Can my upgrade still clear if there's no award inventory?
Reader Questions are answered twice a week by TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg.
Holding an upgrade certificate (often awarded to upper-tier elite members) is like having a golden ticket, but you have to use it wisely. You don't want to waste it on a short flight, but you also don't want to hold out for a long, premium route where your upgrade might not clear. TPG reader Felix wants to know if he absolutely needs upgrade inventory for his upgrade to clear ...
[pullquote source="TPG READER FELIX"]Is PZ availability absolutely required for a United GPU to clear? Or can it still clear at the gate if there are open Polaris seats but no PZ inventory?[/pullquote]
First of all, Felix hit on a point that's very important to understand if you're trying to clear your upgrades in advance of the flight. Before departure, upgrades can only clear if the airline's revenue management department has allocated seats in the forward cabin to a designated upgrade fare class. You can check out TPG's complete guides to the various fare classes for American Airlines, United and Delta, as well as how to search for upgrade inventory.
United Premier 1K elites earn six Global Premier Upgrade (or GPU) certificates each year, and an additional GPU for every additional 25,000 Premier Qualifying Miles or 30 Premier Qualifying Segments in a year. These can be used to upgrade eligible United flights, assuming there's PZ availability for an upgrade to Polaris business class or RN availability for an upgrade to United Premium Plus. Note that even though we're using United as an example, Delta and American handle upgrades in a similar way.
If Felix applies a GPU to a flight that has PZ availability, his upgrade will clear instantly. If the flight doesn't have PZ availability, Felix will be added to the upgrade standby list. About 24 hours before departure (although there's some variation here), control of the flight will shift from the revenue management department to the agents at the airport. Typically just before boarding, gate agents will then begin processing the upgrade standby list in priority order, and as long as there is an empty seat in business class the upgrade will clear. To put it another way, once the gate agents take control of the flight, upgrade inventory stops mattering. If there are five empty seats in business class and five passengers on the upgrade standby list, all the upgrade lists will clear even if the flight was zeroed out in the PZ fare class for months at a time.
It's a tough balancing act for airlines to reward elite customers with free upgrades while not giving away too many seats that they could sell to paying customers. By using upgrade-specific fare classes, they can cap the number of upgrades given away for free in advance of the flight. By the time passengers reach the airport, it's a safe assumption that any unsold seats aren't going to sell, so at that point they'll 'give away' upgrades to any passengers who requested them using an upgrade certificate, cash or miles.
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