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Why Free Upgrades on Delta are Getting Harder & Harder

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Everyone wants a free upgrade to sit in first class, and you won't get it by asking nice or dressing fancy. Those complimentary upgrades are one of the main draws of having elite airline status, like Delta Medallion Status. Or at least they were…

These days, even top frequent flyers with Platinum or Diamond Medallion Status are fighting it out – and sometimes losing – in their quest for a free upgrade to the front of the cabin. In an annual presentation to investors on Thursday, top Delta executives spelled out exactly why.

Competition for those complimentary upgrades isn't just fierce between flyers with status. Status holders are increasingly losing out on their upgrades to flyers who are willing to pay up for that first class seat in advance – and that's exactly what Delta wants.

Here's what Delta said – and what it means for your hopes for a seat at the front of the cabin.

Related reading: How Does Delta Determine its Upgrade Order?

Delta's Changing Mindset with Upgrades

The airline industry has changed drastically in the last decade. And that's especially true when it comes to getting a free upgrade on Delta.

Back in 2009, the vast majority of Delta flyers sitting in first class seats got there thanks to a complimentary upgrade from their status. Delta President Glen Hauenstein told investors Thursday that while 92% of domestic first class seats were occupied that year, only 13% of them were paid tickets. 

So Delta set out to change that. And that's bad news if you're hoping for a free upgrade.

Fast forward to present day, and Delta is now selling more than 60% domestic first class seats. That is a massive increase in just over a decade, and Hauenstein said the airline hopes to get those figures into the “mid- to high 60s” in the coming years.

delta premium cabin sales graphic 

Hauenstein said the main problem a decade ago was that premium cabin fares were just “exorbitantly” expensive. By lowering the costs, they're able to sell more of those seats in advance and still come out increasingly far ahead.

Of course, that's a windfall for Delta: Premium cabin ticket sales have quickly become an outsized source of revenue for the airline, and that's only growing. But that also means far fewer seats are available in the lottery for upgrades, which makes your chances of scoring a free upgrade slimmer and slimmer.

“This has been a huge evolution for us,” Hauenstein said. “What we’ve found is that the same people who were entering what we call ‘the great lottery’ – the great lottery being ‘I bought my ticket and I hope to god I get upgraded before departure' – that those same people, with better price points and better availability to see what they’re buying, were happy to pay to confirm their seat at the time of purchase.”

Hauenstein didn't draw any distinctions between people who buy a first class or Delta Comfort Plus fare upfront or pay later on to upgrade into a premium cabin. Those rates can often be reasonable, too. Within the last few years, Delta has introduced the ability to snag a cabin upgrade using Delta SkyMiles – and that's proven to be incredibly popular, too.

To some frequent flyers who have climbed the ladders of Delta status, these moves might feel like a slap in the face. What's the point of staying loyal to Delta – or any airline – when the airline will turn around and sell the seats that you could once rely on getting as a perk of your status?

Hauenstein made clear that Delta is taking a broader look at customer loyalty, beyond just earning SkyMiles or earning Delta Medallion status. It all ties into Delta's end-goal, what Hauenstein called: “our journey to become America’s premium carrier.”

“Growing loyalty and our customer base was an objective, but it was really secondary to providing customers what they really value: an on-time airline, clean, safe, reliable, with the best people in the sky,” he said.

Translation: We can earn loyal customers by being a better airline than our competitors, not based on what we do with SkyMiles or Medallion status.

Adding and selling more premium cabin seats is core to that goal of being a premium carrier – and that's exactly what Delta has done. Hauenstein pointed out that as the airline has grown over the years, almost all of that has come by adding more premium cabin seats to its network – not back in economy.

delta seat growth chart 

“We essentially have not grown the main cabin. All the growth in the company since 2009 has occurred with premium seats,” Hauenstein explained.

That underscores Delta's entire strategy: Sell itself as a “premium” airline as many other competitors focus more on lowering costs as they try to corner the lucrative market of travelers willing to pay a bit more for a better seat.

And while that means more seats available for upgrades, it's safe to assume Delta will do everything it can to sell them instead.


More Competition for Free Upgrades, Too

For the first time ever, I earned Delta Silver Medallion Status this year. But I'm not counting on getting many upgrades in 2022 … because I know I'm not alone – far, far from it.

The upgrade queues may be miles long in 2022 thanks to a handful of pandemic-driven decisions that made it easier to earn and maintain status with Delta over the last two years:


delta status requirements 

Read up on the basics of earning Delta Medallion status!

All those moves make it much, much easier to earn and keep status with Delta, and that's a recipe for some bloated Medallion lists in 2022 and beyond. That's certainly the case with lower-tier Silver and Gold members, though it could also help more travelers vault up into Platinum and Diamond status.

At the same time, there will be fewer planes in the skies as travel still recovers. That means more competition for fewer seats, whether it’s a complimentary upgrade to first class or a priority exit row seat assignment for free.

If there's one saving grace, it's that Delta is giving upgrade priority to those who earned their status for 2022 outright by flying over the last year – not those who had their status extended. That new policy takes effect in February 2022.

Still, the competition for upgrades will be tighter than ever before. Combined with the fact that Delta would much rather sell those seats than reward status holders with a free upgrade, your chances of getting a seat upfront for free are looking slimmer and slimmer in 2022.

Read more: Why You May Not Want to Chase Delta Status (Especially This Year)


Bottom Line

Earning airline status is alluring, but it can be a mirage. The extra time, effort, and cost are rarely worth the benefits for the average traveler. Upgrades are no sure thing.

And the odds of scoring a complimentary upgrade flying Delta keep getting slimmer and slimmer as Delta does its best to sell those seats in advance – even as the ranks of Delta Medallion members grow to record levels.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

9 Responses

  • Do you think things will be more possible for upgrades starting after 2023 after the MQM rollover/covid bonuses probably ends? I’m wondering if I should cancel my Delta Reserve card or keep it?

  • I’ve been buying only first class on Delta for the last 5 years. Living in New York, everyone is Platinum or higher so upgrades aren’t worth the stress.

  • This is why I’m not bothering with shooting for Diamond next year, after making Platinum this year in my first five months of Delta loyalty flying. Upgrades are few and far between on my current routes, even for Diamonds, and my baseline Comfort+ for having Platinum isn’t bad.

    Also they broke GUCs that you could choose as Diamond. You used to be able to buy Main Cabin and fly D1 guaranteed (if available at booking). Now you have to buy Premium Select to get into D1 with a GUC.

    So basically I’m going to put $25K on my Delta Platinum next year instead of $250K to make Diamond MQD. I can earn more rewards on that $225K elsewhere than I could if I used it to earn too tier that isn’t much better than second tier anymore.

  • I enjoy the best of those two worlds. During my working road warrior years, I was almost always comped an upgrade. Now retired, I willingly pay for seats in the pointy end of the plane. And as article notes, those prices are lower now than before. FWIW, I think Delta’s plan is a winner. A segment of the population is tired of the airline race to the bottom.

  • I got Silver Medallion in 2020, and my first flight that year (and last one to Europe before the pandemic) I got a Comfort+ upgrade. My son and I got first class upgrades on a cross country flight earlier this year. I flew to Iceland a few months ago and got C+ upgrades on three out of four legs. I got one on a short flight last month, too. I’m in a Delta hub, even. I’ve been really pleasantly suprised at the number of upgrades, but I’m also happy to just be able to pick an exit row seat for free.

  • I am 1M and have been Diamond or Platinum for a decade or more. Upgrades are are becoming very hard to come by. Using a GUC is a challenge. Delta will lose many stalwart passengers if,changes are not made.

  • I started flying in 2020 for work. I made Platinum that year, made Diamond this year (even without the bonuses). I don’t see a year in the near future that I won’t be Diamond. That being said, the devaluation of the GCU’s was a slap in the face to us DM’s and road warriors. An even bigger slap in the face was the amount of miles they were going to give you if you sold them back to you. Delta extended status’ for their FF’s, but then do this?! I will still fly Delta, but when I route my international trips where I can use a GCU, I will look for A330’s that do not have Premium Select so I know I will get my D1 upgrade.

  • The airlines at some point want to stop giving free upgrades to first or business class unless you spend a lot of money with them.

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