Should Agents Process Upgrades Due to Misconnects or Close the Door?

On Saturday I flew from San Francisco to Washington Dulles on United and witnessed what could be classified as a lazy and motivated gate agent at the aircraft door. Lazy because she wasn’t going to fill the two empty seats in first class with passengers on the upgrade list, but motivated to get our delayed flight out saying there were passengers with connections in Dulles.

For a few weekends, San Francisco International Airport is down to one arrival runway, due to construction, causing some flow control delays. As such, passengers missing their connections is more likely. And I believe my flight was a case in point.

When I boarded, the first class cabin was booked and checked-in full – I was number 4 on the upgrade list. No chance, really, and I didn’t care that much since I’ve been getting over my upgrade phobia lately. But I still like to see how it all plays out and when the agent came onboard with the paperwork ready to close the door, here’s how the flight looked:

a screenshot of a flight scheduleI was in 10D and the gentleman ahead of me in 9D called out to the agent ready to close the door asking about further upgrades. (I bet he was also looking at his mobile app). The agent said, “let me look at the list†and turned around to her colleague. Seconds later, she said, “Yes, you definitely… take any open seat.†He got up and moved up front.

The agent then told the flight attendant, “I’m closing the door!†And she did. After the jetway pulled and the flight attendant armed the door, she went up front, grabbed the manifest from the purser and headed back to another passenger in 20C. He was quickly escorted up to the last remaining seat in first class and later in the flight came back to bring his belongings forward.

Sunday morning I looked at the flight again and noticed #1 and #2 on the list showed cleared, though I have no idea if they were indeed the two passengers moved forward. They probably were.

Now here’s what I wonder. If Mr. 9D didn’t question the gate agent, I bet those two first class seats would have flown empty. I certainly respect the gate agent for wanting to get the flight out as quickly as possible to protect the downline connections, but shouldn’t they also take the few seconds (it wouldn’t take more than a minute, would it?) to fill those empty seats?

I said earlier that I didn’t really care about missing the upgrade. But had I been number 1 or 2 and saw after landing that I showed cleared and still flew in coach, I’d be a little pissed. Wouldn’t you?

Finally, kudos to the flight attendant who seemed to take it upon herself to fill the last remaining seat in first class with Mr. 20C. I don’t think the gate agent had anything to do with that.

Related posts:

Buh-Bye Upgrade Phobia: Rediscovering the Joy of Coach Travel

A Look at Cheapest vs. Upgradable United Airlines International Airfares


  1. It is definitely more important to make the connections. At large airports, many planes are often scheduled to leave at the same time. A delay of a minute or two can result in waiting twenty or minutes in the takeoff queue when operations are restricted. Anyway the potentially upgraded passengers still get what they paid for – a coach seat. I would gripe about not being upgraded anyway, and maybe get a few miles for the griping.

  2. I agree with VG. Getting everyone to their destination is the number one priority for the ground crew. I would be upset if the flight was delayed for something affecting only one passenger. But as that one passenger, I would not be happy.

  3. The gate agent should jot down the people that would have been upgraded and let the purser know so they can move them up after takeoff.

  4. In my experience, they bring upgraded boarding passes to the plane right before closing the door. It happened to a few people on DEN-IAD last week (one upgraded person was in my assigned seat) and has happened to me twice this year and once last year. I have seen F seats go empty, even with a few dozen people on waitlist. On a delayed flight, sure, make sure everyone makes connections, but when it is on time, 30 seconds will make no difference.

  5. I was on a UA CRJ700 from TUS to LAX yesterday. I was #1 on the upgrade list (after being bumped from an earlier flight due to a maintenance cancellation). Gate agents made no mention of upgrades at all, and the cabin had purportedly checked in full (according to the UA website and app). Right as they were about the close the door, the FA asked me to ring my call button, and brought me up front as they boarded a stand-by passenger into my seat.

  6. I worked for a major airline for almost a decade ( lets say exec job, not at the airport) and I can tell you the number one goal is to get the plane out. Yes the airline cares for the most valuable customers but they prefer you get to your destination and dont miss any connections. The lead FA has the list as well and once things settle down she can walk up to the next customer on the list and escort them to the first class seat.

    Now that I am a regular Joe, I just can’t deal with the anxiety if my upgrade is not confirmed ahead. Just pretty much forget about it.

  7. There’s no reason the agent cannot do both. That’s why they are supposed to close the flight out 10-15 minutes in advance of scheduled departure. The agent in question here was just lazy, not both lazy and motivated.

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