So….you want to sit in First or Business class?


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Board an airline carrier today and you might be disappointed in the overall look and feel of the aircraft. Depending on the actual airline of course! With some flight attendants under time pressure and doubling as cleaning crew, you may find crumbs and wrappers in and around your seating area. Normally, this unfortunate cleaning cutback at times applies to some low cost carrier’s, but with full service airlines or national flag carrier airlines constantly looking at ways of reducing costs, certain cutbacks implemented on the low cost carrier’s normally filters through to the higher end airlines thanks, in part to new the multi – tasking agreements.

Under constant time pressures to meet the needs of back-to-back flights combined with cost cutting measures, flight attendants are tasked to quickly put the plane back into its original pre-boarding condition. Unfortunately, everything from seat pockets to lavatories can go unchecked. You may find a menagerie of items from used tissues stuffed into the seat back storage, to food particles wedged into the cracks of your seat to chewing gum stuck on the floor. All these ‘unwanted extras’ are waiting to greet you on a flight that probably cost you a small fortune on fees and taxes alone!

Much has to be said as to the actual age of the type of aircraft you board, how many years old is it? Usually, the older the aircraft, the more wear and tear it has. An aged, musty, creaky, dare I say, smoky engine old bird is probably not the aircraft the airline features on its website imagery as the uber cool Boeing 787 or the giant of modern aviation, the Airbus A380. Having said that, one of my most memorable flights was on a Delta Airlines Lockheed Martin L10-11 Tri-Star from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Having seen its engines start-up for the airside departure terminal, particularly the rear engine mounted on its tail fin, I was somewhat concerned on the level of smoke emitting from its exhaust. Even though I was looking forward to flying on an aircraft that was going out of service at the time and knew I would probably never fly on a Lockheed Martin L10-11 Tri-Star again. It has to be said, flying on it was one of the most comfortable economy class flights I’ve even been on. I remember the seats were old and the cabin interior was grey, but boy, were those seats comfortable as the padding was thick and cozy, unlike the thin seats on some modern passenger aircraft. The whole cabin inside the L10 was so warm and snug, I actually slept most of the way to L.A.

Something else to bear in mind, quite a number of airlines offer economy class only on some routes, particularly short haul routes, due in part to the current downturn in the economy, That, along with companies changing their travel policies to exclude flying business class on routes of under 2,000 nautical miles or so. The shift seems to favor the elimination of first class seats, in return for a three class system. Since business class seats have become more advanced, they now offer the same level of comfort as say, an old first class seat would have. With virtually lie flat beds, electronic gadgets and devices, along with improved amenity kits and business lounge access, the difference is minimal, however the fare difference between first and business class is not so minimal. There is however, a lot to be said for flying first class, picked up and dropped off at the airport by your own private chauffer, both on departure and arrival (normally within a 50 KM radius of the airport) but be prepared to pay for it! The trend nowadays is to install a premium economy seat in the mid cabin section of the aircraft to offer the more demanding passenger who won’t or can’t afford to pay business class the option of flying premium economy class. The service would be akin to flying back in the glory days of travel, a nice wine selection, silver service presented on fine bone china, not to mention greater seat space to stretch your legs along with an amenity kit containing branded toiletries to help you to relax during your flight and freshen up prior to arrival. Product offerings vary from airline to airline, so do check prior to purchase. On average, a premium economy class ticket fare can demand up to four times that of the lowest economy class fare, with business class fares reaching up to ten times as much.

One the most common questions airline agents receive at the check in desk is “Do you have first or business class on this Flight?”  At times of course, the people who want first or business class seat are those that have the cheapest economy fare meaning those that have paid close to nothing for their ticket want to sit in the best seat for free. That is normally frowned upon by check in agents.  Normally, the airline’s rule of thumb is not to upgrade, unless absolutely necessary. Let’s say for example, the aircraft scheduled to fly goes ‘tech’, that is, it breaks down and there is a change of aircraft to a smaller type available, then excess passengers who were booked in economy class may find themselves upgraded to business or even first class on the next flight out. It goes without saying however, that the lucky chosen ones booked in economy will upgrade to business class and those who were originally booked in a business class ticket may find themselves upgraded to first. It is very rare indeed that an economy class passenger will receive a two tier upgrade from economy class to first class unless they have paid a full economy class fare and are loyal elite level members of that particular airlines frequent flyer program.

Whilst back packing around South Africa, I remember flying with South African Airways from Johannesburg to London (Heathrow) on a Boeing 747-400. They were looking for volunteers to take the next flight out which wasn’t until the next day. I volunteered my seat since they were offering a free return ticket and overnight hotel accommodation with an evening meal and breakfast included. The gate agent took my boarding card and thanked me for volunteering. He advised me to take a seat and wait, which I did. After a while, I approached the agent who asked me if London Heathrow was my final destination, from which I replied no, as I had a same day connection in Heathrow to Shannon with Aer Lingus. He told me since South African airways had no interline agreement with Aer Lingus, he could not accept by seat but he did upgrade me to business class for volunteering which was great as it was an eleven hour red eye (overnight) flight!


Delta Airlines for example offer Delta Dollars to volunteers on oversold flights. The Delta Dollars are valid on every Delta flight and some code share flights on its Sky Team partner airlines. Depending on the time of the actual flight, you could be offered overnight hotel accommodation normally in a four star airport hotel along with food and beverage vouchers to use in the hotel. On top of that, the agents sometimes reward you with an upgrade on the next flight out as a gesture of thanks for volunteering your seat. The airport flight agent is under pressure at times to get passengers boarded and onto their destination, but there are times when the flight is oversold the heat is on not to involuntary deny passengers boarding, since the compensation payable is higher in monetary terms, not to mention an ear bashing from an irate passenger, or worse still, a group of passengers! It is therefore in fact, in the best interests of the airline to ask for volunteers because the compensation is a lot less to pay from a financial stand point. They would have to pay cash otherwise and not flight credit which normally has a twelve month expiry date, so if you don’t use it within that twelve month period, you lose it – period.

Quite a number of international airlines also offer cash compensation to volunteer’s on international flights also. It may be worth your while to haggle a deal with the gate agent prior to surrendering your seat, depending of course how bad he or she needs your seat. Bear in mind however, that you might lose out should other volunteers out number you and you simply become surplus to requirements!

Airline ticketing is quite a complex affair, with different classes of tickets. Just because you’re seated in economy class next to a stranger doesn’t mean you both paid the same exact fare for the same flight. It depends on when the fare was purchased, what restrictions are on the fare type and your return date. “A” class of service – the highest fare (full fare) first class ticket, or “Y” class of service – the highest fare (full fare) economy class ticket.  Other classes of service include seats reserved for those that can be upgraded to first class with their airline frequent flyer miles, people who want to pay for upgrades to first class, or those who have reached an elite status with the airline because of very frequent travel.  I’ll cover how to catch the best fare available on another blog as its quite detailed and the focus on this blog is to score an upgrade. So how does one get upgraded to first or business class?

Firstly, be nice and mannerly to the check in agent. Your fate is pretty much in their hands.  If you are rude to them, forget about it. Keep in mind that the agent can deny you boarding if you say something you shouldn’t, especially in the days of political correctness and terrorist threats.  It is an agent’s discretion whether or not they allow you to board the plane, on consultation with the pilot of course.  Flights do depart with empty first and business class seats because some passengers don’t ask to sit in first class because they either fear rejection or they are embarrassed.  Do you homework first of all and research your flight online, taking note of the aircraft type and see if there is business and/or first class flights available. Smile and ask nicely if there are any seats in first or business class and if you could be considered for an upgrade should you qualify. Try and avoid making jokes or saying things like “I deserve to sit in first class because the flight on the way here was terrible.”  Dress smart casual and look the part. If you turn up in trainers, t-shirt and jeans or a track suit, forget about it. If you’re travelling with kids, wave the upgrade goodbye. Groups travelling together tend not to get upgraded, especially if you have kids in tow – it’s a big no no as the front of the plane is a sanctuary for some!

Enquire at the check in desk and again at the departure gate if the flight is oversold. If so, offer your seat to get bumped off the next flight. Most agents appreciate the gesture since it makes their job easier and eases the pressure of selecting one or more random passenger and force them to give up their seat. Who knows, they may even reward you with an upgrade just for offering up your seat!

If you happen to have a business card handy, present it at check in. I know it might sound like a long shot, but should you be involved in travel, maybe even a pilot, or a celebrity, perhaps a travel writer or someone involved in the media, then that card might just become your golden ticket!

Should all else fail airside and the agent doesn’t bestow you an upgrade, you have other options whuch I personally would not reccomend which is to ask a flight attendant whilst onboard prior to pushback of the aircraft from the departure gate.  Most of the time, when passengers do not get into first class because of unwilling check-in agents, or busy gate agents, they sit in first class once they ask a flight attendant.  First of all, don’t bother waiting until everyone sits down to ask them.  As soon as you step into the plane, ask if there are any open seats in First class and ask if it would be possible to sit there after the plane has taken off.  Always say that you’d like to sit there after the plane has taken off.  Be warned, it is a last resort and may come across as a cheeky ask, so the key is politeness.

The flight attendants, although they appear to just be standing at the aircraft door greeting you, are really doing other things behind the scenes.  Every flight needs to be sequenced.  So, the flight attendant must make sure that everyone that is supposed to be on the plane is sitting on the plane, and is in their correct seats.  The flight attendant may ask what seat you are in so they can get you after the plane has taken off.  Of course, the chances are very slim in that you’ll find a flight attendant that will actually come and upgrade you inflight.

For customer service reasons, the airline is likely to do much more for a dissatisfied customer to keep the customer from publishing negative experiences about the airline online. Since we live in the information age, images, text and video can be communicated to the masses in an instant through your mobile device.  If you were dissatisfied with something, try to tell the airlines flight attendant in a nice way.

Other ways to secure an upgrade but might not always work are as follows. If there is room in business class, but no room in economy, and you have checked in for your flight late, you may be.  Automatically upgraded to business class unknowingly.  However, this doesn’t work every time, because in some instances, both economy and business class is full, so the customer ends up getting grounded at the airport or denied boarding if your too late, resulting in you having to pay for the next flight out. Remember, if the flight is oversold, the airlines upgrades their premium airline loyalty members firstly, (normally platinum level) followed by gold, silver and blue level members, so I’d advise you join their frequent flyer program in order to get noticed as a loyal customer!

Best of luck with your upgrade but be warned, as it has to be said, that once you fly in business or first, you will develop a taste for it and may never want to fly economy class again! If all else fails, buy a airport lounge pass, prices vary, and it’ll offer you sanctuary on the ground, at least!

Flying from Dublin Airport? Book an Executive Lounge here.

Declan Hughes – Founder / Director Fly Cruise Stay (Fly High Pay Low)  ™


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