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While not often, international business class cabins can end up in an oversold situation. Most airlines have a policy of not selling more seats than available and a primary reason for such a situation arises due to an equipment swap.
The economy cabin ends up in oversold scenarios more frequently because airlines intentionally oversell seats, may have weight issues, and possibly have crew needing a seat. When this happens there are two scenarios, the airline will ask for volunteers to be put on a later flight and in exchange are given compensation such as airline credit or gift cards for the inconvenience.
As a reminder, Delta is allowed to offer up to $9,500 in compensation and United can offer up to $10,000 to get volunteers to take a later flight, however be sure to see Why You Might Not Want To Volunteer To Bump On an Oversold Flight.The other scenario is when no one volunteers, and the airline is forced to do involuntarily deny boarding to a passenger which requires the airline to follow certain federally mandated guidelines to remedy the situation.
Per this Flyertalk thread, a Delta flight from Detroit to Shanghai experienced an oversold business class cabin where they needed 2 passengers to downgrade from Delta One to Premium Select on an A350-900. Initially the offer started at $600 and quickly climbed to $2,000 before an individual volunteered. The compensation was in addition to the fare-difference being reimbursed and brings up many opinions on what the best way is to handle such a predicament.
The first interesting point is that Department of Transportation (DOT) rules explicitly state that “bumped passengers are NOT eligible for compensation in the following situations; A passenger is downgraded from a higher class of seating to a lower class. In this case, the passenger is entitled to a refund for the difference in price.” This means that the actions of the airline are entirely based on goodwill, public relations, and customer service.
It’s not public information of how the airline would select which passenger gets downgraded and conceivably any business class passenger is at risk. Therefore, by volunteering to be downgraded you create the opportunity to earn a voucher or other compensation for the inconvenience. In the case of the Delta flight from the US to China, a flight time of over 12 hours, each flyer needs to assess what they consider appropriate for compensation as it can vary depending on purpose of travel, who purchased the ticket (business or personal), and how different the class of service change is perceived.
However, it might be worth exploring other options as a volunteer such as changing to a different flight, maybe a later flight, or perhaps heading to another airport in the region and connecting on an alliance partner. When volunteering, the airline is interested in getting you to your destination and willing to be flexible with the available resources. Being a business class passenger should open up a few more options, but ultimately the airline can for a downgrade with no compensation.
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below if you’ve ever had a flight oversold in the premium cabin.