An in-flight downgrade can feel devastating. Perhaps you’ve longed for business class seats, but now you’ve involuntarily landed in the cramped quarters of economy. Or, maybe you’ve spent time looking for a perfectly on-time flight only to find that it was oversold, and you’re the unlucky passenger who got bumped off the plane. There may also be equipment swapping, resulting in you losing your extra seat legroom.

While a downgrade may not be as bad as being bumped from a flight, it’s still a big bummer.

Although it is rare, involuntary downgrades from first class to economy also occur. Last year, one such incident went viral on social media: a woman Claimed On TikTok that United Airlines bumped her fiance from first class to economy.

“The seats we normally reserve for crew members to take their much-needed rest breaks were not functional on this flight, so we unfortunately had to reassign two customers to Premium Plus instead of canceling the flight,” United later apologized.

United also refunded the fare difference between the classes of seats purchased and gave the couple $1,500 each in compensation.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s what you need to know about why an involuntary downgrade can happen and what you may be entitled to.

Why you may be downgraded

Business-class seats. Clint Henderson/The Points Guy

An involuntary downgrade can happen to anyone — even though You are a famous “Harry Potter” actor Or a frequent flyer. Many airlines tend to overbook to ensure that every flight is as full as possible in the event that a few travelers do not show up or cancel at the last minute. They are usually very good at guessing how many no-shows they will have and often end up with just the right amount of seats.

Sometimes, however, some passengers who have booked and confirmed their reservation may find themselves with the back seat despite paying for more space up front. This is likely to happen if everyone shows up or passengers need to be rebooked from a canceled flight and are unwilling to give up their seats in exchange for any cash or vouchers.

Generally, if one cabin class is oversold, passengers may be downgraded to the next cabin class or allowed to board a different flight. For example, if the economy cabin is oversold, the airline may fly the passenger at a different time. Or, if business class is overbooked, the traveler may be downgraded to economy.

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Airlines also have ways of ranking the order in which passengers will be bumped or downgraded. For example, a higher status in an airline’s frequent flyer program is less likely to be downgraded, while a passenger with no status is more likely to have checked in last.

Downgrades can also happen for reasons other than the usual oversold flights.

For example, in the case of a couple flying with United, the airline needed to vacate a business-class seat to be used as a crew rest so the flight’s crew members could sleep during breaks in the flight. This is generally required by Federal Aviation Administration regulations and the airlines’ contracts with pilot and flight attendant unions. If the airline had to swap the original aircraft for a different plane with fewer business-class seats, it could create this kind of problem.

On that note, there’s also the always-painful tool swap. Sometimes, an airline changes an aircraft due to logistical or other reasons. That means the flight may have fewer seats than originally scheduled.

You are entitled to it

Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD). Clint Henderson/The Points Guy

Airlines offer partial refunds to involuntarily downgraded fliers, but those incentives often vary by airline and country. For example, The US Department of Transportation says passengers are entitled to compensation If they have a confirmed reservation, check in on time, arrive at the departure gate on time and the airline cannot deliver 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 can compensate passengers who have been bumped involuntarily. For domestic and international flights, if a passenger experiences no 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 short delays (about an hour or two), airlines must pay passengers 200% of the one-way fare, but airlines can limit the amount to $775.

According to the DOT, airlines must reimburse passengers on the same day they are bumped. Of course, you can demand more compensation in the form of cash, travel credit or miles than what you are initially offering, but there are no guarantees.

This Guidelines of the European Union Denied boarding is similar to DOT except where the EU mandates that travelers are always entitled to compensation if denied boarding. Instead of determining compensation by the length of the delay, the EU sets compensation scales based on the distance of the flight. For example, if your flight is deemed to be longer than 3,500 kilometers (about 2,175 miles), you may receive 600 euros (about $644) in compensation.

What other options do you have?

Clint Henderson/The Points Guy

There are still other options. If you are 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 premium or business-class seats available.

You can also ask the airline to put you on a competitor’s flight, although in most cases, they will probably refuse.

Bottom line

Downgrading or being denied boarding altogether is a pain, as booking a flight and finding the right seat already takes time. Unfortunately, though, it can happen to anyone on any flight.

As infuriating as a downgrade can be, your best bet is to stay calm and know what you’re entitled to. You’ll still get where you need to go; It may take a little longer or be less comfortable than you expect.

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