A BA check-in agent writes about how they select passengers for downgrading and offloading

Regular readers of Head for Points will know that there has been substantial discussion on the site in recent weeks about downgrades.  In particular, the issue is whether British Airways is prioritising Avios tickets, and 241 tickets in particular, because it does not have to pay the legally required EU261 compensation in cash, if at all.

Unfortunately for BA, a regular contributor to HFP was recently downgraded on a 241 ticket.  This means that we will be following his claim for full compensation in real time.

To put the other side of the story, I asked a British Airways check-in agent if they could tell me how the downgrade and offloading system is meant to work.  This is what they said – I have edited the comments to remove any identifying details:

We will be told which flights are oversold at our briefing when we start work that day. Depending on how oversold it is a nominee may be appointed to approach all customers for that destination before they get to the desk, ie. when they enter the queue.   They are given details of the compensation offered by us on the day and the alternative flight we can offer them, together with any info on hotels and transportation to those hotels.  Sometimes we have to re-route via another airport so will send them to overnight up there in readiness.

If the flight is just one or two oversold we will be asked to approach customers as they check in or drop bags. The information of the offer is shown in the header page for that flight together with ‘bail out’ options (as we call it). In fairness some of the newer staff can be scared of asking as any hint of overbooking may worry a customer so being new some of them tend not to ask.

British Airways check in

If someone volunteers to come off for cash they are told that they will still travel on the flight if space is available at closure. They will then be on-loaded at that time but in whatever seat is left. So sometimes not the best of options.

If we have no volunteers and all seats have been assigned then the last person to present themselves at check in will be told that unfortunately at this time there is no seat for them and they will be asked to return at flight closure. It’s only at that time will we know if they can get on or not.  If they don’t get on we deal with the initial conversations (never a nice thing to do) and advise the compensation they will receive, etc. A manager will come down and issue the cash card, and we issue vouchers for hotel, meals, etc.

Downgrades can, and do, happen to anyone. Generally those safe will be those who are Gold, Silver or OW equivalent, or those who’ve paid for seats.

These [paid] seats are always held until flight closure and only released if a customer doesn’t arrive in that time. Some of those non status holders will pay to reserve seats as its perhaps a trip of a lifetime to them so they want to be sure of being together. I’ve seen Golds downgraded over others without status because they haven’t held their seat whereas all others have (yes, not often but it can happen). That’s why I always recommend people check in online as soon as they can, even if they can’t print the boarding pass.

If there is possibility of downgrade passengers will still go to the lounge and be told there. If the flight is oversold they will be kept landside.  If we’re expecting downgrades, seats are held in the next cabin down – usually the bulkhead in WT+.

In the situation of an aircraft change, this will generally not affect premium travellers adversely [….]  All would get seats still, though some maybe not the one they wanted.  We struggle more with offloads on these occasions as there are not so many World Traveller seats for downgraded passengers.  Again we deal with that as a voluntary thing seeking volunteers. Again any offloads would be the last ones to check in again, ie. sequence number.

I’ve had a situation at the gate where we had to remove 8 people from the flight because of weather (winds) not allowing enough fuel and all the passengers to travel. We had to ask for volunteers at the gate and we easily got enough. Had we not got enough the manager with me confirmed it would have been last to check in.

So all in all I do think this panic [over Avios passengers being targetted for downgrades] is unfortunate.  Of course things can and do happen but I find it sad that you’re taking one incident and making it seem like it’s happening all the time. From my first hand experience that is not the case at all.

They key thing is if it were, why do we take so much time actively seeking volunteers if we already know who is going to be downgraded?

Thanks for this, I think all of the readers appreciate it.  I would note, however:

Note the comment above about what happens to those who volunteer not to travel.  If it turns out that a seat is available at departure for any reason, your compensation will be rescinded and you will be made to fly in that seat, wherever on the plane it is.

Both of the cases I am currently looking at involved customers who were specifically told by Duty Managers that they had been downgraded because they were on Avios tickets.

When my family was downgraded from Club World three years ago, both myself and my wife were Silver so there was no protection for us as status holders.  The other case I am currently chasing on behalf of a HFP reader was where the reader had paid for seat selection but was on an Avios ticket and was still downgraded, so that is also not a guarantee of safety.

The idea that volunteers are initially sought at check-in is totally at odds with what happened to our contributor.  He was blocked from online check-in and told at Edinburgh that he was being downgraded.  The check-in desks for his flight at Gatwick had not even opened at this point so there clearly had been no attempt to seek volunteers.

To be continued ….. 🙂

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  1. Robbie says:

    OT BA have now confirmed April 1 as start date for Club Europe domestic – but still no sign of TP levels on tickets. It’s just two weeks to go – shouldn’t we know by now????

    • Historically it doesn’t show on the tier point calculator until the service starts, not sure why.

  2. Philip says:

    I noticed the comment on the Qatar thread about booking BA on business LHR-HEL-TLL to give 200 tier points from £231, I booked the same myself over Easter but including BHD-LHR return in CE and the booking shows as 240 tier points just enough to retain my silver status in June so it looks like 20 tier points each way.

    • Manage My Booking is often wrong though – hopefully you’ll get 40 TP for those domestic sectors! Sadly there was a massive increase in price when I tried to add domestic sectors to mine so had to spend 9k + £35 on an RFS instead. Still worth it for AY A350 each way on the LHR-HEL sector 🙂

  3. Crazy question – but shouldn’t they offer to upgrade you before downgrading? I hear that F is rarely full, so surely if they overbook J by a couple seats someone could get upgraded instead.

    • They would, but First is not available on a lot of long-haul routes. BA didn’t bother installing it on any of the 787-8 fleet.

      • Do you have a list of flights where there is a First cabin so we can plan our 2 4 1’s accordingly?!!

    • Martin says:

      DM, There are often empty seats in First, but you will only be upgraded from Club if they have oversold Club. That’s happened to me three times in the last couple of years (I’m Silver which probably helped). Once was on a ticket bought with Avios, interestingly.

      In fact, it’s probably a decent bet if you are Silver to not pay extra for F, because there is a good chance you will be upgraded.

  4. Charlie says:

    I think there’s quite a lot that cabin crew / check in staff THINK they know which actually isn’t the case (as highlighted in Rob’s case here)

    How the Discretionary Upgrade Tool works is another example – you see lots of BA staff claiming it works in xyz way, but frankly BA would be mad to tell anyone details of the algorithm.

    • An algorithm???

      Surely just like downgrades, that’s all “random” too? *cough* 🙂

      • Axel heyst says:

        It’s possible Anon, Fuzzy Logic may have induced your downgrade.

        BA’s infrastructure (what us old guys call computers) may have made a decision without any human intervention.

        Something to sleepover..

  5. Slightly off topic, yet I wanted to share another example of where I see BA becoming even more mean spirited.

    I flew back from Malta to LGW last week and had treated myself to Club. There were no alternatives to the main meal (there was a menu and options on the way out) so the cabin crew was extremely apologetic and told us all to put this in writing (inferring that this would be taken seriously).

    Now I know that at the end of the day, this issue is a small one, compared to the others I’ve read about on here, but I put said email together and sent it in.

    I have been struck by the coldness of response. It was the usual words about being a valued Gold member, and we look forward to seeing you on your next flight…

    I wrote back and thanked them for their words, yet actions speak louder than words – what about a goodwill gesture, especially as I’d paid for Club and wanted a bit of a treat. As we know, the legroom is not like it was in the old days so the meal is really the only differentiator on short haul.

    They wrote back and said that if I wanted to pursue this, I’d have to take it up with the CEDR! Sledgehammers and nuts come to mind.

    So I wanted to share how I responded in the end:

    Sadly that’s exactly the type of response which will alienate me as a future frequent flyer of yours.

    Loyalty doesn’t count for much, these days, does it?

    Let me give you a couple of examples of excellent customer service to illustrate how to do it well:

    1. I stayed at a hotel this week where the lift was broken. I had to trudge up and down steep flights of stairs for three days. The hotel offered me, unsolicited, some drinks vouchers for the bar.

    2. BT has taken six weeks to sort out my direct debit with them. They have offered me £20 goodwill gesture as an apology.

    I can also list numerous other examples over the years such as Nationwide, Barclaycard, Lloyds, Unilever.

    All it would have taken to make me feel like I’m a valued customer, is, say, 5000 Avios, which in real terms would have cost you next to nothing.

    Instead, it’s left a very bad taste and I feel even more that BA is mean spirited.

    Just thought I’d let you know. Don’t expect it to make any difference, sadly.

    • BruceN says:

      I had no idea there were ever ‘alternatives to the main meal’ in CE…. other than ordering vegetarian option in advance…

    • My sister flew back from the Caribbean in a dirty cabin and only one food option as they forgot to load other food. She got offered 2k Avios for 2 people…

    • Martin says:

      Giles, I have even had BA run out of the meal I wanted in First. In fact it might be more likely there because the cost of the meals ensures that waste is expensive.

  6. Keeping the critical thinking going…

    I wonder how regular J/F flexi fare paying pax would feel about FLY and DCS completely ignoring their CIV and randomly selecting them over some Tesco Tourist on an Avios redemption??


    • They would probably feel a bit peeved, however lets face it the majority of J/F flexi fare passengers are travelling on the companies dime and are forced into using a specific carrier as part of a corporate deal. Not a lot they can do about it.

    • I see your point, but if I was a frequent business flyer I might be tempted not to disrupt someone’s holiday of a lifetime (not that I imagine there are many business travellers to the Maldives, but when it comes to other destinations…)

  7. O/T

    Just received a targeted email from Amex to upgrade from gold to platinum same annual fee but offer of 20k MR points for spending £1k in first three months. This is versus the 35k and spend £2k if you refer me rob.

    Any thoughts on it being a good offer?

  8. BA-related – big banner now showing in Amex online a/c offering 3k for first approved additional cardholder. Happy to oblige them for a cheeky few Avios!

  9. Good quote from FT user…

    For normal Golds and below BA has essentially decided to stop offering service recovery and hasn’t attempted to actually address service issues personally, hence the borderline offensive template replies to what can at times be very genuine service issues.

  10. Matador says:

    My experience from a BA ATH-LHR flight when I volunteered to give away my reserved seat on an overbooked flight. I was happy with the offer and I wasn’t in a hurry so I gave my seat up.
    I was told to hang around though and I recall I was given some coupon for coffee/sandwich but I had to exchange them inside the duty-free section which i wasn’t able to enter without checking in first.
    So after about an hour I was called to the desk and was told that finally the did have a seat for me. It wasn’t my original nice seat but a middle one and apart from that I had to go running straight to boarding so there wasn’t any time to do any duty free shopping or grab the snacks.

    So overall a rather unpleasant experience for someone who volunteered to do good. If (big IF) i ever decided to give away my seat again I will grab the compensation payment and will leave the airport (or say that I will leave the airport) immediately with my new ticket.

    • Monopolies commission says:

      Does that mean to say they do or do not give you a boarding pass for the next service you are booked on at the initial point of volunterring?

      • Roosit says:

        I don’t know about Matador but when it happened to us we didn’t get the boarding passes for the next services we were potentially going to take at the initial point of volunteering. We only received the food voucher (straight away, to be used landside no problem in our case) and yes, I agree, there is no time for duty free shopping or anything if you end up flying on the originally booked flight.

      • Matador says:

        The people who volunteered but said they would leave the airport and return for the next flight they were told to go to the ticket desk where they were rebooked into the next flight and left.
        The guys like me that didn’t have anywhere to go or just decided to stay at the airport were told to wait until the flight was about to close and then most of us were actually able to board but in different seats that the ones we were booked and had to rush in to boarding with no duty free.

        That’s why I said if you decide to wait it out best to confirm your seat on the next flight saying that I will leave the airport or something like that rather than have to hung around. My 2c anyway …

    • Vinnycabs says:

      This is the case with BA at least …When they think things are on the line , that is the flight get’s overbooked and the commercial selling overbooking revenue which I believe to be on average 10% which is expected for passengers not turning up and then actually is a risk of passengers showing up , then the call for volunteers to reflight is called..
      BA are generous with compensation for volunteeers when this happens but quite often seats open up as the marginal safety line and the volunteers are stood down ..By that time the popular seats are taken and the volunteers find themselves split from family and partners ..
      It would be good if volunteers.got some sort of minimum recognition for stepping up to the plate and finding themselves in this situation ..Maybe Avios points or a cost price duty free buy might help…

      • Callum says:

        They do – food vouchers. Obviously it’s very little, but if they get enough people volunteering on that basis, why bother increasing it?

        In fact, if the uproar over the removal of free food on short-haul is anything to go by, it’s actually a rather significant benefit!

  11. Mike G says:

    Back in the old days, my then girlfriend got asked to volunteer her seat as her flight was overbooked. She did, got £200 and was upgraded to Club World (WT+ didn’t exist then).

    We won’t see the likes of those days again! However, I did recall her saying that the cabin crew were especially rude to her, so plus ca change…

  12. the real harry1 says:

    the uproar isn’t about the removal of free food but the removal of free food & drink paid for when you bought the ticket

  13. Guys, I am booking for LHR-SIN-LHR around last week of April for onward and return at the end of first week of may. I have 55k BA airmiles, 25k amex rewards points. BA Avios shows 45k+£344 for a return ticket (plus different options to payment with reduced avios points). Amex travel offer of £50 off £250 has expired as of end of Feb. Any suggestions on other avios options. Thanks Raj

  14. I booked and paid for a holiday at Sandals in the Bahamas through BA June last year flying world traveller plus. This was a total cost of £6400.00. On our return when we git to check in we were told that world traveller had been over sold and one of us would be downgraded to economy, no seats available in club world. We tried to reason with them but was told if we didn’t take the seat we couldn’t fly out for another 2 days. My husband had a very uncomfortable journey home. I have been in touch with BA and so far all we have is an apologie, not even a refund of the difference between world traveller plus and economy let alone any further compensation.
    I have contacted them again asking for the refund but still waiting to hear from them. Will let you know the outcome. Very unhappy with BA

  15. kevino says:

    Anybody had any experience of being downgraded when booked on BA flights but through one world partners, such as Iberia or AA?