Now That United is Introducing Premium Economy,, How Are They Handling Awards and Upgrades?

United announced that international premium economy will go on sale on Monday for certain flights starting March 30, 2019 and that it will expand to 21 routes by the end of May.

Initially this includes (effective March 30 unless noted):

  • Newark – Hong Kong, Mumbai, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, Barcelona (April 29), Brussels (May 22), Dublin (May 22)
  • San Francisco – Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tel Aviv, Tokyo Narita, Auckland, Beijing, Paris (April 29), London Heathrow (April 29)
  • Washington Dulles – Tel Aviv (May 22)

That makes the question of how upgrades are going to be handled most urgent. Will they follow the international model of one cabin class upgrades, or the model that Delta has thus far followed of allowing upgrades to either cabin from coach? Or will they follow American and not get the IT done to allow awards or upgrades into premium economy yet at all?

How American Airlines Handles Premium Economy Awards and Upgrades

American was the first of the major U.S. airlines to introduce a premium economy cabin for international travel. However there is no AAdvantage award redemption for premium economy travel, and there is no way for most members to upgrade to premium economy either.

The only ways to upgrade to premium economy on American are:

  1. A paid upgrade at check-in if they expect seats to be available. This is offered complimentary to Executive Platinum and ConciergeKey members along with a companion.
  2. Complimentary at the gate for ConciergeKey and Executive Platinum members, but the request process can be confusing.

Over the summer the President of AAdvantage shared that premium economy awards and upgrades are coming albeit with uncertain timing. The good news in the meantime is that American’s mileage and systemwide upgrades still are valid from coach to business class.

How Delta Handles Premium Economy Awards and Upgrades

Delta offers awards and upgrades for their premium economy product. And upgrades aren’t limited to ‘one class’ (economy to premium economy, premium economy to business). Instead Delta allows their Global Upgrade Certificates to confirm an economy passenger into either Premium Select (premium economy) or DeltaOne (business class).

  • Once an upgrade is cleared, it’s used. So if you waitlist for both premium economy and business class, and premium economy clears, you’d need a second upgrade certificate to upgrade to business.
  • So you only want to waitlist for premium economy upgrades if you’re going to be happy with that as an upgrade and you do not expect to successfully clear into business class.

United Announces How They’ll Handle Premium Economy Awards and Upgrades

Here’s what United shares about premium economy and both awards and upgrades,

MileagePlus members will have the option to book award travel in United® Premium Plus by using their MileagePlus miles. For upgrades, either a single Global Premier Upgrade or a MileagePlus Upgrade Award can be used to move up to a United® Premium Plus seat or to United’s Polaris business class cabin.

Premium economy awards will be offered, as with Delta but unlike American thus far. More importantly, upgrades will still be permitted from coach to either premium economy or business class, seemingly the Delta model.

While I wouldn’t be surprised to eventually see one-cabin upgrades, United chooses not to be the first to make their international upgrade product less valuable compared to Delta and American. That’s great because it makes it harder for American to go first with this.

It does not appear that United has updated its award charts online yet with premium economy redemption information, and since the cabin isn’t yet for sale we can’t price awards by searching for space yet either. So we’ll have to watch this.

Ultimately I do imagine premium economy awards will make business class awards more expensive, since the programs will see a need to differentiate their cabins in terms of price.