Why I declined first class upgrades during the pandemic
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In normal times, a complimentary first class upgrade is cause for a legitimate happy dance celebration. It’s the holy grail of airline elite status perks: Pay for economy, enjoy first. As a mid-tier United Gold member, I get especially excited when I score a free upgrade since they aren’t historically all that common for Gold elite members who fly to and from a United hub, as I do.
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But this time, when the upgrade cleared 24 hours before the flight for my daughter and me, I didn’t do a happy dance. Instead, I immediately started wondering if I should decline it and sit in the back of the plane.
Ultimately, that’s exactly what I did. Here’s why.
Right now, it’s all about space
If you choose to fly anytime soon, odds are high you’ll be hoping and doing all you can to ensure you are on as empty of a flight as possible. Or, even if your flight isn’t all that empty, at a minimum, you’ll likely be hoping to have as much breathing room as you can in your seat.
A small number of airlines, such as Delta, Southwest and Jetblue, are still guaranteeing capped capacity flights, but several have moved away from that strategy. I was flying United, which has returned to processing automatic first class upgrades in advance and not guaranteeing blocked middle seats. (Though the airline will warn you and allow changes if your flight is booking up beyond a certain point.)
However, I knew from some research that my flight looked to be on the empty side. I didn’t take any immediate action when our upgrades cleared but on the day of the flight, I starting stalking the seat map.
While seat maps alone aren’t 100% reliable, first class appeared to be 100% full with 20/20 seats filled, including our two upgrades.
However, economy was another story. Premium economy, which conveys a few inches of extra leg (and breathing) room, was relatively open.
But the winner was regular old economy toward the back of the plane where there were rows and rows of empty seats.
When a flight is relatively full, first class offers more built-in space and separation from nearby passengers. But in this case, presumably, with so many upgrades processed, first class was far more densely populated than the back of the plane.
As boarding started, I watched what appeared to be half the boarding area line up when first class was called. I stayed seated in my chair as I planned to board last anyway to avoid any crowding on the jetbridge or in the aisle of the aircraft, but now I was certain that the back of the plane was better for social distancing on this particular flight. And as we boarded, first class was pretty full.
Just before we boarded, I let the gate agent know that we’d like to forgo our upgrades and sit toward the back if that was OK. She had no problem with this, and said to just pick some seats in the back as indeed many rows were empty.
We each took one of the empty rows.
No temptations to eat or drink
As much distance from other passengers was the primary driver of the decision to decline our first class upgrades, it wasn’t the only reason.
While onboard food and beverage service was all but suspended on domestic hops in the spring as travel dropped off and fear spiked, it has now started to make its return. Though I can’t say with certainty what was offered in first class on this flight from more than halfway back on the plane, the noon flight was listed as offering a snack in first as well as beverage service … which means free alcohol for those seated up front.
Related: Ultimate guide to United upgrades
My plan for the two-hour flight was no food or drinks beyond a brief sip or two of water if needed. That would also make it easier to skip using the in-flight lavatory, a notoriously high-contact, tighter squeeze space. Obviously, that plan can still work in first class if you decline all the offerings, but it’s easier to not be tempted. Additionally, if others are partaking in snacks and drinks, their masks will be down for longer periods than just a sip of water, even if yours is still up. Also, the more service there is, the more flight attendants will be interacting and that is an additional risk for them and you.
Better deplaning experience
A final reason that skipping the upgrade was the best choice for this flight was the deplaning process. United now deplanes by rows. For example, rows 1–5 may be called and given time to collect belongings and exit the aircraft before rows 6–10, etc. However, that’s still a lot of temporary aisle crowding when all the seats for those rows are full.
We were the only ones in our section of rows that needed to gather our bags and depart the aircraft when our time came, making that part of the experience also a distanced exercise. (I may have literally held my breath walking from row 25 off the plane where people had just been, just in case.)
Nothing is normal right now — and probably won’t be for some time to come.
In that context, it isn’t too surprising that what is normally the pinnacle of airline perks, is currently a benefit I’d rather pass on. Now, if the flight was full, and to be clear, some United flights are indeed booked full, having the extra space in first class would likely be the better bet over a packed economy section. But, a few extra inches of space to stretch out in first in can’t hold a candle to having a section of almost 10 rows entirely to yourself when you’re trying to avoid an invisible enemy.
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