"Airlines look after their best customers first, so it helps if you're a frequent flyer. If you are, you'll probably be a member of a loyalty programme, which increases your chances further. You'll also be a valued customer to your travel agent, and it's in their interests to do favours for you. Ask them to approach the airline and make a case: `This customer is doing a lot of travelling on this route over the next few months, he's trying to finalise his choice of airline, and he'd like to sample your premium product.' Every booking has a history in the computer, and it's very important to get the upgrade message put into the system before you fly. Entries such as `upgrade subject to space' will be seen by the check-in agent who will then have more authority. The only sure way to get an upgrade is to pay with a gold or platinum American Express card - they have a programme which guarantees an upgrade, although usually from business to first class.
If you're an infrequent traveller, you're of little worth to the airline, so it's unlikely you'll be upgraded. On any flight there's bound to be business people who've paid a higher fare or who've got an airline-loyalty card, and they will be prioritised. There is always a slim chance the airline has overbooked in the back of the plane and they want to push people up to the front. So ask at check-in, although you'll probably be rebuffed. If they do have to upgrade people from economy, they're going to choose the people who will blend in best with those who've paid the higher fares."
Interview by Fiona McClymont
Alex McWhirter is technical editor of `Business Traveller Magazine'