However, said Jacobson, “when corporate customers maybe in economic headwinds scale back and pull people to the back of the cabin from the Comfort+ or from first class,” Delta can now sell passengers upgrades to first class through a separate transaction that allows them to use their own cash or miles.
The company late last year added the option of using miles to pay for upgrades via its website, saying it was targeted in part at business travelers whose corporate policies don't allow them to book first class or other premium seats and are willing to pay out-of-pocket.
“Will some people do it? Sure,” said Matthew Bennett, publisher of firstclassflyer.com. “There will be people who throw [miles] around for upgrades.”
Jami Counter, an air travel expert for SeatGuru and TripAdvisor Flights, said business travelers on international flights may be particularly inclined to use miles to upgrade.
On long international flights with lie-flat seats in business class, it’s “a night-and-day difference between economy and business,” Counter said. “If you’re flying to Seoul or Tokyo and you have to present the day you land, getting a decent night’s sleep is critical to the success of your meetings.”
On domestic flights, many elite frequent fliers instead wait for the chance of a complimentary upgrade. Others might be willing to pay for a better seat because “the closer the flight comes, the more tension and horror of flying coach can be,” Bennett said.
But, doing so could give the airline “another data point on the customer behavior to further segment them into: ‘Should we give this guy an upgrade or not?’” on future flights, Bennett said. “What you’re willing to pay [for] is not something they’re going to give you for free.”