British Airways downgradedDo you believe in Friday 13th? I must say that, ordinarily, I don’t. About 3 months ago, however, I booked and paid for a business class flight on British Airways from London to Austin Texas, to enjoy another fabulous SXSW conference. Having booked so far in advance, something (let’s call it misplaced intuition) made me feel as though I had first dibs on the seat I had purchased. It thus seemed ironic when, upon arrival at the airport on this fateful Friday 13th March, I was told that I had been downgraded for the upcoming ten-hour flight.

downgraded on british airways

This was a first for me. After literally over a million of miles of flying on international flights, I have never been downgraded (or even bumped off a flight). Granted, plenty of those miles were flown in Economy. But, this downgrade was definitely not what I expected on this frightful Friday. Yes, there are worse things in life than getting downgraded. Safety first, by all means. Nonetheless….


check in - british airways downgradeI would describe the British Airway’s agent’s manner at the check-in as a cross between matter-of-fact and mildly apologetic. According to company policy, there wasn’t much she could do to make the pill smaller, except to say that “maybe you will get your seat back or they will make it up to you at the gate when you are boarding.” I asked if I were still allowed access to the business class lounge, not without a little cynicism. To this, she replied, “Well, you paid for it, so yes.” To which — and I kept it to myself — I thought about how I had also paid for the business class ticket.


So, for the hour or so I wiled away in the lounge, I was left to fume. Special treatment at the Lounge? Nope. Zero recognition. Not that I expected the cleaning lady to smile at me, in particular. On top of that, wifi was spotty in the lounge and all the International New York Times had already been distributed. Hardly a surprise, I thought.


Testing out the British Airways social media team, I sent out a reasonably polite tweet. You can judge for yourselves.

Result: No response before I had taken off. It took them exactly 1h58 to formulate a response. When I landed, I was greeted with their answer:

downgrade on British Airways

The fact that ^Kay picked up only on the security search is quite remarkable. Let’s just say that the second-degree search itself was just a mild inconvenience. Zero recognition of the real problem.


bad-news-in-the-newspaperThe moment of truth at the gate was “handled” by the manager. A nasty role she had, too. For it was she who had to confirm the bad news to me that, having been downgraded on British Airways, “there was no improvement in the seat situation.” What immediately struck me was that she had not collected any data on me (at a minimum about my upcoming trips on BA). In terms of compensation, I was offered a paltry £200 cash voucher. The good news, she claimed, was that they were not forcing me to use the cash to fly on a future BA flight. She asked if I would accept the voucher? But, what was my alternative, I asked? In essence, to accept the money, meant that I needed to sign a document that affirmed I had indeed received it [presumably to ensure that BA is able to account for the money.] She was quick to add that this voucher would not mean that I could not ask for more! She went further to ask me what else she could do for me. Another way of putting this, the onus was on me to determine how to fix this! [I note that the English PGA golfer Ian Poulter was given the same compensation in a similar situation – Daily Mail story]

You know how it is…”

I did not raise my voice. I remained doggedly matter-of-fact about the whole process, because getting all worked up was only going to ruin an already poor experience lying ahead. When I informed her that I had owned a travel agency and work with travel companies today, she was quick to say, “So, you know how it is!” To which, I solemnly quipped, “it’s about maximizing revenues, and screwing the customer.” Yes, I certainly knew how it was. She could but acquiesce. I would certainly have been curious to find out why I was the lucky person to get shafted. In the aftermath, I received a DM message from the social media team who said:

Hi Minter, if downgrades are necessary, they’re usually done randomly by our airport staff. ^Beth

I do not believe for a ripe old second that this was random. Moreover, this was not decided by the airport staff. To begin with, I believe my fate was sealed before arriving at the airport. When I tried to check in in advance via the BA app, I was given a message saying that it was not possible to attribute my seat. I believe that I was singled out because I sat on the low-end of the totem pole in their eyes: Bronze. Nothing like being a member of a “fidelity” program that treats passengers as a random number. 

Overbooking is a very common practice in the airline industry. As such, these type of situations are sufficiently frequent that BA should have managed to come up by now with a better process — that is, if they truly intend to deliver on their promise “The Welcome of Home.”


Downgraded on British AirwaysNot a word was spoken. Clearly no one on board was aware of my status. I was an involuntary downgrade as my ticket stub identified. But that information was kept in the computer vault. Instead of a token glass champagne, I was served a meal that could, at best, be considered a camp lunch.


customer journey shutterstock_85423609So, where did this process go wrong? What recommendations could I provide to a manager to improve such an experience? To the extent that such downgrades are an accepted practice, the real deal is in the way the company handles the situation. {Tweet this!}

The basic premise would be to follow my journey off and online — and include all the personnel involved in the customer’s path.{Tweet this!} If the airline overbooks, it knows in advance. Thus, it should treat its passenger like an adult. Allowing for the surprise to hit the PAX at the airport, when there are no alternatives, is not in anyone’s best interest. The fact that I was unable to check-in in advance (via the app) was perhaps a sign of an issue.

If you ask your passengers to check-in online, identify and proactively manage the priority outliers. The notion of overbooking is obviously not new. Thus, there must be a process of due consideration, that adequately informs the personnel in contact with the passenger. Specifically, I would highly recommend doing some customer journeying to figure out the best path to accommodate the upset passenger.{Tweet this!} Inform the chain of people on the customer journey of the situation. For example, at the check-in at the Lounge, find a way to acknowledge the unhappy passenger. Example: offer a small bonus: e.g. a complimentary massage, glass of superior champagne… If the passenger comments about the situation on social media, reach out to him/her immediately with context. At the boarding gate, the “manager” needs to have more complete information on the passenger. How is it that the manager did not already know about my upcoming BA flights? She had no indication whether or not I have a blog or any particular social following online? No customer knowledge. Basically, she was flying blind when dealing with me. Furthermore, when offering a measly compensation, maybe she could have provided me with an explanation of why they felt £200 was the right amount to downgrade someone from Business Class to Premium Economy? Why wasn’t it £149 or £1000? Extremely arbitrary, is the only answer I have. Zero acknowledgement by the cabin crew. Do they want to placate or let fester? Again, let the chain of people in touch with the unhappy customer be aware and enable them to act in consequence. I could certainly come up with more suggestions.

But, the idea of this post is to show constructive criticism and due process. The key for management is to follow the customer journey and understand how the mix of channels, stations and people need to be involved in the treatment of this type of situation.{Tweet this!


I did inform BA that I have two other business or first class trips in the following month, traveling to the West Coast (USA). Having had no outreach from the company, on March 26, I wrote a firm and fair letter to the CEO, Mr Keith Williams. The following day, I received a ‘personalized’ mail saying:

“Please be assured, one of the team will be in touch as soon as they are able to.”

It has been over two weeks and I have received no further communication. They are hardly operating in real-time. As it turns out, on my next business class trip to New York, I was treated as just the most regular of business class punters. Neither person nor system recognized me as a peeved customer. There was a first class cabin on this flight, but the BA system did not see fit to volunteer an upgrade. 

I believe that timing in the treatment of a customer complaint is an important component of how it is handled.{Tweet this!} It has been a month since the downgrade and with over two weeks since my letter, I have not had a single response. Is this acceptable for a “world class” airline? 

Getting customer experience right requires a deep-seated desire to delight your customers and to have motivated, engaged, trained and informed staff that are synchronized and abetted by the various digital platforms and systems. BA definitely has its work cut out. And, whenever possible, I will exercise my prerogative to choose. The dice are rolled.

P.P.S. Added on 19 April, 2015: The official BA response

I finally received, on April 17, an official email back from BA Customer Relations.  Their ‘personal’ letter basically said, lump it and leave it. They say only that they were sorry that I felt that way and that they “have passed on the comments to the relevant departments.” Apparently, the Chairman, Mr Keith Williams, requested a non-standard response. I assume, thus, he stands by BA’s position: don’t give this passenger a thread more!

They acknowledge that they didn’t act proactively (right) and that, in this case, they did get it wrong (right again). And, they just wilfully sweep any notion of a proper compensation under the carpet. Whereas I wanted this particular post to avoid being an outrageous rant and to be more about the real opportunity for BA to take to heart some alternative and improved approaches to such a situation, I must say that I end up feeling like I have been properly robbed. I am left absolutely flabbergasted.

PPPS – Who needs enemies with friends like that? (April 23)

Thanks for the grand support, everyone. In one more twist, the aforementioned note that was mandated by the Chairman of BA, said:

We appreciate your custom as a Bronze Executive Club member and as a frequent flyer with our oneworld partner, Air France.”

BA and Air France (my preferred airline) are, to my understanding, sworn enemies. With all the confusion in who partners with whom, even BA management get confused, too…or perhaps, Mr Williams just let slip out a strategic alliance is about to happen?

Pin It on Pinterest