British Airways Threatens to Downgrade Half a Welsh Couple … On Their Wedding Anniversary

Recently I highlighted a thread on the Australian Frequent Flyer forums in which a daughter, EmilyP, recounts the trials and tribulations of her parents, one of whom suffered a downgrade from business-class on a Qantas flight from Los Angeles to Sydney.

Now British Airways has decided to get in on the downgrade act as well.

Per WelshGirl:

Feel v sad.
Trip booked 12 months ago in first to Abu Dhabi . To see Grand Prix for tenth wedding anniversary
Checked in . One of us downgraded apparently because I did not check in online.
Offered £500 and partial refund of avios we used to pay
They are trying to resolve.
We were told it was because we did not check in online so one seat reallocated.
However we are wondering if our seat has just been reallocated to a VIP.

Here’s the thing; airlines overbook and for the most part we as travelers get that. Overbooking allows the airlines to keep costs lower for everyone and the airlines are very good at utilizing big data to know how many passengers will typically no-show on a given flight. When they overbook and everyone does show up for the flight, they begin making offers of compensation to passengers in an attempt to entice volunteers to give up their seat on the plane.

So far, this all makes sense and sounds reasonable. And it seems to work very well with regard to economy-class. You very rarely hear of someone getting involuntarily bumped from their economy-class seat, presumably because someone else typically accepts the compensation offered by the airline to switch flights.

The problems seem to come when the flight is overbooked in first- or business-class and no one takes the airline up on their compensation offer. In these cases, someone gets involuntarily downgraded, or offered a seat on a different (later) flight, and people get very upset.

It would seem then that the problem is not that the airlines are overbooking, but rather that when they face overbook situations in first- and business-class they aren’t willing or required to offer enough compensation to entice anyone to change their seat class or their travel plans.

In other words, the problem is that it is easier and more cost-effective for the airline to screw a passenger than it is to reach an equitable compensation agreement.

Let’s face it, everyone has a price. Unfortunately for the airlines, it seems the price that would typically be negotiated by a first- or business-class passenger to switch to a lower class is steeper than the airline would like to pay. Fortunately for the airlines, they have worked it out with the governments that regulate them so that they don’t have to actually negotiate – they can ultimately just move the passenger around as they please.

Personally, I think the answer is to discontinue the practice of overbooking. Though it seems to work well most of the time, particularly in economy-class, when it fails it fails spectacularly. It doesn’t seem possible to regulate a “fair” compensation amount for a displaced passenger, as everyone’s price is different.

Some might argue to continue to allow overbooking in economy-class, but not in first- or business-class. Perhaps, but it sounds a little too “let them eat cake”-like for my tastes.

Sure, airline’s will cry “but prices will have to go up.” Ok, how much will they really have to go up? And maybe higher ticket prices are the cost of actually being able to fly on the airplane in the seat that we booked.

Getting back to WelshGirl’s story – it actually had a happy ending. She and WelshBoy received valuable advice as to how to handle the BA staff (she was posting from the terminal as they awaited their departure) and both were able to regain seats in first-class, though not together.

And lest you think my title was a little race-baity, WelshGirl seems to feel that at least part of the reason their situation was resolved successfully was because of this complaint by her husband:

I am not sure why the original change was reversed, perhaps a combination of my tears and my husband asking if BA was racist against Welsh people …

Read this very interesting thread in its entirety: V upset 1 of 2 of us downgraded from First on Wedd Ann Trip

And in the comments section below please post your thoughts about the practices of overbooking and downgrading. If you have thoughts about British-Welsh relations and race baiting, go ahead and share those as well.

Pryd mae’r bws nesaf” by Rhys Wynne. CC BY-SA 2.0.


  1. You miss some key points in this.
    First, in this specific example, it was for flights to Abu Dhabi on F1 weekend – so the overbooking was not at all surprising and BA was almost certain to favor its high rollers in those circumstances – plus there clearly would be no other first availability at all. Of course, that doesn’t explain why they were crazy enough to release award space for that weekend in the first place, as the couple did book after the dates were announced (they were going to the race).
    Second, overbooking is essential in premium cabins and it’s the only way that the game will work – there’s a far higher proportion of fully refundable fares in those cabins than in WT or WT+ because businesses like to keep their travel plans flexible. In those circumstances, without overbooking, they’d be going out empty much of the time. The mistake here was not taking account of the F1 race.

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