Is an involuntary downgrade worth just $70?


How much is an involuntary downgrade from a first or business class airline seat to coach worth? It depends on the route and the entire ticket value.

Ann Dwyer has been asking this question since her recent experience on American Airlines, when she returned home from a trip to Ireland. Dwyer’s story raises the issue of whether downgrades on domestic flights are worth the same as on international flights – as well as whether passengers ever come out ahead when airlines do the math.

Dwyer had booked seats in business class for both legs of her flight from Dublin to Daytona Beach, Fla., via Charlotte, N.C. As she was boarding her connecting flight on American Eagle in Charlotte, a gate agent told her that she would not be able to sit in her originally booked seat because some seats in business class were broken. Yet, as she waited for a new boarding pass, another passenger was seated in the business class seat she originally had booked. Dwyer was given a boarding pass for a seat in coach.

When Dwyer asked why she couldn’t sit in her original seat if it worked, she was told that the airline had “a priority list” for the business class seats and Dwyer wasn’t on it.

Had the downgrade occurred on the Dublin-to-Charlotte leg of her flight, she could have sought the protection of EU 261, which prescribes compensation of 30 to 75 percent of the ticket price when an involuntary downgrade occurs.

But there’s no corresponding legislation in the U.S. for involuntary downgrades. It’s up to each airline to provide compensation for the price differential between reserved seats and used seats.

Related story:   Who owes me a refund: Vayama? Lufthansa? United? Anyone?

American’s contract of carriage provides that


If you are denied boarding involuntarily, you are entitled to a payment of ‘‘denied boarding compensation’’ from the airline unless …
You are offered accommodations in a section of the aircraft other than specified in your ticket, at no extra charge (a passenger seated in a section for which a lower fare is charged must be given an appropriate refund).

So Dwyer was entitled to an “appropriate refund” for the price difference between the cost of her business class seat and the coach seat she was reassigned.

American Airlines issued Dwyer a $70 credit for the downgrade. But Dwyer felt that this wasn’t enough, because she claims to have observed a $200 price difference between business class and coach seats with round-trip tickets purchased six months in advance of the flights.

Dwyer might have escalated her case to higher-ranking American Airlines executives using the contact information on our website, but she asked our advocates whether she should pursue additional compensation.

Our advocate responded that

When you buy an international flight the domestic flight is just a tiny portion of the cost of your flight — the airline basically wraps it into the cost of the long-haul. Based on all the cases I have handled, I can tell you that $70 for a downgrade on an hour-long flight on American Eagle is what could be expected. …

I have priced out that flight on many dates and the difference between first class and main cabin is consistently $100 if the ticket is purchased as a standalone. It also has no special service in first class. Based on everything, I believe this is a reasonable compensation.

As tiny as a $70 credit is, our advocates think it’s an “appropriate refund” for Dwyer’s downgrade on American Eagle. Do our readers agree?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org.

  • James

    If American Eagle is flying a plane with broken seats, what else is broken? Would you want to fly on an airplane that is not properly maintained?

  • finance_tony

    Maybe – but only if they explain why she was downgraded for another passenger and why she was told the seat was broken. I’m assuming no aircraft substitution, since it wasn’t mentioned. As far as there being no discernible difference between cabin classes on the regional jet, I can’t disagree for the most part (no meal service, same width on some aircraft), but isn’t there more pitch in first class regardless?

  • Dan

    ” no discernable[sic] difference between first class and the main cabin”

    It’s true you don’t get much in short haul domestic first class but I would argue the difference is indeed very discernible. In first you would get priority checked bags, priority boarding, more overhead storage, a wider seat with more legroom, and beverage service with alcohol. It’s not much, but it’s discernible. And an overall slightly more comfortable way to fly after a long international flight.

  • Alan Gore

    Funny math on involuntary downgrades is a perfect example of a user-hostile airline policy that is crammed down our throats by carriers acting in unison against us. We literally have no choice in the matter and the only fix will be legislation.

    [Bracing for full-page rant from the Airline Mathematics Council]

  • Steve Rabin

    The airlines certainly market first class (note, they do not generally call it business class domestically–rather, they market it as first class) with discernible differences to coach/cattle class. Even so, using the airlines’ funny math with which we have no insights into, $70 sounds about right for a short flight. But the bigger problem is that AA feels that some passengers are more important than others, which we know is true, and dropped the passenger to coach so some other high level flyer could take her seat.

  • Noah Kimmel

    seriously? things break all the time. Some of those are important, some aren’t. Airlines like American Eagle have a fantastic safety record – we don’t need slippery slope trolls here

  • John Baker

    Hmmm… somehow I don’t think AA was pricing that upgrade at $70. Again the funny airline math where they get to choose the fares they get to take the difference of instead of using the fares available when you purchased your ticket.

    Here’s a hint…. the difference between the first class fare you paid and the walk up fare for economy will almost always be close to $0.

  • Noah Kimmel

    Keeping AA’s poor customer service aside, and speaking solely to the policy question.

    At some point, you have to admit that you want a price from origin to destination regardless of connecting point. Otherwise, it would likely be more expensive to purchase two tickets. If you believe in this, then there must be some way to allocate revenue to each flight. Most airlines give more revenue to the long haul, and less to the short haul. Reasonable or not, it is a consistent methodology (and not designed in a “user-hostile” means, but the result may be that way in this situation). The alternative would screw someone downgraded on the long – haul. I don’t think you can have it both ways.

    so in spirit of good debate and better customer outcomes, in the case of a downgrade, what is a fair comp plan? Is it to say Full Fare First – Full Fare Coach? Is it “current day pricing difference” “booking day pricing difference” ? Does it matter if you are buying just that segment vs. being part of a connecting itinerary? Is it a goodwill credit? other?

    rather than throwing stones and questioning intentions – what is a fair outcome?

  • Noah Kimmel

    well, by definition, if a seat is broken/unavailable, someone will be downgraded. What is the methodology you would like them to use? Is it the assigned seat holder? elite status? fare paid? Other?

  • finance_tony

    You both have good points. This is one case where I believe the customer is generally due quite a bit of slack. After all, some of us harp here and elsewhere that customers who were too large to fit, who want compensation after being uncomfortable in coach, who wanted the airline to accommodate a disability with a free upgrade, etc., should have bought up to First Class. That is one proactive move that is almost always available. And yet here, they were denied that after the fact.

    My answer to your question is instinctively “booking day price difference.” Obviously lots of issues with that. Most obviously here, how to handle a case like this where only the much shorter domestic hop was downgraded? And how to calculate the difference to begin with – if it was a Saver business fare, for instance, but the only economy available on the day of booking was Flexible (in which case the fare difference could actually be negative).

  • BubbaJoe123

    “Maybe – but only if they explain why she was downgraded for another passenger and why she was told the seat was broken.”

    They had a broken seat. They had to bump somebody back to coach. She was at the top (or bottom of the list). They bumped her to coach, and put the person in the broken seat into hers.

  • BubbaJoe123

    How is this funny math? $70 seems to be just about the premium of First vs. Coach on that flight. Maybe it’s closer to $100, but it’s pretty close.

    What legislative fix do you want in this case? Be specific.

  • BubbaJoe123

    I just pulled up a one-way on AA CLT-DAB for a couple of random days in December. The difference between economy and first is $100.

  • Alan Gore

    This question did come up just recently, and I outlined a simple way of fairly calculating the refund that would be due on a service downgrade. Whenever a passenger or agent buys a ticket on an airline site, the available Economy fare on the routing would be stored in a new field called, say, Premium Recalculation Base, regardless of the fare actually booked. If the pax bought a premium class and it subsequently was involuntarily downgraded, the refund would be the difference between fare actually paid and Premium Recalculation Base. If the downgrade occurred on only one segment of a series of flights, the differential would be adjusted for the ratio of the downgraded segment to all of the flights in that direction (outbound or return flights for other than one way).

    Implementing fairness can be as simple as that. There would be details to iron out, such as whether to use flight time or distance in adjusting for segments, but I don’t see anything that would make it as complex as airline accountants seem to wish it would be.

  • James

    Booking date.

  • FQTVLR

    First the difference in a one way fare between the two classes is $100. Several people have looked. I did the same using June dates. It is likely that on a round trip ticket the fare differential was lower, so the $70.00 is not unreasonable. As for the priority list–I can actually see the point of using a list based on 1) price paid for the ticket and 2) date of purchase in case more than one person paid the same for the ticket. (I do not agree using FF status to make the priority wait list.) The list based on price and booking date will not be friendly to everyone but seems the most logical way to handle this. Not everyone will be happy but in these situations that is hard to avoid.

  • Lindabator

    this was an hour long regional jet flight

  • Lindabator

    and no WAY to know what that would have been – as pricing is dynamic and changes CONSTANTLY – and frankly, as full coach is $70 less than business on the portion she was on, this WAS the best offer – these addons are ALWAYS a miniscule price bump as the international portion is the major cost involved

  • Lindabator

    so cheapest? No – they ALWAYS go to the elite status first, as those are the clients who actually fly often, and they try to return their loyalty in turn – and those usually book last

  • Lindabator

    and that is on a one way flight, right? even cheaper as part of an international ticket

  • Lindabator

    They always give priority to elite as these ARE their frequent travellers, and it makes sense to give your cash cows higher priority (mostly will be the higher cost tickets anyway, just usually booked closer in)

  • NearSeattle

    It’s hard to remember all of the rules, but I would have thought that she could claim EU261 compensation. Even though the carrier was American, the flight originated in an EU country, and she was downgraded on one leg before reaching her final destination.

    Maybe someone better-versed than I can weigh in?

  • disqus_00YDCZxqDV

    it sounds like they were lying about the seat being broken because they later told her that there was a priority list for business class and she wasn’t on it.

  • FQTVLR

    I know that as I am platinum with DL. Does not mean I agree with it in certain situations.

  • Steve Rabin

    No, EU261 doesn’t apply on the US only leg of the itinerary. The EU has no jurisdiction over non-EU airlines outside of the EU (hence the reason if you fly from the US to Europe on a US airline, EU261 doesn’t apply, but it does apply for an EU-based airline since the EU member states regulate that airline).

  • wilcoxon

    I’m tall so always buy a business class seat (I’ve been looking to try premium economy sometime on a carrier that has notable pitch difference and allows booking directly (eg not buy coach and then buy upgrade during seat selection)). For me, on most airlines, the only fair compensation for a downgrade to coach would be the full ticket price (of that leg). Even an hour in most coach seats is torture (which is why I pay the very high premium for business class).

    I think the first consideration on who gets downgraded should be who actually needs the business class seat (eg tall, overweight, etc). Only after that should they use another method (personally I hate the elite status gets priority method but I do understand it).

  • IGoEverywhere

    American gave her a bum deal. They lied about the broken seat, then compensated Ann with a pittance. I would guess that a top tier client got her seat. They should offer her a domestic future upgrade.

  • Mac

    I would have taken a peek into FC to see if there were any empty seats, just to check out their story.

  • LonnieC

    Wait a minute. American Eagle has first/business class seats??? Where are they, on the flight deck?

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    All I can say is, airlines do whatever they feel like doing on the spot. I traveled to Argentina on Delta at the very beginning of August, and just returned Sunday Nov. 19.th. Before boarding in ATL. in August, gate agents (yes 3) asked for volunteers to take a later flight via Santiago Chile because the direct flight to BA was overbooked. Nobody wanted to volunter. I needed wheelchair assistance to get on the airplane, when it was my turn to be taken down to the airplane, I handed my boarding pass to the gate agent, she saw my seating assignment, and on the spot she changed my seat to one just besides the 1st class, first row in the coach class. My question is, if the flight was over booked, and they needed volunteers, how did they had an open seat, to change my seating from the originally assigned seat to the new seat? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, it was good, I had all the legroom I needed, it is just a bit strange, that is up to the gate agents in the last minute of boarding to change seating and such to their discretion. Coming back Sunday with Delta, from BA, the same thing happened. As soon they realized I need ground assistance, my original seating was changed to one closer to first class, so I won’t have to walk down and later up the isle, too far, from the door. Go figure.

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