ON ANY GIVEN DAY, a handful of eager-looking passengers lines up at the Air India counter at New York’s Kennedy Airport well before the ticket agents have even arrived. Their goal: to buy one of the coveted upgrades to business- and first-class that the airline sells at check-in on a space-available basis. On its New York-to-Delhi route, for instance, passengers can currently purchase an upgrade from coach to business class for $900 one-way, enjoying more than $1,600 off the cost of a full-fare, one-way business class ticket—along with French wines, fine cheeses and a lie-flat bed for the 14-hour flight.
A growing number of airlines are making it possible for fliers who lack fat mileage accounts to move to a cushier seat on the plane. Virgin Atlantic, Etihad and Air Canada are among the other carriers that are offering passengers a chance to purchase last-minute upgrades, either at check-in or at th...
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