What’s the mystery element in United’s upgrade priority?

This past Saturday 25 of us flew from San Francisco to Chicago with Captain Denny Flanagan (more on the actual flight is coming shortly). I figured this would be a good opportunity to do a little upgrade priority experiment, given that most of us were 1Ks. While United “experts” (myself included) tend to think we know how United prioritizes upgrades, there’s some mystery factor that goes into it all that I can’t quite figure out. The common wisdom is that the waitlist is prioritized by status, fare class, and then time added to the waitlist, in that order. The waitlist is constantly reprioritized as more people book, and that order holds true days and weeks before departure and also hours before departure, when departure management control kicks in. Actually, common wisdom has it that this is the same order they use for prioritizing standby, the volunteer list (not that competition is usually too fierce there), etc.

But sometimes there’s more to it, and I don’t know what it is. So to test out how upgrade priority really works, I had a friend book an identical fare on the identical flight, but book a few minutes before me. Strangely, my upgrade cleared about three days out, along with several other 1Ks, many of which were even on lower fares. My friend did eventually clear a day out, but that wasn’t the way we know the system to work. He should have cleared before me (since everything else about our tickets was the same), and also before anyone on a lower fare that’s also a 1K.

Interestingly, there was also a 1K on an “M” fare (which is a very high fare class, for those of you not familiar with United), who booked only a few days out. Miraculously, he didn’t clear, even though the original 1K I talked about (that I got my upgrade before) cleared ahead of him a day out, when they both had seats on the flight. By common wisdom, the 1K on an “M” fare should have trumped the 1K on a “V” fare.

On Monday while at O’Hare I decided to try one last trick since I had a couple of hours to spend with my favorite gate agent. He added me to the volunteer list for my flight, and then added a friend on the same flight to the volunteer list, who was on a higher fare than me (and also a 1K). Even after he refreshed the list, I still showed as being number one on the list, despite my friend being a 1K and being on a higher fare. The gate agent could only explain it by suggesting that maybe lifetime miles play a roll in priority, given that he even had more redeemable miles than me.

That’s not to say our previous notions are totally wrong, but clearly there’s a bit more to it… at least sometimes.

Does anyone else feel that maybe lifetime miles play a role? Have any million milers noticed getting upgrades ahead of non-million miler passengers with the same status/fare?

I’m not sure whether to chalk the above up to a fluke or something else.


  1. How did you all compare based on EQM to date for this year? That has been thrown into the mix in the past, if not on UA with other carriers

  2. I have over 2 MM lifetime miles and my partner has only a few hundred thousand but is also 1K. We often buy tickets for the same flights (and same fare class) but I always book us on separate reservations on the theory that if there is only a single seat available for upgrade, one of us should get it and the the other is next in line. So far, we have always either both been upgraded at the same time, or if we end up in DM, we have always been adjacent to each other in the list, and prioritized based on check-in time. I have not seen lifetime miles affect that. We are generally on the same fare class and have same purchase dates for tickets.

  3. For some reason, i like to think it is based on the qualifying year’s eqm total or current year eqm total.

  4. There has to be a factor for miles year to date, or some type of situation like that. US Airways specifically states it is a factor. And it is not YTD, but over the previous 12 months. I am sure UA is doing something at least similar in nature in a tiebreaker situation.

    Per website:
    we prioritize your upgrade by Preferred level and within each Preferred level, by the number of Preferred-qualifying miles you’ve flown on US Airways and US Airways Express operated flights in the last 12 month


  5. A few years back, my father (no status, but 0.9 MM) was op-upped from discount Z to F on an IAD-LHR flight. Before the flight the GA told him he was #1 on the op-up list – since he had not had status for 5 years at that point, nor had any meaningful RDM balance, I assume lifetime miles played into the op-up priority…

  6. Last year I flew with my partner to SJU on a T-ware. While in SJU we met another FT’er, also 1K, and we were all three on the same SJU-IAD-LAX itinerary. At check-in in SJU, the agents were rather disorganized, and they checked in my partner, then the fellow FT’er, then me. We were all 3 on the same fare code and all waitlisted for the upgrade IAD-LAX. At the gate at IAD, when they displayed the list, it was my partner, then the other FT’er then me. It seems clear that was based on check-in time, not lifetime or year to date miles. And it almost made the difference as my partner and the other FT’er got upgraded and boarded to C while I boarded with Y. I was lucky the agent came on board to move me up when boarding was nearly complete.

  7. As someone with low bucket fares even on business trips but a 10 year 1K and 1.2MM I find I am often very high on lists and clear A LOT. I do tend to have very long AP windows (usually 21 days) and I always check in at T-24.

  8. Can’t you ask your favorite gate agent for the secret formula? Surely he/she could at least find out for you…?

  9. It was brought up last year that EQM for the year (and it would appear from the above statement the last 12 months instead) were a new big driver of upgrade status. One of the reasons why 1K’s in towards the END of the year who hadn’t traveled were consistently being trumped by NEW 1k’s. Well, those NEW 1k’s, had a LOT of yearly EQM in the preceding 12 months.

  10. Adding to the conundrum is the fact that I (a 1K) was #2 on the UG list according to the screen & scored the last UG as the Capt Denny flight was boarding. (data point, I’m not positive #1 on the list ever showed to claim his UG)

    I purchased a T fare & yet somehow managed to beat out that FTer with the M fare.

    We determined that I did OLCI first but afaik, that shouldn’t have mattered given he had the higher M fare..

    Also, while I don’t believe it should’ve mattered at the gate, I’ve recently read that perhaps ticket purchase date might matter?

    fwiw, I did purchase my ticket rather soon after the DO was announced and have no idea when the other FTer bought his M fare.

  11. A 1K reservation agent told me it goes like this:

    Global Services, 1K Million Mile Flyers, then on down the list.

    When there are multiples of the same class, miles flown per date that year determine your place on the list.

  12. I’m returning to UA after several 50k tier years on AA. After being matched to 1P and completing a status-match in March, I have yet to get an upgrade even on express flights. – I am personally convinced that the preceding 12 months PQM’s weigh heavily within each group. It’s a long climb back up!

  13. So I just got silver status about two months ago and am gaining on the next level in two trips but i have been upgraded everytime I fly since I got silver

  14. My partner and I are both Premier Platinum. I have more miles YTD than he does, but he routinely gets upgraded before I do. We have booked together and separately, yet he still gets upgraded when I don’t. Since my YTD miles are higher than his, is it the fact that he has more lifetime miles than me? When we watch the upgrade list at the airport, he is often #1 while I am #8. Clearly, there is still a mystery to which we are not privy.

  15. @ Wayne — That definitely doesn’t sound right, especially if you’re seven spots apart on the upgrade list. The only thing I could think of is that you’re in different fare classes. If that’s not the case, I don’t know what it could possibly be. Something is obviously wrong with the upgrade processor if that’s happening repeatedly.

  16. I’m gold, flown almost 50k this year…Been upgraded a grand total of two times with over 50 segments flown….makes me think going back to delta is the way to go…

  17. DH and I are both Gold…hubby for the first time, me for year 3. Identical YTD miles, except I have 5K more PQMs due to Chase United Select card use. Hubby has more lifetime miles. Book on same or separate PNRs, but sitting side-by-side at 2 computers if we book separately. Earlier in the year, I got some upgrades before he did, but now he’s always ahead of me on the UG list. Flying tomorrow, and he’s already been upgraded, while I’m #1 on the list. Surprised years of Gold wouldn’t count before lifetime if all other factors are equal. Well, after this trip I’ll be Plat, so we’ll see how that compares to Gold.

  18. I’ve recently become a United 2MM and my upgrades are suddenly clearing a lot. Maybe a coincidence but it doesn’t seem like it.

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