Delta pitching discount first class upgrades

Delta Air Lines has quietly begun offering discounted upgrades to first class during the booking process on its website.

The offer to upgrade pops up while customers are booking economy flights for non-stop domestic flights, though it typically isn't available for the cheapest fares, according to Delta. Since testing began in February, some upgrades have gone for less than $50 but others cost more than $500, depending on factors such as the flight and the fare.

The upgrade to first class ticket is typically less expensive than full first class fares because the more expensive first class fares are refundable, according to Delta spokeswoman Chris Kelly Singley.

Upgrades of various stripes have long been the main path to first class. Last year, only 14 percent of the seats in first class were paid for, according to Glen Hauenstein, Delta's executive vice president of network planning, revenue management and marketing. At an investor conference in December he said one of Delta's's biggest initiatives for 2011 would be the "monetization" of first class.

Pitching upgrade sales online broadens the audience as Delta seeks ways to bring in more revenue. While travelers have long been able to buy first class upgrades at the gate, Delta began testing expanded upgrade sales as part of an effort to add online options and give frequent fliers "more control over their odds of getting a first class seat," Singley said.

Online upgrades are available in almost all nonstop domestic markets, and will be rolled out to domestic connecting markets over the next several months, Singley said. Delta is also working on a way to sell upgrades paid for with miles by next year.

One important group of Delta passengers is not happy about the expanded upgrade sales pitch. Some elite-level Delta frequent fliers fear fewer first class seats left for their complimentary upgrades.

"To me, the biggest advantage of being an elite on Delta is the [complimentary] upgrades," said frequent flier Walt Frank. If that is significantly cut back, "I and a lot of other people will be looking someplace else."

Their options will be limited in Atlanta, however, with all-coach Southwest Airlines set to gradually take over AirTran Airways and end its business class option over the next year or two.