Unlimited Complimentary Upgrades are Bad for Frequent Fliers? Not By My Experience

“U nlimited complimentary upgrades mean fewer upgrades for lower-tier and mid-tier elites” is what Gary Leff of View From The Wing wrote in this article about how unlimited complimentary upgrades are bad for frequent fliers.

My personal experience contradicts that statement.

Delta Air Lines once had an upgrade system similar to the one which American Airlines uses today; except at one point segment upgrades were expanded from 500 miles to 800 miles before the current policy of unlimited upgrades became effective on January 1, 2003. At the time that occurred, I had Gold Medallion elite level status — which is mid-tier elite level status in the SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program — both before and after the change in policy.

Before the change in policy, I somehow always managed to have trips which were 810 miles in length or 1,635 miles in length. I never liked the idea of using a second 800-mile segment upgrade for ten miles or a third 800-mile segment upgrade for 35 miles.

Then again, I always despised when there is unused space left on a compact disc when I recorded songs from my music collection for my personal enjoyment when traveling — but that is me. My mind has always been hard-wired to completely and efficiently use whatever is available to me — whether it was wasted unused space on a compact disc or miles “left over” on a segment upgrade…

…so I would avoid using my segment upgrades unless I was able to use them as fully and completely as possible. It was frustrating for me — but I did eventually successfully use them.

In that aspect, Gary is correct when he wrote that “When elites are rationing their free upgrades or they have to pay some amount, they actually have to make a decision when they care about getting the upgrade.”

After the unlimited upgrade policy was implemented by Delta Air Lines, I found myself getting upgraded on flights significantly more often even though my elite level status had not changed. I was thrilled. To this day, I still like the policy of complimentary unlimited upgrades.

I do not have fancy statements, detailed analyses or crunched numbers to back up my claim. Just please take my word for it: I was able to enjoy more upgrades more often without having to think about how many segment upgrades I had left or whether I was using them efficiently. Moreover, the classes of service was expanded as well to include all classes other than the lowest four at the time: S, L, U and T classes, to be exact…

…and those classes were eventually included later on as eligible for unlimited complimentary upgrades.

I am not saying that Gary is wrong. In fact, he may very well be correct. I researched discussions on FlyerTalk posted not long after unlimited upgrades were implemented. “Under the old points system, I always got upgraded”, posted FlyerTalk member opus17 back on December 4, 2004 in one of a number of examples which backs up Gary’s statement. “Now, not so much.”

All I do know is that according to my experience, unlimited complimentary upgrades are good for me. Perhaps my experience is an anomaly. Perhaps my situation is different. Perhaps my experience depended on the flights on which i was a passenger. Perhaps I have no idea what I am talking about. I do not know…

…so what are your thoughts? Is Gary correct in his assessment that unlimited complimentary upgrades are bad for frequent fliers? Is this simply a case where a blanket statement does not apply because it depends on the circumstances? What has been your experience?

6 thoughts on “Unlimited Complimentary Upgrades are Bad for Frequent Fliers? Not By My Experience”

  1. Joey says:

    I think it really depends on the route and airport you fly from. Obviously, hubs would have a lot more top-tier elites thus making those routes originating from that hub more competitive to score an upgrade.
    From my own experience, I always got an upgrade when I was a Premier Platinum (higher tier of Continental before the merger with United). My main airport was EWR and regardless of the route I’d say 95% of the time I got upgrades.
    When Continental became United, however, I became a small fish in a big pond. Folks in Global Services always got the upgrade and for me, I still got upgraded but certainly not as much as the CO days. I’d say I got upgraded 75% of the time, where the toughest ones to get an upgrade were the transcontinental routes.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I was a top-tier elite on Continental Airlines based out of Newark Airport myself, Joey. I was upgraded quite as often myself…

  2. As a long time (read suffering) United 1K I can say that my domestic upgrades have gone from nearly 100% with the old United to zero with the new unless I use an instrument and can confirm at time of booking. Global Services, or people paying at the kiosk take them all before the list even gets looked at by the gate agent.
    (Coupled with huge differences in international fares between those upgradeable and the cheapest requires me to pay United to take part in their lottery.)
    I’ve left United after 3.5m flown miles.

  3. baccarat_guy says:

    Personally, the bigger issue is FCM and the increase in discounted first class pricing (with regard to the impact on clearing elite upgrades). Years ago, when you needed to use instruments (stickers) to upgrade on Delta domestic; there were hardly any discounted first class fares. If unlimited first class upgrades are bad for frequent flyers, then clearly discounted first class is just as bad. On many routes, you can “buy-up” to first class (discounted) for as little as $50 to $100 each way. I’d say, if you were going to limit “free” upgrades to elites then you would also have to limit the ability of non-elites (and elites) to “buy-up” to first class for a very low price. Seems sort of futile to penalize the elites (i.e. make them use an instrument for what was a free upgrade); while a non-elite (once a year flyer) can purchase first class for $75.00+/- more.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Those are excellent points, baccarat_guy. Thank you.

      If you are reading the comments of baccarat_guy and do not know what is FCM, that stands for First Class Monetization.

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