Should Economy Passengers Get Upgraded To Empty Business Class Seats?

It’s always obvious to walk past an empty business class cabin to a full economy cabin, hoping that airlines take the easy step of upgrading some passengers for free. So why don’t carriers do this? And is there a way to score an upgrade?

Just not enough space

The biggest problem for airlines is the difference between the total seats in business and economy. With business capacity usually 10-20% of economy class, there would be no way for carriers to offer everyone a seat. Airlines will then have to choose between which passengers ‘deserve’ the seat, which sends them down another rabbit hole.


This is the reason why carriers would rather leave a seat empty than offer it to economy passengers for free. Instead, airlines usually offer frequent flyers a chance to use miles or cash to upgrade, before the flight, on the ground, and even onboard. This allows them to at least gain some revenue from a seat that ideally should have sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Business class seats on long-haul flights usually cost four to six times of a seat in the back. Photo: SWISS

There are some exception circumstances where airline may upgrade passengers, such as those having a medical issue and need assistance. However, for the most part, the inability to choose between passengers and the cost paid by paying passengers means airline won’t upgrade economy passengers even if seats are free.

How do you score an upgrade?

However, it’s not true that no one gets a free upgrade from economy to business class. If there is an empty seat, airlines will always look to upgrade their most elite flyers to the front of the plane. This is because it is important to retain their customers, who usually spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in premium travel.

Sadly, this is usually only attained by business travelers or those who spend extravagantly on flying. For most ordinary passengers, you’re better off requesting a paid upgrade or bidding for a seat at check-in or at the gate. Remember, airlines want to maximize revenue without being seen as too liberal with upgrades as well.

The best way to be considered for an upgrade is to just ask if there is room for an upgrade. Photo: Getty Images

In reality, airlines have created clear procedures for those interested in securing an upgrade to apply for one. Virgin Atlantic, for example, charges £650 ($820) for an upgrade from premium economy to Upper Class on long-haul routes if you choose to on the flight. But if there are no takers, airlines settle for letting paying passengers enjoy an empty cabin to stretch out in.

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Breakeven price

It is important to know that for airlines there is a breakeven target for each route. This means that even if business class is empty one day, a full flight the next day can easily let them achieve their target revenue for the route. For now, airlines will avoid creating a system of free upgrades and expectations from passengers.

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