Alaska Appears to be Quietly Eliminating Some First Class Upgrades

Alaska Airlines has always been a very customer centric company, with some of the most popular elite benefits for their most frequent fliers. During the pandemic, they’ve been very flexible with changes, credits, cancellations, and the like.

One incredibly popular benefit for MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75k members are the Gold Guest Upgrades. On any flight with upgrade space available, you can redeem one of these codes for an instant upgrade into first class. It would appear now that these upgrades have been all but eliminated, removing the opportunity for Alaska Airline’s most loyal travelers to secure a first class seat.

Alaska Airlines First Class

Alaska’s new Bulkhead, from Alaska Airlines

Gold Guest Upgrades Basics

Every year when you qualify for MVP Gold status, by flying 40,000+ miles with Alaska Airlines, you get four codes that you can use instantly at time of booking to move from economy up to first class.

Hit MVP Gold 75k by flying, you guessed it, 75,000 miles with Alaska Airlines, and you’ll earn another four instant upgrades.

The only caveat is that you have to find a flight with “U” space, or upgradeable space, available. Typically these seats are available on almost every flight, or at least through almost every destination, that Alaska Airlines serves.

Try to score an upgrade on Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas, New Years, etc, and you’re not going to have any luck. But typically a random Tuesday in March would have no issues securing a space, especially if you booked 6/7/8/9 months ahead of your desired trip.

The Upgrade Controversy 

I was trying to find out why in the world I couldn’t use our upgrades on a recent trip, and I came across something strange. 

I couldn’t find a single flight between Seattle and San Francisco, CA that had upgrade space. Not just that there weren’t seats available in First Class for sale, but they were wholesale eliminating the first class upgrade bucket. 

It was impossible.

Thinking that it could be a popular route, I checked Portland, Austin, Cabo San Lucas, even San Jose, CA. Nothing was showing up. Zero flights available for upgrades. Let’s be clear, Alaska Airlines would sell you a seat in first class, but you weren’t going to get it for free.

So what’s a guy to do? Head to Twitter, of course.

The response? Well, let’s just say that it was kinda-sorta what I expected. Typical Corporate Speak with no real meat:

What was the Corporate Response?

Much what you would expect. We reached out to Alaska’s media liaison for more context and information, and we got two responses. The first:

… it has to do with COVID. As you know, safety of our employees and our guests is always our #1 priority, and we’re currently limiting the number of guests on our flights and blocking seats (currently through October 31st) to better allow for personal distancing in flight. To ensure we’re better able to distance guests in flight, temporary changes have been inplemented…”

Now, both you and I know that allowing people to upgrade before the flight has absolutely zero to do with safety and security, nor does limiting seats. If you have 8 seats to sell in first class instead of the normal 16, whether you get money or get it for free via upgrades, how you got IN the seat doesn’t matter for the safety and security of your employees and guests.

We responded in kind, letting them know that by not allowing 75k members to use a duly earned benefit by wiping out upgrade space, doesn’t align with safety. Effectively, you’re eliminating a benefit that tens of thousands of members have earned and should have the expectation to be able to use. I’d love to know the difference between allowing someone to upgrade with a certificate and selling a seat, for safety reasons.

Alaska's new leg room

Alaska’s new leg room, from Alaska Airlines

Also, since the certificates have an expiration date (12/31/2020) would Alaska be extending the dates until 2021, since they’re removing their usefulness?

The response:

… while we have one of the most generous upgrade policies in the industry, it isn’t viable for us to allocate 100% of seats for upgrades. With fewer seats available and our current demand patterns that aren’t the norm, we need to ensure that we have enough seats for sale to keep that appropriate balance and therefore only open up space closer in…”

With regards to the extension of expiration:

… we’re currently evaluating options for how to handle unused guest upgrade certificates, knowing that guests aren’t able to use them all at this time.

Note, we didn’t suggest that they should allocate 100% of their space to awards, but they’re also aware that they ARE wholesale eliminating upgrades at time of booking.

Why Close-In doesn’t work

While Alaska is stating that they are allowing upgrades closer to the time of departure, that doesn’t work for these certificates. In order to use them, you must book a certain fare class, which means you’re paying more. When it comes time to use those upgrades, if you haven’t paid the correct fare, you can’t use them. You are being required to pay more for the HOPE and CHANCE to upgrade. 

Obviously, this is not the spirit that Alaska intended for their upgrade certificates.

What’s my 20-story view on this

I love Alaska Airlines, and I love flying on Alaska Airlines. They’re a 100% customer focused airline and have always gone above and beyond for my family. They’ve been very accommodating during the covid-19 crisis and have very customer friendly approaches to all things, including extension of certificates, changes, fee waivers, and more.

However, this is a pure money grab for the airline. They’re saying “we’re rather get $200 from a ticket than give an upgrade to a client who flew well over 75,000 miles with us last year.” They’re also not currently with any plan in place to allow us to extend those upgrades into next year. That’s the part that stings the most for me. 

We’re still Alaska loyalists, and we’re still going to fly with them, a lot. But knowing that we’re not going to have to pay for first class or chance it at the gate makes our flying experience a little more tainted.

How do you feel about Alaska eliminating the usefulness of these upgrades?

Author: Jon Nickel-D'Andrea

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  1. Honestly, I am fine with it. I appreciate that Alaska is blocking middle seats and halving the number of first class seats. They need to make money to stay in business. If blocking upgrades helps, I will not complain.

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    • I value your opinion but I’ll also remind you that they received hundreds of millions of bailout money just like all the airlines did. Why not reward my loyalty and get me to spend more money?

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      • Because they may have found people last minute may be willing to spend more than you. They may also be current or future 75Ks.

        They are extending MVP status, and have stated the only benefit not being rolled over is the 50k – which implies you’ll get fresh GGUs next year.

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      • The costs for a first class seat on Alaska have dropped dramatically, even with the 50% load restriction. I’m fine with it as I have been able to pick up FC seats for the same cost as coach pre-Covid

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  2. S a Gold for the last 18 years, I am very appreciative of Alaska’s upgrade policy. I agree with Teresa, if this is what they need to do to keep more money coming in and survive, then so be it. I am still getting upgraded on over 75% of my flights.

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    • Sure. Because no one is flying. Why not allow me to guarantee that space, especially if you’re going to give it away for free anyway?

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      • Self centered view. You don’t know ‘no one is flying’ or that they will ‘give it away for free’.

        You’re scared people will actually pay for first and not leave upgrade space for you at the gate as a top tier flier.

        AS has lost the unrestricted first class and coach fare revenue that biz travelers pay, which subsidized upgrades. So now they’re reliant on the low fare first class revenue to max their cash in a tough time.

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        • Now checking fares…on the date you show, 5/5/21 – the fare for GGU is $164, HIGHER than the first class fare of $159. Why not just book the first class fare?

          There might be something else going on with fares that is screwing things up for their systems.

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          • For example, you can use your GGU with the Companion Pass, but you cannot use it for First Class fare, so there’s one example.

        • I’ve been called worse. They say when the ignorant ass hats come to your comment section, you know you’ve made it. I guess that means I’ve made it!

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          • @Jon Nickel-D’Andrea “They say when the ignorant ass hats come to your comment section, you know you’ve made it. I guess that means I’ve made it!”

            Who says that, other than you?

          • Thanks for your comments Dom. We’ll use them to make our service even better in the future.

  3. Since we ONLY book Alaska when we can use our GGUs, we won’t be flying Alaska until this situation is rectified. It is a shame because we really like Alaska. We endure the connection at SEA just to fly them, but not happening in coach. This is a incredibly dumb policy on Alaska’s part.

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    • You get 4 GGU upgrades a year – if that’s the only time you fly Alaska and earn MVP 75K they’re prob not ‘dumb’ to go out of their way for customers like that. High cost and little revenue to the home airline.

      I don’t think that’s the reason they did this though. Prob finding the advance upgrades are displacing last minute people willing to pay for first class for the extra space. With fares so low until the last minute now that matters.

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      • @ Greg — Excuse me, that is nonsense. My spouse and I earned our GGUs, and Alaska should have advance availability at least on some flights some of the time. Apparently the compensation they received from us crediting our partner First Class international travel to Alaska IS enough revenue for them to consider us valuable customers. If they didn’t want customers “like us”, they would have rules to prevent people “like us” from earning 75k MVPG primarily on partner flights.

        Pre-COVID, we spent about $60,000 per year on airfare across all airlines, so I am pretty sure we are desirable customers. We do not fly in coach. We buy F when needed to avoid the back of the bus, but of course are always looking for a way to save $$ via advance-confirmed upgrades.

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        • Every frequent flier program has some small percentage of gamers / not so profitable customes who managed to qualify on edge cases of the rules. Usually the benefits of allowing these outweigh changing rules that would displease more profitable customers. But get the entitlement that you’re one of their top 75K members out of your head – most other 75ks are more important profit drivers for Alaska.

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          • Cool Greg – I’ll make sure to take your comment and let our management know of your concerns. Thanks!

  4. Why don’t you just buy up to the higher fare later when the space is avail? There’s no change fee.

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  5. Jon, how many of the policy changes that they have made over the past six months have you taken advantage of? Did you get extended status? (I did, from Delta and Alaska). Did you get any refunds or credits on tickets that would have otherwise been unrefundable? (I did, again for three separate trips). By any chance has the seat next to you been empty on any of your flights in order to reduce the risk that you will get sick? (Yes). On the assumption that you have benefited from some or all of these benefits, you come across as someone who is willing to take the good but not make any sacrifices.

    These airlines are burning through millions of dollars a day. Even with bailouts. This is an existential threat to airlines. If they don’t make smart decisions today, they can wind up in liquidation in the coming quarters. Essentially every airline is fighting for its life. Numerous airlines in Latin America have filed for bankruptcy and Virgin Atlantic is on the verge of liquidation. I don’t begrudge Alaska’s efforts to make a bit of money on the first class seats they are able to sell when they have VOLUNTARILY given up sales on a significant percentage of their inventory in order to keep YOU safe.

    An insolvent airline won’t get you anywhere … and miles and upgrade certs on a liquidated airline are worthless.

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    • Yup, I got extended status, but the cancellations would have allowed me anyway since that’s a benefit of being 75k. No real win there. As I said in my article (which I know you read) I made it very clear that I’ve been very happy with Alaska’s Covid policies, but just because you’re great on one area doesn’t give you a pass on the others.

      As other commenters have noted, Alaska knows very well what routes will sell and what routes will get upgrades for free. Why not allow me to use my certificates and reward my loyalty? I’m still PAYING for a ticket when I upgrade, the money is almost exactly the same. I think you’re missing that piece.

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      • How is “the money … almost exactly the same?” Alaska is hoping that they can sell an actual first class ticket, instead of giving you a free (or almost free, if you book into a higher economy fare class than you normally would) upgrade. Alaska is thinking that since they are only selling half of the first class seats, they ought to try to sell them for actual money if they can. And since they reduced their inventory in order to keep us all safe, I’m fine with that. If they don’t sell the seat, you’ll still be on the waitlist.

        Bottom line: Some airlines are on the verge of liquidation. Many of us who love to travel have spent most of the last six months at home instead (I personally have had five trips that were booked cancelled). Complaining because an airline that has literally whacked the inventory on its regional jets by 50% in order to try to keep us safe is being a bit tighter on upgrades in hopes of living to fight another day is not a good look.

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        • Agree Jim – the blogger doesn’t get the full picture and should pick battles on bigger things – not a good look for Boardingarea.

          Using upgrade certs on a discount companion fare I’m going to guess is not the highest margin thing for the airline.

          I still think there’s some systems limitation driving this, but ultimately it’s their right to zero out inventory for a period of time while they sort out the revenue implications of these upgrades in this business environment.

          They’ve generously extended status and folks will get fresh certificates for next year so no harm done.

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        • It’s clear that you don’t know how airline upgrades in Alaska work. In many cases the cost to buy a upgradeable fare is close to if not slightly higher than the cost of a first class seat. So, Alaska is getting nearly the same amount by selling a coach versus first. And, by selling a first ticket, they also have to give lounge access if you’re in a longer city while upgrades don’t get that. You showed your hand by suggesting they can sell theM for “actual money” when in reality it’s virtually the same.

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          • Why on earth would you pay more for an upgradeable economy seat if a first class seat is the same amount or less? Buy the cheaper seat and save your cert for another time when the ticket pricing economics are more in your favor.

            BTW, your tone is more than a bit snarky. I’m not sure why you think that being mouthy toward your readers is going to compel us to come back and read your blog more often … but that’s a business decision for you to make. Telling a reader who is elite on two airlines that I “don’t know how airline upgrades in Alaska work” even though I got upgraded on my last Alaska flight doesn’t send a “come back and support my site” kind of vibe. But you do you. I’m not trying to “show my hand” or not show my hand about anything. I’m trying to have a conversation and offer a perspective from someone who understands that the battle to remain solvent is the airlines’ absolute top priority right now, and as a human being that understands that Covid means that some of the things we took for granted in the past have to change. I fly out of a smaller airport that has historically had reasonably good Alaska service. I’d rather miss an upgrade and have Alaska live to keep flying me places for years to come than get upset because upgrade policies have changed.

          • Simple, I can use my companion pass with an upgradeable economy fare. I can’t with First Class.

          • Based on your comment below, then your statement that “Alaska is getting nearly the same amount” is absolutely incorrect. You are trying to use a companion cert. In one scenario, you buy a coach seat, bring a free companion, and Alaska (hopefully) sells two first class seats to someone else (or potentially upgrades someone off the waitlist). So they potentially sell three tickets and fill four seats. In the other scenario, you buy two first class seats and they sell someone else two coach seats, so they (hopefully) sell four tickets and fill four seats.

            All that said, I get why this is frustrating to you … we all pay BA the annual fee expecting to be able to use the companion cert … but I also get that Alaska is doing what they have to do to stay alive. I don’t know if being able to combine the companion cert with upgrade certs has ever been a published benefit or has just been an allowed loophole.

          • It’s not a loophole, nor is it a published benefit, it’s just how the tickets work. I’ll use the companion certificates no matter what, but not being able to upgrade at time of booking (like I was told I’d be able to do for years) is frustrating, not the annual fee.

  6. Unfortunately, this has also meant that it is currently not possible to receive first class Ak domestic award space on an AK international partner award booked in first or business.

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    • I forgot about this! Good point

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    • That’s not true, at all. AS long as the lower tiered First Class award space is available on that AS flight, you will get it when you attach it to a Business/FC partner award reservation. Upgrade space exists in a completely different “bucket” from Low Tier award space.
      I just booked a business class ticket on Emirates to Maldives in the spring, and the connecting flight to SFO on Alaska is in First.
      It’s ok if you don’t know what you’re talking about, just stop talking about it once that fact is pointed out to you.

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  7. Honestly, I was having issues finding a qualifying up gradable flight long before COVID hit. Flying was part of work and checked virtually every flight to see if it qualified. As a Gold Member, haven’t been able to use all of my 4 the last two years??

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    • We have, but it did get harder…

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  8. AK Air has $500-$600 million in outstanding travel credits. They don’t know how customers might use them. They are hoping to be at a break even point by the end of the year. Also, many customers are sitting on a mountain of miles. With no disadvantage of burning through them because everyone’s status is locked in until end of next year. I am a Gold member who has thousands of dollars of cancelled trips and hundreds of thousands of miles. That can be redeemed at any time, last minute to secure first class tickets vs. someone using a pass. None of that is beneficial if they are not in business. I for one could care less about losing my 4 passes. I am more concerned about the 1,600 plus employees who might lose their jobs. This is the first and last time I’ll read this blog. So many more issues with the bigger picture than someone upset they can’t use a normal perk during these times.

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    • Thanks for reading!

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  9. It has always been customer-unfriendly that Alaska offers “flexible” ticket cancellations for MVP Golds, but if you actually managed to find U space and apply a GGU to your ticket, you had to beg and plead to get the GGU back. They have now fixed this for companion fares and they could fix it for GGUs too if they wanted. As a result of this begging, I was able to get GGUs back in several cases, but now they will all expire 12/31/2020 and nothing the airline will do about it. I called today and was told by the Customer Care rep that “we have given you all the exceptions we can with re-issuing these.” Which makes no sense since as an MVPG I am able to change flights “whenever I want.”

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    • Something tells me that a change will be coming soon.

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  10. I had this exact same problem. I booked the First Class Upgrade Fare, but wasn’t allowed to use my certificates. As the flight gets closer the prices will go up and if I never get to use my certificates then I have paid A LOT extra for absolutely nothing. Or if I paid for a Saver fare far ahead of time then I’d have to pay a lot extra to get a U upgradeable fare when it becomes available, if ever. It just doesn’t make sense. You can extend how long I have the certificates for, but it doesn’t matter if I can’t use them.

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    • I appreciate that you understood the dilemma unlike most of the readers..

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