Buying an upgrade on Continental

Continental Airlines likes to tout their unlimited free upgrades for elites as a great benefit of the OnePass program.  And it is a pretty good benefit, though the upgrades certainly do not happen on every flight for every elite.  For non-elite customers, however, getting into the front cabin on Continental has always meant buying a first class ticket.  There were very few other options.  Until today.

As of this morning Continental has started a limited test of selling upgrades to their non-elite customers at the check-in kiosks.  The updated program is expected to be deployed to all kiosks in the next couple of days and available for folks doing online check-in in the near future.  As with any such program, the devil is in the details, so let’s take a look at those details.

The buy-ups will be available only on flights that are not operated with the BusinessFirst service.  This means most long-haul flights are excluded.  Beyond that, there are relatively few limitations:

Non-Elite customers and other customer types who are not otherwise eligible for Elite upgrades will receive an offer to purchase a day of departure upgrade to first class. Day of Departure Upgrade offers are restricted to R class availability and will only be offered if there are additional seats available in excess of the number of qualified Elites booked on a flight.

When available, an upgrade offer will be made to the customer during kiosk check-in. Upgrades cannot be purchased from an agent at this time.

The Day of Departure Upgrade offer is valid for most customers, but not valid for OnePass Elite customers and any customer on reward tickets. Customers with Elite status will continue to receive complimentary, space available upgrades.

The system will take into account all Elites waiting for upgrades before offering Day of departure Upgrades to other customers. For example if there are 6 open first class seats on a flight and there are 5 Elite members that have not been upgraded, we will only offer 1 seat to be sold during check-in.

The Day of Departure Upgrade fee is based on the length of flight for each segment:

Flight Miles (per segment) Upgrade Fee
0 – 299 $25
300 – 999 $75
1,000 – 1,799 $100
1,800 – 2,399 $125
2,400 – 3,499 $175
3,500+ not available

In theory this policy should allow Continental to realize a bit of extra revenue (estimated at $5-10MM annually) while not actually reducing the pool of upgrade seats available to their elites or otherwise reducing the quality of the upgrade benefit for elites.  In reality, however, there are a number of questions that still need to be answered about this new program.

How will the companion upgrades be prioritized?  This is another great benefit for the top two tiers in Continental’s program and one that looks like it just got decimated by this new plan.  If a flight has 6 empty seats in F and 5 elites booked then they all should get upgraded. What if a non-elite buys an upgrade at the kiosk and then I bring a companion to the counter at check-in and have them put on the list. Now the elite at the bottom of the pecking order is out of F. How will such a situation be handled??

What about folks who are waitlisted to use miles to upgrade?  They are also paying for the seat up front.  How will they be prioritized?

And, of course, there are the potential issues with folks changing flights on the day of travel and irregular operations that could make a mess of any good scheme.

I applaud Continental for trying to extract the extra revenue from the system, but I think that it would have been much better to have the paid upgrades clear at the time of boarding rather than at the time of check-in.  That would allow the system to handle everyone else that should be up front appropriately and ensure that the elites continue to receive the best benefits from the program.  After all, that is why there is an elite program, right?  Maybe have folks be added to the list and swipe their CC at the kiosk but only charged/cleared into first class if there really are seats open at the end rather than as much as 24 hours in advance.  Too many things can happen in that short window.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.