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The Strange Way United’s Handling Upgrades on 3-Cabin Transcon Flights

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Like American and Delta, United’s flying wide-body international aircraft on several domestic routeswith more planes on the way. American Airlines and United are operating three-cabin planes on some routes, with first, business and economy-class cabins, and both carriers are handling upgrades in their own peculiar way. United’s strategy is a bit more puzzling though, in my opinion.

The airline is currently operating eight wide-body transcon flights on peak days — two round-trips between Newark and Los Angeles and two round-trips between Newark and San Francisco. One of the LAX round-trips is operated by a Dreamliner (for now, at least), but United’s using a 777-200 for the other three. Of those flights, at least two each day are operated by three-cabin aircraft that regularly fly between the US and Europe. It’s unclear how long this will continue, but the 777s should be flying these routes at least through the summer.

The challenge here is that UA seems to be swapping between two- and three-cabin 777s frequently, so the airline isn’t selling the first-class cabin on any of these Newark transcons — you can only purchase a seat in economy or BusinessFirst. That leaves eight first-class seats empty — as many as 64 unsold seats each day.

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Today’s United 777-200 flight from EWR to LAX.

Rather than let these premium seats go out empty, though, a special department at United (within revenue management, it seems) is manually “upgrading” select passengers within 24 hours of departure. United agents prioritize upgrades first based on status (starting with Global Services), followed by the fare purchased — since this process is handled manually, it’s possible that agents are upgrading based not only on status and fare class, but also the actual cost of the ticket. If some seats are empty when it’s time for the flight to board, they’ll go to non-revenue passengers — gate agents can only upgrade BusinessFirst passengers if the business-class cabin is oversold, as is the case with international flights.

I attempted to snag one of these Global First seats on the Newark-San Francisco leg before my inaugural Singapore flight last week, but the airport and 1K desk agents didn’t see any availability in first class, even though three seats were unoccupied. All of the agents I spoke to referenced a memo that was sent last month, explaining the process for assigning these seats that I described above. Long story short, unless you’re spending a lot of money with United, you’re not going to get one of these Global First seats — miles, upgrade certificates or even cash won’t help you out here. And that’s a shame, since United’s 8-across BusinessFirst is certainly something you’ll want to avoid.

Have you been assigned a Global First seat on a Newark transcon?

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