Finnair downgraded me. ”Downgraded”?!?

POSTED: August 4, 2019

When Naa turned eighteen Irma took her to Chiang Mai for two weeks, to celebrate, and Auo asked where I would take her where she had her eighteenth birthday. I asked where she would like to go. “Hawaii”, she said immediately. (She did not say this randomly. She had desperately wanted to go there since she turned four.) “Okay”, I said. “Seriously?”, she asked. “Promise”, I answered.

Now I will live up to my promise and, since Auo can no longer come, Irma will come instead. It will stand as the very last thing we can do for her before August 30, when we should have celebrated her eighteenth birthday and the start of her adulthood.

Months ago we used our carefully saved Finnair points to upgrade our flight to Los Angeles to business class. This felt more like an emotionally complex pilgrimage than a simple vacation, and we both had mixed emotions about it, so we wanted it to feel special: as much for Auo (or our memory of her) as for us.

We also upgraded for very practical reasons. We will fly to Honolulu early tomorrow morning, on a second long flight, and we wanted to make sure that we will get some sleep before we land in the States about 6am head-time.

At the gate the woman checking my ticket said “Ah, you’re the one they have downgraded”. “Not me,” I said, and so they called a supervisor. I learned that Finnair had indeed decided to downgrade me: not us, just me. “The flight has been overbooked and the computer has decided that you are the most eligible for downgrading.”

I pointed out that someone had phoned Irma late this morning to (as we understood) ask if we would downgrade because of overbooking. Irma had explained our situation; and we thought that, by the end of the conversation, the woman who phoned had accepted that she should find someone else.

I also pointed out that the flight did not overbook itself. Someone at Finnair had overbooked it, or caused it to become overbooked, either as policy or by accident, and now Finnair expected us to pay the price for this.

The woman at the gate agreed that business class contained other people who had upgraded: some of them travelling alone, and some of them ending their journey in LA. But “the computer” had decided to nominate me, and apparently nobody could do anything about it.

I confess that I didn’t even know downgrading existed. Way to go, Finnair.

However I can usually spot bullshit when I someone gives it to me, and right here, right now, I spot bullshit.

If you overbook flights as a matter of policy then you need to have another policy in place to deal with the inevitable outcomes of the overbooking policy. If you really hand the problems you have created over to an algorithm then you need to make sure it has all the information it needs to make decisions.

In this case, it needs to know two things at the very least: who has a travelling companion and who doesn’t, and who has an onward connection, and who doesn’t. If Finnair doesn’t have that information then it needs to find it out – by phoning all the potential candidates if necessary – before it tells “the computer” to make a decision.

At the moment, as I write this somewhere over Norway, I realise that I have not got the sleeping cushion and neck-rest I would have brought with me if I had known I would find myself in seat 21H for the next eleven hours. I notice that the man next to me seems determined to fight for every last centimetre of the shared armrest. I will probably sleep very little, if at all.o

Meanwhile Irma sits on her own in business class, stressed about me sitting here, and with the joy of the journey soured. She has come back several times to apologise for getting the good food, and the comfortable chair/bed. She does not feel at all happy with the situation. She will probably sleep very little, if at all.

The advertised point of upgrading becomes meaningless if it proves a mere favour that Finnair can withdraw at any point right up to the moment that you board. I thought we had made an agreement. I guess you have some small print that absolves you of responsibility.

Vegetarian option? Sorry sir, you need to pre-book that in economy class. Fish? Only in business class sir! Okay, no dinner for me then.

You should never believe a favour from Finnair, it would seem, or plan under the impression that it will come true – or you might find yourself like me: on an eleven hour flight with none of the things you need, all of which you could easily have brought with you from home, if only you had known.

Having said all this, the ground staff and the crew all behaved impeccably, and clearly felt very embarrassed about the situation.

The woman at the airport had not made the decision but found herself having to give out the bad news and absorb our response, which had more to do with sadness and despair than any kind of entitled anger. She kindly assigned me to the Economy Plus row, so I had leg room “and free headphones”.

The flight crew gave me a consolation glass of sparkling wine before take-off and a free wifi voucher. They did all they could, and more.

I have no complaints about the people from Finnair that I met. None at all. I never do. I never have, in the twenty years I have used Finnair as my carrier of choice.

My complaint lies entirely with Finnair’s apparent policy of overbooking flights (which does not happen by accident), and the disconnect between the people creating and enacting that policy, and the ground crew and flight crew left to deal with the consequences of the corporate fuck up that sometimes follows.

Corporate fuck up indeed, Finnair.

Now explain to me again how “refunding my points” will help me sleep tonight on this eleven hour flight, prepare me for my follow-on flight, and get our pilgrimage off to the best possible start.

After you have done that, you might want to congratulate me on switching, years ago, to a Finnair Mastercard, precisely so I can gather points to upgrade on flights like this that feel (for whatever reason) important to me, even if not to you.

Finally you might want to explain how I can feel certain that “upgrading” actually means that I will get upgraded.

And stay upgraded.