Is Delta Upgrade Process Broken?

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We’ve all been there. Standing at the gate anxiously playing the gate upgrade lottery and then all of the sudden, you’re upgraded with a one-way ticket to First Class. It’s the Super Bowl touchdown equivalent for a frequent flyer. It’s the reason you stay loyal to some carriers over others. It’s part of the reason some of you keep coming back. If you’ve ever wondered; you are not alone, just take a look at the upgrade lists lately.

Is Delta Upgrade Process Broken?

On a recent flight I found myself in that situation. As I was walking into the end zone with my one-way ticket to First Class in hand, something happened that made me second guess the upgrade process at Delta. This makes me wonder is the Delta upgrade process broken? Or could this just be an isolated incident. Here’s what happened.

Delta Upgrade Process

On this particular flight, I was about 3rd on the upgrade list with only 2 seats available for upgrade. At this point, not completely out of the question that my upgrade could clear.

And just that happened for me about an hour before boarding. I was confirmed to First Class and had ticket in hand.

Is Delta Upgrade Process Broken?

With a confirmed upgrade to 2C in First Class, I headed to the lounge and caught up on some emails. I didn’t think anything about it again, until I was walking into the check-in line at the gate and saw another flyer also “upgraded” to 2C. I was perplexed and slightly concerned so I got out of line and went to see the agent who was already standing next to a red coat (usually a good thing if you have issues on Delta).

Then in a flash while I was walking to the counter, my boarding pass updated to comfort plus window seat.

What Happened?

It all happened so fast. I asked them what was going on at the counter and showed her my screen grab of the upgraded seat. This is where it gets interesting.

The first agent said that Delta had just sold two First Class seats and that at least I was back in my old seat (I wasn’t), but that’s not the point.

As I walked away I thought it could be interesting to cross check with the red coat. Sure enough, she gave the real answer.

Weekly Flyer: “I’ve never seen this happen before, but I was upgraded an hour ago and just now downgraded, can you share what happened?”

Red Coat: “Certainly. We made a mistake and cleared the wrong people. We have to follow the order. You know, everyone has to have their time” as she handed me back my paper ticket at this point.

Weekly Flyer: “Thanks” (I guess that’s a good enough answer, but not great remark for a frequent flyer who felt he just got a bad call.)

I share this because I’ve always thought and heard Delta’s process to be fairly automated. The automation I can take comfort in that the upgrades will be applied according to rules and not other reasons. Sometimes in random smaller cities in years past, the upgrade list clearing process was highly manual and subject to manipulation. I haven’t given credence to that thought in a long while, until this recent flight.

Bottom Line

Delta’s upgrade process is usually automated. But in this case there was human error which tells me that the process isn’t completely automated.

I’m curious what are the manual steps in the process and when an agent can step in, and clear an upgrade (even if it was in the wrong order as on this flight) and when they can correct mistakes (which is completely reasonable).

Also curious if any of you have ever been upgraded, only to be downgraded before boarding. If you have an interesting experience share it with us in the comments below.

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The Weekly Flyer writes about travel from a business traveler perspective. He travels the world every week accumulating points and miles along the way.

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  1. Haven’t experienced this on Delta yet, but the reason I switched over from American was due to two upgrade snafus. First time i was seated in my upgraded seat when a GA came on board and forcibly removed me back to my original seat to give the upgrade to someone lower on the list. Second time the upgraded BP was taken out of my hand and replaced by a new BP with my old seat. The seat was then given to someone lower on the list. After that I stopped flying AA and switched to DL.

  2. Twice in the past three months I was first on the upgrade list. I didn’t clear either time and the first class seat went empty both times. @delta had no answer but a vague apology. I’ve switch most flying to AS and couldn’t be happier.

  3. This isn’t exclusive to Delta. AA agents also has to follow the order on the PALL list, and those that skip or assign seats out of order are subject to be disciplined.

  4. I know that last year for comfort plus the GA controls it at the gate for the 1 hour before departure. Most of the ones I have spoken to will not just move someone from a coach window or aisle to the middle comfort seat.

  5. I’ve had this happen to me before when flying from JFK to SAN. I had already boarded and gotten situated in First when a gate agent came onboard and asked me to move back to Comfort. The rep on the phone explained that it was a similar situation: they sold the seats and “shouldn’t” have upgraded people when they did. At least they gave me a travel voucher? I would definitely call, though.

  6. On my flight to MSP last week I was upgraded to first (4D) from DC (10E), then while on board asked to move back to DC (10E) due to a “Glitch” in the system that caused someone that checked in and un-checked in (whatever that means) to lose their seat and upgrade me by “Mistake” the agent said. Five minutes later, they come onboard again and this time (3D) was open in First and I was Re-Upgraded… talk about messing with your Upgrade Emotions! lol

  7. So I’m standing by for an earlier flight. My standby clears, I get handed a BP and sit on the plane. Just before they shut the door, the GA comes on board and says they need my seat. Get off.
    So was I just Involuntarily Denied Boarding? Once I have a BP in my hand, I assume that my ticket was changed from late flight to earlier flight. I am now officially “ON ” the earlier flight right? Or am I still “STANDBY” with a boarding Pass in hand and my butt in the seat?

    Would be interesting to know what the DOT thinks about this.

  8. Like @Ray says above, I’ve been on two recent flights that were 100% full in back but an empty F seat made the trip. Both times I was below #1 on the UG list, but if I had been, I’d be extra frustrated.
    I understand that GAs have lots of tasks to do to dispatch a flight on time, but clearing a pax for an F no-show needs to be one of them. Take 30 seconds to walk down the jetway, hand the new BP to an FA, and have the pax pulled up!
    As a Platinum medallion, I’ve seen my UG percentage plummet in recent years — that’s the goal of Delta’s selling of discount upgrades after ticketing — but when, in that rarefied new environment F seats fly empty, it’s ever more annoying.

  9. My upgrade issue with Delta is towards their Delta Preferred. I only wish to be upgraded if I can get an aisle or window seat and they force you to have a center seat if you opt for the upgrade. Last time the app only showed center seats available so I didn’t request the upgrade and Delta employees were sitting in aisle seats. That doesn’t seem right….

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