United Airlines needs to change its Unlimited Domestic Upgrade program

I don’t spend as much time on Flyertalk as I used to before I started this blog and I end up missing out on different perspectives. Most United Airlines flyers either love or hate the Unlimited Domestic Upgrade (UDU) program, soon to be renamed Complimentary Premier Upgrade (CPU).

For me, I have a love-hate relationship with it. I never flew enough to upgrade all of my domestic flights with e500s previously and given my UDU percentage is in the upper 90s, I’m quite happy with it. Then there are the times I want to do a confirmed same-day change to a different flight only to see F0 or C0 (especially the three-cabin birds where I’d normally be able to get into Business). Then, I hate it.

One thread on Flyertalk caught my attention this week. The original poster titled it, “The more you spend, the worse you are treated.†I clicked in to find s/he’s the type of business traveler who buys last minute tickets, full-fare coach B-fares, and has to sit in a middle seat in both directions. It’s important to note this person is a top-tier Premier Executive 1K.

The UDU scheme had already upgraded everyone with status into First and all the aisle and window seats were already assigned in Economy Plus. I feel for this person and think United is making the right move next year in restricting the availability of Economy Plus to Premiers until check-in, but should also change the UDU/CPU algorithm.

Presently, all available upgrade space is cleared at the appropriate elite status window with virtually all flights being “sold out†in the front cabin the day of departure. Even if inventory management forecasts show there’s no demand for last minute First Class seats, United should at the minimum hold back at least two seats for gate upgrades.

One of the main complaints about UDU on the Flyertalk thread is the fact that it’s automatic now, not requiring any pre-selection by elites for the upgrade as it was during the e500 days. Under the former system, many “casual†elites weren’t knowledgeable enough to know they could upgrade, so First Class was still fairly available day of departure.

I’d like United to discipline their upgrade inventory a bit more day of departure and hold back a number of seats for gate upgrades. Heck, they could even adopt the Continental approach and sell them to check-ins for pennies on the dollar and probably come out further ahead than just upgrading elites on the flight. No, I don’t want to see that, but think the UDU/CPU system should change.

Here’s my ideal IM plan… hold back 25% of the seats for gate upgrades and the airline would likely please those last minute buyers:

a table with numbers and lettersI think United will eventually adopt such a model and have a feeling the removal of Economy Plus at booking was due to feedback on the invitation-only United forum for frequent flyers. I received an invite a couple of years back, but openly admitted I visited Flyertalk frequently, so was denied. Such a shame… I’d love to know what’s being said on those forums.



  1. A few thoughts on this…

    1) They actually do hold back inventory more than you’d think.

    2) If they don’t upgrade folks at the outside window times then you’ve got the same group of people complaining they aren’t getting their upgrades at NN hours.

    3) The UFC doesn’t discriminate against folks who are also active participants on FlyerTalk (or any other community) and there was no discussion there demanding the scaling back of E+ at booking for Silvers. You can take off the tin foil hat. 😉

    • Argh! Jealous you’re on the UA boards… the mystery of what’s discussed there keeps me intrigued.

      From my experiences, they really don’t hold back inventory. I used to be able to do confirmed same-day changes to the 777 on the IAD-LAX route and secure a seat in Business. Haven’t been able to since UDU went into effect. The vast majority of my other flights are F0 at 24-hours prior, too.

      Yes, I’m sure people would complain about not getting their upgrades at the window, but a change in UDU/CPU policy should definitely be considered for the last-minute full-fare folks.

  2. I frequently see CO holding back two or three seats, and I would expect the new UA to adopt their policies. Personally I think the CO’s system works reasonably well. I buy cheap tickets, and it’s not surprising when I go from #1 on the upgrade list as a Plat down to #6 or so by the time I reach the airport because high fare tickets have taken priority. At least CO is clear about where you are on the list and how many seats are available.

    I disagree with you about why the seats should be kept open. It sounds like you want them available for SDCs, and I think if you want to do a SDC, you should be willing to take whatever is left.

  3. Under the changed United system,it is virtually impossible to get an upgrade unless you are GS or 1k and buy a ticket 72 hours in advance on any big city routing. The system does it’s advanced upgrades and holds back whatever seats the current algorithum is programmed to. At LAX and ORD the monitors at the gate often show 45 plus people on the upgrade list. Since often the planes are A320’s and 757 the list is laughable. Bottom line is plan ahead,be GS or 1K. That being said upgrades may open up again when only in seat miles count toward status again.

  4. My main complaint is the upgrading of companions…I’d be nice to have upgrades go to elites first, then companions if room is still available

  5. @Seth – I agree with you, however my only gripe with the CO upgrade scheme is that they often hold back 10-15 F seats on a 737 until 24 hours out then they upgrade 10-12 elites at once. If F is wide open, set up some kind of algorithm where at 100 hours out they want to hold back 50% of the F cabin, 72 hours out 40%, 48 hours out 25%, etc. And turn any excess F inventory over into the R bucket for upgrades.

    Other than that, I fully agree that they should preserve some F space until 1 hour before departure and then the system should release all remaining F inventory for upgrades.

    @Karlyn – For companions, I think they should be after all elites in the respective elite companion’s tier but before the other elites. I.E. an 1K is traveling with a companion, the companion will be after all 1Ks and 1K companions on higher fares, but before Platinum/Gold/Silver and their companions. That is fair IMO.

  6. I do have the same or similar issue with it. Standbys are a pita, I just recently arrived early from Europe on a paid Business class ticket with First Class connecting flight in the US. I tried to get into an earlier flight but only available seats were middles way back. All F was already taken by UDU. And this was a revenue F ticket. Before UDU I never encountered the issue since there seems to have been a lot more gate upgrades.

  7. Fact: on domestics, the UA computer system doesn’t (didn’t?) release the last two F seats for upgrade until exactly 30 minutes before departure (same time as boarding begins).

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