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How do unsold first-class seats get used?

I assume that if first-class seats are unsold by the time of the flight, the airline has some mechanism for utilitizing them. What would that be?

For example, I have a flight coming up in a couple of week and I see that only 2 of 10 first class seats are currently taken. What happens to those seats if they are unsold by the day of the flight?

  • They won't. Eventually what might happen is that they open the seats for rewards, but it depends. – JordanBelf Nov 2 '15 at 17:23
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    In many cases the answer is "nothing" - they'll go out empty. See Kate's answer for fuller details – Gagravarr Nov 2 '15 at 18:42
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    The fact that the seats are not yet reserved doesn't necessarily mean that no tickets have been sold, does it? – phoog Nov 3 '15 at 3:29
  • Years ago I've been bumped up from economy to business class and even first class on shorts flights when economy has been overbooked. I don't know how common this is these days. – hippietrail Aug 13 at 3:10
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It varies depending on the airline. First, they may not be unsold right now. Just because a seat hasn't been selected doesn't mean a ticket hasn't been bought. There are tools that can show you how many tickets have been sold in each fare class, and I have seen many times that all the business-class tickets are sold, yet only 20 or 30% of the seats are marked occupied on seat maps. (It's pretty normal for economy to be oversold, too.)

Second, some airlines allow their frequent fliers to upgrade into business class, using some sort of certificates or points schemes. These upgrades may happen weeks or days in advance, or at the gate when the flight is about to leave.

Third, some airlines allow anyone to buy a "last minute upgrade" - for about $100 for each hour of flight time, in my experience - when checking in online or at the gate.

Finally, some airlines will upgrade some passengers (chosen in theory according to status as a frequent flier, early check in, and fare class of original ticket, but at some airlines lazily chosen from among less deserving non status late checkins because it's the easiest way to handle them) for no charge. This is called an Operational Upgrade or Op Up. On a recent flight home from Seattle to Toronto I was op-upped for weight and balance reasons (small plane, needed more people at the front) which was a pleasant surprise.

Some US airlines are well known for never sending out an empty business-class seat, moving up as many people as they can to fill business class. Other airlines, especially those based in the Middle East, believe if they do that, their frequent fliers would never buy business class, so they'll fly out with empty seats up front rather than "devalue" the product by giving it away free unless they have an operational reason for doing so. My experience is that op-upping a frequent flier to free up a seat for someone who would otherwise be turned away (overbooked flight) does happen throughout the world, but that with the exception of US-based airlines, business class is quite often not full.

  • Just flew Alaska Airlines, and they actually have a system in place where you can be added to the Upgrade Request list, and if a First Class seat is not claimed at departure, you basically get dibs on the seat. I say this, however on the way back, I asked the gate agent if there was any way I could pay to upgrade my tickets and he said they were all booked when the reality was that there were 2 unused seats. Worked out though. Both ways, the aisle seat was vacant, so it was functionally first class. – user2989297 Nov 2 '15 at 20:49
  • @user2989297 It's the same with many airlines in the USA. Nowhere else practices this kind of revenue spoilage to my knowledge. – Calchas Nov 3 '15 at 0:52
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    Actually ME3 often oversell their economy class and have to upgrade some to business – Him Nov 3 '15 at 1:31
  • I know people who've been given free upgrades to business/first by Middle Eastern airlines like Qatar, so they do at least occasionally do it. Any US-based carrier I've been on never leaves a business class seat empty, I think because they see it as an opportunity to "convince" someone it's worth paying for it the next time. – thanby Nov 3 '15 at 7:52
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    @Him A lot of airlines oversell lower classes and roll forwards; probably all of them. I think the distinction is that the US carriers allow one to obtain a confirmed upgrade based on a predictable system, thus diluting the reason to buy a first class fare in the first place. At one point, top tier US Airways fliers could get confirmed into First at the time of booking an economy fare(!). – Calchas Nov 5 '15 at 10:31
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This details are specific to each airline and generally fall into two categories -- fill all the first class seats or let them fly empty.

The airlines that want to fill first class will have upgrade programs in place. These can be automatic upgrades for certain classes of frequent fliers down to paid upgrades from economy class.

Within an airline, this policy can also vary for the type of service. The case I'm most familiar with is Continental Airlines (no longer an entity, merged with United). For domestic service the first class seats almost never went empty. They would go to lengths to upgrade anyone they could into those seats at the gate prior to departure. Any that happened to be empty would then be filled by non-revenue travelers (employee deadhead, jumpseats, etc) but only after economy was filled first. This could, on occasion, result in empty first class seats, but In my experience that was rare. In this case first class was generally used by people who paid full fare and any eligible frequent fliers from the economy cabin.

For international travel on Continental they did not upgrade into their "businessfirst" class at the gate. This was great for non-revenue travel because while you could generally never count on a first class seat getting to a hub, you could generally get one for the long intercontinental legs. In this case the first class seating got used by people that paid full fare, elite frequent flier upgrades and non-revenue travelers.

Other airlines policies will vary but generally fall somewhere in the spectrum between the two cases above (that come from just one airline).

In your case of 8 unsold first class seats they will probably stay that way until a few days before the flight unless people spend the money to buy them earlier. A few days before the flight the airline may start upgrading certain frequent fliers into first class. Certainly by the day of the flight they will have upgraded frequent fliers if it their policy to do so. Starting at check-in time (generally 24 hours prior to departure), they may start offering paid upgrades from economy, if it is their policy to do so. In the gate area prior to boarding they'll make their final upgrades (frequent flier and paid, as the situation warrants). At 15 minutes prior to pushback they will finalize standby (revenue standby and non-revenue travel) passengers and may (or may not) use the employee travelers to fill any remaining seats. Finally, they may upgrade the lowest of the low non-revenue classes, the buddy pass riders and inter-line travel (e.g. ID90). All of the above are optional and the airline may simply let first class fly empty rather than provide unpaid (or reduced fee) upgrades into the first class cabin.

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Keep in mind that U.S. airlines generally differentiate between domestic and international flights, with upgrades being much easier on domestic flights. Most airlines have various programs to allow passengers to upgrade into empty premium seats, and typically, elite members of the frequent flyer program are given free or low-cost upgrades in advance of a domestic flight. Most airlines also allow frequent flyer members to spend miles for an upgrade, for both domestic and international flights. Some airlines sell empty seats at a low cost 24 hours before a flight, first-come first-served, but this is usually for domestic flights. Some airlines sell upgrades for all flights at check-in time or at the airport if they anticipate having lots of empty seats. These upgrades typically can cost anywhere from $50 to over a thousand dollars.

Separately from all these "normal" upgrades is what's known as "operational" upgrades. This is when the airline has oversold the flight. Typically, coach is oversold but seats may be available in business and/or first. So, the airline will "roll" the cabins: they've move people from business to first (if there is a first class), from premium economy to business (if there is premium economy), and economy to premium economy (if it exists) or business. This is done at the gate or even after passengers have boarded. This is what happened when you hear people say "I got a free upgrade" or "I dressed in a suit and I got upgraded!" The airline needed to upgrade some people to fit more people on the flight.

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    You probably need to add the word "US" in front of most of your uses of the word domestic - what you say certainly doesn't apply to UK domestic flights for example! – Gagravarr Nov 3 '15 at 11:49
  • Thanks for pointing that out. I clarified in the first paragraph that it is talking about U.S. airlines. The second paragraph applies to airlines everywhere. – jetset Nov 3 '15 at 12:16
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Length of travel is also a concern, when I worked for the big airline the domestic empty first class generally gets fill with people with high frequent flier status.

When it comes to international travel (think 6+ hour flights) they would rather fly empty in first class than giving out cheap upgrade options. Considering that a first class ticket is around 10 times the price of economy, they do not want to risk devaluing their first class, as well as a way to keep the first class passengers keep buying the seats.

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As others have mentioned, most U.S. airlines that operate multi-class aircraft have a system for upgrading frequent fliers with their airline into first class seats for free. To provide a concrete example, here's how Delta's system works:

Complimentary upgrades for elites are only allowed on flights that do not offer Delta's "DeltaOne" long-haul business class product. "DeltaOne" basically means anything with the lie-flat beds, unless those aircraft are being operated on short-haul routes for repositioning purposes or some such thing.

The system is entirely automated, so upgrades are processed by the computer rather than by the gate agent, removing the incentive to just throw whoever checked in last in the upgraded seat.

  • Any Medallion member who books a Y-class fare (full-fare economy) ticket is upgraded to First immediately at ticket purchase.

  • 5 days before check-in opens for the flight (i.e. 6 days before departure,) anyone with Diamond or Platinum Medallion status will have their reservation automatically upgraded to first class.

  • 3 days before check-in opens, Gold Medallions will be upgraded to First.

  • 1 day before check-in opens, Silver Medallions will be upgraded to First.

However, only a certain number of First-class seats will be open for upgrade at a given time. If there are not enough open seats in First to upgrade everyone who is eligible at a given time (which is almost always the case,) upgrade priority is as follows:

  1. Y fare class.

  2. Highest status tier.

  3. If status tier is equal, highest fare class purchased.

  4. If both status tier and fare class are equal, whoever bought their ticket first.

If not all Medallion members have confirmed upgrades by the time of flight check-in, the remaining Medallion members will be ranked according to the above priority and, as seats are released for upgrade availability, they will have their upgrades confirmed in that order. The last few First class seats are usually released shortly before departure. Monitors in the gate area display the current upgrade list and Medallion members can also access it either on Delta's website or their mobile app after they check-in.

Note that the above process applies only for complimentary upgrades to First Class. Complimentary upgrades to their "Comfort+" (premium economy) product are available at time of ticket purchase for Diamond and Platinum Medallion members, 72 hours before departure for Gold Medallion, and 24 hours before departure for Silver Medallion. These must be selected manually by the passenger. Complimentary upgrades to C+ are available for on all Delta flights that have C+ seats open, regardless of distance.

While this is all specific to Delta (because that's the one I'm most familiar with,) American, United, and Alaska Airlines have similar systems for their elite members.

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Airlines will "bump up" passengers sometimes, either by automation or by request. It depends on the airline and even the person you are checking in with at the desk.

My anecdote:

My family were going on vacation about 20 years ago. I was very young, in the region of 8 years old. Travelling with my father, mother and brother. The tickets would have been a variation of "Economy".

We had finished check in, and were getting ready to leave the desk. My brother turned around and went back to the desk. Somehow, he got us all bumped up to First Class. To this day, we do not know what he said, and neither does he (or so he claims).

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American Airlines is notorious for sending out first class seats empty before allowing them to be redeemed for awards. I had a first class award through Chicago to Bangkok, and the flight from Charlotte to Chicago only had economy award seats, so I flew economy on one segment and first on the other three. When the plane boarded there were six seats open in first class and they would not allow us to sit up there, even though we were on a first class upgrade itinerary. They were unyielding and gave us absolutely no rationale for this.

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