How do you get cheap upgrades on United Airlines?

David Klain, Mariner, aviator and technology innov… (more)  Edit Bio
1 vote by Noleash Needed
I've  been a top tier frequent flyer for over 10 years (defined as flying at  least 100,000 miles a year and some years in excess of 300,000 miles.   The rules of the game for upgrading have changed a lot and some of the  old, traditional advice is no longer valid (i.e., suck up to the gate  agent and be nice and you have a good chance at an OPUP (Operational  Upgrade)).  The reality is that in these modern times of maximizing  revenue and getting every dollar they can, airlines no longer give their  staff this kind of flexibility to give something away for free when  they can charge for it.

Some specific examples/details on the  rules these days:

– You can get a "free" upgrade if you purchase certain full-fare tickets (which come with an upgrade if space is available).
–  You can get a "free" or "low cost" (relative to the cost of a full fare  premium ticket) by using your miles to upgrade…but these days except  for full fare economy tickets, they want miles PLUS a co-pay which can  run anywhere between 100-900 dollars depending on the route.
– You  can purchase a "low cost" (again, relative to full fare premium ticket)  upgrade when you buy your economy ticket or when you check-in at the  airport.  To put it in perspective on my flight to Europe two days ago,  the round trip ticket was around $2,000.  I had the option to buy up to  business for $800 each way.  So I could have had business each way for  around $3,600 as compared to $4-6,000 for a business class ticket.
–  If you are a frequent flyer, there are also other upgrade programs you  may be able to take advantage of.  For example, at United:

  • all  elites qualify for complimentary upgrades on domestic flights (space  available) but the upgrades are processed by category of frequent flyer  (the high levels get it first) and fare class of ticket purchased.  So  if you are a global services flyer on an expensive economy, you have a  good shot.  If you fly 25,000 miles a year and are on a discount economy  ticket, your odds may not be as good.  It also depends on where you are  flying from.  Hubs like San Francisco and Washington are filled with  elite flyers — it's not unusual to see over 40 people on the upgrade  standby list.  If you are flying out of a small market, your odds may be  better (assuming it isn't a regional jet with a single cabin).
  • At  75,000 miles and every 25,000 miles there after in a year I get two  regional premier upgrades I can apply at time of booking for domestic  flights.  These used to almost always clear.  These days, I am often  wait listed and don't clear until the day of the flight (United seems to  be holding upgrades back in the hopes someone will pay cash to upgrade  and not releasing upgrades until the flight goes to departure management  40 minutes prior to departure).
  • At 100,000 miles I get 6 global  premier upgrades (the old system-wide upgrades) which can be used on  any flight United flies (including international).  These used to be  great and almost always cleared, regardless of class of booking except  on the tough routes like NYC-London where the Business cabin is almost  always filled with people flying on business class tickets.  These days  United has changed the rules — do not apply for the lower economy fares  on international flights and again they are holding back upgrade seats  until day of departure or departure management queue more and more.

–  You can purchase a discount premium cabin ticket.  On United a 'Z'  class business fare is often close to the price of a full-fare economy  ticket if you purchase far enough in advance that the Z class fares are  still available.  The problem is that many people (and companies) are  unwilling to even pay a Z Class (or full fare Y class) fare when they  can pay discount economy.  For example, on a recent trip I had between  the US and Europe, a Z Class was $3,000.  Full fare economy was around  $2,700.  Discount economy was $800.  Really hard to make the argument to  pay 3-4 times as much for a ticket to the finance people these days!
–  A true OPUP.  On a couple of occasions I have been upgraded when I got  to the gate despite not having requested an upgrade.  These were flights  where economy was totally oversold yet there were empty seats in  business.  While no one will tell you, it is my belief I was one of the  people they chose to upgrade because (a) I was an elite flyer and (b) I  was flying on an expensive ticket.  Note this has happened to me maybe 3  times in the 50+ trips to Europe I've taken in the last 2-3 years.  If  memory serves, it happened once out of the US heading over, once out of  Europe coming back and once when our flight was cancelled leaving for  Europe from the US.  They were able to get me on another flight leaving  that night to another city in Europe so I could make my connection but  put me in Business.

Bottom line is that, in my opinion, the best things you can do to maximize your chances of an upgrade are:

1.  Be an elite frequent flyer with the airline (which means flying a LOT)  which puts you higher on upgrade lists and makes you eligible for  upgrade instruments not available to others.
2. Buy an expensive ticket.
3. Fly from a place without a lot of elite frequent flyers.

How are the Boeing airliner models named?

Usually they correspond with the time of design/introduction: the newest model is the 787, and following this system, the next model will be the 797.

Each series of a model is (usually) designated by numbers following the 7x7 name. Originally these were multiples of 100 starting with 100 and incrementing when a new series came out – e.g., the 747-100 was the first 747 series, followed by the 747-200, etc. However, starting with the 757, the first series was named the -200, with the -100 entirely skipped (because previous -100 series hadn't sold as well as subsequent series).
I guess the marketing guys weren't satisfied with this system, because Boeing's latest airliner family (the 787) comprises the short-range 787-3, the baseline 787-8, the stretched 787-9, and potentially a further stretched 787-10. Using technology from the 787, a new 747 series was then developed, which is naturally named the "747-8" (despite the fact that the previous 747 series was the 747-400).

Letters following the series number indicate versions: F for freighter (767-300F or 747-8F), M for combi (747-400M), ER for extended range (777-300ER or the extended-range freighter 747-400ERF), etc.

And if that's not complicated enough, Boeing uses a two-character  customer code to designate which airline the aircraft was originally sold to: the 747-337M is a 747-300M for Air India,  for example.

(Another example exception to this scheme is the new 777 freighter, the 777F. With the customer code, an example designation is the 777-F1B for China Southern, as opposed to a more traditional designation such as 777-21BF.)

If this wasn't more than you wanted to know about this (or if you want to read about more exceptions like the 717, 720, 747SP, etc), check out:


Are there speed limits for aircraft, civilian or military?

Yes. There are many speed limits for aircraft in the U.S.:

  • For aircraft flying below 10,000 feet above sea level: 250 knots. You can get permission from the FAA to go faster (e.g., jets at an airshow).
  • For the busiest U.S. airports, 200 knots if you're flying below or through those airports' airspace. ("Through" means through invisible tunnels called "VFR corridors." It does not mean flying inside their airspace, where the below 10K 250-knot rule applies.)
  • For smaller airports, 200 knots if you're near those airports and at or below 2,500 feet above the surface. Air traffic control can clear you to go faster.
  • Every airplane (even the Space Shuttle, believe it or not) comes with an operating handbook that specifies many operating limits including speed limits. Repairs or alterations can change the limits for a particular aircraft, and that aircraft's POH is updated accordingly. Many small planes have "never-exceed" speeds well below 200 knots, so the POH speed limit is the important one. In theory, there could be an airplane whose minimum safe operating speed in certain conditions were 201 knots, and if that were the case, it'd be legal to fly at that speed or faster.
  • Airlines have many, many, many rules about how their pilots fly their planes. I don't know whether they have speed limits significantly more restrictive than the general regulations applicable to all aircraft (e.g., putting limits in place above 10K).
  • None of these rules requires you to go so slowly that you put your flight in danger. If you have to divebomb your Cessna 152 at 300 knots to escape Godzilla, you'll probably get to keep your license.

Other than these rules, the sky's the limit for private and commercial craft. I have no idea whether there are different rules for military planes.

My sources are various sections of Part 91 of the Federal Aviation Regulations.

Update: Thanks to Jake Mannix for asking about sonic booms. Indeed, FAR 91.817 restricts flying at Mach 1 or higher unless it's done high enough that the resulting sonic boom won't reach the surface of the Earth. I found some discussions on the web that this requirement effectively restricts such speeds to about 45,000 feet above sea level. This is higher than most private pilots will ever fly, and definitely higher in FAR 91 than I've ever read. And from a fuel-economy perspective, it's not feasible to fly that fast, so it's a practical non-issue. But yes, it's definitely an applicable speed limit that's part of a complete answer.

What is the distribution of non-fatal injuries to airline passengers?

Unfortunately, there is no single source to go to for detailed information on this subject.  However, the reason for that knowledge gap is really interesting in and of itself.
Every major aircraft accident becomes the center of lots of organized, legally prescribed activity (safety and sometimes criminal investigations, coroners' reports, etc.).  However, much of that work is locally or nationally based.  At the macro level, the issues of the greatest concern to the widest audience are (1) why the accident happened, and (2) what can be done to prevent a similar one from happening in the future.  A subset of the latter involves what often are referred to as "survival factors" identified in the course of the post-crash investigation — once the accident became inevitable, what determined who lived through it and who died?
Some accidents are straightforwardly referred to as "nonsurvivable."  This usually is because they hit the ground hard enough to impart forces too strong for human bodies normally to survive, or involved disruption/compromise of the "occupiable volume" of the aircraft sufficient to leave no room for people.  There sometimes ARE survivors of "nonsurvivable" accidents, and it's always useful to try to figure out why they lived and others died.
Figuring out the "future prevention" piece of survival factors hasn't always gotten the attention it deserved, but it once played a prominent part of just about every accident investigation, simply because the aircraft that crashed often did so at slower speeds and with less force.  From studies conducted by the Aviation Crash Injury Research (AvCIR) program at Cornell and others, it became obvious that more needed to be done to:

  • Keep people in their seats in a crash
  • Reinforce fuselages so outside objects don't break through as easily and doors keep their shape instead of being distorted and becoming unusable
  • Minimize post-crash fires
  • Minimize toxic fumes occurring in post-crash fires
  • Get firefighters to crash sites on airports faster
  • Minimize the number of signs and structures in the middle of airfields and adjacent to runways, and design the ones you have to have to break easily if struck

So, when you read accident reports, you usually won't see too much in the way of specifics regarding injuries unless the injury prevented a person from being able to get out of the aircraft in a timely manner or it was the result of fire or fire by-products.  Those are what can be designed against for prevention purposes, so they get highlighted as part of the "prevention" process.  If a person died due to mobility impairment from blunt force trauma, unconsciousness or the like, that's about as deep as users of the information need to go to understand the direction their preventive efforts may need to take.
Many requirements for present-day aircraft certification came from understanding things like the right materials to use in decorating cabin interiors (fire-resistant, less toxic by-products of burning), the "90 second rule" for aircraft evacuations (designs must be proven to allow all passengers to be able to get out of the aircraft in 90 seconds or less with half the exits blocked), and a host of other provisions designed to do nothing to prevent an accident, but everything possible to save lives in the event one actually occurs.

What is the best way to buy coach plane tickets that can be upgraded to business class using air miles?

Unrestricted economy class fares are often going to be almost as expensive as a restricted business class fare when purchased directly through the airline or a travel website. However, most companies that generate a lot of travel revenue for airlines are able to negotiate large discounts for these unrestricted fares as they need to ensure their employees' travel plans can be easily changed during the course of a business trip.

However, many carriers offer a miles+copay system that allows you to upgrade flights to the next class of service even for discount tickets.

Here is American Airlines' upgrade chart:…

United Airlines' upgrade chart:…

As you can see, the full-fare tickets are upgradable with just miles, while the restricted fares require more miles plus cash.

Delta does not have copays:…

If you have elite status, though, its a whole new ballgame. If you have an unrestricted fare ticket and are an elite member, you can get upgraded to the next class of service for "free" if space is available. For a restricted domestic fare, you can use 500-mile upgrade "stickers" to upgrade. If you are the highest tier of elite, you will receive system-wide upgrade coupons that will allow you to upgrade any fare to any destination along with complimentary domestic upgrades.

What airlines are known for their customer service?

For international travel, any of the Asia-based mainline carriers will likely make US-based carriers seem like a comparative gulag in terms of human interaction — Singapore is the most frequently mentioned, but Cathay, All Nippon, Japan, Asiana, Thai, Malaysia, etc. all offer superior levels of service.

Let me resurface this nested comment, focusing on the soft product…

Exceptions will always surface but as a gross generalization here's what I see: At the very root, the routine travel experience embodies a lot more spirit of hospitality than you see on the US-flag carriers. Onboard interactions are delivered with a genuine smile, exceptional requests (hold a baby while you lift the bags into overhead, say) are often granted, and if you travel in premium cabins they address you by name (and memorize your name). There's generally a sense that the onboard crew works with pride and are glad to be there — it's like when you're served at the restaurant by a professional waitperson vs. someone who sees it as "just a job."

The relative youth and enthusiasm of the crew–many of them women, to be sure–exists also because working as cabin crew is still seen as a relatively desirable profession in many Asian countries. In speaking with many of the tenured US-carrier crew, I hear that's how it used to be here too, but the decades of post-deregulation malaise has really changed the nature of the job. There's no question that it's hard, physical work whereever you're from, and it's an industry in downturn everywhere, but those 30 years weigh down hard on US-carrier crew.

I think the well-regarded US carriers — JetBlue, Virgin America, Southwest — pay a lot of attention to this: A relatively happy crew makes for a happy flight experience.

Like I said there are always exceptions — I used to travel on UA a lot (1MM+ flight miles) and it was always a treat to be recognized by name by the folks working the same route, and enjoy a genuine chat. But those delightful moments were indeed rare, whereas they're more consistently delivered by other carriers. Combined with the superiority in the hard product (aircraft, seats, inflight entertainment) and the relative parity in fares, non-US carriers get most of my business today.

Where do I submit my detaxe forms in the Charles de Gaulle Airport? How long does it take?

Found this on Tripadvisor:

We used the "de-tax" office in Terminal 2 at Charles De Gaulle (located near Continental Airlines check-in counter). They look at your receipts, look at your purchases, and they they stamp your paperwork. Then you mail the forms. There was a mailbox in the airport very near the "de-tax" office.


It sounds complicated, but it really wasn't. Here is the one bit of misinformation. We were told by the store and also by the "VAT Refund company" that we would get the forms stamped in CUSTOMS at the airport. This is NOT the case. You get the form stamped BEFORE GOING THROUGH CUSTOMS.


All told, it took me about 10 minutes at the "VAT Refund Company" and about 5 minutes at the Charles de Gaulle "de-tax" office.…