I recently flew to London on US Airways out of Philadelphia. I booked an economy class ticket, placed an ExpertFlyer alert for upgradable C space, and waited. Luckily, many weeks before the flight, I got an alert that C space was available, so I called in to use a SWU to upgrade to business class. US Airways might not have the best service or anything, but business class on their A330s is a pretty solid hard product (see here for an old trip report on the A330 in business class; I’d also like to add a caveat that US Airways still flies 757s on some transatlantic routes, including on PHL-LHR, and these planes are not very nice in business class and coach and should be avoided).
I checked in online, printed my boarding pass before I got to the airport, checked out the BA lounge at the airport, and then went to board. Unfortunately, when I boarded, the little machine made a dreaded beeping sound, and the boarding agent told me that I had to see a gate agent to get a new boarding pass. This is never a good sign when you’re in the highest class of service on a plane (it can often be a good sign if you’re in economy class).
I talked to the gate agent and, lo and behold, I had been downgraded due to an equipment swap. They had switched from an A330-300, which has 28 business class seats, to an A330-200, which has 20 business class seats. And since I had upgraded using a SWU, I was one of the unlucky few to get downgraded back to coach. The gate agent offered a seat in economy class which would have an empty seat next to me.
My first response was to ask if I could get placed in business class on the British Airways flight departing soon after. ExpertFlyer said that they had space in business class, and I know that AA will reaccommodate in business class on BA for confirmed upgrades in the case of IRROPS. Unfortunately, the gate agent said that the flight was full, which I didn’t believe was strictly true, but I didn’t press too hard on this issue.
My next tactic was to check ExpertFlyer for alternate routings to LHR, and EF said that I could route through Manchester on US Airways for the transatlantic segment and BA for the short MAN to LHR hop. I asked the gate agent, and she was happy to reaccommodate me on that flight in business class. Yes, I’d be arriving in London a couple of hours later, but I’d get my lie-flat seat.
I was not the only person downgraded, and I heard the same conversation happening next to me with an older couple also being downgraded. Their response was to say that they could not accept seats in coach because the man could medically not sit in a coach seat for a transatlantic flight. When the gate agent couldn’t do anything for them, they asked for a supervisor, who essentially said the same thing. They eventually begrudgingly got on the flight with seats in coach.
So what’s the moral of this story? Be prepared with information when things like downgrades or IRROPS happen. If you just rely on the agents, you might not get the optimal outcome (in my case, a business class seat for the long-haul flight) because they’re not incentivized to do what’s best for you. ExpertFlyer is an invaluable tool in these cases, as you can suggest routings that might not immediately occur to the agent.
To a lesser extent, another moral (which is true in all of life) is to just be nice to people. The gate agent can’t help the fact that they downgraded the aircraft, so yelling at him/her is not going to make them swap the plane. It’s in your best interest to get the agent on your side, and a good way to do that is by being nice and understanding that they’re in a stressful situation as well dealing with unhappy passengers. More generally, being nice will probably make you happier than getting angry.