich miles to get an upgrade of seats. Enrich is the frequent flyer programme for Malaysia Airlines. Take note that you can only upgrade one level up, i.e. from Economy to Business Class but not Economy to First Class.

3. Buy a discounted upgrade at the counter

Airlines which do not offer online bid-to-upgrade programs may still offer paid upgrades at the counter.

Photo credit: Live and Let’s Fly

Thai Airways, for example, offers standby airport upgrades when available with a fixed upgrade price. Qatar Airways has a dedicated “Upgrade on Departure” counter at Doha airport and at its counters at other airports. Malaysia Airlines offers a “Last Minute Upgrade” feature that allows you to buy an upgrade at the airport. Ditto Air India, Austrian Airlines, Alitalia, SAS, and a host of other carriers.

This fee you pay will depend on the duration of the flight and what cabin you’re upgrading to.


Just like everything else in life, there’s no free lunch when it comes to airline upgrades. It’s true that you may simply luck out and get an operational upgrade from time to time. But if you do, it’s just your good fortune, and not because of how you dressed or what you did.

If you want a reliable way of getting upgraded, start building your frequent flyer miles and be on the lookout for paid upgrades at the airport.

Otherwise, skip the uncertainty entirely by buying yourself a ticket at a higher cabin class. To find the best deals for Premium Economy, Business or First Class seats on Skyscanner, tap on the Cabin Class filter and make a selection.

Who knows, a seat in Business class could be more affordable than you think! This is definitely an easy way to browse and book the cheapest flights in the cabin of your choice.

Now that you have learned how flight upgrades work, check out the science behind flight pricing too.

Once you’re ready, book cheap flights, hotels, car rentals, and airport transfers via Skyscanner or check out and download our free mobile app for easy browsing and booking on the go.


This article was first published on Skyscanner Singapore by SingSaver