Travel | March 15, 2017 9:00 am

Are Airlines Really Auctioning Off Seat Upgrades?

Is this a business trip or a cattle sale?

It wasn’t that long ago when whatever preceded the Internet — books? stone tablets? — was littered with ideas for how to get a free upgrade at the airport: dress nicely, bring a box of chocolate for the gate agent. (Really.) Now days, airline staff usually just work off a list a computer spits out: whoever spends the most money wins. Empty seats in business or first class go elite flyers, or to the truly deserving (i.e. servicemembers) or sometimes they’ll stay unclaimed: You will literally never hear a business class flyer (who provide a tremendous amount of the airline’s revenue relative to the hoi polloi in economy) express deep personal satisfaction when the empty seat next to them gets filled with a rando. 

Those empty seats mean lost revenue for airlines — and they didn’t make billions of dollars lost year by letting revenue slip through their collective fingers. Now airlines are increasingly trying to open those seats up for sale — by auction. Air Canada passengers “will receive an email 10 days before takeoff, inviting them to make an offer on Premium Economy Class, North America and Caribbean Premium Rouge and International Premium seats.” The Canadian airline is now one of over 30 that permit bidding on upgrades , commodifying something that was once doled out to pliant passengers like kids at the neighborhood bank hoping to leave with a lollipop. 

Sure — in many ways, this is great news for airlines and passengers. Bidding for some seats starts as low as $10 — and if you can get an upgrade for a tenner, and an airline can make a couple bucks, everybody wins. At the same time — wasn’t it nice getting something for nothing?

Here’s a fact: the international airline industry expects to record a net profit of nearly $30 billion in 2017, according to the International Air Transport Association. Would a few handout upgrades really put such a dent in that figure? Why not just … be cool? 

It’s certainly not a pervasive attitude, but at least one airline agrees with us, in a limited fashion: low-cost British carrier Monarch, which will supply service reps with 10 upgrades a week, worth £50, for “nice” customers. For sure — everything’s a transaction. But some transactions are more convivial than others, and we’d rather be nice and get lucky than deal with an online auction upgrade before a flight. Life’s just too short. We want it to be simpler, not more complicated, even if it means taking the seat in economy, and leaving the box of chocolate at home.