United Airlines pilots will soon get confirmed seats in first class

Oct 8, 2020

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Frequent flyers are all too familiar with the “upgrade list.” U.S. airlines offer complimentary first-class upgrades as an elite perk, allowing customers to purchase tickets in economy and score a space-available seat up front, without shelling out any extra cash.

Airlines aren’t in the business of giving anything away for free, of course — carriers offer a shot at a free first-class upgrade as a tool to build and maintain loyalty, and it’s in everyone’s interest to keep that perk intact. So I was a bit surprised to learn that first-class seats would soon be going to United employees ahead of customers, as reported by Live and Let’s Fly.

Before you get too excited, know that the move isn’t nearly as impactful as it seems on the surface.

As a component of a deal to avoid furloughs as part of United’s latest round of staffing cuts, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) negotiated a new permanent perk for its members. As part of the agreement, deadheading United pilots — employees traveling as passengers en route to a flight they’re scheduled to work — will be confirmed in the first-class cabin.

It'll soon be much easier for United pilots to secure a first-class seat. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
It’ll soon be much easier for United pilots to secure a first-class seat. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

If a seat isn’t available at booking, deadheading pilots will be upgraded above paying passengers, as long as the deadhead flight is booked more than three hours before departure. Meanwhile, if the first- or business-class cabin is oversold, and a deadheading pilot has already secured a seat, they won’t face a downgrade ahead of revenue passengers who received a complimentary upgrade.

A United spokesperson confirmed the change will begin in Dec. 2020, but wasn’t able to confirm any additional details.

Related: United Airlines pilots accept cuts to avoid furloughs on Oct. 1

Ultimately, this shouldn’t end up impacting too many elite flyers. Deadheading pilots will be confirmed in a premium cabin if there’s space available, so they won’t appear above elites on an upgrade list, and the three-hour requirement means that pilots won’t be able to book last-minute deadhead flights and appear ahead of a waitlisted elite.

Additionally, I’ve only encountered deadheading pilots a handful of times during my more than 1 million miles flying United, so this is unlikely to have much bearing on whether or not elites will be able to score an upgraded seat either way.

At the same time, it’s a great perk for United pilots on their way to work, and a bit more comfort en route to a high-pressure job can be seen as a net positive for the airline and passengers alike, considering that flying in a first-class seat can be far less stressful than being stuck in a middle seat in coach.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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