In late 2019, Australian Frequent Flyer revealed that the Oneworld alliance was considering allowing frequent flyers of any Oneworld airline to use their points to upgrade on any other airline in the alliance. The news of Oneworld alliance-wide upgrades was welcomed by frequent travellers, and recently, Oneworld CEO Rub Gurney confirmed to Cranky Flier that the new upgrade proposition will be launched in late 2020. That’s around the same time that Oneworld now expects to welcome its newest member, Alaska Airlines.
Upgrades are one of the most popular ways of redeeming frequent flyer points, so it’s an appealing prospect for frequent flyers. Rather than just redeeming Qantas points to upgrade on Qantas flights, for example, it will soon become possible to upgrade on any Oneworld airline using Qantas points. You may even be able to redeem Qantas points to upgrade to the excellent Qatar Airways Qsuites!
So, how will this work exactly? In truth, nobody yet knows exactly. But we do have a some fairly good clues of what may be in store…
Star Alliance upgrade awards
Star Alliance always offers an alliance-wide upgrade system. While there is no reason Oneworld’s alliance-wide upgrades would need to copy the Star Alliance model, it could give us a good indication of the kind of thing to expect.
Sadly, Star Alliance upgrade awards almost useless to the typical flyer. There are three reasons for this:
- Upgrades are only available when purchasing the most expensive fare classes in the lower cabin class (e.g. Y or B class fares in Economy class, when upgrading to Business). These flexible airfares are often just as expensive as a discounted airfare in the higher premium cabin.
- Upgrades are subject to award availability in the premium cabin. No award space = no upgrade.
- The number of points/miles required for a Star Alliance upgrade award is often almost as high as the miles needed for an outright reward seat.
The taxes & carrier charges payable on an outright award ticket are generally far lower than a full Y or B class airfare. So, as availability for awards and upgrades is identical, it makes more sense just to book an outright award ticket than to try upgrading.
Under the Star Alliance model, the only people that could really benefit are business/corporate travellers whose employers won’t shell out for business class, but will book the more expensive flexible airfares.
Upgrading on American Airlines, British Airways & Iberia
Within the Oneworld alliance, it is already possible to upgrade across American Airlines, British Airways and Iberia using frequent flyer miles with any of these airlines’ frequent flyer programs. So, for example, it’s already possible to upgrade a British Airways flight using American Airlines AAdvantage miles.
This perhaps gives us a better indication of what’s in the works for the whole Oneworld alliance. Sadly, these one-class upgrades are similarly restrictive.
With British Airways, American Airlines and Iberia, upgrades are subject to award availability, and only available for bookings in certain (expensive) fare classes. For example, to upgrade a British Airways flight using AAdvantage miles, the original booking would need to be in:
- Y or B class for Economy bookings
- W class (unrestricted fares only) for Premium Economy bookings
- C, J, D or R class for Business/Club bookings
If we look at the Sydney-Singapore route, for example, British Airways charges $3,380 for an unrestricted “W” class Premium Economy airfare.
When it costs only $142 more for a round-trip Business class ticket, it’s difficult to see the value in buying a Premium Economy ticket then paying 25,000 AAdvantage miles to upgrade to Business.
Anyway, if there’s award availability in Business class, surely the best option would be to redeem points for an award ticket in the first place?
Could Oneworld reinvent the wheel?
If Oneworld’s alliance-wide upgrades merely copy the current Star Alliance system, or the current agreement between American Airlines, British Airways & Iberia, it would be a let-down for frequent flyers. Those existing systems are so restrictive that they are not useful for most people. Still, it is nice to at least have the option!
There is one school of though that says upgrades should not be too generous or widely available – otherwise, there will be too much competition for the already limited number of available award seats. Anyone that has tried upgrading a long-haul flight with Qantas points will know how competitive upgrades can be at times.
On the other hand, creating a system where Oneworld frequent flyers can upgrade from mid-tier airfares (not just the most expensive flexible fares that most people never buy) could be a good opportunity to differentiate from Star Alliance. This would be a welcome benefit for frequent flyers of Oneworld airlines.
Besides, it is likely that many airlines will struggle to fill their premium cabins in coming years as business travel recovers very slowly from the global pandemic and subsequent recession. A generous alliance-wide upgrade system could help airlines to fill more of those empty seats and earn some extra revenue in the process.
All will be revealed later this year… fingers crossed that Oneworld will think outside the box and create an alliance-wide upgrade model that actually benefits a majority of frequent flyers!