I found this post on FlyerTalk and thought it would be helpful to reprint it here. Written by DullesJason, an ex-United gate agent at Dulles, it clearly explains the juggling act of handing out operational upgrades.
Note that DullesJason does indicate there are some gray areas, but I think this will give you an idea how the system works.
And a tip of the hat to Dulless jason for a job well done:
This admittedly huge post will be about my experiences as a United Airlines gate agent (at IAD) as it pertains to what is affectionately known (and loved) as “operational upgrades.”
SPOILER: Don’t expect anything along the lines of: “The 12 secrets of getting free upgrades–REVEALED!” LOL…
Many moons ago (this Spring) I saw a thread here about “how to get” an operational upgrade on United, elaborating on tricks, strategies and the like. I found it amusing, mostly because I have been on the receiving end of such efforts hundreds if not thousands of times as a United gate agent–a job I had part-time for more than 6 years, until I quit in March of this year. Greener pastures and all–most of you can imagine how working for United and other airlines had diminishing rewards, etc. But I digress. I have to say though, as I have scanned the forums since I joined FlyerTalk in January, I have been very impressed with the detailed breadth of knowledge many FTers have. In that thread about operational upgrades, I made a quick post saying I might elaborate on the operational upgrade process from a gate agent’s perspective if it was requested–I expected 2 or 3 requests. Much to my surprise, I got almost bombarded by PMs, so I decided I’d be happy to make a (hopefully) insightful contribution to the FT community by shedding some light on the O/UG process–and my own experiences in the process . . . from the other side of the podium. I regret I didn’t do it this spring, but alas, here it is and I thank those of you who PM’d me with requests. I hope you’ll enjoy this post.(It’s unrelated, but I wrote this paragraph in the spring, as an introduction, right after the request for this post during my final days as an employee)
I have deleted the unrelated paragraph in the name of brevity
Let us begin.
OPERATIONAL UPGRADES–WANTING IT
1. The Schmooze and the Reaction.
The truth is there really aren’t a whole lot of “tricks” and “secrets” to share in how to get them. For one, frequent fliers should (and often do) understand that you generally don’t “get” them; you have them given to you, by a gate agent. But it’s not as personal or arbitrary as you may think. I blame this common misconception on how “free” upgrades are given out on the travel media. FTers and travel reporters often think that what it takes is to dress your best, approach the podium with a smile and a compliment, then slip in some barely veiled request for a freebie upgrade. It’s amazing how many people try this. It’s as though it does not occur to them that the agent knows what they’re up to. While some of my former co-workers were kinda dim, the majority of them were at least bright enough to recognize this tactic and see right through it. When people have tried this “trick” with me, I thought to myself, “have you no shame?” People often went further and literally would grovel sometimes–and it was embarrassing. If you’re one of those people, all you are doing is making an … of yourself. You might say, “well it’s just a gate agent I’ll never see again so I don’t care what he/she thinks of me” but personally I think I would have more dignity than come with some story hoping that the agent will have pity on him or her and give them an upgrade because we like the customer. Agents are generally smart enough to know when customers aren’t being sincere but rather, just trying to butter them up with a nice smile and smooth clothing. It’s not going to work. Other airlines may have more liberal policies in giving gate agents authority to upgrade; United doesn’t. But there are exceptions. When does it happen? Pretty much only when the customer’s u/g request is genuine. I once did it on a domestic 757 for an elderly and handicapped lady who never asked. I don’t remember why but it helped me out too. I also recall giving it to one guy who did schmooze me (I think it was IAD-MUC). I politely rejected his polite “free” upgrade request. I told him it wasn’t going to happen that day since we were only oversold by a few seats, but he stuck around and quickly gave up all hope of upgrading (as he should have). We began a conversation and he actually talked at length about aviation and engaged me in a real conversation. The flight was full, but I wasn’t particularly busy (the only reason why I engaged the conversation) as things were running smoothly. About 15 minutes before departure time, when the flight was about 80-90% boarded and we were primed for an on-time departure, I had a surprise situation where one Y passenger who showed misconnect in the computer popped up at my gate (she must have taken another airline), so I was suddenly precisely 1 seat in the hole. Guess who got it? “Mr. Aviation Conversation” had just said goodbye to me and was in the back of the boarding line of 20-30 people, so I called him over and gave it to him. Why him? In a word, convenience. He was a Premier Exec so I may have bypassed a 1K (maybe not–many are already pre-upgraded), but he had the status and he was on a B fare, so I didn’t feel bad. But the convenience was getting the seat I needed and a potentially bad situation resolved quickly so the flight could depart on time. Since the flight was near close-out, I risked a delay if I researched it and went on the plane to move any possible 1Ks up, when I was supposed to be at the podium finalizing flight status, paperwork, etc. This is an example of a unique situation where it would be OK to bypass a higher-ranking customer, but it is rare. This guy got lucky because time was running out for me. Knowing his status and his proximity to me (and his lucky decision not to pre-board as a 1P) were the factors. But again, it is rare and he was lucky. My conclusion for this section is to not bother with the song & dance and the schmooze or the nice threads. Save your energy and spare yourself the disappointment. Don’t try to suck up to the agent and get a free upgrade you can’t support through authorized means. It’s a waste of time.
OPERATIONAL UPGRADES–GETTING IT
2. Why? Oversales.You should understand that “operational upgrades” (free), in general, are to be done only when there is “an operational need” to do so. For the uninitiated, what that generally means is when we have overbooked the plane and more economy passengers have checked in than there are seats in the cabin. Hypothetical situation: Let’s suppose we are flying today on UA837 SFO-NRT. There is a 747-400 assigned to the route and the configuration is 14-73-260. Let’s say it is booked at 9 in F, 61 in C and 293 in Y. It should be fairly obvious that if more than 260 people show for Y seats with Y bookings, something will have to be done. Is that possible? Well, of course it is, with 293 booked. And what does the airline gate agent do? He or she takes some of those people in Y and gives them an upgrade to C. That’s what an operational upgrade is.
3. The Scenario.
You’re the gate agent–so who do you choose to reward with a free seat in Business Class? Do you take the slick salesman with a nice smile wearing an Armani suit, who has just has just told you how nice your hair is and how great of gate agent you are and how you handle the stress of the job so superbly? As I mentioned above, many travel reporters say that is exactly who gets the upgrades more often than not. But at United (and probably many other airlines), it’s highly unlikely. United has a policy that governs this process and it not only prevents agents from picking favorites (adding to the stress) but also rewards the people who deserve it. In spite of leading United to staggering losses since 2000, United management is not altogether completely stupid! They have a policy intended to give those necessary free upgrades to the top fliers–the people who–frankly–deserve it. Operational Upgrades are given on the basis of status and fare paid! Not personal discretion. On the rare occasion when a Global Services (UA’s top-tier) passenger was planning to fly trans-pac in Y and didn’t already upgrade, we would go look at our elite list in the computer and find a GS member is Y+. Bam! The GS passenger has been moved to C. That’s 62 expected in C (up from 61 booked), presuming all C passengers show up.
4. The Scenario Progresses.
You’re still the gate agent . . . and it is 75 minutes before departure. Check-in doesn’t close for another 30 minutes and Economy has just checked in to 257 out of 260 seats . . . and counting. That’s 36 to go to reach 293, or 35 to go to 292 now that you’ve done one upgrade. Well, with 30 minutes left, it is becoming pretty obvious to you that more than 260 people will check into the Economy seats they’ve booked and you will be “in the hole.” 4 more people check in and you’re there. It won’t take much time. Sure, you won’t see all 292, but you’ll easily see 4 or more in the next 30 minutes. So after you and your colleagues behind the podium take care of some more people in the line, asking questions that don’t need to be asked, you find some time to look at the elite list in Economy only–since that’s the cabin you have to be worried about. The only GS guy in Y has already been moved up so you now see there are 7 1Ks at the top of the list among elites seated in Economy. 2 of them are on the upgrade waiting list already, willing to use miles to move up. You soon realize after a handful more people check in, you’re going to be more than 7 in the hole, so all the 1Ks in Y are going to C today. Some agents will process the 1Ks willing to pay miles through the upgrade list and take their miles or certs, etc. Others, like me, are not so inclined to take the “that’s money for the company” view and instead be rational: delete them from the paid upgrade waitlist and give *all* 1Ks in Y complimentary upgrades since they would get it anyway. So you’re not charging the ones who were un-cheap enough to put themselves on the list and willing to spend miles or certs. It’s fair and it’s a nice surprise for them–they didn’t beg or grovel and they were willing to pay the freight for C. Might as well give them the break they deserve and not charge them since they were going to get it for free anyway, if they weren’t on the list. So you move all 7 1Ks up and with the 1 GS already up there, you are now at 69 people in the C cabin, assuming all those booked in C show up. You’re down to as many as 285 possible expected for Y. Did you wait for the 1Ks to come to you with a smile and assess whether or not their clothes are nice enough to warrant the business class upgrade? Hell no. You paged them up by name, repeatedly if you had to, until he or she responded and collected the business class boarding pass. Most of those 1Ks were nice enough to thank you for that and usually you smile and say “you’re welcome” but let’s be honest, you didn’t do that 1K a favor really, you upgraded that 1K because you had to upgrade someone and it makes perfect business sense to choose the best passengers. Not only is it a company directive, but to my mind, that’s the fairest way to go.
5. The Balancing Act.
52 minutes before departure. In 7 minutes you will be able to close check-in and bring the flight “under gate control” which means all functions will be handled at that time by you, the gate agent at the gate, not the ticket counter. But here is where you have to start paying attention to balancing the appropriate amount of upgrades–don’t do too many and don’t do to few. And most of all, for heaven’s sake–be especially sure you don’t do any upgrades too late and jeopardize an on-time departure!So . . . after handling a few more quick tasks, you check to see that Economy is now checked in to 267–even AFTER you have done 8 complimentary operational upgrades. DAMN! Where did all those people come from? And so fast! You’re 7 in the hole! Even after doing 8 upgrades! Grrrr. But there is light at the end of the tunnel–you take gate control in 6 minutes, 43 seconds. At that point there will no longer be any more check-in surprises. You know you’re going to need to do more upgrades, but you’re 7 in the hole and you only have 4 Business Class seats to use. Remember? You went from 61 to 69 seats in C after your 8 operational upgrades. Hmmmmm. So 3 of your Economy people are in limbo. Now that GS & 1Ks have been cleared from the ‘elites in Y’ list, 1Ps, the Premier Executives rise to the top of the list. There are 15 of them still sitting in Y. Well, you decide in the next 6 minutes to fill the C cabin–you put 4 1Ps in to C class seats. How do you choose which 4 of this 15? It’s easy, the computer has sorted that too, generally by booking code. A 1P on a Y fare goes higher than a 1P on a B fare, M, H, Q, W, V, etc. You have 4 1Ps on Ys, Bs & Ms, so they go to C with just a few keystrokes. Now you have filled C to 73 passengers, assuming all those booked in C show up. Only 1Ps on H fares and lower remain in Economy. You thought that makes you only 3 in the hole, as opposed to 7, since you moved 4 more up. But you’d be wrong. It’s now exactly 46 minutes before departure and you discover that 5 *more* people checked in to Economy in those last few minutes. So your 263 in Y turns into 268. UGH! You piss and moan for 60 seconds and take care of a customer issue. It’s now 45 minutes ’til departure: Time to take “gate control.” Fortunately for you, you notice that in spite of upgrading 12 people people to take your C cabin from 61 booked to a presumed count of 73 (full), in fact, C shows it is checked in to only 67. You’re thinking “that’s cool, but why?” Well, 6 C class customers have not shown up. That’s not uncommon because they have fully flexible tickets and no penalty to change dates, so they just don’t show up. The people in Chicago who authorize overbooking depend on this type of thing. Now, for those 6 people who have not shown up for their C class seats, they lose their seat assignments at 45 mins til departure, but not their reservation (and C booking) until 30 minutes before departure. Most of those 6 won’t show up in the next 15 minutes, but one or two might. So you decide to take the next 3 1Ps on the list in Economy (all H-fares) and bring the C cabin up to 70, holding back a few more upgrades.
6. Getting Tricky.
You’re now at 70 in C & 265 in Y. You see that if you are later able to upgrade 3 more, you will be full in C, but then you’ll be down to 262 checked in in Y, or 2 more people in Y still without seats! OK, so you’re short of 2 seats, but of course, your ace in the hole is the F cabin. But you can not double upgrade anyone of those 2 from Y to F. Policy. So, 10 minutes later you are at 35 mins til departure and no more C bookings have checked in. So you take 2 more 1Ps and move them to C. Your 70 & 265 passenger count in C & F turns into 72 & 263. You wisely decide to hold one C seat back for 5 more minutes until the cut-off, which is a good thing because a few minutes later, just 32 minutes before departure–SURPRISE! A 1K comes running up to your podium sweating like a pig and breathing heavily at you across the podium (his breath stinks of course) because he is wheezing from all the running! He is your last pre-booked C cabin passenger. Why isn’t he checked in and how did he get through security without a boarding pass? He flew in to SFO on Alaska Airlines–they couldn’t give him a boarding pass so he had to check in at the gate. Of course his AS flight was late so he barely gets to the gate in time–just 2 minutes to spare. He checks into not the C seat he was pre-assigned (he lost that at the :45 mark), but the last C seat you have–a middle. But oh well. So now your numbers are 73 & 263. You now have *3* people in Y without a seat BUT . . . remember that F cabin with a 14 capacity and only 9 bookings? Well, the good news is . . . 8 of your 9 F bookings have checked in, so 6 seats are open in F! You need 3 more seats in Y–and in order to get them, you don’t upgrade the last 3 1Ps from Y to F; rather, you go in and pull up the elite list already holding tickets in the C cabin–meaning they are in C without upgrading. Global Services passengers are at the top of the list of course, and there are 5 of them. However, 3 are upgrades–only 2 are full fare C tickets. You move *only* those two up to F. Your numbers are now at 10 & 71 & 263. Next on the ‘elites in C’ list are the 1Ks. You take the first 1K who is on a C ticket (meaning not an upgrade) and move him/her to F. That’s 11 & 70 & 263. You then have 3 seats in C open to move another 3 1Ps from Y, which frees those last 3 seats in Y and you assign them to the last 3 people waiting for their seats in Y. That puts you at 11 & 73 & 260. You’re done . . . with the seat management part anyway, there are other issues but that’s another post.. . . . That’s how operational upgrades work.
7. When “On-time” Is Jeopardized.
“On time zero” is the God to which all United management prays and therefore, the obsession with on-time departures spreads throughout the operation and the company in general, naturally, it is the thing that determines if a gate agent does a good job or not. Most gate agents have enough pride to at least try hard to meet on-time objectives when working flights. A good gate agent gets a flight out on time in the face of multiple challenges, such as:* oversales* misconnections, * long standby lists* under staffing* too much attempted carry-on baggage* customers draining the time resources of the agent with both petty and valid complaints, etc.
8. Keep In Mind.
Sometimes an agent has to cut corners to make it all happen, especially when more challenges than usual arise. Oversales mean customers who are confirmed on flights check in and don’t hold seats–something the gate agent has to deal with–a further demand on time resources. On occasion, circumstances beyond the agent’s control conspire to make it virtually impossible to get the flight out on time if the agent works the flight “by the book.” Perhaps the confirmed customers without seats have had to wait a long time for their seat assignment and by the time the agent has a chance to “onload” those customers to their seat assignments, the cabin they booked (usually Y) is full. Doing it by the book means you take the elite fliers from their seats in Y (they may have boarded), move them up a cabin and get the waiting Y passengers in Y seats. But if on-time would be blown by taking the time to do that, sometimes a few of those customers (usually known as BP2s) get put in C or even F at the last minute to get them on quickly and prevent a delay. Quite often, good planning by the agent will prevent that, but there are times when no amount of planning can prevent it. You never know what last minute surprises will come upon a gate agent.It’s supposed to be very scientific and done by *status* and *fare paid*, not by smiling, making compliments or wearing nice clothes. It almost always works this way. And to me, that is an area where UA has got the policy right. However, there are exceptions. I remember a few years ago working IAD-CDG on a 777 that had capacity of 12-49-197 and was booked something like 2-13-241. Hahha! That’s very rare so it was more of a free-for-all and few Premiers or above were even on the flight. So lots of people without status got a Christmas treat. That’s a VERY rare exception. To use a baseball analogy, every once in a while, the gate agent sees a curve ball that breaks over the plate hard enough that he/she can not hit the ball and still get the flight out on time. So the agent must ad-lib, close the book or do whatever to fill the seats any way he or she can in order to go on time. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be done, but sometimes you’ve gotta bend the rules a little to make the God of “on-time-zero” happy! So nothing is 100% in this process and I would guess some of you may have received UGs in circumstances different to the policy and of course, agents are human and every once in a while, an agent will like a passenger who gets an upgrade ahead of a more deserving or loyal 1K, but I do believe those situations are extremely rare, as they should be.I guess my advice to people who want free upgrades is not to waste your energy on asking for one–those seats are that are worth a lot and agents are not empowered during normal situations to give them out arbitrarily. And don’t go looking to create an abnormal situation. It has to be for a good reason and the agent usually knows when to make exceptions and when no to. The best thing to do if you want to avoid the monotony of normal coach seating is just spend the cash ($79 on internationals last I knew) to get into Economy Plus for more legroom until you earn enough status (Premier at the 25k level) to be entitled to it for no extra charge. And of course you can always work on earning the miles it takes to get to business class. Commercial airline tavel sucks. I say you just gotta deal with it.Well that just about wraps it up. I’ve put a lot into this post and my fingers are tired! I hope some Fters will have been entertained by this post and perhaps feel they understand the process better.-
If you ever see Dulles, or know him from somewhere, shake his hand for me please. He did us all a great service the day he wrote this post.