United Airlines complimentary upgrade failure: How to avoid it

My next favorite United Airlines flight out of LAX after any of the premium service departures to JFK is the morning 777 to Washington Dulles. I’ve never missed an upgrade on it and the flight is perfectly timed for a great array of connection opportunities at IAD.

I flew it again this past week, but I didn’t clear the upgrade at the 100-hour 1K window. I assumed I would the next day, though, as I’ve noticed lately that my complimentary upgrades rarely confirm right at the window on heavily booked flights. It didn’t clear the next day, however, or the day after that.

At 100-hours out, the business cabin showed availability as C9 D9 Z9 with oodles of seats unassigned, so I wasn’t worried. When Premier Exec’s usually clear at 72-hours out, availability again showed C9 D9 Z9, so I assumed they were just holding off upgrade space, possibly due to an aircraft swap. At 48-hours out, availability went to C2 D0 Z0. Wow, this would be a first for me to miss an upgrade if it really remained a 777, even if it did swap to a new configuration aircraft with fewer business class seats.

When I checked in for the flight, I noticed via United’s mobile iPhone app (love the transparency it provides) that I was number two on the upgrade list of about 20 or so passengers. I didn’t like my chances, though, since I knew more 1Ks or Global Service passengers would check-in and likely be on higher fares than my ridiculously cheap G-fare.

The aircraft did end up switching to a new configuration lie-flat International Premium Travel Experience 777 after I checked in, so I assumed that’s why United’s Inventory Management held off on releasing space. Later that day (since I obsessively check and re-check my flights), I noticed my name was gone from the upgrade list on the mobile app. I had to call three times until I finally got an agent that was able to get me back on the list, and again I was number two for a business class seat. I resigned myself to accepting it was going to be a battlefield upgrade at the gate.

When I got to the airport, I inquired with an agent at the United Club what my position was on the list. I was still number two, but it looked good with three seats open an hour before departure. I headed to the gate and took a seat close to the counter.

A fellow mileage runner with whom I’ve flown with previously noticed me and came over to say hello. He mentioned his upgrade cleared right at the window and that he, too, was on a G-fare. Ack! Why didn’t I clear? In the end, I did end up getting my upgrade and survived a middle seat in the business class cabin, but I realized a mistake I made and wanted to share it here.

When my upgrade didn’t clear at the 100-hour window, a new segment did appear in my itinerary showing the waitlisted segment, so I just assumed NC (upgrade) space was indeed zero. Each time I checked availability, I simply looked at standard flight availability and didn’t go deeper into the “Book with miles” (advanced mode) option to view NC space. Big mistake.

Had I gone in and viewed the total picture of availability, I would have likely seen that NC space was available and then called in to confirm my upgrade. In the grand scheme of things it really wasn’t a big deal, of course, but when I saw availability drop to C2, I have to admit I was sort of panicked.

So… this post is a friendly reminder to investigate deeper if your upgrade doesn’t clear as expected since automation does sometimes fail and human intervention is required. I’ll certainly be more vigilant my next waitlisted upgrade.



  1. great tip, i missed getting upgraded this past friday on the 777 from lax to iad. i was stuck at #1 and never cleared. next time i will dig deeper.

  2. The more interesting thing would be what was wrong with your upgrade request? Why didn’t it clear, and how to fix it? It’s of course possible that everyone who cleared was a 1K or Global Services, and 1Ks on higher fares, and those on the same fares but who had requested ahead of you. Or something was amiss.

    And checking for NC space might not have yielded an answer, as it could have appeared right at the upgrade window and been taken, you’d have seen none and not been able to call to confirm it.

    Though I suppose an Expertflyer alert for the NC space could have helped a bit here too.

  3. A very timely and helpful post. I’m flying IAD-SFO on Friday on a 777 (old config) and my upgrade didn’t clear at the 100hr mark despite 9s across the board and 36 seats unassigned.

    The first thing I did was check I space on EF. It was zero, but it was still essential to check. I have a feeling my aircraft might be subbed out for the new config, like it was last time, and that is why they are holding back space.

  4. My question is, how could you have “called in” within the window to “confirm the upgrade” Once you are within the UDU window, I don’t know of any way to FORCE the upgrade. The system will run its course based on status, fare class, etc..

  5. @Gary: NC space could have certainly zeroed out at each window as upgrades were cleared, yes, but I do remember in the past seeing NC>0 before the next window. At that point, had I been monitoring NC space this past week, I could have called in for them to clear it manually. I’m actually right back in the same situation for an upcoming flight and have set an ExpertFlyer alert, as well as constantly monitor United.com’s availability.

    @tivoboy: See above and I have read previously on Flyertalk of people hitting the waitlist instead of clearing when NC>0. My mileage run buddy who was on my flight this past week also remarked he’s known this to happen from time to time. Also, having worked in IM at United, the system can be overridden and programming mistakes happen.

  6. After you checked-in and after you noticed your name was gone from the upgrade list, did you check your reservation to make sure your upgrade hadn’t cleared in reservations? It probably did and you needed to uncheck and recheck-in to get it to take.

    • @Bill: I did indeed go back into my reservation to see if it had cleared, but it still showed waitlisted each time within the T-24 hour mark I checked.

  7. I had a CO codeshare on UA metal that showed me waitlisted and hadn’t cleared. Fortunately I noticed NC space was available and had an agent provide the upgrade over the phone. If NC space wasn’t available when I looked I doubt I would have cleared. What do you do in this case, call every day and ask?

    • @RDimperio: I will now constantly monitor NC space if my upgrade shows waitlisted within the window & call if I see NC>0. Glad you were proactive and called!

  8. Well, I guess that I am glad to see that I am not the only one having these problems. Everything was fine with UDU until about Nov when they started combining the system with CO’s. I see plenty of space at 100 hours only to watch it shrink without an upgrade until I get a battlefield one at the gate (sometimes). Even calling the UA or CO desk does not often help. I even tried to apply a SWU with five seats in F and was told they were holding all five for sale at four days out.

  9. A tangential question. I’m going to be doing some SEA-JFK-SEA trips for work (LGA is also an option). You’ve got me all interested in a SEA-SFO-LAX-IAD-JFK/LGA-IAD-SFO-SEA routing, with international equipment on the trans-cons. As a 1K, the UDU opportunity looks good, plus I may get a new C seat. But you still prefer the p.s. flights, given that you also have to cough up an upgrade instrument?

    • @Biggles209: Sorry for the delay. I’d definitely book the internationally equipped 777s LAX-IAD-SFO vs. the p.s. 757s. Those p.s. flights ex-JFK are uber high revenue and unless you can confirm an upgrade in advance with a CR1/Regional, sitting in Business is a gamble. Your chances are better on UDUable hub flights.

  10. Booked SEA-SFO-LAX-JFK – can’t make the only international 777 LAX-IAD from SEA any more. R space was available, but when I went to do the upgrade I got “Your Regional Premier Upgrade is restricted by market and may not be used on this part of your trip” for LAX-JFK. Called 1K line – on hold for 10 mins, and then it took them 30 minutes to put in the upgrade. And I still have all the RPUs in my account! Plain LGA-ORD-SEA return, but with an M-up fare ORD-SEA for an extra $40

    • @eran: Well, the “official” way would be directly with United if you have the frequent flier miles (or purchasing a business class fare if you don’t have upgrade instruments yourself). I certainly don’t recommend doing this as it’s against airline policy, but people do sell upgrade certificates on craigslist and other websites. Waaaay too risky and again, I don’t recommend doing it.

    • @Nancy: Now that the 3/3 system conversion has passed, you’ll want to look for R-class availability (the new “NC”). To do that, simply shop/search for flights and click on the “Fare class” link in the far right column of a specific flight. It’ll open a box that’ll show all fare classes.

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