Air travel: how (not) to get a free upgrade

Posted by Tyson Jopson on 24 June 2014

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When it comes to air travel, is a free upgrade pure chance or is there something more to ‘getting lucky’? Tyson Jopson tried to find out …

From the film I'm So Excited Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Aeroplane apartheid. It’s the cruellest trick there is. Above the shame of paying full price for an ant-sized beverage or being forced to ruthlessly battle a compatriot for the armrest, is the indignity of being paraded past first and business class before finding your cramped seat somewhere behind the velvet curtain of privilege.

That is why, for many years, my greatest desire was to be upgraded. Any flight. Any seat. It would be proof that there is a god. At least a god of travel. I wasn’t asking for much. It’s hardly requesting Moses’ ability to part the seas (although that would be a cracking way to travel). I just wanted to know that someone up there had me on their list of ‘Serendipitous Travellers’.

I see this type of providence bestowed on fellow travellers all the time. Most incur it in its purest form, like my copy editor Claire Shortt, who unexpectedly found herself as the only passenger on a flight from Kimberley to Cape Town.

‘It was like having my own private jet,’ she said. Bah humbug. Then there are others, like an old friend of mine who knows the trick to everything – everyone knows someone like this – and reckons luck is preparation meeting opportunity (I think he saw it on Oprah).

‘Ja, no, look. I get upgraded all the time,’ he’d say smugly.

‘The trick is to look tit and flirt with the check-in clerk.’

I’m a journalist. I fly in takkies and a T-shirt. I don’t think I’ve ever ‘looked tit’ in my life. But I had tired of waiting. My luck needed guiding. On my next flight out of Cape Town, I walked into the airport like I was walking onto a yacht. I wore my best (read: only) Lacoste shirt, collar up, and a pair of bottom-hugging Bermuda shorts. I’d even nabbed an extra spritz of sample-issue Jean Paul Gaultier at Clicks that morning. I was basically Jordan Belfort, just with significantly less money.

‘Good morning, Celeste,’ I crooned, noticing the check-in clerk’s name badge. I leaned over the counter to ensure the extra spritz of JPG wasn’t wasted.

‘I bet they named you that because you’re out of this world.’

She probably missed the witless, abstract reference to her name containing most letters in the word ‘celestial’ but she laughed anyway. Obviously the JPG and Lacoste combo was working. I gave her my ID, our hands lingered a little longer than usual, our eyes caught. Hers twinkled. She smiled and punched something into the machine. I knew the correct combination of keystrokes could get me what I wanted.

‘Where would you like to sit?’

‘Where would you like me to sit?’

I could feel the honey dripping from my lips as I said it. She handed me my ticket. 8A: the most perplexing letter-number combination in the history of aviation. I spent the entire journey from check-in to boarding wondering which side of the curtain it was on. Three steps into the fuselage, my heart sank. 8A was two rows behind business class.My plan had failed. I sat down dejectedly, folded my collar back down and unbuttoned my too-tight pants. I felt ridiculous for wearing so much cologne. I also felt sorry for the person sitting next to me who was going to have smell it for the next several hours.

Suddenly, I spotted Celeste squeezing her way down the aisle. There was a folded piece of paper in her hand. Her eyes fixed on me. Was this it? Was this my up- grade? She handed me the paper and without saying anything she turned and disappeared back down the aisle and out of the air- craft. I unfolded it. There was a long number scribbled above the fold. Underneath it were these words: ‘Call me. Celeste.’ It was her phone number. I couldn’t believe it. I’d overshot. I’d guided my luck straight past business class and landed it in the most elite of clubs: a date with an almost air hostess. It’s unheard of. I’ve been told I got lucky. Maybe so. But I was still sitting in economy.

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