A few days before my short flight on US Airways from Charlotte to Baltimore last fall, US Airways sent an email asking if I'd like to upgrade to first class for $90 at the airport, if a seat was still available. I didn't take the US Airways offer -- $90 seemed like a stiff price for a flight of just an hour -- but I might have been tempted on a longer flight. US Airways and a few others are quietly selling upgrades to travelers on cheap tickets, at least on some flights. And, if you have a tough time with cattle-car coach accommodations, buying a last-minute upgrade may be the only practical way to enjoy a comfortable flight.
The latest airline to announce selling upgrades is Air New Zealand: The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a new "OneUp" promotion for trips between New Zealand and the United States and between Los Angeles and London. Travelers ticketed in economy will get emails offering an upgrade to business class. The Herald added that ANZ will allocate upgrade auction seats only after allowance for "free" upgrades to high-level frequent fliers. Another press report indicates that the process will use the Priceline "opaque" bidding model: Make an offer and see if ANZ accepts it. ANZ will even post hints of what level might be required for a successful bid.
But these scanty press reports leave some real questions: Will bids from travelers on high-priced economy tickets or elite frequent fliers be accepted for less than bids from travelers on the cheapest tickets? Will travelers on the cheapest tickets even get in on the bidding? Air New Zealand didn't respond when I asked for these and other details, so I guess we'll have to see.
The only airline I know that openly publishes upgrade prices is Air India. According to its website, you can upgrade from economy to business class from Chicago, New York, or Newark to India or to London for $1,350. Returning upgrades are $900. For now, this offer is valid for travel only through March 31, but it is likely to be extended. Upgrading about triples the cost of the cheapest available economy ticket, for a total of about $3,400, which is still a bit cheaper than buying a business-class ticket (a little more than $4,000), but no great bargain.
I have no idea how many other airlines do this -- most don't advertise. I remember many years ago -- before frequent flier programs got so big -- seeing Hawaiian auction off first-class seats to the mainland prior to departure from Honolulu, but I haven't seen anything like that in decades.
A search of the Internet reveals a bit of talk about paid standby upgrades, but the only concrete example I could find was on Thai flights between Thailand and Australia. Several airlines offer no-cost or low-cost upgrades from full-fare economy to the next higher cabin, but that's not much use for ordinary travelers for whom full-fare economy is the world's worst travel buy.
All in all, standby upgrades are a rare and unpredictable way to escape the cattle car. Where they're available to check, prices seem very high. And if you're really concerned about lousy coach seating and service, you would presumably prefer to lock a premium seat reservation in advance rather than take potluck at an airport. Instead, consider a few alternatives that are less expensive and less problematic:
* Domestically, fly JetBlue, United, or (soon) Delta and move up to semi-permanent economy for a reasonable surcharge -- you at least get more legroom, even if your seat is regular economy and too narrow to accommodate you or almost anyone else comfortably.
* Internationally, fly an airline that offers real premium economy, including Air France, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic to Europe and several Asian and Australian lines across the Pacific.
* Get a big discount on a business-class ticket, available through a handful of discount agencies.