A downgrade on a flight can feel frustrating. Maybe you were looking forward to the roomier seats of business class, but now you’ve been involuntarily bumped down to the cramped quarters of economy. Or, maybe you spent time finding a perfectly timed flight only to find out it was oversold, and you’re the unlucky passenger bumped off the plane. Maybe there was an equipment swap, resulting in you losing your extra legroom seat.
While a downgrade may not be as bad as getting bumped off a flight, it’s still a major bummer.
Even though it’s rare, involuntary downgrades from first class to economy happen, too. In fact, a recent incident is going viral on social media right now: A woman claimed on TikTok that United Airlines bumped her fiance from first class to economy, and her video is burning up the internet.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s all you need to know about why an involuntary downgrade may happen and what you may be entitled to.
Why you might be downgraded
Being involuntarily downgraded can happen to anyone — whether you’re a famous “Harry Potter” actor or a frequent flyer. Many airlines tend to overbook flights to ensure each one is as full as possible in the event a few travelers don’t show up or cancel last minute. They’re usually pretty good at guessing how many no-shows they’ll have and often end up with just the right amount of seats.
Sometimes, though, a few passengers who’ve booked and confirmed their reservations could find themselves with a seat in the back despite paying for more space up front. This is most likely to happen if everyone shows up or passengers from a canceled flight need to be rebooked and no one is willing to give up their seat in exchange for cash or a voucher.
Typically, if one cabin class is oversold, passengers may be downgraded to the next cabin class or given the opportunity to board a different flight. For example, if the economy cabin is oversold, an airline may have the passenger fly at a different time. Or, if business class is overbooked, a traveler may be downgraded to economy.
Airlines also have ways of dictating the order in which passengers would be bumped or downgraded. For instance, those with higher status in an airline’s frequent flyer program are less likely to be downgraded, while a passenger without status who checked in last might be more likely.
Downgrades can also happen for reasons beyond simple oversold flights.
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For instance, in the case of the couple flying with United, the airline needed to free up a business-class seat to use as a crew rest so that flight crew members could nap during breaks on the flight. This is typically required by Federal Aviation Administration regulations and by airlines’ agreements with pilot and flight attendant unions. If the airline has to swap out the original aircraft for a different plane with fewer business-class seats, that could create this kind of issue.
On that note, there’s also the ever-painful equipment swap. Sometimes, an airline will swap out an aircraft for logistical or other reasons. That means there could be fewer seats than originally scheduled on a flight.
What you’re entitled to
Airlines offer partial refunds to flyers who have been involuntarily downgraded, but those incentives largely vary by the airline and the country. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation says passengers are entitled to compensation if they had a confirmed reservation, checked in on time, arrived at the departure gate on time and if the airline cannot fly the passenger to their destination within one hour of the flight’s original arrival time.
The DOT also has a set of rules that determine how airlines may compensate passengers who’ve been involuntarily bumped. For domestic and international flights, if a traveler does not experience any delay or a delay of one hour or less, they are not entitled to compensation. However, if an involuntarily downgraded passenger faces a travel delay of at least two hours, that passenger is entitled to 400% of the one-way fare, up to $1,550. For shorter delays (around one or two hours), airlines must give passengers 200% of the one-way fare, but airlines can limit the amount to $775.
Airlines must compensate passengers on the same day they are bumped, according to the DOT. Of course, you can ask for more compensation in the form of cash, travel credits or miles than what you’re initially offered, but there are no guarantees.
The European Union’s guidelines on denied boarding are somewhat similar to the DOT’s except that the EU mandates that travelers are always entitled to compensation if they are denied boarding. Rather than determine compensation by the delay length, the EU sets compensation scales based on the flight’s distance. For example, if your flight was supposed to be more than 3,500 kilometers (around 2,175 miles) long, you may receive 600 euros (about $644) in compensation.
What other options you have
There are still other options. If you get downgraded from business class but don’t want to fly in economy, you can ask the airline to put you on a later flight that still has available premium or business-class seats.
You could also ask the airline to put you on a competitor’s flight, though in most cases, they will likely decline.
It’s a pain to be downgraded or denied boarding altogether, as booking a flight and finding the right seat is already time-consuming. Unfortunately, though, it can happen to anyone on any flight.
As infuriating as a downgrade could be, your best bet is to remain calm and know what you’re entitled to. You’ll still be able to get to where you need to be; it might just take a bit longer or be less comfortable than you expected.