Plane Answers: “When did first class become the crew lounge?”

Welcome to Gadling’s latest feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from take off to touch down and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Dennis asks:

As one who travels somewhat frequently for business and pleasure, I have taken notice recently of just how pervasive it has become for United Airlines (the carrier I usually fly) to seat airline employees dressed in full uniform (most probably dead heading to the next hub) in the First Class cabin, even though in many cases there are ample seats available in economy. Somehow I get a little offended by this. At the very least, wouldn’t it be a show of goodwill if space is indeed available to upgrade paying customers at the gate and let the crew sit in back? Is this a common practice amongst all airlines? What are your comments on this topic?

Thanks for the question, Dennis.

While I can’t speak for United Airlines, I can give a little background on this practice as it relates to my airline. Employees have negotiated improvements to their benefits as they relate to non-revenue travel and deadheading while at work.
For us, non-revenue coach travel is free for employees with at least five years of employment. If the employee would like to travel in first class, a fee is assessed. In either case, the employee is responsible for the taxes normally applied to airline tickets as well as a separate income tax on this benefit.

Deadheading employees are often used to fill gaps in coverage at other bases or if one of their legs of a trip has cancelled. These employees can put themselves on the upgrade list online or while at the gate.

In both of the above cases, crews are offered seats up front only after all first class revenue passengers and frequent flyer upgrade requests have been met. These seats would have otherwise gone unfilled. Pilots and flight attendant unions often negotiate these benefits, and airlines are willing to use them to attract new employees.

I discussed this policy with a gate agent today and she explained that some confusion occurs when passengers that request to use an upgrade voucher give up and decide to take their originally assigned coach seat during the boarding process. Usually the agents wait for no-show passengers before processing the upgrade requests, and if a passenger elects to take their seat in the back they’re unable to go on board and move that passenger up to first class.

Airlines are hesitant to upgrade coach passengers even with empty seats in first class probably because they don’t want remove any incentive for travelers to pay for that premium seat.

Employees have sacrificed their pay and work rules for the past seven years–often helping their airlines pull through some tough times. I hope you don’t fault them if they’re sitting in an otherwise unused first class seat every now and then.

On a somewhat related note, my Irish friend Ruthann provided me with a story that might just work for you if you’re out of upgrade vouchers:

Several years ago, a sales department (frequent travelling) co-worker of mine was passing through LAX on his way back to Ireland when he decided to try his chances with the AA desk clerk and charm her with his Irishy Irishness. He put on his best leipreachán accent and requested an upgrade to first class.

The lady seemed to flirt with him, and was very happy to upgrade the remainder of his trip to first class for free. It was love at first sight, at least for her. He promised her the world, being the funny, jokey charmer that he is. He came back and boasted to us all about the AA clerk he’d charmed into a free upgrade.

A few days later, he got a long distance call. She had kept his info and phoned him, just to see if he got to Ireland safely…

Several years later and they’re due to get married soon.

So there you go. But you might want to proceed with caution if you don’t have the requisite Irish Irishyness!