Will flight attendants notice if a passenger is in business class with an economy ticket?

Dec 7, 2019

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Editor’s note: We have updated this piece with new anecdotal information. This post was originally published May 12, 2017.

Would you ever try to sneak into business or first class instead of sitting in your economy seat? The quest for a “self-upgrade” is more common than you think. Passengers trying to self-upgrade are usually infrequent flyers who don’t realize that flight attendants have the aircraft manifest and diligently check to make sure passengers take the seats they paid for.

On Dec. 7, 2019, Twitter user @NYDoorman started a thread on social media after he witnessed a woman self-upgrade to business on an Emirates flight from Newark to Dubai, connecting in Athens.

TPG reached out to @NYDoorman who says that, shockingly, the self-upgrade technique worked throughout the entire Newark to Athens leg. The passenger was only “caught” when she tried the same approach on the Athens to Dubai leg. (TPG has reached out to Emirates for comment.)

It is incredibly rare for a self-upgrade to go unnoticed and we don’t recommend that anyone try the same approach. While we’d all love to take a seat in a premium cabin, self-upgrading is not the way to do it. Instead, rely on the savvy use of miles and points to get that swank seat without resorting to nefarious means. If you’re new to the world of miles and points, check out TPG’s beginner’s guide that will explain everything you need to know about points, miles and the credit cards that help you earn them.

This question of whether or not someone can self-upgrade comes up a lot online. Quora.com, a question-and-answer site responded to the question: If one bought an economy ticket but then sits in business class, will the crew notice? Here’s Quora’s response from multiple authors. (TPG occasionally syndicates content from Quora if we think it will interest readers.)

Response from Chris Luth, frequent flyer:

I was flying Cathay Pacific business class from JFK to Hong Kong with a stop in Vancouver. In the cluster and bluster of the horrendous security line at JFK, I befriended a girl headed home (she lived there). We got to chatting and I invited her as my guest into the airline lounge for the few minutes we had until boarding. She turned out to be a fun and boisterous person.

Cathay Pacific A350-900 business class HKG–EWR (Photo by Wallace Cotton/The Points Guy.)
Cathay Pacific A350-900 business class HKG–EWR (Photo by Wallace Cotton/The Points Guy.)

Upon boarding, I took my seat in the last row of business class, and she continued on her way back to somewhere in economy. Shortly before boarding completed, she popped up to say one last hi to me and noticed that the seat across the aisle was still empty. She sat down in it and asked me if I thought they would kick her out. “Probably,” I said, but she was definitely one to push the envelope.

As the flight attendants were getting ready to close the door, one of them came to me and, using her printout, welcomed me by name and asked me what I would like to drink before departure. She then turned to the seat across the aisle, looked down at her manifest and got a puzzled look on her face as she unsuccessfully tried to locate the new passenger.

Flying on a premium Asian carrier is such a different experience from flying on the American carriers. The flight attendant handled the situation so diplomatically: She said she must be missing some information but could she just peek at her boarding pass? Of course, the boarding pass was for seat 99Z, not anywhere near where I was sitting, and the flight attendant apologized (yes, the flight attendant apologized!) and said, “I’m so sorry, but for weight and balance purposes, can you please take your original seat?”

A light protest from my new friend claiming she was “with me” garnered another apologetic request that she move, which she did ultimately comply with.

So, yes, the flight attendants know which seats in business (or first) class are supposed to be empty, and if someone is found in one, they’ll be asked to move… (and if you’re on a US-based carrier, it might be a little stronger than just a request!)

Response from Fred Junqueria:

So here is a nice story an FA friend of mine (on Delta) once told me. A guy did this, “stealing” a business-class seat like no one saw him. He was kind of rude, so what they did was let him stay there, as he didn’t know they were up on his play.

Right before the plane started its descent on this international flight, the purser came to him and told him that she had spoken to the captain, who offered him a choice: He could pay the full fare for a business-class seat right there and then by credit card or the police would be waiting for him when they landed.

He paid.

Response from Joey Dalan, frequent flyer:

While not a rule that is true 100% of the time (I’ve been seated in business and/or first where there were empty seats), on most flights, business and/or first class will be full. In most cases, the airline upgrades everyone possible so that they can “back fill” the newly vacated economy seats with last-minute ticket purchases and standby fliers.

So, first, you’re unlikely to walk by an empty business or first class seat that doesn’t have an assigned passenger (even if you are the last person on the plane and see an empty seat “up front,” chances are the passenger in that seat is just in the loo). If you sat down in said seat, someone is likely to walk up quickly and say “Dude, what are you doing in my seat?”

Second, you’re only likely to “walk through” business/first on smaller planes (smaller than a B767). If you entered a B767 or larger and tried to head to the premium cabin (left turn instead of right through the door), the FA greeting passengers would ask to see your boarding pass. On the smaller planes where you do walk through the first-class section, the FA assigned to that section is already moving about hanging up jackets and serving pre-flight drinks to the first-class passengers by the time the last person comes on board, and knows their names and seat assignments. If you just sat down randomly, even if the seat were empty, it would be noticed.

I was busy charging my phone during early boarding one time when I had been upgraded to first class (domestic U.S.). I ended up boarding with Group 3 (the first group to board with no frequent flyer status on said airline) and found someone else in my assigned first-class seat. Turns out, he was a fellow first-class passenger, but assigned to the bulkhead row. He had spied the empty second row seat after all the other first-class passengers boarded and moved there. He was TALL… like, something in the neighborhood of 6′6 TALL, and the bulkhead was not really doing it for him. When I said, “I think you’re in my seat” while flashing my boarding pass, he stood up and explained that he hoped that seat was empty since he was too tall to be comfortable in the bulkhead. I took one look at him towering over me and said, “you know what… sit back down. I’ll trade seats with you. I’ll be perfectly comfortable in the bulkhead row. You need that legroom more than me.” “Are you sure?” “Absolutely… you’re easily a foot taller than me, I’ll be fine!” Not two minutes later, the first-class flight attendant started the pre-flight drink service, and was unhappy that we had traded seats without telling her. “You’re not ‘Mr. Miller!’” (She did get over it when we explained).

Finally… if you’re the last person on the plane, you’re always noticed. I was recently the last person on the plane because they started boarding early and it went quickly. I was flying a low-fare economy ticket on an airline I didn’t have status on, so I figured I was safe to run to the loo right across from the gate when they’d just started pre-boarding. When I came back just a few minutes later, you would have thought I mercilessly killed the gate agent’s puppy as she chided me for being the a**hole who was last to board (only two minutes after boarding was supposed to start). I mean, she seriously acted like I was single-handedly holding up all the air traffic on the Eastern Seaboard. I was scowled at by the FAs when I got to the plane, even though others were still stowing their carry-ons and I even had to wait a few beats in the aisle to get to my seat. Trust me, the last person on the plane is loudly noticed.

We also reached out to TPG’s favorite Flight Attendant Insider, Carrie A. Trey, to get her take on the situation:

Yes, we will notice. No, you won’t get away with it. We’ll handle it in one of three ways. Option A (our preferred method) involves diplomatically explaining to you that we’re not as dumb as you hoped and asking you to please return to your original seat. Option B (after you double down and try to make it look like we’re wrong) involves us pointing out that what you’re doing amounts to theft and the authorities will get involved if you don’t move. Option C (which I’ve personally seen happen) involves you sitting there anyway, at which point the authorities do get involved. This ultimately involves in you being blacklisted on the airline you’re on and possibly charged for the upgrade, too. Basically, don’t try it.

Additional reporting by Andrea Rotondo.

Featured image by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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