What Are Your Rights If Downgraded On A Flight?

Filed Under: Advice

Reader Liamlpa asked the following question in the “Ask Lucky” forum (it’s long but, poses an interesting question):

Lucky: Do passengers booked on award tickets have fewer rights than those who ‘pay’ for their seats?

Was on a flight yesterday (on one of your ‘fanboy’ airlines) and witnessed something I have never seen before: after boarding, a top tier elite who had booked four F class tickets for his family using miles was asked by airline rep which of the two seats he was going to involuntarily downgrade. Understandably, this was a very tense situation.

The flight was oversold and two of the seats in the F cabin were broken (both facts had been announced prior to boarding).

The interesting thing here is that this guys seat assignments did not include the broken seats. The explanation he was given (somewhat humiliatingly in front of everyone one board) was that his seats were the only ones that were ‘not paid for’ because he had used miles and an $11 issuing fee.

After asking what his options were (and being told he could be forcibly downgraded), he sent his two children to the back of the plane and was handed two $500 vouchers for future travel.

Gotta say, I felt really bad for him…..and am not sure that I would have accepted the situation so diplomatically.

Any advice what to do/say under a similar situation? Refuse the vouchers? Deplane (if your schedule permitted)? Any DOT protections?

That’s an unfortunate situation, and it definitely sounds like it wasn’t handled well by the airline representative.

What are your rights if you’re downgraded?

When it comes to your actual rights on an airline, there are two things to consider:

  • The contract of carriage
  • The regulations from the “authority” relevant to your flight (like the Department of Transportation)

Many airlines don’t address downgrades in their contract of carriage. For example, I don’t know on which airline the above happened, though perhaps it’s Emirates. Emirates’ contract of carriage doesn’t even address downgrades.

Furthermore, most regulatory authorities simply require that the airline refund the passenger the fare difference in the case they’re downgraded. So there’s not much in the way of “rights” when it comes to downgrades.


How should airlines prioritize downgrades?

This seems to be the crux of the issue. Rather than downgrading the two people who booked the broken seats, the airline downgraded two award passengers who had different seat assignments.

Essentially the airline created a “priority” list of the cabin, presumably based on status, fare, etc., and then downgraded the two “lowest priority” customers. I actually think that’s a fair policy. Seat assignments aren’t guaranteed, so if you have to downgrade two passengers involuntarily, it doesn’t seem unfair to downgrade those who paid the least and had the least status (while the dad was a top tier elite, I assume the kids didn’t have status).

The original question posed was whether those on award tickets have fewer rights than other passengers. The answer to that is no.

It could have also been that everyone was flying full fare first class, and all but two passengers had status. If that were the case, those two passengers would have likely been downgraded. It could have been that all but two first class passengers were on full fare tickets, while the last two were on discounted tickets. They may have been downgraded.

While passengers might be “ranked” in situations like this, I guess the only person who is always safe is a full fare passenger who has top tier elite status.

The situation certainly sucks, though I don’t think it’s unreasonable for airlines to prioritize customers by status and fare paid.

What would I have done in this situation?

The last question is what I would have done in this situation. Unfortunately there probably isn’t much I could do.

I’d take the voucher they were giving and then request a refund for the difference of miles after the fact, if I absolutely wanted to be on the flight.

Otherwise I’d check my options, and see when the next available flight with first class would be. Then I’d weigh whether it’s worth it to me to wait for that flight, or if I should just take the downgrade.

Bottom line

This is one of those crappy situations which is rare but certainly does happen. Personally I don’t have any issue with airlines “prioritizing” passengers based on fare and status, as it seems like a logical enough way to make such a determination.

You’re always entitled to a refund in the difference of fare/miles between the two cabins, and also have the right to take the next available flight with space in your ticketed cabin. But beyond that there’s not much contractual liability — anything else would be a “gesture of goodwill” on the part of the airline.

In the above instance I’m hoping “back of the plane” means business class (perhaps back of the A380 upper deck), and not the actual back of the plane.


How do you think airlines should handle downgrades — by status/fare paid, or based on who was booked in the broken seat?

  1. This happened to me back in September. I used 50,000 Avios to fly 2 people BOS-DUB in business class. The entire flight ended up being canceled and they rebooked us into economy the next day.

    I believe I should get 25,000 Avios back from British Airways or $600 / ticket EU261 compensation from Aer Lingus, if not both

    I’m still trying to convince THEM that though 😛


  2. They should offer compensation so far in excess of “fair” that people are delighted to be bumped. Successful businesses aim to delight their customers.

    Everything else is just cutting corners, and if you’re not going to try to delight people, the method doesn’t really matter.

  3. Lucky you misted a small, but crucial detail

    “The rationale used by the station manager was that they were the only seats in the F cabin that were, as he put it, ‘non revenue’. What was particularly egregious (though I did not learn until we landed) was that at least one person in the F cabin had been upgraded from coach because that cabin was oversold. ”

    Think we are talking domestic US F here, with passengers upgraded to F from Y.


  4. Something similar happened to me over the summer when I was traveling from Shanghai- Dallas on the new American business class on the 787 (what an experience).

    The seat that I was assigned turned out to be broken, so before I even boarded the airplane, the ticketing agent handed me a new ticket- a different seat (not broken). I later found out that the person I switched with paid for his ticket through miles and I was a full fare.

  5. I don’t think this was on an Emirates flight. I was EK Gold for 3 years back in 2009-2012 (back then EK Gold was the highest elite tier) and I’ve been on a lot of oversold flights and the last person EK would downgrade would be a toptier elite (or so I think!) In addition, EK charges fuel surcharges on all its award flights if using EK skywards nowadays so the passenger would have paid more than $11 in taxes/fees.

  6. happened to me before. Sending emails to both the mileage program and the airline itself resulted in being refunded more than the difference in the miles between the two fares

    i still slept like shit in the middle seat on a red eye from SF to EWR

  7. ” I actually think that’s a fair policy. Seat assignments aren’t guaranteed, so if you have to downgrade two passengers involuntarily, it doesn’t seem unfair to downgrade those who paid the least and had the least status ”

    Given how often you fly on partner airlines with award tickets, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened to you.

  8. I had booked an AA F award for LAX-SYD on Qantas once. At the last minute they switched the plane to a 747 without F, so I was downgraded to J. No apology, no compensation whatsoever.

  9. Last year flying to Virgin Islands to meet all my kids, including HackMyTrip, I’d booked AA F with $. At SFO there was a big delay, impacting connections, due to snotty FAs demanding every second of their rest time and walking very slowly to the plane and boarding passengers very slowly. When I got to my connection, they’d sold my seat so I was Y. I think AA gave me 2000 miles. Part of the problem is my cheap F fare was booked way ahead and ‘current’ Y was more at the time of flight.

  10. @ Chris – Did you file a complaint in writing? If you did write to the airline but got no reply or a canned response, did you follow up? Even minor problems should get some miles back from AA if you make the effort.

  11. @changer: Complained, but not much happend. Qantas said that they were not responsible because the ticket was issued by AA. AA then eventually refunded a handful of miles (the full trip was JFK-LAX-SYD in F; AA refunded only part of the difference between an F and a J award, because I had already flown the domestic segment in F).

  12. I would have expected more than a $500 voucher each and an instant reversal of the point difference, at a minimum. This is the kind of situation where you “make hay” as they say. Have the gate agent put anything they agree to in writing and follow up. If at first you don’t like what you receive, write the executive offices, then the DoT.

    Personally I’d have aimed for $1000 vouchers for each. Not expecting it, but it never hurts to ask for more. The gate agent and his/her manager should be truly ashamed to have put a customer in that situation, especially since the FA’s aren’t even supposed to know who’s revenue and not! That should give you decent leverage, actually.

  13. Miles from airline A, for a flight on airline B, in case if a downgrade, you are not entitled to anything. At all. Any vouchers from airline B or refund in difference in miles from airline A – are just goodwill gestures. With paid tickets you are theoretically entitled to a refund of fare difference, but in practice it is very complicated, how to exactly calculate that difference. With award tickets, fare is technically zero, so you are not entitled to anything.

  14. The fairest thing in my mind would be to auction off the downgrade like they do when a flight is oversold. We’re offering $2500 to move back to biz, $3500, $4500, etc. then if no one bids downgrade someone involuntarily.

  15. Everything about the story sounds a lot more like AA domestic than EK international, so I’m guessing the downgrade was indeed to coach, but it also probably wasn’t for 14 hours.

    I agree with everything you said above Lucky, except for that usually being on the same reservation as a top tier elite provides some measure of protection. If the head of the family had no status and had used miles, then I agree they’d be the lowest priority people in the cabin and would be subject to downgrades in this situation. But I’m surprised if AA would ask an Explat to downgrade two of their party (or the same for most other airlines’ equivalent situations).

  16. FWIW, having been downgraded on a rather expensive “discount” Z fare Business Class ticket, I’m inclined to agree about prioritizing by fare/status and actually publishing/communicating it to passengers.

    On the return portion of a London trip on Air Canada, I flew through both YYZ & YVR. I was downgraded on the YYZ-YVR segment from a transcon flat bed on to a crappy Y seat without explanation – just apologies (note: there was no equipment change either). My refund was a paltry CAD 50, plus 200 in AC travel credit (unused by me). In a cabin of 30+ seats, I find it highly unlikely that everyone was AC*G or OA*G on higher fares (J, C, D) and nobody was on the same or lower fare (Z, P). In fact, I heard another passenger talk to his colleague about his upgrade clearing several days before. So, instead of downgrading an Economy + upgrade, they downgraded me. It’s been years, but I’m still angry at what happened.

  17. Unfortunately when this does happen, the refund offered by the airline is usually insignificant. E.g. they will calculate the fare difference based on full fare economy even though, at the time you booked, you probably could have purchased discount economy.

  18. It sounds like this was AA from Hawaii to mainland. I think $500pp (and refund of mileage difference) is fine for that trip. It does seem odd they would downgrade an EXP family though.

  19. @Chris The same thing happened to me in May 2015 (downgraded from F to J due to equipment swap from 380 to 747 on LAX-SYD). Curiously, I found out about the swap via a phone call from Qantas directly. Initially the agent thought I booked using QF ff points, and was about to switch me to a different day when the 380 was operating but stopped when he realised the ticket was issued by AA. I was instead directed to the AAdvantage call centre.

    The AA agent submitted a request to the oneworld service desk, initially asking for QF to accommodate me in F on another day when the 380 was operating, however that request received no response despite F availability being wide open (though no award F of course). After 3 weeks of hearing nothing back, another AA agent offered to try routing me via HKG in CX in a mix of F/J, however as there was zero award inventory at the time, I ended up just taking the downgrade on QF and accepting a partial refund of AA miles.

    I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that there seems to be a pecking order, even when it comes to which points currency you used to redeem the flight. In fairness, AA tried hard to make amends but it would have been nice if QF had responded to the request (either positively or negatively) rather than just leaving the request in limbo.

  20. As a data point I flew AA F LAX-LHR (3 of us) (was originally LAX-DFW-LHR but that went 2 class and I was able to get 3 of 8 F on the LAX-LHR nonstop but had to advance 2 days to Father’s Day. All three flights were confirmed with seats then 6 weeks before departure my seat (1 of 3) went to unassigned. I called and could not get clarification. At departure I was give. A business Seat (13J) and an $800 voucher. Turned out that at departure my seat became available and I sat next to the wife and kid. The AA voucher’s need to be sent in or redeemed and the airport. I would advise redeeming at the airport as it is much more efficient… I felt lucky to get 3 of 8 F on an award due to equipment change (was hoping for that). Did the same for next summer but with 2 stops but when business class seats on the LHR-LAX became available I downgraded to J on the 777-300 one row back (3G) (3D). I did not see that much difference between the F and J except the pajamas on the 777-300. Will know more this summer – just glad to use AA miles to Eirope without a fuel charge

  21. @chris

    Did you have and use the QF record locator number? Or did you give the. The AA record locator number? Wondering if that would have made a difference

  22. having been downgraded once, FRA> DXB with LH.
    Booked as award flight, first class with miles +475E.
    Because of a snow storm the original flight was canceled and I was rebooked for the next day.
    FA in LH FCT came and said with a grave voice and sorry face: “I have bad news for you Sir… bla bla
    we rebooked you for the next day, but the flight does not have a first class cabin, so you have to fly business. BUT…… here a a reimbursement voucher for you according to EU regulations “
    She apologised some more and left.
    The voucher was 4000,-E …. THATS how you handle that situation.

  23. I am glad to see folks understand there is no “great” answer.

    I do have a bit on an issue calling award tickets “non-revenue”. After all, those miles have value or folks would not be collecting and spending them.

    The idea of a reverse auction, sort of like bumps seems to make some sense.

    In April I will be flying BIZ or 1st on multiple airlines that I may never fly again. Any vouchers would be of minimal value to me, and getting stuck in coach would really suck.

  24. Hi Lucky and all experienced travelers: I had three seats booked with AA miles on EY’s A380 from LHR to AUH for October, but received notification this morning from EY that we had been moved to the evening flight which would be operated with an A340. The afternoon flight with A380 is still showing but with no award space of course. Have you had to deal with this kind of involuntary change of travel itinerary? I reached out to AA to see if they could contact EY on my behalf. Waiting to hear from AA. Any suggestions or tips would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  25. @F, best advice is to vacation somewhere else. The only reason anyone goes to AUH is to fly EY’s A380 F apartment. 🙂

  26. @pointster, we have been to AUH/DBX before and really enjoyed the white Mosque and the PH AUH. This trip was for a return trip to MLE. Thanks for your reply.

  27. It seems to me that just because you didn’t happen to spend actual dollars for the current flight you are on doesn’t mean that you didn’t accumulate the points you spent by spending a bunch of previous dollars as well as the time flying on previous flights. I feel like you paid your dues to earn the award you are using in the first place so now why are you being penalized for being a fantastically loyal customer??

  28. Consider this before flying Air France….. I’d booked First Class with miles on Air France with a change at Paris then on to Copenhagen… In the First Class lounge in Paris we met another couple who had bought the same tickets as us, but had done it later at more than double what we had used…. Bottom line, Air France resold our First Class tickets from Paris to Copenhagen and the same thing to another couple on the reverse trip…… We only found out when we were asked to shift from First Class to Coach before take off in Paris…. We refused and were told we would be taken off the flight an arrested if we did not comply by an airport police officer who came on board our air craft before we could leave….. They did refund our Sky Miles for that part of the trip….. Will In EVER fly Air France again? Been flying International for over 30 years and have NEVER had that happen before……

  29. In mid-July there was a post about what to expect if you booked an award F ticket on a 777-200 American flight and then later American swapped the plane out with a plane that doesn’t have first class. Unfortunately, that happened to me for a flight MXP/JFK this May 2016 that was swapped for a 767. The answer is “nothing.” American didn’t even notify me, and to this day if I log into AA, my flight shows as being in “First,” despite the fact that if you search for a revenue seat on that flight, their website only offers Economy and Business, but no First.

    I paid 62.5k miles for the one-way, when business class would have been 50k. Should I just accept this and move on, or do I deserve compensation? I was hoping to get at least the mileage difference back, but when I asked an AA agent, they said American considers my seat to be in First so I’m not entitled to anything.

  30. @Mike, how is that situation different than when plain ol’ overselling of seats, like all airlines do, occasionally gets someone squeezed? Not saying I don’t feel bad for you, but it doesn’t sound like Air France was doing anything unusual, or that they were specifically looking to come after *you* when they over-sold the flight. If i’m mistaken on those counts, then shame on AF. (perhaps it would’ve been less egregious if they had asked for volunteers/auction?)


  31. Lucky you have to know how to deconstruct legalize.

    The airlines is entering into a contract with you to carry you in a certain class of service. If they fail to fulfill their obligation then one first looks to the contract to see it speaks to the situation at hand. So if there is a term that says something like “if we are unable to transport you in your class of service…” the strong presumption is that you as the customer knew about this and agreed to it so it should be enforceable. There are tons of exceptions to this for all kinds of reasons including that the airline wrote the agreement but let’s not go their right now.

    So if the COCs say how an involuntary downgrade is to be handled you have your answer (assuming there is no conflict with covering law).

    If the COCs don’t say then you look to governing law.

    If there is no covering law then the only way to really find out is to let a court decide (which is exactly the same thing you’d have to do if either of the above where true and the airline refused to honor their obligation).

    So what might a court decide? One might suppose that at a minimum the difference between the fare for the two classes of service less any consideration the airline offered might be the kind of logic a court would find reasonable. Less than this would be very hard for the airline to justify. As to more I can thing of a number of compelling reasons that additional compensations might be in order.

    The key thing to remember is to read the contract and I’ve yet to see a COC that makes any differentiation between a ticket paid for with cash and one that is paid for with miles. As far as your agreement is concerned then they are identical. That doesn’t mean that the airline has a legal obligation to treat you identically. If they have to downgrade someone or deny somebody boarding they are within their rights to decide who they are going to break their agreement with. But you have every right to ask that you be compensated for what was not provided. Unfortunately in my experience enforcing your contract requires going to court.

  32. There is one last thing. The issue of the voucher and whether to accept it. One line of reasoning would be to accept it since presumably the passenger was not asked to sign anything that they waived their rights or that the voucher was in full satisfaction of their claim for being downgraded. The second line of reasoning is that a court might very well hold the opposite. Their thinking might be, particularly given what the OP posted that there was never an involuntary downgrade, but rather that it was voluntary.

    Since the money being offered would likely be deducted from any damages assessed by the court what I would do would be to refuse the voucher and have them involuntarily downgrade me because either way I’m ahead.

    They might back off and decide to downgrade someone else. That someone else might be willing to voluntarily downgrade in which case everyone is happy. If they go ahead and downgrade me there is then no question the downgrade was involuntary and so there was a breach of contract (or whatever terms the airline has in it’s COC for involuntary downgrades comes into play.

    I would be extremely polite and make it clear that I would in no way resist being downgraded but I would make it clear that it wasn’t voluntary and I’d refuse the voucher or any payment that was insufficient compared to the difference in fare.

    The airline will almost certainly make a better offer later than they will on the plane and if that offer isn’t fair then small claims court is an easy place where a disinterested third party decide.

    Stuff happens. Who gets downgraded, that is up the airline. Assuming they aren’t breaking any laws or their contract with you they have wide latitude to decide who has to lose their seat. But they are obligated to make you whole for their inability to fulfill their contractual obligation to carry you in the class in which you were entitled to travel.

  33. @ Daniel,
    Call back and get a refund of 12.5k miles

    I call BS on your story.
    1st you can’t book AF first with Skymiles, so you must have been thinking of business class.
    2nd AF doesn’t have first class on a CDG-CPH flight. It is business again
    3rd the CDG-CPH flight is basically all coach seats anyway. “Business” just gets a blocked middle seat and some better food. You really were about to get arrested over not having a blocked middle seat on a 2 hour flight?
    4th Delta only has one price for AF flights. It is not possible for someone to pay double for the same seat. Maybe they paid double because you bought economy and they bought business.

    Chill out. If you didn’t get what you paid for, just call and get a refund. It is beyond DYKWIA to get the police called especially when it sounds like you don’t know what you are talking about.

  34. @Tom Sage advice. I called again and got my 12.5k miles. Of course, it took 30 minutes for the (very nice but somewhat clueless) agent to make it work, but I’m not complaining.

  35. Daniel, QF was wrong to send you to AA. It doesn’t matter how the ticket was paid for its the carrying airlines responsibility to accommodate a passenger if there is a change or schedule or other issue that caused them to be unable to fulfill their contractual obligation to carry you in the class you are holding confirmed reservation in.

    Having said that my experience is that almost all airlines try and do this. You just have to say no and work your way up the chain of command. As a passenger holding a confirmed reservation they are on the hook. Now what you can do if they simply refuse to transport you it gets a bit ugly (buy a ticket and sue them for what you paid) but in my experience a call to the office of the president or a fax to the general counsel fixes the problem. But you will have to stand your ground as the only airline I’ve yet to routinely fulfill their obligations to transport a passenger if there are no seats in the award bucket is AF. They are the only ones who do it right without an argument. They just open up the seats that are required.

    Mike. You are not doing yourself any favor by refusing to be downgraded. The airline has a contractual obligation to transport you in the class you are booked and ticketed in (some airlines require both while some require only one or the other) but that only gives you the right to assert a claim for damages if they fail to do so. Refusing to move or even leave the airplane if they tell you to is an entirely different matter.

    While it is true you could have a separate claim under certain circumstances if they downgraded you or asked you to leave the aircraft if they were not within their rights to do so I can’t imagine you can possibly know when that would be the case so unless you are an attorney or extremely knowledgeable regarding this area of the law (which could vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction) and are willing to take the risk that you might get it wrong this seems like a very risky proposition.

    It’s one thing to ask questions and protest but quite another to refuse. I’d be very careful to stay well on the right side of that line unless you want a possibly unhappy outcome that could range from missing your flight to being banned from the airline for life or even a criminal conviction. It’s just not worth it.

  36. @Lucky

    What’s the authority that the passenger has the right to take the next available flight with space in the ticketed cabin? Thanks.

  37. Two notes.

    One) Award travel is in no way a “non-revenue” ticket. The airlines don’t consider them this way whatsoever (as they are compensated for them by the issuing airline). Agents get confused because situations like the ones mentioned involving partner premium awards are quite infrequent relatively speaking to the rest of the tickets that get changed during IRROPS or equipment swaps.

    Two) To whoever said that a FA isn’t supposed be able to see how much you paid. While no, they can’t see the amount you paid, they can most certainly see the fare code. FA’s rarely make decisions in regards to downgrades; even if it appears so, it is almost always the gate agents’ call in the end.

    As someone else mentioned, the operating carrier is who has the power to get you confirmed on a different flight, open up inventory, etc., not the ticketing carrier. The ticketing carrier has virtually no control other than good will gestures. Again, these kinds of occurrences in the grand scheme of things are NOT common, so many agents will be misinformed on how to deal with them. Just keep going to the more powerful representative, and you’ll get it taken care of.

  38. Would never be taken in by their “forced voluntary downgrade”.

    The more the airlines want to “embarass” me by pointing out the tickets “where not paid for” (which is a lie because, as we all know, pionts are just another form of currency), the more I will insist on not downgrading.

    The only way I will relinquish 2 seats?

    Refund me in cash/cheque the cost of the 2 tickets, plus compensation. That means the cost of purchasing the 2 tickets at full price, NOT points. Plus compensation. If it aint juicy, I wont bite. The airlines can sort it out with te other passengers.

  39. “The last question is what I would have done in this situation. Unfortunately there probably isn’t much I could do.”

    Girl, please. You would have tweeted the hell out of until you got a compensation closer to what wowee listed. But that’s ok, that’s your hustle and you know how to play the game, no shame in that.

    I also think I need to watch less RHOA.

  40. No different from any other IDB where passenger gets hosed. Choice is always to accept downgrade, wait for the next flight (which may be 24 hours or more), request a refund (often far less than personal valuation when you’ve booked a family vacation) or my personal fav – request transport on another carrier. Unfortunately the last (and best) option is one that few airlines will offer anymore though it doesn’t hurt to ask if you are a higher level elite.

    If faced with this situation, I think I would have one child fly with Mrs. B and would take the other child on the next available flight. Far easier for the experienced traveler to stay behind and “fight” for compensation and F space on a subsequent flight. Screw the downgrade. But of course it depends on the length of the flight and trip which unfortunately are not provided here. Not a big deal to lose a day on a 2 week trip – quite different for a weekend trip. Similarly not a big deal to downgrade a 2-hour trip.

    Thankfully I have never been IDB or downgraded though I was once forced to downgrade to a later flight in order to make my subsequent connection (the earlier flight was very delayed). I requested the fare diff but I don’t think it was ever paid. And would not have given up an F seat if I had not absolutely positively needed to make the connection (I checked a half dozen other carriers, but none were feasible).

  41. I *paid* $1200 for a first class seat on UA three weeks in advance SFO to Washington DC. I had a first class boarding pass in my hand when I went to drop off my bags… and my pass “wouldn’t scan” so I had to go visit the front counter. I was informed that the plane had been switched (down-sized) and that now there are 4 less first class seats and I was bumped to economy. Period. When I explained the situation I was told that the seats were reserved for “mileage customers.” I was not even offered a refund as I was told an economy ticket would cost $1200 IF I BOUGHT IT RIGHT THEN (as opposed to 3 weeks ago, when I bought my ticket, it would have been $300).

    They finally gave me a $300 refund and treated me like crap. My solution is that I have never, ever, EVER flown United again. I don’t care if I have to fly all the way around the world to avoid United, I will never give them one more cent of business.

  42. When people buy first or business class tickets, does anyone make a habit of documenting the price of an equivalent economy ticket that would have been booked at the same time?

    It probably is a bit paranoid, but it does sound like when a downgrade happens and the passenger wants a refund, there is no way to figure out what the equivalent coach price would have been if it had been purchased months ago.

  43. It is important when deciding what you want to do when you are downgraded to keep in mind that the issue of how to deal with the downgrade itself is entirely different than how to deal with being compensated.

    You can’t refuse to be downgraded. You can complain but you are not in a position of power. The airline can and will downgrade you if they choose so your only option is to try and decide how you are going to deal with it. You can allow the IDB to occur or ask what alternatives there are, like taking an alternately flight, or suggest that perhaps someone else might be willing to be voluntarily downgraded. You could Try DYKWIA if that is your style but in the end the decision to downgrade you is theres. The decision whether to take that flight or deplane is yours.

    The situation as to compensation is the reverse. It’s up to you how you want to proceed. But keep in mind that compensation is rarely best dealt with later. You can write the airline a letter, you can sue them, you can file a claim under the European rules if your flight qualifies. There a lot of options. But this is all happening well after your flight.

    The bottom line is if you are faced with an IDB decide what you want to have happen regarding how you travel and how the downgrade is compensated for entirely separately.

    If you don’t mind being downgraded because you think what you will be due is worth it, there isn’t a problem. If you don’t want to be downgraded then suggest alternatives to the airlines personal you are dealing with. If you aren’t satisfied with being downgraded on that flight, ask about the other options. Be professional. Ranting and raving at best will cement their decision to downgrade you and at worst will get you thrown off the plane or worse. Working with them to solve the problem to the satisfaction of all parties is the best option because they are holding all the cards.

    As for myself I don’t think I’d die if I was downgraded from F to B on a long flight. I’d suggest alternatives but take the flight and assert a claim for the difference in fare which is enormous.

    On the other hand I’d not be very happy if I was downgraded from a B to Y if the flight involved was overnight. In that case I’d expend a lot more effort trying to find an alternative solution. I’d check the schedule and make the case that a sleeper was important and press for re-accomodation on another airline if there was no other option on the one I was traveling with and they didn’t have a flight leaving the same day. In other words let them know I wasn’t going to let them take the easy way out and stick me in coach. The needed to make a real effort to get me to my destination in the class in which I was entitled.

    My experience is that even on an award ticket the airport personal are somewhat responsive. They will do what they have the authority to do, which varies significantly by airline. But if you aren’t willing to travel on that flight in the class they are offering you the fact is you have a very difficult choice to make as to whether you are going to take that flight and you don’t have a lot of information about what will happen if you don’t and insufficient time to get that information.

    Ideally you’d like to know if there is a routing to you destination on the carrier you are on with open seats because it is almost universally true that if you refuse a downgrade the airline will put you on their next available flight. So that would be the one piece of information I’d ask for right there on the plane or at the gate or wherever the person first tells you that they are downgrading you. It’s a reasonable question and one that any airline should be willing to answer without threatening you that there isn’t enough time before they have to close the doors. If they aren’t willing to do that then frankly its cause for additional damages beyond your actual damages.

    So if nothing else I’d suggest the first words out of ones mouth would be to ask if the agent has checked if anyone else would be to voluntarily downgrade before they force you to IDB (which shows you know what you are talking about) and if not ask if they would. At the same time I’d ask them to tell me the next flight they can confirm my class of service on so I can be thinking about what I’d like to do if no one volunteers since I don’t want to hold up departure. Acknowledging that the plane has to leave and leave on time and that you realize that this can only be worked out within what is possible be a great relief to the agent and get them immediately working on your behalf.

    You may not get what you want, but you will generally get whatever is possible. If that isn’t what you think you were entitled to then you at least made the best of it and can ask for monetary compensation which you will surely get later.

  44. The award miles were not free. You have to earn them. So you paid for it in a different way. Lame excuse on the airlines part. Should be on a first come basis.

  45. definitely not United as they are not that generous to give $500, not even $400 or $300 for F passenger to be involuntarily downgraded. And I am pretty good at negotiating with airline in such situations.

  46. @ Dave same thing happened to me and my boss whit terrible United last month. We both got bumped from First class to coach on a relative short flight comparing to yours. The difference is the agents did give us coupon ( was shut down for cash or check) and food voucher. They also rebooked us on next flight ( one and half hour later) in first class. They refused to provide details which made us very angry at the time but seemed to be a right decision by now. I would’ve gone ballistic to learn that we, as revenue ticket passengers, were actually given our seats to reward ticket passengers.

  47. @Shannon: I can tell you the agent calmly told me that the seats were already taken by their mileage customers and that I was SOL. I don’t mind flying coach if I paid for coach, or if it’s a last minute flight. But this was a totally different situation.

  48. @Shankar who gets downgraded is up to the airline, subject to their not violating any laws, such as discrimination against a protected class like race. That’s what you agreed to when you purchased your ticket.

    @Shannon what they offer has nothing to do with it rather it’s what a court will give you. If you don’t like UA’s you can make your case to a judge in small claims court.

    You might go ballistic but it is the airlines prerogative who they IDB.

    I don’t understand why so many travelers have trouble understanding they entered into a contract for a service. The airline is agrees to adhere to their part of the bargain but if they don’t you are entitled to ask for damages. If you don’t get what you think is fair you can ask a court to decide. Nice and simple. Nothing to get mad about.

    Likewise the traveler has obligations. So long as you fulfill those then everything is fine. What a traveler can’t or at least shouldn’t do is impose obligations on the airline that aren’t part of their agreement which includes the methodology by which any given passenger is chosen as the one to be downgraded. Unless the COCs include that as part of the terms, you don’t have an agreement as to how they choose who gets the boot because that is what you agreed to.

  49. Here’s an interesting question. What comes first, status or revenue?

    Let me explain, if I am a top tier with the carriage airline but on an award trip, and another passenger has no status but has paid for their ticket, who gets what?

  50. What is fair as far as who gets downgraded/bumped? Lowest status in the cabin sounds fair, unless you are the one with lowest status. How about these options?

    LIFO – last ticket purchased, first seat downgraded/bumped (would certainly reinforce the concept of the airplane seat as inventory)
    FIFO – could be correlated to early buyers paying the least
    Age – older travelers are probably retired, and have more flexibility in handling alternative travel arrangements. Also, they live on fixed incomes and would appreciate the travel vouchers more than an Fortune 500 executive.
    Open auction – I have witnessed oversold flights where the gate agent increased the $$ for volunteering more than once when there weren’t enough passengers willing to accept the initial offer(s) to be bumped. This is the best way to get a willing volunteer – money talks.
    Random draw – certainly the fairest to all involved (but again, not fair if your number is the “winner”)
    Or for some off-the-wall options – heaviest, smelliest, smallest group (single travelers are less inconvenienced than a family of 4), and tickets which were purchased in a currency other than US dollars. Starts sounding ridiculous, doesn’t it?

    IMO, an airline employee who is travels utilizing their employee free-travel benefit should be accorded lower status. They generally are, and the phrase used is “space available basis.” However a traveler who uses miles should not be demoted, as they paid in a currency other than dollars. I do not recall any fine print that says that FF tickets are issued on a “space available basis.”

  51. While my ticket was a revenue ticket, I had an extremely rude BA “Customer Service Executive” (actually a subcontractor gate agent just wearing a BA uniform) try to involuntary downgrade my First ticket (no suggestion of compensation either in this strong arm tactic) at SIN – this was despite the fact I already had my First Class boarding pass (I had been checked in at LHR). I wasn’t targeted due to lack of status (I’m a OneWorld Emerald), rather that I hadn’t flown in into SIN on the connecting service (I took the earlier A380 instead).

    The agent laughed that they called me to the front desk of the lounge while I was mid-shower (that I had to hurriedly leave to find out what this supposed “urgent” page was about), tried to make out I had no choice in the matter (stating “you’ve been downgraded to Business Class”), and basically tried to steamroll me with a bunch of BS.

    I put my foot down however, making it clear that I was going to accept such fraudulent misrepresentation, and that she was behaving disgracefully. I then walked away.

    I later tracked her down to make formal complaint about her behaviour, she pretended she was the senior manager and that I could talk to no-one else (managed to get another employee to get the BA Duty Airport Manager to come – where it was revealed she wasn’t even a BA employee but a sub-contracted gate agent). She even tried to snatch my phone (on which I was making notes) out of my hand, and claimed to have called the airport police on me (who never arrived) before the BA Airport Duty Manager got involved. Lied repeatedly and blatantly about her earlier standover tactics once management got involved (even got her bestie to back her up – pity for her that a lounge agent who had seen all this disgraceful behaviours from her during the first contact confirmed that my outline of events was correct). The BA Airport Duty Manager was very apologetic, although that awful subcontractor gate agent was unrepentant and never apologised for being a rotten unethical toad. It was the most outrageous display of airport/airline employee/subcontractor behaviour I’ve seen.

    Perhaps in this case the same thing happened – a jumped up sub-contractor gate agent behaved in a way no real airline employee would (subcontractors might don an airline’s uniform but they have no care for the negative impressions they cause or the damage they might do through their actions to said airline).

  52. @Buck: Personally, I like the LIFO ordering, if you bought a ticket for a particular class a month ago (miles or $$$) I don’t think you should be booted out by someone that just upgraded their ticket 24 hours ago. Or offer for volunteers to be down-graded and then compensate them.

  53. @ Steve how would you collect evidence in a IDB again airlines in a small claim court? In our situation, United’s gate agents were very defensive and even refused to reveal their names to us when I asked. My thinking is if you can’t ask the best at the spot, nothing would happen afterward. Do you really think small claim court would work?

  54. Tom,
    Do you work for AF? The B.S. is one you pal….. Look Houston to CGF 747 or 777 First/Business/Coach…. CGF to Copenhagen is Business/Coach….. They sold the SAME seats CGF to Copenhagen and back to people who paid three times the miles a week before the flight….. Intercontinental flight was ticketed for a 747 with “Real” First Class which is why we went through that horrible airport….. What we got was a 777 “First Class” is simply Business with a pair of pajamas. Second memory of Air France intercontinental was that the Flight attendant in First Class walked so hard that she would wake us up when she walked through the cabin. The memory was made even better when we got to CGF and the Air Conditioning was not working and the place was a sweat box that smelled like an old gym sock in August/September…. Then after that experience they put us in an elevated bus who’s AC did not work either which took us to another plane several blocks away who’s AC was turned off and did not cool until we reached cruise altitude…… This was not Guatemala, this was Paris. Not to worry though, as my wife has forbidden me from EVER booking AF or letting us fly through Paris ever again!…….

  55. An award ticket should be treeted as a paid ticket. Overselling in First Class should be rare. Status shold not evn be part of the picture.

    LIFO. It keeps the airline honest.

    Sorry Lucky, but you are way off base here. The airlines sell miles/points . They created an alternate currency. They offer seats for sale in this alternate currency.

    To do as first suggested, allows the airline to play bait and switch games and jerk people arround. AA tried it with me.

  56. The same thing happened to me on a flight from Boston to Rome on Alitalia (booked with Delta miles). I was downgraded due to a broken seat – to the absolute back of the plane, in a non-reclining seat, with no view of the TV screens, and directly next to the washrooms. I was in tears for the entire night – I was in dire need of food and sleep, but hadn’t been worried about it because I expected to eat and sleep on the plane. Not only was I not given any compensation, but I had to fight for MONTHS to get the mileage difference refunded!! Basically, Delta didn’t think they owed me anything – their agents were appalling! I am never thrilled with Alitalia customer service, but in this case I think they would have done more for me.

  57. Wow I must have been really lucky then. I booked a late UA award from SYD-LAX for my mom and myself. Found out that one of us had to downgrade to economy at checkin. They offered, miles, $1000 etc. I huffed and puffed and the kind agent only hesitated for a beat before booking me on another airline in J. She called Virgin, Delta and delta had 2 seats. Took 5 minutes, problem solved

    Maybe these airlines are more flexible than we think or I just really lucked out 😀

  58. I’ve been unlucky enough to have been downgraded twice in one year by the same airline, TAP (Air Portugal). The first time, they changed my flight times significantly, meaning I’d miss a connecting flight, didn’t tell me, and finally (after phone calls), I noticed they’d moved my seat into business class. Great! The flight was delayed 3 hours in the end, and after I’d boarded, air crew walked onto the plane, and said “sorry, we’ve changed your seat”, so I had the humiliating walk, with my stuff, to the back of the plane. Annoying, but I hadn’t paid for the seat. Then the late flight meant I missed my new connecting flight, meaning I had to stay overnight in the inbetween city.
    Then this week, I’d paid for their “executive class” (business) but my downloaded boarding pass was just class Y, not giving me fast track boarding or access to the business lounge (which I actually needed because I was on business). When I complained, they just said “Sorry. It was a glitch in the system”. No compensation, not extra miles, nothing. Yes, I’ve asked.
    I’ve flown 22 times this year (not as much as some, I know), you’d think I’d be a valued customer. Apparently not.

  59. I was just downgraded from First, to back of the plane on a domestic Delta flight. I booked using a combination of cash and points from my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. As I understand it, that is a cash purchase ticket to an airline and not a points upgrade since no Delta points or programs were used. There were no broken seats, Delta claimed a “change of equipment” but the first class seat count was identical to the original plane. When I brought that up the Delta attendant she said that First Class was oversold. What Crap. I did have the option to wait for the next Delta flight the next morning but would not get any hotel credit. Thanks Delta.

  60. So, essentially, OP’s response is “Take it up the ass and not bother with getting justice for the travesty of being not only publicly humiliated, but lied to and robbed of something you paid for. Take it up the ass and deal with it?” Fuck that. Fuck OP. I’d be breaking windows out of the fuckin’ cockpit if some asshole arbitrarily tried to kick me from a flight I paid for, and I’d punch the POS who took my place with their “Priority” after showing up late in the first place.


  62. Happened as a full fare passenger on Delta recently (SNA-SEA). With elite Delta status. It was a last minute purchase for two of us. Online Delta.com showed 3 first class seats available at full fare. When we got to the airport gate to check on our seat assignments, the gate agent was exasperated because he said that two seats in first class on that plane had been “broken for a while” so didn’t understand why they sold us those seats (at over $1100 each!). He could not reach the refund department on the phone to unwind our transaction (it was a bad weather day with lots of flights canceled elsewhere) but assured us that if we called after landing, Delta would handle the refund for us. He had to scramble to find 2 seats together on the plane for us (it was our anniversary) and found them in Comfort+ (first row of economy) as that was the only way to seat us together (again, the anniversary, he said he was happy to do that due to our inconvenience since we would have flown Alaska had we known we couldn’t get first class on Delta. Alaska’s two seats leaving around the same time were about $330 per seat but we had decided to splurge on first class (again, the anniversary). After 4 phone calls and lots of argument from Delta customer service, we got a $535 refund per ticket, no refund on the taxes paid on the $2200 charge and were still charged about $600 each for the Comfort+ seats that we hadn’t even requested nor been informed we’d pay the cost. We are frequent fliers on Delta, many miles in the bank so this was strange that we were bumped as full-fare, elite status fliers. I think it was because we bought at the last minute and others already had seat assignments. I understand all this but not why Delta didn’t refund us the difference between economy and first since that was our request, our understanding from the gate agenand the other option we certainly would have chosen if we knew we were going to be charged over $600 each for Comfort+. We’ve been loyal Delta fliers for years and currently have 3 more Delta flights (x2 of us) booked for the next month but are going to go with other carriers in the future. Customer service on the phone has been officious and bureaucratic. So disappointing because we’ve always thought Delta service was good from flight and gate staff.

  63. I actually almost had this happen to me right now. British Airways Heathrow to SFO flying first class. Was told on check in that my seat was broken and engineering was looking at it. Worst case scenario I would be put in business. In the lounge I hear a guy who had been delayed from Delhi say he is flying to SFO. While boarding I’m told I was upgraded back (can you be “upgraded” when that was your original class?). I’m now in 5A and the guy from the lounge is in 2K my original seat. He tells a passenger next to him that he was originally in 5K and was told that was broken. (There is also someone in 5K.)

    It’s pretty clear there was a broken seat and everyone got bumped down the chain. I’m pretty sure I was lowest because I used miles for this trip. What annoyed me was that I had a trip to Switzerland right before this trip come up and they wouldn’t let me change it without a $20K change fee (for absolutely any change) and if I didn’t take the flight they would cancel the return. I had to boomerang back from Switzerland to fly back to London from SFO the next day. Feels bad to be so roughly handled when you need to adjust and have no potential recourse when they have a problem.

    I’m not sure what is fair, and I’m sure someone will always be unhappy. I guess the real question is what they would have done if they downgraded me.

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