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  • Travelers, listen up, that empty first class seat you've been eyeing may now be going to the highest bidder,

  • as auctions become a new way airlines around the world are selling upgrades.

  • Here with the story is WSJ's Middle Seat columnist Scott McCartney.

  • Hi Scott, great to see you!

  • Good to see you Tanya.

  • So Scott, how widespread is this practice of auctioning off upgrades?

  • Well, it's becoming much more widespread there and now,

  • at least 33 airlines around the world that do this, some of the major European airlines,

  • some of the major Asian airlines, and it's starting to spread in the United States as well.

  • And so how do these auctions work exactly, do they happen at the gate?

  • Well, some do.

  • Most of them happen by e-mail in advance, and the airline can set how far in advance,

  • the airline can set when the auction ends,

  • and whether or not they're actually gonna award a business class seat.

  • For example, on a long-haul international flight, they may find that when they get to 24 hours before departure

  • that even though you're the winning bidder, they've sold all the seats and they're not gonna do it.

  • But in most cases, they do have empty seats to sell.

  • They would rather sell them than give them away to frequent flyers or to others,

  • and so the auction is a way to create excitement and get people to spend more money than they probably would otherwise.

  • I can certainly see that generating a little excitement.

  • Now, Scott, is this one way that airlines are trying to appease travelers now that

  • the free upgrade has essentially disappeared even for flyers with elite status?

  • Yeah, there're several things at work.

  • On most airlines with long-haul international flights, you don't get those business class upgrades for free.

  • They're gonna cost even top-level frequent flyers in miles or a dollars to get the upgrade,

  • but domestic upgrades on most airlines are free, at least for the upper tiers of the frequent flyer ranks.

  • The problem has been that by selling seats on discounted first-class fares by offering upgrades for fixed price at the kiosk,

  • airlines have done a lot more to sell seats, the lower levels of the frequent flyer tiers almost never get upgrades.

  • And so if you're 39th on the upgrade list and you know,

  • there is one company that's now offering an app where an airline in Virgin America started testing this.

  • You can have an auction at the gate, you're looking at that upgrade list, you know you're not gonna get an upgrade,

  • you get to participate in an auction at the gate against people standing there,

  • and there's a leaderboard, whose winning and that may be the only way you're gonna get upgraded.

  • Is that Plusgrade, the app you're talking about?

  • No, that's SeatBoost, Plusgrade does the e-mail setup that most airlines are using.

  • Virgin America is the only one doing SeatBoost now, they're only doing it on flights to and from Vegas,

  • they think that's a population that's prime for bidding and gambling.

  • Who are in the gambling mode for sure.

  • Now Scott have you spoken to a lot of travelers who've used these auctions successfully?

  • Yeah, some, more in the international arena, and you know, they really like it.

  • I mean there's a whole strategy to it for many frequent flyers,

  • people who aren't going to pay thousands of dollars for a business class seat,

  • but they do want the upgrade and they find that they can buy a cheap coach ticket

  • and strategize and ploy the upgrade well, and you know, one guy was winning about half of his auctions at a price

  • that ultimately cost him less than half the full price of a business class ticket.

  • Not bad, I guess like real gambling, you've got to know your limit and stick to it.

  • Alright Scott, thank you so much for that!

Travelers, listen up, that empty first class seat you've been eyeing may now be going to the highest bidder,

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Airline Upgrades Now Up for Auction, No Longer Free

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    Kristi Yang posted on 2016/01/07
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