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Downgraded from First Class by British Airways? You could get a 75% refund.

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In the last few days we’ve had a lot of questions regarding your rights if you find you have been downgraded on a flight.

The reason was the withdrawal of the Boeing 747 from the British Airways fleet which has reduced the number of First Class seats across the network.  British Airways has been downgrading many passengers who were booked in First Class on a 747 route, presumably in anticipation of replacing the aircraft with one without First.

Claiming British Airways downgrade compensation

Luckily, there are comprehensive consumer protection laws in place for such an eventuality. EC261 (and, from 2021, UK law) requires that airlines refund between 30% and 75% of your ticket cost if they downgrade you.

Here is the exact wording, from the EU law website.

Article 10: Upgrading and downgrading

1. If an operating air carrier places a passenger in a class higher than that for which the ticket was purchased, it may not request any supplementary payment.

2. If an operating air carrier places a passenger in a class lower than that for which the ticket was purchased, it shall within seven days, by the means provided for in Article 7(3), reimburse

(a) 30 % of the price of the ticket for all flights of 1500 kilometres or less, or

(b) 50 % of the price of the ticket for all intra-Community flights of more than 1500 kilometres, except flights between the European territory of the Member States and the French overseas departments, and for all other flights between 1500 and 3500 kilometres, or

(c) 75 % of the price of the ticket for all flights not falling under (a) or (b), including flights between the European territory of the Member States and the French overseas departments.

Bear in mind that the refund only applies to the affected sectors.  If only the outbound flight of a return trip is downgraded, you are only eligible for a refund on that particular flight, not the booking as a whole.

Where the flights on a single booking are not priced individually, the refund will be based on a pro-rata calculation of the distance of the affected sector.

It gets slightly more complicated. In a 2016 ruling, the European Court of Justice found that the percentage refund applies only AFTER any relevant taxes:

“the price of the ticket to be taken into consideration for the purposes of determining the reimbursement owed to that passenger, where he is downgraded on a flight, is solely the price of the flight itself, to the exclusion of taxes and charges indicated on that ticket, as long as neither the requirement to pay those taxes and charges nor their amount depends on the class for which that ticket has been purchased.

I’ll admit the wording is a little confusing, but my (non-lawyer) understanding is that

the reimbursement excludes the taxes of the booking if the taxes remain unchanged, ie. a downgrade from first class to business class

the reimbursement includes the taxes if the downgrade changes the rate of taxation, ie. a downgrade from premium economy to economy, where economy taxes can still be charged

It is also unclear how the carrier surcharges that British Airways charges should be treated. As you’ll see from the examples below, these are often significantly higher than the taxes themselves.

Let’s take a look at some real-world examples

Here are the lowest fares in the next 12 months to New York in all cabins on British Airways. In brackets, I have added the taxes that British Airways charges and which you can see during the booking process (click on ‘Price Breakdown’ and then ‘Taxes, fees and carrier charges’ for a full breakdown) or in your e-ticket email.

First – £2343 (includes £245 taxes, £428 in ‘carrier imposed surcharges’)
Club World (business class) – £1302 (includes £249 taxes, £428 surcharges)
World Traveller Plus (premium economy) – £556 (includes £249 taxes, £138 surcharges)
World Traveller (economy) – £268 (includes £115 taxes, £148 surcharges)

Since London to New York is over 3,500 kilometres you are entitled to 75% of the original fare back. Unfortunately, taxes complicates this calculation, as some taxes vary by class of travel (such as APD) and some don’t.

For simplicity, I’ll treat the taxes as a lump sum, although you may want to make a more granular calculation.

This is the cost of your flight after you get your refund, assuming both legs are downgraded:

First to Club World: £769 (£1,573 refund)
Club World to World Traveller Plus: £512 (£789 refund)
World Traveller Plus to World Traveller: £225 (£330 refund)

In most cases, the net cost to you is less than the cheapest fares in your downgraded cabin.

This is especially true in premium classes, where a downgrade to Club World would be just over half of what you’d normally expect to pay. After receiving your compensation, your flights might be the cheapest you ever booked!

You should also bear in mind that these examples use the lowest fares available. Where you have booked higher fares the savings are likely to be greater as the taxes make up a smaller percentage of the overall cost.

The maths is less favourable across shorter distances. A typical return trip to Amsterdam, for example, is £64 in Euro Traveller (economy) and £160 in Club Europe (business class). Because London and Amsterdam are less than 1,500 kilometres apart you are only entitled to a 30% refund.

This would mean, for a downgrade from Club Europe, you are effectively paying £74 for an economy ticket that would otherwise have cost you £64. Not exactly ideal.

What about Avios redemptions?

The same regulations apply regardless of how the flight was paid for. British Airways may attempt to refund you the difference in Avios between the two cabins, but there is no clause in Article 10 to suggest that frequent flyer redemptions should be treated differently.

Whilst there has been no clear ruling on the matter, EC261 suggests that it is only taxes and not carrier imposed fees that are exempt from reimbursement.  Given the significant level of surcharges BA levies on Avios tickets you are likely entitled to 30%, 50% or 75% of both Avios AND a portion of the cash paid in surcharges.

Do I get to keep my luggage allowance or lounge access?

In short, maybe. Last year, British Airways offered this guidance internally when it flew an A350 without a First cabin to Dubai:

“Baggage allowance, lounge access, Tier points and Avios earned will be based on the cabin of travel not from the original ticketed flight.”

There is anecdotal evidence that you can call British Airways to protect your original baggage allowance, although neither EC261 nor BA’s own guidelines set this out in writing.

You are less likely to be able to access the lounge class of your original booking, although again there have been individual cases in which British Airways has done so.

Conclusion

Remember that for EC261 to apply you must be departing from an EU (or UK) airport on any airline, or arriving at an EU (or UK) airport on an EU airline.

EC261 will continue to apply after the Brexit transition period on 1st January 2021, as this will automatically be converted into UK law.

The easiest way to make your compensation claim is to call or email your airline directly. If you are claiming for a  downgraded British Airways flight you can do so here.

Comments (83)

  • ChrisC says:

    EC261 has been U.K. law since 2004 – via Statutory Instrument – and will remain so until it is either repealed or replaced by the same Westminster Parliament that passed the original S.I.

    It doesn’t need to be converted into U.K. law next January because it is already U.K. law.

    As to proper taxes such as APD yes these are excluded from the calculation of the reimbursement (the word specifically used in the regulation rather than compensation) but if you are downgraded to economy then you will receive the straight difference between the two tax rates. Same with any airport fees (but these tend to be the same whatever cabin you are flying in so make no difference anyway). Airlines shouldn’t have to reimburse you for elements of the fare that they have no control over.

  • Michael Andrew says:

    How can taxes in CW and WTP be higher than in F. It defies logic!

    • ChrisC says:

      Proper taxes (like APD) are the same in CW and F.

      BA surcharges can and do vary.

      Which is why using the proper language is important and taxes aren’t the same as surcharges and it’s wrong to roll it all up under the ‘taxes’ heading – especially with an issue when the proper taxes are treated differently from surcharges.

  • Adrian says:

    We had a flight to Capetown that was cancelled in F and we got a full refund from BA.
    We’ve had a flight cancellation email from BA for our Vegas flights which move to a 772, but BA regard this as a cabin closure (as the flight number is the same and time of departure is very similar) and they will not re-route us (through LA or DFW etc in F) and they will not provide a full refund, we have to pay to cancel as the flight is still running. As Rob says, post flight we would be eligible for the 75% downgrade, not that i think the flight will go ahead anyway.

    • Tariq says:

      I located Avios F availability to PHX & SFO, and change my downgraded LAS flights to PHX outbound and SFO inbound – it just forces us into doing a road trip and covering a few places, rather than the one centre LAS holiday that we had originally planned!

  • Simon Williamson says:

    We have just had a F booking (avios & companion voucher) to San Jose downgraded to club as no longer F on this route. I have called you first and asked for flight to be switched to Los Angeles so we could keep our outbound in First. You first are having none of it. No avios availability to LAX so no go. Only prepared to cancel booking or refund us difference between F & club. I pushed it that I didn’t believe there has to be avios availability only availability in the cabin but told that only applied with a date change if the route remains the same. Is this correct? Anyone offer any advice or am I flogging a dead horse?

    • Paul Banks says:

      Phone back up.

      Ive had the same thin, F booking into San Jose cancelled and no availability into San Francisco in F or CW. First time I called I was told either cancel or accept the downgrade as the flight wasnt cancelled. Left things as unsure what the best course of action was.

      Phoned the next day and now have a F booking into San Francisco even though there was no avios availability.

      Do make sure you call You First though and be polite and nice. Its apparently really busy and alot of people arent exactly polite to them.

      • Will says:

        I’ve always found them pretty good, always stay very positive and if they don’t offer anything of interest just say “I’ll consider my options”

        HUCA

  • Nick says:

    Definitely worth noting Rhys that BA is flexible with rebookings in these circumstances – particularly to/from the US where the joint business applies with AA. So for example if someone’s going to LAS which is losing F, they can ask for (and will receive) a reroute via (for example) PHX or DFW, using AA as appropriate.

    • littlefish says:

      Interesting! Thanks for this datapoint. BA had stopped transferring to AA flights for avios bookings 2 or 3 years ago (except if avios availability); which effectively ended me booking BA to LAS; as the AA (BA code share) to the long-haul departure point on the route home always changes. By which time no AA avios availability.
      Even as a BA GGL at the time I couldn’t re-book except on the BA direct ex-LAS.
      If that internal BA policy has finally been reversed then hopefully I can think about BA again.

  • gaz says:

    While the law might convert to UK next year, will it still also include any eu departure? Or will it then be limited to just uk departures?

  • Chris says:

    I’m a little unclear as to what I should expect to receive for my downgraded ticket(s) Hopefully somebody would be able to help me out?
    Situation:

    Originally booked using Amex 2 for 1 voucher :

    LHR > KUL in Club World
    KUL > LHR in First
    Flights due to take place in January 2021.

    Following the original booking, availability in First came up for LHR > KUL. I paid £70 (£35 per passenger) for the change as well as the additional Avios.

    Last week, I received an email to say that I had been moved to Club World on both flights. I called You First who advised that there is no First Cabin on this flight. I was rebooked onto Club World both legs. They refunded me the difference in Avois between First and Club World for both legs.

    They said that I was only entitled to one set of Avois refunds as the booking was on a 2 for 1. This seemed logical. However, they said that the £70 in change fees was non-refundable.

    My questions are:

    1 : Am I actually entitled to a 75% refund of the total Avois required for the First Ticket, rather than just the difference? (Even though the flight is five months away) Does the 2 for 1 make any difference?

    2 : Surely the change fee that I paid should be refundable? It seems a little one sided that they charge me for a change, then expect to be able to change me without offering any compensation or at least a refund.

    3 : Does the fact that I have accepted the difference in Avois and been re-booked into Club World mean that I have no further recourse?
    Any feedback would be welcome. Thanks.

    • AJA says:

      1 Yes and it should be for each passenger but see 3 below.
      2 I think you should be refunded the change fee as it is BA who has made this latest change, not you. You might like to try calling again.
      3 As you’ve already accepted the Avios refund I think you’ve lost out on entitlement per your q1 above. You should have held off deciding to accept the refund. You could always try it on but they won’t pay both it’s an either/or decision.

      • Chris says:

        Thanks for the reply. By either / or do you mean:

        Either : a 75% Avios refund on both tickets, but the tickets cancelled and Amex 2 for 1 returned. (If I wanted to make a new booking with my “bonus” Avios this would depend on reward availability.)

        Or : Accept, as I did, the alternative seats in Club World and the difference refunded. In this case, should I have been refunded the difference for both tickets, even though I only used one lot of Avios to get both tickets?

        Worth noting that at no point was there any mention of a 75% option on the email, or by You First. This I can understand, they wouldn’t want to shout about it. However, I explicitly asked them what all my options were. At this point I feel they should have explained in full. The agent clearly neglected to inform me.

        • AJA says:

          Sort of I mean it is choose either:
          1) Accept downgrade to Club World and refund of difference between First and Club Avios paid (this is what you’ve already accepted)

          Or
          2) Accept downgrade to Club World, do not accept refund of difference of Avios paid as in 1 above. Then fly and after you’ve flown claim 75% downgrade compensation as detailed in the article.

          You cannot do both 1 & 2. It is either 1 or 2. You’ve accepted 1 refund of upgrade Avios paid.

          I still think you should be refunded the change fees you paid when you upgraded to First.

    • Magarathea says:

      Hi Chris
      I had a similar situation last year. I was booked on a First 2-4-1 reward flight and downgraded to Club Class many months before the flight. BA refunded the difference in Avios (x1) at the time and they said this was all I was due. After the trip I put a claim into BA and they made all sorts of excuses as to why I was due nothing more. I went to CEDR who found in my favour and eventually got 75% of the ticket costs (x2) refunded. Very satisfied but it was a lot of work and you had to be very organised and not give up. Spell everything out to BA and CEDR and read through EC261 which is very readable and clear.
      To answer your specific queries.
      1. Yes, you are due the 75% reimbursement of the downgraded journey ticket costs and in fact this should be in cash as per EC261 7.3. You can use a BA Avios purchase price to value the Avios in pounds. You should get the same reimbursement for both passengers but you will have to push hard for this. You may struggle with taxes and charges as per the Mennens v Emirates case Rob referred to above.
      2. I think it would be reasonable for BA to repay this. I would suggest you phone again and write if necessary.
      3. When you are downgraded, BA will virtually automatically refund the Avios and this did not cause a problem for me.
      Good luck.

  • Derek Scott says:

    I’ve only ever been downgraded once, from First to Club, and it was whilst I was sitting in the Concorde Room. This was due to a last minute aircraft change as the original aircraft had a technical fault.

    To BA’s credit, the Duty Manager called me personally, came and met me in the lounge armed with a £500 prepaid MasterCard and the reference number for the Complaint case they raised for me, to arrange the balance of refund I’d be due that would be organised for me. I didn’t need to do anything.

    That’s the type of service that impresses.

    • Anna says:

      I’m assuming you weren’t on a 2 4 1 booking!
      Hopefully they didn’t also boot you out into Galleries South…

      • Derek Scott says:

        I was on an Avios upgrade fare, and no, wasn’t booted out. In fact, mistakenly, I still got the cash refund too, a few weeks later (it had happened a few days after the major IT outage 3 years sgo).