Is United Airlines Limiting Advance Complimentary Elite Upgrades?

Aug 3, 2019

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Most international airlines don’t offer complimentary upgrades to business or first class. Here in the US, however, that’s the norm — especially among American, Delta, United and Alaska Airlines. Complimentary upgrades — along with other incredibly valuable perks — help an airline build loyalty with frequent travelers and keeps those customers coming back.

As a top-tier United Premier 1K member, I generally have excellent luck scoring complimentary upgrades to first class. I almost always purchase a seat in economy, and more often than not, end up flying up front — especially since my schedule has some flexibility, and I’m not battling consultants and other road warriors on key Monday morning and Thursday evening departures.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed that my United upgrades have stopped clearing as far in advance. Even when more than half of the seats remain open in a premium cabin, I’m frequently still in economy when the 96-hour window opens up. Instead, I’ve been getting the nod shortly before or after check-in, or even just a few minutes prior to departure.

I was fortunate enough to clear into first class four times over the past month. Though, despite cabins with many empty seats, all four flights didn’t clear until within 24 hours of departure.

  1. EWR-AUS (June 27) – 9/12 seats for sale until T-24 – fare class: V (cleared at check-in)
  2. EWR-MEX (July 2) – 9/12 seats for sale until T-24 – fare class: Q (cleared at check-in)
  3. EWR-PHX (July 14) – 5/16 seats for sale until T-24 – fare class: H (cleared at check-in)
  4. EWR-MCI (July 25) – 4/6 seats for sale until T-24 – fare class: T (cleared at boarding)

Related: What Is United Airlines Elite Status Worth in 2019?

United’s well within its right to withhold the upgrade until check in — “as early as” 96 hours hours certainly doesn’t sound like a guarantee — but the airline seems to have made some tweaks to its complimentary upgrade process, especially considering all four of my upgrades above likely would have cleared when that 96-hour window opened up in the past.

In the meantime, I’m presented with offers to confirm an upgrade for cash — during check in as well, moments before my complimentary upgrade ended up clearing automatically.

A United spokesperson simply reiterated the “as early as” language, and noted that there hasn’t been any change to the process. That doesn’t mean the revenue management team hasn’t been making some tweaks to the number of seats that’ll trigger a complimentary upgrade, though.

I checked in with other flyers on Twitter, too, to see what their experience has been. Some United elites have had upgrades clear in advance, but many have noticed a similar delay. One Global Services member noted 20 open seats on a flight between Chicago (ORD) and Los Angeles (LAX); that member’s upgrade ended up clearing about five minutes before check-in.

Another Twitter user, Maura, stated that a gate agent explained that seats are being withheld for paid upgrades — a trend we’ve noticed with Delta as well.

I posed the same question over at the TPG Lounge. Bert, a Premier 1K member, noted that “it’s pretty rare that I get anything before the day of departure,” while Jochai said “I’m a 1K and most of my upgrades lately haven’t cleared until I’m already on the plane, and haven’t had one clear before check-in in months.”

Revenue management teams are constantly tweaking their algorithms, and filling premium seats with economy flyers mean missing out on a potential sale. It is an important component of building and maintaining loyalty, however, so I’m hopeful United will decide to reverse this apparent trend.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of card membership. Plus, earn a $200 statement credit after your first Delta purchase within the first three months. Offer ends 7/28/21.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles after spending $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months and a $200 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months. Offer expires 7/28/2021.
  • Limited Time Offer: Plus, get a 0% intro APR on purchases for 12 months from the date of account opening, then a variable 15.74%-24.74%. Offer expires 7/28/2021.
  • Accelerate your path to Medallion Status, with Status Boost®. Plus, in 2021 you can earn even more bonus Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) to help you reach Medallion Status.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Intro APR on Purchases
0% on purchases for 12 months
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
N/A
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.