Where's The Symmetry?

I am sitting in the airport now about to fly back to Phoenix.  I generally fly America West / US Airways, because they have a hub in Phoenix and doing so maximizes my chance both of getting non-stop flights as well as accumulating a meaningful frequent flier balance with a singe airline.

After way too many round trips, I have the following observation:  I am much more likely to get an elite upgrade returning home than on the outbound leg.   I have seen this effect both flying the hub airline out of Phoenix and previously flying United out of Denver.   Now, as a hub city, Phoenix has a disproportionate number of US Airways elite members, just as Denver has a disproportionate number of United elite members.  So competing with a lot of other elite members for limited upgrade seats is understandable out of Phoenix, but shouldn't it be symmetric coming back?  I have three theories:

  • Observer error, though I will say I have a fairly large number of observation points to many different cities from two different hub cities
  • I am flying when the Elite's like to fly outbound, but I tend to take unpopular flights back.  Possible.  Most business travelers tend to fly outbound in the morning on the first flight, but they may all come back different times of day depending on their business.  This is one potential asymmetry.
  • The airlines give preference on upgrades to through passengers.  I have never heard this, but it might explain it.  Outbound from a hub, many of the people on my flight are on the second flight, having just changed planes.  Going home, towards a hub, everyone is in the same boat as me, on their first leg.  I don't think the airlines differentiate, but this is the only other asymmetry I can come up with.


  1. Michael:

    Preference to through customers could be true in practice even if not in policy.

    If the upgrades are only available at checkin/gate, and then issued for all legs they're available on, through people would have a several hour advantage on you unless you're an extremely early riser.

  2. Xmas:

    I think you're flying back at unpopular times. I'm a consultant, I usually fly out on Sunday night/early Monday morning and fly back on Thursday evening. Business travellers will rack up the most mileage over other types of fliers.

    Also, I think there's a mathematical approach to this. If you live near a hub town, X percentage of fliers in your area will be elite members for that airline. In non-hub area, Y percentage of fliers will be elite members for that airline.

    X > Y, so you'll have a greater chance of being upgraded flying your airline in a non-hub town.

  3. Bill:

    I fly American almost every week either into or out of Phoenix with a transfer in Dallas/Fort Worth. I was told I have priority on the connecting flight, so folks starting out in DFW are below me in the upgrade list. Also, there's a time factor. Sometimes my request isn't filled by the day of the flight and I have to request it again when I first check in. Since I would usually be checking in before someone in DFW, I'm also ahead in the list time-wise.