United appears to be clearing upgrades out of order, but a fix is on the way

Jan 14, 2020

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One of the top United elite perks is access to PlusPoints, the carrier’s new currency for regional and long-haul upgrades, enabling MileagePlus members to confirm an upgrade to domestic first class, regional business, Premium Plus or Polaris business class at booking, or join a priority waitlist to clear before the departure date, or at the gate.

Unfortunately, PlusPoints currently aren’t working as intended — in certain situations — and it’s likely impacting a large number of customers and flights. Several TPG readers have written in, noting that their upgrades have been clearing out of order, and I was able to witness it in realtime myself.

Additionally, United has now acknowledged the issue, and confirmed that a fix is on the way. First, I’ll share United’s statement, and then I’ll explain what’s happening and how to deal with it if you’re flying United over the next few days.

According to a United spokesperson, “We are working to resolve a technical issue that can cause upgrade lists to appear incorrectly on some flights that have both Polaris and United Premium Plus seats. In the interim, impacted customers can work with our gate agents to help process their upgrade.”

As the airline mentioned, the issue impacts flights with a Premium Plus cabin, which is available on a number of long-haul international flights, along with premium transcon flights operated by the Boeing 787-10, including Newark (EWR) to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO).

Premium Plus on United's 787-10. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
Passengers traveling on flights with Premium Plus may not see their waitlist position reflected accurately. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

When it comes to upgrades on these flights, United prioritizes passengers booked on a paid Premium Plus itinerary — in the O, A and R fare classes — above all other flyers. So a “general member” (a flyer without United elite status) booked in “R,” the discounted Premium Plus fare class, would be upgraded above a Global Services member traveling on a full-fare “Y” economy ticket.

Last year, this allowed TPG’s Alberto Riva to “jump the list” for a Polaris upgrade by paying $199 for a Premium Plus upgrade at check-in. Although Alberto didn’t have status, he was upgraded before those who do, because he was traveling in paid Premium Plus. As frustrating as that may be to loyal United flyers buying expensive flexible economy tickets, that’s the published process, and if you know what to expect, the process seems more fair, and it works.

For the time being, though, it appears that the process isn’t working as advertised, with flyers clearing out of the numbered order. But “appears” is key here, though, because it seems that only the customer-facing upgrade lists are affected.

I noticed this myself on Saturday. My cousin was flying from Tel Aviv (TLV) to Newark, and a generous Global Services friend used some of his PlusPoints to waitlist her, since Polaris upgrades requested by a Global Services member are prioritized above those requested by a 1K, such as myself.

My cousin has extensive experience flying United, and was familiar with the process, so she had been texting me waitlist updates beginning a couple of days leading up to the flight. She was very excited about getting to experience Polaris on such a long flight, and it was looking good — there were five seats left for sale, and many more unselected on the seat map, and she was near the top of the list.

Then, a few hours before departure, passengers began to clear, leaving her as #1 for an upgrade, reflected as DEU, J. below. Suddenly, as the boarding time approached, she noticed the passenger directly below her — COH, Y. — had been given a business-class seat. She went to the gate to check, and was told that she would be the very next to clear. Then, as we both watched, more passengers continued to clear, and DEU, J. remained #1.

As each cleared, I noticed one more seat opening up in the Premium Plus cabin. These were almost certainly passengers booked in Premium Plus, giving them priority over my cousin’s economy booking. She finally found a knowledgeable airport agent, who confirmed what I had suspected — the passengers were indeed eligible to clear ahead of Julie; the numbered waitlist is incorrect.

I’ve heard of this happening with American, as JT and Katie Genter experienced here, but United’s upgrade process has seemed to be pretty buttoned-up — there was clearly a bug somewhere in the system.

I outlined the account in detail for United, which led to today’s acknowledgement. The airline’s temporary solution to “work with our gate agents to help process their upgrade” will surely generate mixed results — hopefully, the gate agents will be able to view an accurate waitlist, rather than the buggy customer-facing list, but that remains to be seen.

In the meantime, if you’re booked in economy on a flight with a Premium Plus cabin, there’s a good chance you’re not as high up on the Polaris waitlist as it appears. And if you’re booked in Premium Plus, you could end up getting a surprise upgrade, even if you’re showing up further down on the list. Just take a moment to think of the flyer unexpectedly stuck back in 3-4-3 coach, while you’re enjoying your upgrade to a lie-flat seat.

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