Should Your Boss Get The Upgrade Instead of You?

Photograph © by shironosov. Illustration by Brian Cohen.

Years ago during one business trip when I worked for a company and held the highest level of elite status with Continental Airlines, I was upgraded to a seat in the premium class cabin; while the person to whom I reported did not — and as I watched him walk the “walk of shame” down the aisle towards the seat he was assigned in the economy class cabin, I simply smiled at him from the comfort of my seat while sipping on my pre-departure beverage.
In response, he sneered at me while mumbling a few expletives under his breath.
We had a great relationship where we joked around with each other all of the time. He never acted like he was my superior. We worked very well together, laughed a lot and had a great time on the job. We were quite productive as well. I still miss that interaction which we had — but I also never let him forget about that upgrade.
Do not feel bad for him: he never let me forget a lot of things either — and that was just fine with me. I could take it just as well as I dished it out…
…but more often than not, many people unfortunately do not seem to have that kind of relationship with their bosses. That can lead to some awkward scenarios — such as when you get an upgrade and your boss does not.
What do you do if you find yourself in that situation?
Apparently little has changed since I first asked the question “You are Upgraded. Your Boss is Not. What Do You Do?” here at The Gate greater than seven years ago. First, let us start with an excerpt from a discussion which I highlighted in that article:
“So a bunch of us that work together that FLY everywhere were talking at dinner last night”, recalled FlyerTalk member iCorpRoadie. “We recounted a story when we all worked at the same company and FLEW EVERYWHERE for work. Once the CEO of the company was going to fly with us, well we were all upgraded to First and he wasn’t. At the time one of the co-workes and the CEO were not on good terms and told his supervisor that if anything was said about us all being in first and the CEO being back in coach, he would quit his job (at the time we were all at a point where we wanted to quit).
“Sure enough, as we all preboarded and sat there in first drinking and such, the rest of the cabin began to fill in, the CEO of our company at the time boarded and well as he walked past under his breath he said ‘you f***ers’. Needless to say the one that threatened to quit did that week. Over the course of two years we all were either fired or quit that were on that flight and we all formed a sorta co-op of working together and are WAY better off now than ever before.”
Would you have given up your upgrade to the chief executive officer?
What if you had a higher elite status than the person to whom you report at the company where you are employed? “This doesn’t feel right — I have higher status than my boss…and my boss is a very senior SVP”, posted FlyerTalk member ButIsItArt. “It doesn’t seem like it should be this way in the great order of things. Help me, follow FTers feel not so bad about this…”
Matters are only worsened if you are unfortunate enough to report to a person who is simply jealous. “My boss is Silver and I am gold and always get the Exec Level and many times a suite,” explained FlyerTalk member jmplatinum. “He gets neither. So, today he is deciding where we should stay and notes that I would absolutely prefer the Hilton and picks Wyndham. It should be noted that I will be there an entire week while everyone else will be there for 1 night.”
What if you were outright ordered to give up your upgrade to your boss? “This happened to me today, and I was happy to oblige”, justified FlyerTalk member zcat18. “I do understand executive privilege and optics. However, it still struck me as a bit over the top.”
If I were the boss and a subordinate secured an upgrade where I had not, it would be of no issue to me at all, as that person most likely earned the upgrade. Likewise, if I were faced with being forced to relinquish my upgrade to a superior, I would most likely quit that job.
Here is my rationale, as naïve as it may be: you should enjoy working for a living — whether you are employed at a company or operate your own business. You should not have to deal with politics and allow a hierarchy to dictate your happiness — or lack thereof. You earned that upgrade by traveling on your own time for company business — even if the company paid for your travel.
There are those who are of the mindset that because the company paid for your travel, they get to dictate how you travel. That is true to a point: I can understand why a company would purchase a seat in the economy class cabin instead of the premium class cabin to save money; although there are companies which will approve the purchase of a seat in the premium class cabin when minimum standards of its travel policies are met in order to ensure that the value of the productivity of employees exceeds the cost of the upgraded travel. That concept is known as a return on investment.
However, if you earned elite level status as a result of the frequency of travel to which you had already committed and endured — and that upgrade did not cost a penny to the company — then you should not be denied that upgrade, in my opinion. If your boss wants that upgrade so badly, he or she can pay for it out of his or her pocket if the company will not approve the expense.
How many times have you traveled on your own time for company business? Can you count the number of times company business took precedence over your own personal business which would be considered important to you? Think of all of the times you traveled in discomfort due to allergies or illness; experienced the irregular operations you have endured due to weather or mechanical issues or labor disputes; suffered from the kid who kicked your seat from behind dozens of times as the baby next to you cried during the entire flight; sat in the middle seat where you had to wrestle for an armrest; had the back of the seat in your face when the passenger in front of you decided to recline his or her seat; or when you argued with someone who poached the seat you reserved months ago.
Yeah. You earned that upgrade, my friend.
If you are at your job because you need the money but are unhappy, I would suggest as a certified managerial coach that you should consider rethinking your priorities and set goals to get you from where you are now to a position where you feel like you are stealing money because you enjoy the work that you do so much. A boss should be supportive of you — not jealous or vindictive…
…but we all know that that is the ideal situation and not always the way it works, unfortunately.
Work should be fun. You should wake up in the morning raring to go — not dreading the day which lies ahead for you. For some people, travel — and its perks, which seem to be more difficult to earn and enjoy these days — is part of that fun when working. You should not have to worry about someone taking your fun and what you enjoy away from you.
Am I wrong here? Is there something which I am missing? Please express your point of view. Thank you in advance.

  1. Interesting article. I typically try my best to use existing upgrades or eVIPs to upgrade coworkers in situations like this, but I certainly would not give up my seat. As mentioned in the article, you have earned it.

  2. I have a tough time buying into the company owned upgrade philosophy. Work trips count just as much as taking the wife to HNL, bringing kids to MCO, or a fishing trip with the guys to JNU. – all on your own dime and crediting to the same FFP.

  3. You out for lunch with your boss and co-workers. You all order and when the food comes your boss decides that your food looks better. Would it be o.k. for them to order you to trade meals? If the company was paying for the lunch (all the meals) would THAT make it o.k.? OF COURSE NOT….I see the upgrade seat as being very similar.

  4. Well as a CEO who has been in this situation, I can give this advice, I have never accepted an upgrade from one of my employees but I do clearly remember which ones did offer to switch seats with me and which ones did not. I can also tell you that those who did offer, despite me declining their offer had better career success than those who did not. Maybe that is a coincidence or maybe it demonstrated an attitude on either their part or on my part. It is much like going out to lunch, I never let employees buy my lunch, but I do appreciate those that offer, vs. those who just expect me to pay for their lunch.

  5. Since I have been self employed for the last 25 years, this would not be an issue for me, but my wife who is working for a major shipping company, on two occassions she came had this issue come up, fortunately her boss, was very happy for her, (male and female)
    after the flight never made a reference to the flight. Was it uneasy for my wife… NO

  6. I don’t have the issue with my boss — he generally is flying USAir/American while I am on a Delta flight. But I work for a non-profit and frequently am on flights with board members. They know I travel a lot and that the upgrades come by status and not paid by the organization. I don’t give up my upgrades for them, but I do always invite them into the Sky Club with me — and that is generally acknowledged and appreciated.

  7. I am moderately senior in my company, and I would never consider asking a subordinate to give up their first or business class seat for me, or taking it if offered. I’m not sure I’d remember it if someone offered. I do find it amusing that at times when I have seen a more senior colleague jealous of someone in a group who gets an upgrade or other perk it is usually due to lack of attention to their own travel arrangements (often made using an assistant). Had they been paying a little attention to detail, they could have had the same.

  8. I have boarded planes with more junior / less-traveled co-workers whom I knew had been up all night preparing a presentation, etc. and swapped BP in the jetway so they could sit in first class. I have flown with my CEO when I was upgraded and he wasn’t, and finagled a companion upgrade at the podium so he could join me (this was a while ago; such a move is much less possible today). But I would never eye a more junior colleague’s F seat assignment and say, hey, give me that — that would the height of boorish, insensitive management. And if a CEO did that to me I would not forget it.
    In Vietnam, such “leaders” were sometimes killed by their own troops.

  9. I wouldn’t do it. You earn status by traveling. While the big boss deals with important matters at the home office, my team and I deal with important matters in the field. If the boss demanded an upgrade seat from me I’d tell him to sod off (more politely of course) and then start looking for another team within the company. He can have my upgrades when he’s dealing with airport security, 6AM flights, and long drives to the countryside.

  10. I have been in this situation where 2 of my bosses, including the CFO, were on my flight to DCA from MCO after a conference. I got upgraded and they did not. I asked both of them if they would like to take my seat and told them I felt awkward sitting in front while they sat in the back. They both thanked me for the offer, told me I deserved it because I am always on the road, and declined. I would err on the side of caution and always offer. Besides, if they have never flown domestic First Class, they’ll think it’s much more awesome than it really is and I look like a saint for giving it up. Win win!

  11. There’s only one boss who will ever get my upgrade and I sleep next to her the nights that I’m home.

  12. If I want to offer the boss or coworker my upgrade, I tell them in advance– might as well net the credit whether or not the gate upgrade goes through. If I don’t want to offer up my first class seat, I simply remain in the lounge and show up at the gate just before the door closes so I can gracefully board last and don’t have to deal with any discussion of giving up my seat.

  13. On a cross-country flight, consisting of two segments, I was upgraded to first on both segments, while my boss was not. I took first class on the first segment, while insisting my boss take first class on the later segment. He was a good guy and would not have asked for it, but I didn’t feel right leaving him stranded in steerage for the whole flight. I explained to the flight attendant what I was doing (as a relative newbee, I wanted to confirm the seat switch wouldn’t be a problem…) and later she comped me with a free beer, after I was seated in coach. If my boss was a jerk I probably wouldn’t have done it, but, since he always treated me well, I was more than happy to do it.
    If I had a boss that insisted on taking my upgrade, I would be ticked. It would likely be symptomatic of a larger problem with leadership at that company and I would probably not be inclined to stay at that company any longer than necessary.

  14. I enjoyed reading this article and the replies. to sum it up I believe Burj has a good point to say whats right and wrong but on the other hand its smart to offer it to your boss and its smart for your boss to decline it. Bottom line is, if your boss insists on taking YOUR upgrade, its just one more sign that you should not be working under his “leadership”. Its definitely not the only REAL problem you have with him.

  15. You want PE / Business or First class, you pay for Business or First class. It’s really simple, expect to travel in the class you purchased, if you travel higher that is simply a nice bonus.
    Therefore if the boss wanted to travel in a higher class, they should have paid for it upfront, not be-grudge the employee who was lucky enough to be upgraded.

  16. I would just offer it to my boss. I respect my superiors and even if I “earned” the upgrade, they are still my superiors. Plus my offering makes it a gift and increases positive relations. I don’t see a problem with that. Guess first class doesn’t mean as much to me as good working relations.

  17. Fascinating read and replies. I’ve had a SVP walking by me in P (after an upgrade from J) whilst he was in J, and with a smile on his face he sincerely wished me to enjoy my upgrade. And I myself have wished my team members the same in a very similar situation (Them in J and me in Y). And trust me, this has had no influence on the careers of any of us.And I also don’t see why my team members should give up their upgrade. Hierarchy is perfectly respected in our company culture, and team spirit is a very important commodity. Guess that says it all!

  18. If you are going to make a case for traveling on the same airline all the time to accrue status that gives you free upgrade, why not give the boss the upgrade? Let them enjoy it, they may be more understanding if you want to choose a specific airline based on the perks that make your travel more comfortable (and productivity better).

  19. I think the upgrade is definitely earned by the account holder regardless of the position within the company and often your boss is not the one “in the air” all the time otherwise he would have earned a similar status… I had a different experience with upgrades though and it used to drive me crazy at the time. I worked for most of my life within different airlines and the upgrade policy is definitely based on seniority and number of years service. I would sometimes (not regularly luckily) find myself in the position where I actually did all the work on the business trip, attending meetings and preparing documentation etc. and my ‘boss’ would be upgraded on the way back while I have to make do with whatever seat became available at the last minute.

  20. As a CEO, I would definitely call my co-workers “f**kers” if they were upgraded and I wasn’t. But I would not expect any of them to give up their seats for me, nor would I accept if offered.

  21. I had one memorable flight many years ago where something similar happened. At the time I worked for a company where I flew every week and had Elite++++ status with a major US carrier. I was also in the Marine Corps Reserves at the time. For our annual 2 week training we all flew to our training separately since our unit was made up of Marine from all over the country. However we were all clustered together for the return flight and my first leg was San Diego to Charlotte, and there were a lot of the other East Coast Marines aboard that flight as well, including the Colonel commanding our unit. I was upgraded at check-in. I didn’t even think twice about it when it happened because it wasn’t unusual. I decided, again without much thought, to pass the boarding pass on to a Corporal who was in my platoon and had done an outstanding job. I though he deserved a couple of free drinks and the relative luxury of the seat more than I. It wasn’t until I saw the Colonel boarding and staring at the poor young man that I realized what I had done to him. I tracked down and told the Colonel how he happened to be in that seat, and the Colonel wasn’t angry, he thought the airline had done it!

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