A lot of truth in that..
Gone are the days where staff were allowed- either explicitly or implicitly- to give free UG's...
Today, airlines have much better programming in place that either just doesn't allow a front-line agent to do so, or will require a supervisory approval, or will "flag" the upgrade for later management review (and discipline if done improperly)
I, as a management person, still do have that ability, but I can tell you that compared to just 10 years ago, the hard rules and soft guidelines in place have become MUCH more tight and restrictive.. I just can't authorize upgrades "because"... gone are the days where requests based on things like:
"I'm flying to my (insert your special event here)", or
"I've been flying with you for XXX years", or
"I have XXX thousands of miles",
"You did YYY to me at the airport, so why not?", or
"I am elderly/aged/disabled/ill/with kids etc"
would be sufficient for consideration.. Not anymore. It really is a pay-for-it or use one of the other upgrade channels.
I think for the most part the last remaining bastion of free upgrades are the "op-ups" or Operational Upgrades where upgrades are done to avoid involuntary bumping in a lower cabin..
But even here too, most carrier have put into place pretty clear rules about who, how and the order that op-ups will be done.
I always deserve an upgrade :))). Until about 3 years ago I used to be given upgrades on CX on nearly every Bkk to SIN and return. I was happy about it but wondered why I was so lucky. Suddenly, luck ran out.
Noticed on TG flights that the odd pax gets moved from Y to C after the doors were shut. The pax is never a farang. I always end up paying these days.
I got upgraded a 2 times last year on Qantas (Auckland - LAX) and BA (LHR-AMS). I didn't ask and am not a very frequent flyer. Sometimes you just get lucky.
You don't have to be cute anymore to get an upgrade
Being a frequent flyer or in Emirates case a skywards member certainly helps your cause...I did get an unexpected upgrade a few years back on a Manchester to Sydney leg on BA because I turned up early and cheerfully said good morning...That's all I can put it down to really but the guy did seem to take a liking to me on the checkin desk...pure luck!
Aside from points or just flat out paying for a business fare, I've been offered the chance to upgrade for a really low extra fee a couple of days before my flight. I guess it was low season and I am a frequent flyer with the airline, and a couple of hundred dollars a few days before a flight is a better guarantee for me than hoping in vain for a nonexistent upgrade :)
The last (completely) free upgrade I got was in 2004, flying LGW-DFW on American. It was purely because economy was oversold and so (as AAdvantage Platinum) I was one of the elites they upgraded to make room. Very fortunate too as I'd put my back out lifting my carry on onto the belt at security!
I've had a couple of (not exactly) free UGs on United, where they've allowed me to use a systemwide upgrade even though the fare bucket wasn't eligible. And here's where I can attest to GOPBI's point.
>> Today, airlines have much better programming in place that either just doesn't allow a front-line agent to do so, or will require a supervisory approval, or will "flag" the upgrade for later management review (and discipline if done improperly) <<
One check in agent at PDX very kindly tried to do an SWU for me on an illegible fare, and asked for her supervisor. She (and I) were told "Don't try this on an SFO flight. SFO hates it and do report agents. If Mr USBT were flying through ORD or IAD it wouldn't be a problem."
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