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The Art of the Upsell: How Airlines Maximize Every Mile


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June 09, 2024

In today's cutthroat airline industry, companies are constantly seeking new ways to increase their revenue. One of the most effective strategies they've developed is the art of the upsell. This practice of offering additional products or services beyond the basic fare has become a cornerstone of airline revenue management. As you book your flights, you're often enticed with various add-ons that promise to enhance your travel experience. So, how are airlines mastering this strategy, and what can you as a consumer do about it? Let's dive deep into this intriguing aspect of modern air travel.

The Evolution of Airline Pricing Strategies

Traditionally, the cost of an airline ticket covered almost everything related to the flight, including checked luggage, meals, and seat selection. However, as competition intensified and profit margins thinned, airlines began unbundling these services. This approach, known as a la carte pricing, allows airlines to offer lower base fares while charging extra for additional services. The result is a seemingly lower ticket price, with the potential for significant revenue from ancillary fees.

In the early days of commercial aviation, flying was a luxurious experience. Tickets were expensive, but they included all the bells and whistles. Passengers could expect gourmet meals, ample legroom, and free checked baggage. However, as more airlines entered the market, competition drove ticket prices down. To maintain profitability, airlines had to find new revenue streams. Enter the a la carte pricing model. By stripping down the base fare to the bare minimum and charging extra for everything else, airlines could advertise low ticket prices while still making a profit on the back end.

This shift in strategy was not just about making more money - it was also about appealing to a broader range of customers. Budget-conscious travelers could opt for the no-frills base fare, while those willing to pay a bit more could customize their experience with add-ons. This flexibility has allowed airlines to cater to a diverse customer base, from backpackers to business executives.

The Mechanics of the Upsell

Upselling in the airline industry involves offering you a range of optional services and upgrades during the booking process and beyond. Here are some common upsell options:

Seat Selection

You can pay extra to select your preferred seats, whether for extra legroom, proximity to the front of the plane, or window and aisle preferences. The appeal is obvious: no one wants to be stuck in a middle seat on a long flight. By allowing passengers to choose their seats for a fee, airlines can generate additional revenue while improving the travel experience for those willing to pay a bit more.

Baggage Fees

Checked baggage is no longer universally included in ticket prices. Airlines charge fees for checked bags, and often for carry-ons as well. This can be a significant source of revenue, especially for low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit. For you, it means carefully considering what to pack and how to pack it to avoid extra charges.

Priority Boarding

For a fee, you can board the plane earlier, allowing you to secure overhead bin space and settle in more comfortably. This is particularly appealing for travelers with large carry-ons or those who simply want to avoid the stress of the boarding scrum.

Frontier Upselling Examples
In-Flight Amenities

From Wi-Fi access to gourmet meals and premium beverages, airlines offer a range of amenities that you can purchase in advance or during the flight. These options allow you to tailor your in-flight experience to your preferences, whether you want to stay connected, enjoy a fine dining experience, or simply relax with a cocktail.

Travel Insurance and Flexibility

Options for travel insurance, refundable tickets, and the ability to change flights without hefty fees are also popular upsell items. These add-ons provide peace of mind for travelers worried about unforeseen circumstances that might disrupt their plans.

Loyalty Program Perks

Enhanced loyalty program memberships offer benefits like additional miles, upgraded status, and access to exclusive lounges, all at a cost. These perks can be particularly appealing for frequent flyers looking to maximize travel benefits.

Why Upselling Works

The success of upselling strategies in the airline industry can be attributed to several psychological and economic factors:

Anchoring Effect

When you see a low base fare, you are typically going to anchor your expectations around that price. Additional costs for upgrades seem more acceptable in comparison. This psychological phenomenon makes the add-ons appear as reasonable enhancements rather than unnecessary extras.

Loss Aversion

You're more likely to pay for add-ons if you believe not doing so will lead to a less comfortable or convenient experience. For instance, the fear of sitting in a middle seat or losing luggage is a driving factor in purchases of seat selection or added baggage fees. This fear of loss is a powerful motivator, encouraging travelers to spend more to avoid potential discomfort.

Incremental Payments

Breaking down the total cost into smaller, incremental payments makes each add-on seem more manageable. Consumers are often willing to pay more in small increments than they would for a single lump sum. This approach makes the overall expense less daunting and more palatable.

Convenience and Personalization

Offering customized options allows you to tailor your travel experience to your preferences, typically increasing overall satisfaction and willingness to pay for added comfort and convenience. In a world where personalization is increasingly valued, the ability to customize one's flight experience is a significant selling point.

The Impact on Consumers

For you, the practice of upselling can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it allows you to choose and pay for only the services you value, potentially saving money if you forgo extras. On the other hand, the final cost of a flight can end up significantly higher than the initial fare, leading to frustration and a sense of being nickel-and-dimed.

Savvy Travel Strategies

To navigate the upselling landscape, you need to be savvy and aware of the full cost of your trip. Comparing total costs, including all desired add-ons, is crucial for making informed decisions. Websites and apps that aggregate these costs (i.e. Google Flights, Skyscanner, Momondo) can help consumers better navigate the complex pricing structures and avoid unexpected expenses.

The Upsell Dilemma

While some travelers appreciate the flexibility and customization that upselling offers, others feel that the practice is deceptive. The argument is that the initial low fares are misleading, and that airlines should be more transparent about the true cost of a flight. This tension between flexibility and transparency is a significant challenge for the airline industry.

Industry Implications

The practice of upselling has broad implications for the airline industry:

Revenue Streams

Ancillary revenue from upselling has become a vital component of airline profitability. It helps airlines maintain lower base fares, making air travel accessible to a wider audience while ensuring financial sustainability. Without these additional revenue streams, many airlines would struggle to remain profitable.

Competitive Landscape

Airlines that effectively implement upselling strategies can gain a competitive edge by offering attractive base fares and a la carte options that appeal to different segments of travelers. This flexibility allows airlines to cater to a diverse customer base, from budget travelers to luxury seekers.

Customer Loyalty

While upselling can enhance revenue, it can also affect customer loyalty. If passengers feel gouged by excessive fees, they may switch to competitors. Conversely, a well-executed upsell strategy that enhances the travel experience can build loyalty and repeat business. The key is to find the right balance between maximizing revenue and maintaining customer satisfaction.

Innovation and Customization

The focus on upselling encourages airlines to innovate and develop new products and services that cater to evolving consumer preferences. This constant evolution can lead to improved overall travel experiences. From enhanced in-flight entertainment options to new loyalty program perks, airlines are continually finding new ways to upsell and enhance the customer experience.

Regulatory and Ethical Considerations

As upselling becomes more prevalent, it raises regulatory and ethical questions. Transparency in pricing is crucial to ensure consumers are fully aware of what they are paying for. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) introduced the "Enhancing Transparency of Airline Ancillary Service Fees" rule, aimed at protecting airline passengers from surprise fees when purchasing a ticket.1 Effective July 1, 2024, the rule requires airlines and ticket agents to tell consumers upfront what fees they charge for a first or second checked bag, a carry-on bag, and for canceling or changing a reservation. Regulators may need to further address other airlines practices that are seen as deceptive or unfair.

Balancing Profit and Ethics

Airlines must balance their pursuit of ancillary revenue with ethical considerations, ensuring that their practices do not exploit passengers. Clear communication and upfront disclosure of all potential fees are essential to maintaining trust and avoiding regulatory scrutiny. By prioritizing transparency and fairness, airlines can build lasting relationships with their customers.


The art of the upsell has become a sophisticated and integral part of the airline industry's strategy to boost revenue. By offering a range of optional services and upgrades, airlines can cater to diverse passenger needs while maintaining competitive base fares. However, this approach also places the onus on you, the consumer, to be diligent in understanding the full cost of your travel. As the industry continues to evolve, the balance between generating revenue and maintaining customer trust will be key to sustainable success. Ultimately, the mastery of the upsell reflects the dynamic interplay between consumer behavior, market competition, and the relentless pursuit of profitability in the modern airline industry.


  • What are the most common airline upsells? The most common airline upsells include seat selection, baggage fees, priority boarding, in-flight amenities, travel insurance, and loyalty program perks. These add-ons allow passengers to customize their travel experience according to their preferences and needs.
  • How can I avoid excessive fees when booking a flight? To avoid excessive fees, compare total costs, including all desired add-ons, before booking. Use websites and apps that aggregate these costs and be aware of what is included in the base fare. Additionally, pack smartly to avoid baggage fees and consider the necessity of each upsell option.
  • Are all airlines using the upsell strategy? While not all airlines employ the upsell strategy to the same extent, it is a common practice in the industry. Low-cost carriers are particularly known for their extensive use of upsells, but even full-service airlines offer various add-ons to enhance revenue and customer experience.


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About the author

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Eric Pucciarelli

Managing Director, Private CFO®

Eric is a native of Atlanta, he graduated from Georgia Southern University with a bachelor's degree in Business Management and a Master's of Business Administration.

Eric's credentials include:

  • Series 7 (General Securities Representative);
  • Series 66 (Uniformed Combined State La;
  • Masters of Business Administration;
  • Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor;
  • Past board member of the Georgia Southern Alumni Association.

Securities offered through Kestra Investment Services, LLC (Kestra IS), member FINRA/SIPC. Investment advisory services offered through Kestra Advisory Services, LLC (Kestra AS), an affiliate of Kestra IS. oXYGen Financial is not affiliated with Kestra IS or Kestra AS. Kestra IS and Kestra AS do not provide tax or legal advice. Investor Disclosures:

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect those held by Kestra Investment Services, LLC or Kestra Advisory Services, LLC. This is for general information only and is not intended to provide specific investment advice or recommendations for any individual. It is suggested that you consult your financial professional, attorney, or tax advisor with regard to your individual situation.

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Securities offered through Kestra Investment Services, LLC (Kestra IS), member FINRA/SIPC. Investment advisory services offered through Kestra Advisory Services, LLC (Kestra AS), an affiliate of Kestra IS. oXYGen Financial is not affiliated with Kestra IS or Kestra AS. Kestra IS and Kestra AS do not provide tax or legal advice.

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