United Airlines is surprising its best customers with free upgrades. This is how the program works.

United will "surprise and delight" some customers by offering them first class upgrades well in advance of their flights. Photo: United Airlines. 

United will "surprise and delight" some customers by offering them first class upgrades well in advance of their flights. Photo: United Airlines. 

United Airlines will upgrade some of its best customers for free to first class on select domestic and long-haul international flights, the carrier told employees this week in a message. 

Here's the plan, according to United's message:

Who will be eligible?

United is targeting what it calls "high value" customers. How much will you have to spend on United each year? I don't know, but I think we can safely assume it is in the tens of thousands of dollars. Does that sound like you?

How will the program work?

On domestic itineraries, these high-value travelers already receive free upgrades when flights are projected to have empty seats in first class. But for now, they don't get their free upgrade confirmed until about a week before their flight. Under the 'surprise and delight' program, these customers will get their upgrades confirmed well in advance. 

On international itineraries, almost no passengers receive free upgrades. But that will change under this program. If a targeted high-value passenger books business class, that person might be moved up to international first class for free. 

United has a true first class cabin on fewer flights now - it's not particularly profitable - so there won't be that many of these international upgrades. But for some passengers, the program will be helpful. 

United is removing first class on many widebody aircraft. But many planes, including all 747s, still have the spacious cabin. Photo: United Airlines. 

United is removing first class on many widebody aircraft. But many planes, including all 747s, still have the spacious cabin. Photo: United Airlines. 

Will you know in advance if you are upgraded under this program?

Yes, United will alert you. 

Will you be upgraded for your entire itinerary?

No. United will upgrade you on a segment-by-segment basis. So you may have to stay in coach on some of your flights. 

What happens if you change flights?

If you change flights, you'll probably lose your upgrade.

Why is United doing this?

These high-value customers are worth a fortune to United, which doesn't want to lose them to American or Delta. [Delta offers its best customers super cheap private jet rides.] Plus, many of these United customers would get the upgrades eventually. In many cases, this just moves up the timeline for when they are notified. 

How many customers will receive upgrades? And how long will this program last?

I don't know. 


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