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We value Delta’s Diamond Medallion status at a whopping $7,850 per year. Of that amount, complimentary upgrades account for some $1,500 — and, depending on which routes you fly and how often you travel, it’s easy to draw even more value from the perk.

Of course, like all carriers, Delta would prefer to fill those first-class seats with paying customers, even if that means letting them go at a fraction of the regular price. That doesn’t mean airline executives overlook the value of complimentary upgrades, though.

In between chatting up the Airbus A350 and revealing upcoming routes at Delta’s Airbus A350 media day, CEO Ed Bastian acknowledged that offering free upgrades is “very very important for [Delta’s] customers,” saying:

Five, six years ago before we started selling first-class upgrades we would only sell maybe 15% of the cabin in first class. Today, we’re somewhere between 50 and 60% of the cabin. It depends on routes; some routes are a little less than that some routes are a little more than that. So there’s a substantial amount of available inventory for free upgrades to first that we think is very very important for our customers.

Obviously, 15% to 50 or 60% is a huge jump, and there’s no question that free upgrade opportunities aren’t what they used to be. Bastian has an answer for that, too:

One of the reasons why we moved into the paid upgrade opportunity, not only does it allow customers to provide certainty by being able to buy the experience, but we also have a very good product in our Comfort+, which we didn’t have in the past, so that for many of our loyal customers that were unable to upgrade, they now have a place where they can actually have an enhanced experience, versus prior years where you’d be in the main cabin.

Is Comfort+ the same thing as first class? No, it’s not even close. But enhanced service and free food and drinks definitely count for something, and help take the sting out of missing out on a premium-cabin upgrade. It’s refreshing to see that Bastian recognizes the value of complimentary upgrades, though, especially considering the regular devaluations we’ve been seeing with the SkyMiles program.

Do complimentary upgrades impact your decision to fly a certain airline?

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