Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: The In’s and Out’s of the Op-Up

Explaining the elusive operational upgrade

My friend Jack B. forgot to renew his visa before returning to Beijing from Los Angeles recently and only realized his dilemma while at LAX. Fortunately for him, he was flying during a major holiday weekend, and his flights were oversold. When Jack volunteered to give up his seats, the agent was so relieved she immediately offered him a USD 600 voucher and confirmed him on the same flights two days later – upgraded to business class!

While not the best way to teach Jack a lesson to sort out his travel documents an international trip, his experience proves the existence of the always-coveted and often-mystified operational upgrade, or op-up.

Op-up, as the name suggests, refers to complimentary upgrades handed out by airlines for operational reasons – usually when a flight is overbooked. Any class of service can be overbooked, but obviously it happens more often in economy class. Since many people are willing to pay – with either cash, miles or certificates – to upgrade, airlines will process their requests first. After that, the fun begins.

Different airlines have different op-up rules, but check-in and gate agents often have a lot of latitude. They will likely check your elite status and booking code – and start by putting elites and higher-fare passengers upfront. Single travelers also have a better chance, as it’s harder to find two adjacent first/business seats for couples or groups without moving others around.

As a United Airlines elite flier, I’ve received quite a few op-ups on long-haul international flights on both UA and its Star Alliance partners. It was always a pleasant surprise and should be treated as such.

And contrary to popular belief, dressing up and sweet-talking don’t usually cut it. Top Asian airlines – known for their luxury facilities and legendary services upfront – are stingy with op-ups to avoid diluting the value of premium cabin for paying customers. Just try and persuade a “Singapore Girl” to offer you an op-up!

Even op-up may not result in enough seats for everyone, and airlines sometimes will resort to bumping confirmed passengers off a flight. They will seek volunteers first and offer compensations for so-called voluntary denied boarding (VDB). What you get varies greatly, but op-up on a later flight could be one form of compensation, as in Jack’s case.

When all else fails, some passengers occasionally will be involuntarily denied boarding (IDB). Not a pretty scenario if you have a schedule to keep. But if it has to happen, keep your fingers crossed you’re traveling to/from a European Union country or flying with an airline based there. The EU has codified IDB compensations and they’re generous. For long-haul international flights, you get at least EUR 600 in cash, in addition to being rebooked on a later flight as well as being provided free meals, phone calls and hotel stay if needed. Which makes being stranded in Charles de Gaulle all that more appealing. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 146 of the September 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

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