You Got a Free Upgrade? What About Me? The Consequences of Unearned Preferential Treatment

Jeong-Yeol Park, University of Central Florida
SooCheong (Shawn) Jang


Airline companies often spontaneously provide unexpected upgrades to please their customers. However, this practice may have negative outcomes for customers nearby who do not receive an upgrade. This study was designed to understand the impact of unexpected upgrades on potential travelers in terms of envy and perceptions of unfairness by focusing on individuals who did not receive an unexpected upgrade. By utilizing a scenario method, this study found practical results for airline companies, as well as other tourism and hospitality industries. Providing another traveler with a high-value upgrade, such as a move from economy to first class, significantly increased participants' envy. More specifically, participants with high social comparison orientations had higher levels of envy and perceived unfairness than individuals with low social comparison orientations. Furthermore, the influence of the level or value of the upgrade on envy differed based on the closeness of the relationship between the participant and the recipient of the unexpected upgrade. Participants' feelings of envy were consistently high when a stranger received an unexpected upgrade, regardless of its value. Comparably, when a friend received a high-value upgrade, participants showed as high a level of envy as when a stranger received such an upgrade. However, when a friend received a low-value upgrade, they did not report feeling envious. Further discussion and implications are provided in the main body of this paper.