When I hear folks says that a pilot stole their first class upgrade, I am sympathetic, but I don’t blame the pilot nor would I ever call it stealing.
Pilots Don’t “Steal” Upgrades From Frequent Flyers
With American Airlines now offering confirmed first class seating to pilots who are deadheading (flying pilots to another airport to reposition them so that they can work a flight), we are going to seat a lot more uniformed pilots in first class. We’ve seen this for years now on United Airlines, particularly on flights to or from its flight training center in Denver, since pilots were given the same perk in 2020.
That has led to some adverse reactions from frequent American Airlines flyers:
Today @AmericanAir lost my loyalty. Executive Platinum, requalified EP for the NEXT year, 360k Loyalty Points last 12 months, tried to use my Systemwide upgrades for my ONLY vacation with my spouse this year (DFW to MIA) and they didn't clear even 2 months out, 12 seats available… pic.twitter.com/YgZws6tRfn
— Third Coast Gems (@thirdcoastgems) February 7, 2024
What strikes me in particular is the following:
Then I see TWO PILOTS in the seats meant for my husband and I.
I also think pilots taking priority over instrument-supported upgrades is a problem and that it should not be so difficult to use systemwide upgrades, but…why not just buy F if it really mattered? I would leave nothing to chance in this era of aggressive upgrade monetization.
— Matthew Klint – Live And Let’s Fly (@LiveandLetsFly) February 7, 2024
The frequent flyer responded that
We spend $1000 cash directly with AA for 2 RT main tickets and exchanged FOUR Systemwide Upgrades 2 months out and I’m an EXP and requalified recently for 2025. No way those Pilots should have had those seats.
Let me stress again I am sympathetic to this flyer. It is understandably aggravating to apply systemwide upgrades months in advance on a domestic route only to see them never clear. That’s because “upgrades” are still dangled as a reward for being elite, but the theory (unlimited space-available upgrades) has never been so far from the reality (first class sells out without any top-tier elites receiving a complimentary upgrade).
And yes, I understand that uniformed pilots taking seats in first class means less upgrades for elites.
But we cannot blame the pilots for taking advantage of a time in which a pilot shortage has made them more valuable…of course they are going to try to get all they can. Wouldn’t you? And while the optics of uniformed personnel in first class may be problematic (that’s another issue for another time), I do not consider it all that different than other companies paying for their employees to be seated in first class.
Pilots don’t “steal” anything. They are entitled to first class seat and if first class is full, are entitled, per contract, to take priority over all other flyers on the upgrade waitlist. Put another way, they sit on top of the waitlist because they are not upgrading at all…they are waitlisted for first class, which is different than trying to upgrade to first class.
Yes, Elite Status Isn’t What It Used To Be
Elite status has lost it luster, particularly on American Airlines. The glory days of easy upgrades are over. For that reason, it is smart to properly evaluate whether chasing elite status makes sense in the first place.
I’d love to see American Airlines clear systemwide upgrades more easily, but those days are over…AA has chosen to aggressively monetize its first class cabin and when you throw in confirmed seating for pilots, there simply is not many upgrades left.
One can still fight the system (complain), but caveat emptor…we should all know what we are getting ourselves into. Chasing status does not make a lot of sense any longer if you do not have flexibility in your travel plans.
Status works for me (with United, not American) only because I can be quite flexible in which flights I take, such that I can position myself for upgrades nearly every trip that I do not outright buy front cabin seats. I often fly in the middle of the week or take the last flight of the night in order to maximize my shots at an upgrade (and even then, I often end up buying it if it appears my upgrade will not clear).
For better or for worse, in 2024 if you want to sit in business or first class, you need to buy a business or first class seat.
I do think that airlines sell the promise of an upgrade for big-spending elites and increasingly do not deliver. But as frustrating as it is to remain on the waitlist on one fo the rare trips in which your spouse can accompany you, I would not blame pilots…they are not stealing upgrades. Rather, the revenue management folks are to blame, but also cannot be faulted for creating algorithms that maximize the sale of premium cabin seats.
image: @thirdcoastgems / X