United Now Upgrading Pilots Before Paying Customers

If you’re a United frequent flyer, you may miss out on your next first class upgrade not due to another paying passenger, but due to a pilot…

United & pilots reached deal to avoid furloughs

Recently United Airlines and its pilot union reached an agreement that avoids any pilot furloughs through at least June 2021. Previously 2,850 pilots were supposed to be furloughed as of October 2020, when the first round of CARES Act funding ran out. 58% of pilots voted in favor of this new agreement.

As you might expect, there’s some compromises on both sides here:

  • Pilots had to agree to more limited flying hours, allowing the limited existing flying to be spread out across a lot more pilots (this translates into a significant reduction in pay for many pilots)
  • Once United again earns at least a 5% profit margin, pilots will get a one-time pay raise of 5%
  • Pilots temporarily have an improved scope clause, which limits the amount of flying that regional airlines can do on behalf of airlines

But there’s one other change that I wasn’t initially aware of, which could have long-term implications for United frequent flyers.

United Airlines has managed to avoid pilot furloughs for now

United pilots now get first class when deadheading

View from the Wing shares this tidbit from JP Morgan’s Jamie Baker:

“Pilots also achieved permanent, positive-space First Class deadheads, with stand-by eligibility before paying passengers, addressing a union goal dating back at least a decade (and effectively representing a devaluation of frequent flyer Elite benefits that travel bloggers haven’t picked up on ‒ yet).”

In other words, United Airlines pilots who are deadheading will now get first class seats ahead of any frequent flyers who are trying to upgrade. Frequent flyers can upgrade in all kinds of ways, from redeeming miles, to receiving complimentary space available upgrades within several days of departure.

There are a few things worth clarifying here:

  • Deadheading is when pilots are traveling as a passenger in order to position somewhere as part of a trip (in other words, a Chicago based pilot has his/her first flight out of San Francisco, so needs to deadhead from Chicago to San Francisco)
  • This is different than commuting, which is where a pilot is based at one airport, but chooses to live in another city, and then needs to commute to base (commuting is a choice, while deadheading can be part of a standard “trip” for pilots)
  • For short haul flights, pilots have historically only received first class on a space available basis after all other eligible customers have cleared upgrades; given how many passengers are eligible for upgrades, this meant first class upgrades were extremely rare for pilots

United pilots now get first class ahead of frequent flyers when deadheading

Is this policy change unreasonable?

With this change, I believe United will be the only major US airline where pilots get positive space first class on non-long haul flights (typically if a flight is over a certain length pilots at all airlines get positive space travel in a premium cabin).

I can see both sides to this. My primary issues are the following:

  • The optics are bad — no matter what line of business you’re in, it’s not a good look when you are denied something (in this case an upgrade) and it’s instead given to an employee
  • This is a permanent change, so long term this will make upgrades tougher in some situations
  • Taxpayers have given airlines billions in payroll support, and this is a time where the airline is introducing what’s objectively a customer-unfriendly policy

The argument on the other side is that:

  • Pilots are skilled professionals, so just as others may get elite status through their travel, it’s not unreasonable for pilots to get similar perks
  • It makes sense for pilots to be able to rest when deadheading, since they’ll potentially be piloting a flight afterwards, where they have others’ lives in their hands
  • Pilots finally have a chance to negotiate what they wanted, so they’d be stupid not to

Bottom line

If you see some pilots in uniform in first class on your next United flight even though there were lots of people on the upgrade list, now you know why. As part of current negotiations, pilots have managed to secure positive space first class when deadheading, while previously they only got first class after everyone on the upgrade list cleared.

This will no doubt lead to quite a few situations where pilots get first class, while those on the upgrade list don’t.

What do you make of United pilots now getting first class upgrades ahead of other passengers?