There's a simple phrase you can use when asking for a flight upgrade that could help you land a first-class seat — but there’s a catch

  • Mentioning "revenue management" to an airline reservation agent can help you land an upgrade, New York Times best-selling author Tilly Bagshawe told Bloomberg
  • An airline's revenue management department tells reservation agents what they're allowed to offer to customers, so talking to them directly allows you to appeal to the real decision-makers.
  • But that strategy would only work if you're a VIP customer, according to aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt.

Even when airlines don't sell all of their first-class seats on a given flight, it might not be easy to use miles for an upgrade. Sometimes, airlines may keep unsold first-class seats available until the last minute so they can sell them at significant markups to business travelers, who tend to buy tickets later than leisure travelers and are less price sensitive. 

But there's a simple way to increase your chances of being able to upgrade to first-class with miles, New York Times best-selling author Tilly Bagshawe told Bloomberg

The secret is to call the airline's reservations line and use the words "revenue management." That's because an airline's revenue management department tells reservation agents what they're allowed to offer to customers, so having a reservation agent check with revenue management or transfer you to them allows you to appeal to the real decision-makers.

If you're transferred to revenue management, Bagshaw says you should ask how many first-class seats haven't been sold yet, then "politely" ask when they'll be released for passengers who want to upgrade. According to Bagshaw, the strategy has "a pretty much 100 percent success rate."

RELATED: Check out America's top airlines:

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A ranking of America's top airlines

No. 12: Frontier Airlines

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No. 11: Spirit Airlines 

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No. 10: ExpressJet 

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No. 9: American Airlines 

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No. 8: United Airlines 

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No. 7: SkyWest Airlines 

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No. 6: Southwest Airlines 

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No. 5: Hawaiian Airlines 

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No. 4: JetBlue 

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No. 3: Virgin America

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No. 2: Delta Air Lines 

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No. 1: Alaska Airlines 

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That strategy probably won't work for everyone

However, there's a catch. Not only do you need enough miles to make an upgrade a possibility, you probably have to be one of the airline's top customers (Bagshawe told Bloomberg she flies over 100,000 miles each year), aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt told Business Insider.

"Asking a reservations agent to check with the airline’s Revenue Management department will probably result in the agent muting her line while she laughs at the request," he said. "Very few airlines allow their reservations agents to either contact Revenue Management or queue a reservation to that department for upgrades."

Even if you are enough of a high-profile customer to warrant special treatment, "strong demand" for business and first-class seats on long flights means airlines often don't have many open seats that can be used for upgrades, according to Harteveldt.

"When premium cabin seats are available, airlines often attempt to sell them, and are generally successful at this," he said. 

So next time you're looking for an upgrade, ask for revenue management — if you're feeling lucky.

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