How to get a free flight upgrade, according to the cabin crew

All the tips and tricks you need to know about flying. [Photo: Getty]
All the tips and tricks you need to know about flying. [Photo: Getty]

Ever wondered how to get a free upgrade? Or what really happens in the flight deck during an emergency? Yahoo UK has spoken to a former member of cabin crew with over two decades of experience to find out.

Leigh Quigley has worked for airlines including British Airways, Qantas, United and Norwegian and spent ten years as cabin manager.

Here he reveals the flight secrets you’ve always wanted to know.

Where are the bumpiest (and least bumpy) seats on the plane?

The worst of the turbulence is always at the back of the aircraft. The least affected seats are located around the wing.

Seats at the very front will be affected by turbulence – but being fast asleep in a lie-flat bed after a large G&T always helps!

Commercial aircraft cabin with rows of seats down the aisle. morning light in the salon of the airliner. economy class
Where you sit does translate to how much turbulence you experience. Photo: Getty

Is it safe to fly through a thunderstorm?

Pilots will always navigate around bad weather whenever possible. However, due to air traffic control restrictions, aircraft do occasionally have to fly through storms.

Lightning, although scary, is not dangerous, even if it strikes the aircraft. Thunderstorms have been attributed to a few plane crashes over the years but these are very rare.

Do you have any tips for getting upgraded for free?

Free upgrades are essentially a thing of the past. Airlines have tightened up the rules, making non-essential upgrades hard to justify for ground and cabin crew. On the rare occasion that an airline is forced to upgrade (normally due to overbooking, as airlines oversell seats by up to 30 per cent) they often reward a frequent flyer – so get collecting those points.

You’re less likely to be upgraded if you are travelling with someone, or if you ordered a special meal (like vegetarian or kosher) as airlines won’t serve an economy meal in a premium cabin for fear it will devalue the product.

You may stand a chance if your in-flight entertainment isn’t working and the economy cabin is full – but this is down to the discretion of the on-board manager.

Traveler with suitcase in airport concept.Young girl  walking with carrying luggage and passenger for tour travel booking ticket flight at international vacation time in holiday rest and relaxation.
Getting upgraded for free these days is unlikely. Photo: Getty

Any tips for overcoming fear during turbulence?

Turbulence is often uncomfortable, but the good news is that it is not dangerous. Always keep your seatbelt loosely fastened as most injuries are caused by unsecured items or people flying around the cabin.

I have hit the ceiling twice in turbulence and a colleague cracked three teeth when she hit a trolley.

Keep busy – watch movies, read a book, and listen to soothing music.

What really happens in the flight deck in an emergency?

Each situation is different, but in most cases the pilots’ priority will be to get the aircraft safely on the ground as soon as possible. Pilots can communicate with engineers on the ground, who can provide additional support.

Aviation safety has improved in leaps and bounds over the last few decades and most systems on commercial aircraft are designed with triple redundancies built in for protection.

I have flown half way across the Atlantic on one engine after a technical issue, and the only noticeable difference was the flight time.

Rear View of Air Stewardess Explaining Aeroplane Safety to Passengers
Cabin Crew members are trained to deal with almost anything. Photo: Getty

What happens if someone is taken seriously ill on the plane?

Crew are trained to deal with a wide variety of medical emergencies but in a serious situation, the priority is to get the aircraft on the ground and the passenger to hospital as soon as possible.

Many airlines use a system called MedLink: an electronic tablet crew can use to talk directly with a doctor on the ground who can help diagnose and treat a condition and make a recommendation to the pilots for the best course of action.

There is also a doctor’s kit on board containing medication.

How long can oxygen masks provide passengers with oxygen?

Each aircraft varies, but drop-down masks usually provide 10 to 20 minutes of breathable air. This gives pilots plenty of time to get the aircraft down to a breathable altitude (under 14,000 feet).

At 40,000 feet you only have around 15 seconds of useful consciousness so if one of those masks appears, always put it on without delay and strap in quickly.

Most decompressions are caused by a failure in the pressurisation system, not structural damage, so once the aircraft is at an altitude where we can breathe unaided, the danger is pretty much over.

What kind of emergency landing is safer – water or on the ground?

Until the miracle of the Hudson, there had been few, if any, successful emergency landings on water.

The best case scenario is to make an emergency landing at an airport where emergency services are on hand to respond.

Is it true pilots have to eat different meals in case of food poisoning?

Years ago, this was taken very seriously and pilots were forced to eat different crew meals. That’s no longer the case.

Some airlines have done away with crew catering altogether and many crew now bring their own food.

What percentage of the flight is on autopilot?

Flying has become more and more automated over the years. In most cases, around 90% of a flight will be on autopilot and most commercial aircraft can even land on autopilot.

A pilot will normally manually fly the aircraft for the first and last 6,000 feet (just a few minutes at the beginning and end of each flight).

Words by Ellie Ross.

Got a story tip or just want to get in touch? Email us at