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Downgraded: What to do when Air Canada upgrades go wrong?

To the point Learn what to do when Air Canada upgrades go wrong: reasons, solutions, and how to handle being downgraded.

There are many ways to score a seat in a premium cabin nowadays. Still, upgrades can sometimes go wrong where you are downgraded from business class into premium economy or economy on Air Canada. It’s important to note that this is relatively rare, and there are more successful upgrade stories where people fly their entire itinerary in comfort without any problems.

In this article, we will discuss why downgrades can happen and what you can do about it as we enter peak summer travel. While we are focusing on Air Canada, this can also be generalized across other airlines.

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How to get upgraded on Air Canada?

Before talking about being downgraded, we’ll start with a little quick reminder on the ways you can get an upgrade on Air Canada.

Whether you pay for your flight with points or with cash, you can score a seat in the front of the plane either by:

Having the right credit card can help tremendously, such as the  TD® Aeroplan® Visa Infinite* Card or the TD® Aeroplan® Visa Infinite Privilege* Card. Indeed, those cards offer a generous sign-up bonus and allow you to earn Aeroplan points so you can fly more comfortably at a fraction of the actual cost.

Over time, they can also help you reach an Aeroplan Elite Status, where you can earn those infamous eUpgrade credits where you can strategically book an economy class ticket and travel in business class.

The TD® Aeroplan® Visa Infinite* Card isn’t too pricey to keep in your wallet in the long term, and you can reach 25K, the first Elite Status level, without even flying. You can even waive the annual fees with the proper TD bank account.

On the other hand, the TD® Aeroplan® Visa Infinite Privilege* Card allows you to jump levels faster by earning more SQM and SQS on your spending.

Reasons why you can be downgraded

It is worth noting that downgrades aren’t common, but they can happen. However, we’ve heard more positive experiences, thankfully.

Here are the main reasons why you may be downgraded.

Reduced cabin capacity

Your upgrade may have been confirmed, but the airline has the right to swap planes for scheduling and management purposes.

Indeed, a B787-9 has 30 business class seats, while a B787-8 only has 20. Another example can sometimes be a flight operation plane reassignment where the route was initially planned with a B777 with 40 business class seats to a B787 with 20 or 30 seats.

Reducing the capacity can occur to optimize the fleet and schedule, replace a broken plane, etc.

Therefore, if there is a swap, whether in advance or at the last minute at the gate, you may be downgraded. You can also set up an alert on ExpertFlyer to be notified if an aircraft swap happens so you can try to address the problem as soon as possible.

Deadheading Pilots

As with any airline, Air Canada sometimes needs to position its pilots to operate flights; they have pilots based in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg. However, they can run out of available pilots in one hub and according to their contract, the company might have to fly them in business class.

International routes are not spared. For example, if a pilot is struck with a “Delhi belly’’ during their layover in India, Air Canada may have to send one to New Delhi to operate the flight back as they would be one pilot down.

When that happens, the company may have its hands tied and may have to choose between downgrading a passenger or cancelling another flight due to crew availability since the deadheading pilot may be able to refuse to report for duty if their contract is not honoured; they will constantly evaluate the least costly option for them.

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The company rules about deadheading pilots are very clear regarding when they must comply with the pilots’ contract to seat them in business class, and it varies between the different pilot positions. For example, captains are always almost guaranteed a seat in front when deadheading, even at the last minute. On the other side, they may downgrade a business class passenger to accommodate a first officer only up to a few days before the flight.

In addition, first officers who are deadheading at the last minute will be given a higher priority on the upgrade list, above eUpgrades waiting to clear at the gate.

Deadheading pilots are not always dressed in uniform.

Pilot rest seat

The number of pilots in the cockpit varies from one route to another. Indeed, there will be 4 pilots on duty on a flight from Montreal to New Delhi, while a Vancouver to Toronto flight will have a two-pilot crew, even if it’s the same B787 plane being used. That is because the pilots must rest between their shifts on longer flights.

According to their contract, the company must block out business class seats for them to rest during the flight. You can see if one is blocked when the available seats are less than usual (for example, the 787-9 has 30).

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This is usually planned, so you won’t usually be downgraded for that reason, as they already limited the number of seats on that particular aircraft and flight. However, if there is a delay, they may have to add another pilot to the crew so the initial crew does not time out.

Indeed, let’s say two pilots usually operate the Montreal to Dublin flight, and there’s a horrendous storm that brings a 5-hour delay; since a two-pilot crew is only authorized to be on duty for a certain amount of time, Air Canada may have to add another pilot to increase the duty time for the flight to be able to take off.

Some will argue that pilots have a designated crew rest area on the plane (called the bunk); you should know that not all aircraft do.

On Air Canada’s widebody fleet:

  • The B-777 does not have blocked seats for the pilot’s rest as their bunk area is big enough to accommodate them.
  • The B-787 usually blocks one seat on longer flights as their bunk is not large enough for them.
  • The A-330 does not have a bunk. Therefore, for their privacy, you will see a curtained blocked seat on some flights.
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Irregular Operations and broken seats

When a flight is cancelled, the company has the obligation to re-dispatch the affected passengers onto other aircraft and honour, as best as possible, the original booking class.

This is rare, but if they find a broken seat on the plane, you may be downgraded at the last minute. It doesn’t matter if your own seat is fine; if one is inoperable, they may give it to a passenger with a higher priority whose seat is broken and downgrade you instead.

Downgrade priority

Whenever the company must downgrade a passenger for any of the reasons above, it is done according to a priority list.

Indeed, between a passenger who used eUpgrades credits on a Latitude Economy fare and a person who purchased a full-fare business class seat, the latter will get to keep his seat in favour of the other. If all passengers are on equal fares, they will look at status, check-in times, etc.

The gate agents will have that information from their system and call out their downgrade victim if there is a need for one.

What to do if you are downgraded?

When a downgrade happens, you can ask if there is a way to rebook you on another flight if available. When this is done well in advance, chances are that it will be done smoothly when you call the airline.

However, if you face this while at the gate and don’t want to fly in economy, you may be out of luck unless there are missed connections, no shows or open spaces on another flight. Always stay kind to the gate agents; they do not make the rules and must follow them.

If you were upgraded with eUpgrades credits or with a bid, you would receive a refund of those if you are downgraded. If you straight out booked a confirmed seat in a premium cabin, you are entitled to a refund for the fare difference. According to some feedback in our community, additional compensation may also be given.

Bottom Line

Being downgraded can be infuriating, and it can happen on rare occasions, mainly for deadheading pilots, crew rest rules and irregular operations. All these things are not within your control.

While eUpgrades and bid upgrades are great ways to fly more comfortably at a lower cost, you have a better chance of keeping your seat if you booked a confirmed premium ticket from the get-go.

With many Aeroplan credit cards giving out generous sign-up bonuses, it may be worth it for your peace of mind to be on top of the pecking order when a rare downgrade must occur.

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Aline Nguyen
I'm Aline, an experienced traveller, a foodie at heart, an Avgeek, a photography enthusiast and an expert on credit card programs. I use Reward Points to travel on a budget and to save money on everyday life; writing about these topics allows me to share my passion and help you. ~ 7 continents and 75 countries ~

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