Why the United Airbus fleet offers easy first-class upgrades

Mar 10, 2020

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United’s been very busy upgrading its long-haul aircraft with Polaris pods and Premium Plus seats. At the current pace, the airline, on average, is adding or retrofitting one aircraft with these cabins every ten days.

But this fleet renewal project isn’t limited to wide-body planes. The domestic workhorses are also seeing improvements. Late last year, UA introduced the passenger-friendly CRJ550. It’s also been refreshing the cabins of the Boeing 757 with some of the best economy seats in the airline’s fleet.

As one of my favorite narrow-bodies, I often find myself flying the United Airbus A320 family. And these planes are in the process of getting an elite-flier friendly upgrade that makes scoring an upgrade easier.

A United Airbus A319 with the new 12-seat first-class cabin (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

In line with United’s focus on premium passengers, the A319 is losing a row of Economy Plus seats in favor of another row of first class.

The old A319s have just eight seats up front, which make scoring an upgrade really hard. In fact, I haven’t once cleared an upgrade on one of these A319s this year.

Fortunately, the refreshed A319s have 12 seats up front, which adds 33% more capacity to the cabin. But here’s the kicker: since only some of the A319s have been reconfigured, United hasn’t actually started selling the four additional seats. Instead, the airline is blocking them to avoid downgrading passengers in case of a last-minute equipment swap. (United’s doing a similar thing with its retrofitted Boeing 787-8s)

Typically, those extra four first-class seats aren’t released until the gate agent working a given flight confirms that the premium-heavy A319 is actually operating it. That means that you’re basically guaranteed an upgrade if you’re one of the top four people on the upgrade list.

That’s exactly what happened to me when flying from Chicago to New York-LaGuardia. I was number two on the upgrade list with seven first-class passengers booked on the flight.

Related: How to upgrade United flights

Had the flight been operated by one of the old A319s, I would’ve missed the upgrade. Fortunately, a quick check of the seat map confirmed that I was scheduled to fly a refreshed bird, almost guaranteeing my upgrade.

Lo and behold, my upgrade cleared just 20 minutes before boarding.

Be sure to pay attention to the aircraft operating your flight if you’re looking to fly the A319. At the moment, United has reconfigured most of its A319s with 12 first-class seats, so your odds of scoring a free upgrade are quite high. However, UA assign a given aircraft to a specific route only about two days in advance, so there’s no good way to predict which route will get which aircraft.

A United Airbus A319 with the one less row of Economy Plus (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

United’s also making a similar upgrade to its almost 100 Airbus A320s. Though it hasn’t yet started the reconfiguration, I’d expect the same to happen when those planes go from 12 to 16 first-class seats.

All in all, this is great news for top-tier elites — until United stops blocking the four extra first seats. Then, these frequent fliers will be competing for fewer Economy Plus seats.

But in the meantime, the United Airbus A319 is one of the best planes for easy upgrades. With the addition of four first-class seats that United isn’t selling yet, this is the short-haul plane that elite flyers should be seeking out.

Featured photo of a United Airbus A319 by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy

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