Business class downgraded to economy: Why does this happen?

What's the worst thing a business-class traveller can hear? "I'm afraid we've run out of Bollinger?" Wrong. In fact not even close. Say you're booked in business, you're at the check-in desk and the clerk raises an eyebrow and says "I'm sorry but you've been reassigned to an economy seat." You've been downgraded, and it's infuriating and humiliating. You've shelled out for a business or premium economy seat and now you're booted out of that world of privilege and flying economy. You're Cinderella, but in reverse. Riches to rags.

Airlines overbook, but that doesn't happen in upper classes. Far more likely is that an aircraft allocated to fly a sector is replaced by a smaller aircraft with less business-class capacity. It can happen on any airline – Qantas, Emirates, British Airways, United – a world-class airline is no absolute guarantee that you'll be sitting in the business or premium economy seat you've paid for.

When economy class is overbooked, some airlines ask for volunteers prepared to travel on a later flight, with a cash payment as the sweetener. That doesn't happen when a business or premium economy cabin has less seats than bookings. In that case a manager decides who gets dumped, and most airlines apply a couple of crude measures.

See also: 20 secrets to enjoying an economy flight

First candidates for the order of the boot are those who paid for their seats using reward points. Those who paid cold hard cash are going to get monetary compensation of some sort but that won't happen in the case of points bookings, and airlines hate parting with cash. Next, the airline will apply the love test. Elite-level flyers with heaps of status credits who have demonstrated their loyalty as reflected in the number of points in their account are the least likely to lose their seats, those further down the status level are vulnerable.

There are plenty of frequent flyers with oceans of status credits who still get downgraded, it depends on where they sit in the pecking order. If you're a gold level flyer and everyone else booked into business is platinum, you're for the chop.

What are your rights?

Airlines have different ways of dealing with downgraded passengers. The rules that apply are the conditions of carriage, which is the document that describes your rights and obligations according to the airline, and any government regulations.

Under its conditions of carriage an airline is required to get you from A to B and that's about it. Most airlines don't even mention the topic of downgrades in their conditions of carriage.

See also: What it's like to fly business class for the first time

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The least worst place to suffer a downgrade is in the EU, where regulations require airlines to reimburse between 30 and 75 per cent of the ticket price depending on flight length. In the rest of the world no such law exists. What airlines will generally do is refund the difference between what you've paid and the fare in the class where you've ended up.

There's a catch. If you're moved from business to economy the refund will probably be the difference between the fare paid for the business class seat and the full flexible economy fare. This is the most expensive economy class fare you can buy, which means the airline owes you not that much.

Qantas has a fare refund table, issued to travel agents, and although several years out of date it makes interesting reading.

You may be offered a cash voucher, or a points top-up as a gesture of goodwill which you can use to pay for your next flight with the airline. Here's where you might be able to negotiate a better deal but you're not in a strong position. The airline makes its own rules and they hold all the cards. Acceptance of whatever the airline is offering including the seat re-allocation is taken to mean that you've copped the downgrade, end of story. You can refuse of course, and there might be a chance of a seat in the class you've paid for on a later flight but you don't have a lot of leverage.

From the moment you hear the word "downgraded", or "reassigned", you're going to have to suck it up, work your way through the five stages of grief and get to "Acceptance" as quickly as possible. Most business class travellers buckle quickly and take what fate has handed them with varying degrees of grace. Some will subsequently take to social media to bleat the injustice and call upon heaven to fill the offending airline's planes with biting insects and wild animals, but it's futile. The airline really doesn't care.

How to avoid it

Loyalty is key. Stick to one airline as far as possible and use their affiliated credit cards to rack up yet more points. Business class seats are more heavily booked on certain days depending on where you're heading, and this puts pressure on seats, particularly if you've booked using reward points. Try for a quieter day.

See also: Seats, food and service: The perfect airline experience named

See also: The 20 secrets to enjoying economy class

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