By Travel columnist
updated 6/28/2005 5:30:02 PM ET 2005-06-28T21:30:02

You see them crowding the airport check-in counter, looking for a sign. Waiting for an announcement.

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They are business travelers, frequent fliers, off-duty employees, and even first-timers. They are the last ones to board, but the first ones to petition for an available seat up front.

Every flight has its share of upgrade candidates. But there are usually more candidates than first-class seats, and as a result, some of those passengers become very upset. (If you’re one of those people, here’s a little something to ponder: If the airlines upgraded everyone, how would they make any money?)

Still, the upgrade brigade persists, even after the last person has boarded.

Among the arguments I’ve heard for reassigning a passenger to a premium seat: “My reading light doesn’t work, my seat doesn’t recline, I smell smoke, I have asthma, diarrhea, epilepsy, heart condition. I am too tall, fat, old. I lost my boarding card, and the ground agent said I could take a seat anywhere. I hate this airline, love this airline, I work for another airline, I am an employee for this airline. My sister’s ex-boyfriend’s doctor’s cousin’s daughter used to fly for this airline.”

They never work. Well, almost never.

One time a passenger had a heart attack, and we had a fairly empty first-class section. We moved him up there until we landed. But that’s a pretty tough way to get more legroom.

I have had passengers shake my hand upon boarding and slip me twenties, fifties and even hundred dollar bills asking me to “see what I can do for them.” I even had a lady promise to induct me into the mile high club if I got her a higher-class seat.

It’s not that the flight attendants don’t want to upgrade you, it’s just plain and simple: we can’t. Our rules of conduct state specifically that upgrading (without permission from a supervisor on the ground or in emergencies, from the captain) is an offense punishable by immediate discharge.

It’s a firm rule, with no room for negotiation or interpretation.

Keep this in mind: you could have an airline employee eating right out of your hand, but when the magic word or implication of an upgrade arises, an alarm bell goes off in his head which discredits everything you have said up to that point. You’ve been made. We call it our BS alert.

Here are some factors that will increase your chances of getting an upgrade:

  1. Become a member of that specific airline’s frequent flier mileage club. You can be a member of many different airlines’ clubs.
  2. The flight is oversold in economy, but there are empty seats in business and or first class.
  3. You are dressed smartly or in business attire. Jacket and tie for men and a dress/suit for women.
  4. You are traveling alone. Sorry, if you’re with kids, it’s almost an automatic disqualifier.
  5. Always be willing to move when asked. I know of a man who refused to move because he was seated on the aisle. What he didn’t realize was that the seat they were offering him was in first class.
  6. Courtesy and kindness does go a long way in this industry — I have seen many people upgraded just because the kindness they showed. I know when I am aboard, if someone is especially nice, I want to do something extra for him or her, and I’m positive the ground staff feel the same way.
  7. Be early. Your chances of sitting up front diminish quickly when you inquire at the last minute.
  8. If you have been seriously inconvenienced on a previous flight, make sure the check-in agents know about it. But don’t make a scene or they will put you in the worst possible seat, hoping never to see you again.
  9. Use the right card. Many times the credit card you pay with has a redeemable mile feature usable with several different airlines.
  10. When you book the ticket ask about upgrades and prices. There is a fare called Y-UP fares that cost a little more but increases your upgrade chances immensely. Many times there are ongoing promotions to spur first class revenue. I paid full fare on an airline and was amazed when an extra $20 got me sitting in 1A. I can easily justify that cost in red wine.

Let’s face it, domestic first class, if there even is one, is probably not worth the upgrade effort, but I believe internationally, it is. It’s not just about free drinks and slightly bigger seats; I am talking about gourmet food, premium wines and seats that convert into beds. So if you strive for an upgrade, do it on an international flight.

If you find yourself up front on a future flight, have a glass of red wine for me. I recommend the California Cabernet my airline carries. Who knows, I might be the one pouring it for you.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, e-mail him. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Wysong's forum.


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