United Airlines' Automatic Upgrades: Real Benefit or PR Ploy?

United Airlines says it will begin providing elite-status members of its Mileage Plus program with automatic one-class upgrades "during the second quarter of 2010" when they travel within the Continental U.S., Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, Central America, and the Caribbean.

The carrier made the announcement via an e-mail to Mileage Plus members and posted more details on its web site earlier this week. While this development promises to deliver "complimentary" and "unlimited" upgrades to all "elite-status" members - which includes Premier, Premier Executive, 1K, and Global Services members - the actual benefit it will deliver to anyone other than top-tier members is questionable.

Consider: United's domestic aircraft don't have all that many seats up front to begin with. According to SeatGuru.com, the airline's A-319s and 737s have only eight first-class seats, while some A-320s have 12. There simply won't be that many seats available for upgrades. And upgrades won't be issued at all -- even to the most elite members -- if there is a paying passenger who is willing to buy the seat.

Whatever upgrades are handed out will go to the most-frequent fliers first: Global Services members, then 1K members, followed by Premier Executive, and finally Premier members. And because United will also upgrade "up to one traveling companion" for each elite member, it could take as few as four top-tier fliers to completely fill a domestic first-class cabin.

Travelers going to Hawaii, Central America, or the Caribbean on one of the larger aircraft will of course have a better chance of obtaining an upgrade.

Apart from the software to run the program and a little more paper to print a few more boarding passes when passengers move from steerage to the front, I'm betting the biggest extra expense will be food and drink for the additional passengers.

So, it's a good PR move that comes at relatively minimal cost. But my expectation is that the upgrades will go almost exclusively to United's Global Services and 1K members, with few (if any) upgrades left for us lowly Premier Executive and Premiere members.

But we'll see.

C'est la vie!

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