LATAM Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplane
Photograph ©2019 by Brian Cohen.

Self-Upgrading is Stealing. Period.

“Sat in WT+ this morning on BA165 and along comes a lady who sits in the row behind me, immediately summons the crew and says ‘my husband tried to upgrade but was told there were no seats – the row is empty, can he sit here?’ Crew said they’d ask the ‘manager’ and get back to her.”

Self-Upgrading is Stealing. Period.

LATAM Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplane
Photograph ©2019 by Brian Cohen.

The story as recounted by FlyerTalk member hb133 continues: “Halfway through the flight, husband appears and plonks himself next to his wife. When I saw the CSM walking through the cabin later, I mentioned that there was someone sat in the seat behind me who wasn’t there when we took off. She said something about it being too much hassle to deal with, at which point I said I’d love to sit in Club or First if there were free seats but recognise that I obviously had to sit where I paid. She agreed with me on the principle (asking me if I’d like to sit in the cockpit!), but did absolutely nothing to send the man back to his paid for seat. Then spoke to the man, who tells her that ‘a member of crew said I could sit here’ and decided to leave him alone — isn’t the CSM meant to be the person in charge on board in these situations?”

The husband in that story apparently got away with “stealing” that seat in the premium cabin by using a tactic which is known as self-upgrading, which a passenger takes onto himself or herself moving to a premium seat without permission or paying for the privilege.

Seats in the premium cabin — especially on international flights — are very limited in number; so therefore, not everyone can sit in them every time on every flight…

View of Business Elite Cabin From Seat 9D
Photograph ©2013 by Brian Cohen.

…and for a number of airlines, revenue for those seats are consequently at a premium price much of the time. People may wonder why an airline would rather depart with those seats remaining empty than perhaps offering them at a significant discount. That is because officials at airlines do not want to condition passengers with waiting until the last minute to purchase those seats at a deep discount, which endangers the experience to possibly be devalued over time — similar to not expecting a luxury vehicle or any other opulent item or service to be available at a significant discount.

Seeing empty seats in the premium cabin during a flight can be tempting to some passengers who are seated in the economy class cabin. After all, who would not want to experience a lie-flat seat with thousands of complimentary entertainment options and gourmet food? As a seat is empty, it is only going to waste anyway, right? Why not just upgrade oneself to it?

It is not as simple as that. Food and beverages cost money. Cleaning of crockery and cutlery costs money. Members of the cabin crew must work harder and longer with extra passengers who did not pay their way. Maintenance of more of the cabin itself costs money and time…

American Airlines domestic first class
Photograph ©2019 by Brian Cohen.

…and should the mantra of “first come, first serve” apply here? Imagine the stampede and mayhem of passengers attempting to self-upgrade at the very second the Fasten Seat Belt sign is deactivated. Otherwise, why should one passenger get preference over another at a seat in the premium cabin? Should the person who paid the most for a ticket get an upgrade over the person who has earned the highest level of elite status in a frequent flier loyalty program?


Delta Air Lines Delta One business class Boeing 747-400
Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

Receiving something of which you are not initially entitled can be a wonderful surprise.

Taking something of which you are not initially entitled through your own volition is usually considered stealing — especially when you do not pay for it and if you were not granted official permission.

Passengers who are seated in the economy class cabin have no right to simply take an empty seat in the premium class cabin — which an airline can sell for thousands of dollars — without permission and without paying for it…

…and members of the flight crew who permit for such a tactic to occur because doing something about it may be too much of a “hassle” send out a signal to others that self-upgrading is okay for anyone who dares to do so — which can set a precedent for attempts to self-upgrade to occur more often in the future.

Lastly, self-upgrading is especially unfair to others who paid for the privilege to sit in the premium cabin — whether using money or frequent flier loyalty program miles as payment.

All photographs ©2013, ©2016, and ©2019 by Brian Cohen.

  1. While i agree that self-upgrading is terrible, the argument ” Food and beverages cost money. Cleaning of crockery and cutlery costs money.” is silly.

    All flights are catered for a full load of passengers. This is to account for IRROPS where people may be booked on the flight at the last possible minute. And if certain foods/plates/meals aren’t used during flight, its not like they just get loaded to another flight. they’re still disposed of and cleaned.

  2. See this occur in some markets more than others.

    On one flight the guy moved himself up and curled up in the lie flat bed. The crew sent him back. He went back THREE times.
    On another flight, a group of five brazenly strolled in to together to the Premium Economy cabin and sat down in the empty seats. After some debate, the crew allowed them to stay BUT they were only given the economy meals…as if that was a punishment?

    1. I am glad to see you commenting here, Martin J Cowling. I enjoy reading your articles at Wild About Travel.

      That last story is quite bizarre; but perhaps worthy of another discussion: is self-upgrading to premium economy as egregious as to business class or first class?

      I would argue yes…

  3. No, the guy shouldn’t have sat there. But seriously raising a stink to a FA about it? This is written in the voice of someone who reminds the teacher they forgot to assign homework.

  4. I think, if a passenger wants to upgrade thier seat, mid-flight, then then they should be allowed to do so… just as soon as they pay for the upgrade using their credit card. Credit card sales are already happening for food and drink, why not extend that to seat upgrades?

    1. I cannot argue with your idea, M. Downey

      …and also as a possible result of the implementation of that idea, an indirect benefit to a few passengers who are seated in the economy class cabin would be that they get to sit next to at least one empty seat.

  5. Airlines can avoid that situation by “goodwill upgrading” passengers like active duty military, veterans, elites, someone injured or just simply someone mourning a loss or celebrating an occasion to ensure premium cabins depart close to full. In-flight CSMs have enough to deal with already, so management shouldn’t set them up for issues.

    1. I agree with you, Glenn Lee.

      Sometimes, members of the flight crew do exactly what you suggest; but it is an unwritten, irregular and unofficial policy.

    2. Interesting, because when I was mourning and had to fly overseas and back, a few times, I didn’t even think of asking for a free upgrade, I just paid for it using vouchers, miles and money (which is not something I’m overflowing with). It’s a nice idea though.

      As for the original question, yes, I agree with Brian that self-upgrading is stealing.

  6. interesting post. thanks.


    “I mentioned that there was someone ~sat~ in the seat behind me who wasn’t there when we took off.”

    1. As always, I appreciate the correction, r m a h — but in this case, that was a direct quote that I chose not to change.

  7. Agree that self-upgrading is stealing and wrong. But it makes me think about something I did a number of years ago. Flying coach (3 x 3), I was assigned a middle seat. At check-in, I was offered the window seat immediately next to my middle seat for $50. This seemed steep, and the flight was not full, so I declined the offer and stuck with my middle seat. Not much to my surprise, the window seat next to me went unsold. As soon as we pushed from the gate, I slid over into the open seat. Technically, I was stealing. But I’m guessing 9 out of 10 peopled also would have claimed that empty seat (and I hate to imagine if I’d tried to explain to my aisle seatmate that as a matter of principle I would not scoot over, thereby denying him the benefit of an empty seat next to him). So my question is, at what point is this sort of “stealing” truly wrong?

    1. That is quite a conundrum, Gabe Meyer.

      I just might pose your scenario as a separate article to find out what readers of The Gate think…

  8. Is stealing from the airline in a case like this is a problem? Airlines as a rule have piss poor customer service and in certain situations, passengers have been kicked off of a flight in favor of another or others.

  9. Much ado about nothing. Corporations are increasingly sticking it to the little guy. Stop whining…more power to em…

  10. The irritating part to me isn’t so much the stealing from the airline aspect. It’s the “I’m special compared to the rest of you in coach and am heading up front” aspect. People thinking they’re special leads to a lot of problems.

  11. Self upgrading is unacceptable and unfair to all the other passengers in the premium cabin who paid (either by money or miles) to be there. If the crew refused to send the passenger back I would have written a nice complaint letter to the airline.

  12. Why is everyone commenting on this? He said “period” at the end of the title. That means no more discussion! What he says is law!

  13. You know what’s worse? Those bastards that move from the middle seat to an empty aisle. And what really grinds my gears are those parents with infants. You know, the ones that only booked two seats for the family of three, then just plunk their child down in the empty middle seat? Thieves. Absolute thieves. Prison is too good for them.

    And don’t get me started on the people checking 51 pound bags despite the 50 pound weight limit. And getting away with it!

  14. Thank you for this article. As someone who works for an airline, I see this many times and it’s frustrating and unfair to those however they paid. I was recently on a flight from Colombia to US when passenger did this at begging of boarding. They bragged about it to the passenger next to them and was being obnoxious to that passenger as well. Purser was busy setting up and other FA didn’t know so the passenger got a few complimentary drinks in until meal service when Purser saw that seat wasn’t supposed to be occupied. The passenger tried to argue then got rude but Purser stood their ground and passenger went to their seat in main cabin. But passenger repeatedly came up during flight to whine, until Purser explained they would divert if needed to be removed from aircraft.

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!