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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

On the move: When a downgrade feels like an upgrade 

What happens when The National’s travel editor gets downgraded to economy?

It's a long way from to Dubai to Seattle. Photo by Rosemary Behan
It's a long way from to Dubai to Seattle. Photo by Rosemary Behan

“Denied boarding”. These are not the words any traveller wants to hear, but more so when you’re on this particular flight, of all flights, and you really need to catch it. I’d booked my seat on EK229 from Dubai to Seattle months ago. Business class, of course, because of the 14-hour flight time and horribly early departure, because I’d been working all week beforehand and because five hours after landing in Seattle, I’d be getting on a boat bound for Alaska.

The timings were perfect, but it also had the potential to be a perfect storm. If the flight was cancelled, or delayed, I’d miss my cruise. Emirates doesn’t have a habit of messing up flights, so I was fairly confident it would all be fine. Yet I had a feeling something would happen. Ten days before departure I’d gone online to reserve my seat, and that’s when the first alarm bells went off. The entire cabin was fully booked, and I seemed to be stuck with a middle seat in a 42-seat business class cabin.

The next rumble of danger occurred when, two days before the flight, I received an email notification to check in online but when I tried to do so, a message popped up on screen saying “Online check-in is unavailable”.

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Read more from Rosemary:

A stay in the 'in-between' zone

Planning a trip to Alaska

Reverse culture shock in London

If you want peace, travel

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I called Emirates, who explained that the flight was “too full” for online check-in and it would have to be done at the airport. But there was nothing to worry about, as my seat was confirmed. After a sleepless night, I arrived at the airport check-in counters more than three hours before departure. Again, there was an air of unease. Almost immediately, the check-in agent was on the phone.

I heard the phrase “denied boarding” but thought that could not possibly apply to me. Yet it was happening – I had been bumped. The check-in agent explained that the flight was overbooked, and the business and first class cabins were full because most of the other passengers were connecting from India and further afield, so had checked in ahead of me. Every seat had been allocated, and mine was not showing on her screen.

After a mild panic, I was told that I could fly in economy and receive “compensation” in the form of a voucher for a return Emirates flight anywhere in the world. So I would fly in economy today, (hopefully) back in business class on the return, and I could do the whole trip again in business class for free at a time of my choosing before this time next year.

I could also use the business class lounge today. “Can I have an exit seat?” I asked. Even better, I was given a window bulkhead seat in the first small economy cabin behind business and the seat next to me was blocked. Once my economy boarding pass was safely printed, I signed on the dotted line and carried on. Somehow, being downgraded felt like an upgrade.