Booked in business class — confirmed in economy

When Lars Koch checked his flight confirmation, he discovered something troubling. He had expected to be seated in business class on each leg of his round-trip flight on Airberlin to Germany. But the confirmation showed that he was to be seated in the back of the plane for two legs of his trip.

What had gone wrong with Airberlin’s reservation process — and why wouldn’t Airberlin help him get seats in business class?

Koch’s story is a stark reminder that there are no guarantees when purchasing air tickets, especially when online booking and code-sharing are involved.

Koch purchased a round-trip ticket from Orlando, Fla., to Hamburg, Germany, via New York and Düsseldorf, Germany. Four of the flights were on Airberlin in business class, while the Orlando-to-New York and New York-to-Orlando legs were both on Airberlin’s code-share partner, American Airlines, in first class. The itinerary Koch chose indicated that he could check two pieces of luggage “free of charge” on each leg.

Before completing the purchase, Koch took screenshots of all the relevant information, expecting to be seated in first or business class on each flight. But when he received his confirmation a few minutes later, not only was he seated in economy class on the Düsseldorf-to-Hamburg and New York-to-Orlando flights, but he was now limited to one “free” bag on the return flights.

Koch called Airberlin’s customer service, hoping that the airline would correct the seating and place him in first or business class on the Düsseldorf-to-Hamburg and New York-to-Orlando flights. But Airberlin was not helpful:

I called the Airberlin customer service four times, but no satisfactory solution was offered.

Their attitude was: It is what it is. Supervisors claimed not to be available.

I was offered an upgrade for the flight from New York to Orlando (and a second bag for the way back) for an additional charge of $2,700. Needless to say, I declined.

As Koch’s flights were scheduled to depart in seven days, he emailed his request for business class seats and his screenshots to Airberlin’s customer service agents indicated that they had an email backlog of five to seven days.

Related story:   Is this enough compensation for a partially flown flight?

He received the following response to his email:

Thank you for your email.

Please be informed that … our colleagues from Service Center already communicated to you the only options available that we have to offer to you for the moment are either a cancellation and a full refund for this reservation or keeping the flights that you currently have and filling in a complaint on our website.

Please fill [in the] online form available at the following link:

After your complaint will be processed, you will receive an answer regarding your query in an email.

We would kindly ask you for your patience because the complaints are processed by incoming date.

Please accept our sincere apologies for this inconvenience.

If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact our team at any time again.

Koch might have escalated his complaint to Airberlin executives using our contact information, but he asked our advocates for assistance instead. His desired resolution was to be booked in business class on the Airberlin flight from Düsseldorf to Hamburg and in first class on the American Airlines flight from New York to Orlando, with two free bags on each flight.

Unfortunately for Koch, Airberlin’s terms and conditions of carriage for Airberlin flights to and from the U.S. and Canada provide that “Carrier does not guarantee allocation of any particular space in the aircraft.”

Regardless of what is listed in Koch’s screenshots and what he paid for his flights, he never had a guarantee from Airberlin that he would be seated in business or first class.

This provision notwithstanding, our advocates felt that Airberlin owed Koch an explanation of the reason it was not providing him with the seating he had paid for on two legs of his flight, and that good customer service indicated that the airline should either uphold its implied promise of available seating during those flights or to refund those legs of his flight that were confirmed in economy class.

As Koch needed to arrive in Hamburg on the day his existing flight was scheduled to land there, he chose to keep his reservations. Airberlin provided no explanation as to why he was seated in economy class for two legs of his flight rather than business or first class. Koch decided to file a complaint with Airberlin using the link in its email. He mentioned that he was considering a partial chargeback for the seats in economy class, but our advocates advised him that Airberlin was likely to cancel his entire reservation if he pursued a chargeback for those seats.

Was Airberlin’s offer to Lars Koch of a cancellation and full refund adequate compensation?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for

  • John Baker

    After the trip, file a chargeback with your credit card company and a DOT complaint for deceptive advertising. Probably lose both because they offered a full refund and you refused but its worth a try.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Wow. This one, at least based on what’s presented in the article, seems pretty cut-and-dry: he booked and paid for business/first class for the entire trip. The fact that two of the legs were on a different (codeshare) airline should not afford them the right to stick him in a lower class of service than what he paid for. I’m baffled why the screen shots of what he purchased had no effect.

    If there’s some nuance to this story that isn’t clear to me, that would make this a reasonable thing for the airlines to do, maybe one of our air travel experts can enlighten us. But as it’s written, this seems like flat-out theft! If I booked a flight in business class, and paid the (pretty enormous) higher price for it, then found that my seat was in economy, I would be pretty PO’d.

    I hope he’s able to get some kind of compensation.

  • Bill___A

    Offering a refund is not the same as selling one thing and giving another. Was it a fat finger fare or not I wonder…

  • Jeff W.

    I am not familar with AirBerlin’s website, but I would expect that if booking I would have see that you could choose your seat when booking a first/business class fare. Granted, that probably would not have been an option for the AA code-share legs and a seat assignment would have come later. (assuming the AA flights did indeed have a first class. NYC to MCO flights are usually not on small CRJs.)

    On one hand, AirBerlin was willing to refund the airfare as I think it realized something was wrong and couldn’t fix it. Or was unwilling to fix it. So I guess that would be adequate compensation. It didn’t stick to a non-refundable rule nor did it offer a credit for future flight.

    AirBerlin should have resolved the situation and give the customer what he purchased. When it could not, it did the next best thing and offered a refund.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I don’t know if he’d lose. I don’t see how the fact that he was offered the option of a refund changes the fact that he bought something, but was given something worth significantly less. The fact that he had the option of getting his money back and getting nothing doesn’t change that fact.

    I realize that the normal rules of commerce often don’t seem to apply to air travel, but this one seems pretty clear.

  • Lindabator

    they do not use “screen shots” but receipts — he would have had one — and why not show that here?

  • Lindabator

    his receipt would clearly show what he actually paid for – why not show us that?

  • Lindabator

    Information about airberlin Business Class is available here »Information about our partner airlines’ Business Class is available here »Please be aware that on indirect flights, there may only be Economy Class seats available on feeder flights. All other benefits of Business Class will remain unaffected — dud he bother to read?

  • Lindabator

    See above – the business class ONLY applied to the Airberlin metal flights – NOT the feeder flights

  • Lindabator

    See above – he never bothered to check either – if he was not sure how to book, should have used a professional

  • Michael__K

    If you shop this itinerary right now, up until the moment payment info must be entered, it shows all the legs as “Business”. So why would the receipt after payment show something different than what is shown at the time non-refundable payment is required?

  • Michael__K

    The website has a buggy mouseover which (if you are lucky to see it when you hover in the right spot) has some disclaimer about feeder flights.

    Yet even that disclaimer states “All other benefits of Business Class will remain unaffected” — which was not honored for this customer.

    And if the Dusseldorf-Hamburg “feeder flight” on Air Berlin metal doesn’t have Business Class, then why would the itinerary confirmations on all the subsequent Review Details pages show “Business” for these legs?

  • LeeAnneClark

    Hmmm…how do you know this? I’m really curious. I’ve booked a lot of flights, and it seems to me that I usually am able to select if I want economy, business, or first class. If I select business class for the entire trip, and the plane HAS a business class (I realize some don’t, but according to the article those planes did), why would I expect to be bumped down to economy on some of the legs?

    I don’t get it. If you can make it clear, that would be great – I’ve got a lot of flights to book soon, and I do sometimes book business class…I don’t want to get bumped down!

  • John Baker

    Even in normal business, if I can’t deliver what I’ve promised, normally a full refund is sufficient. They didn’t wait months. They let him know in minutes.

  • Michael__K

    Air Berlin uses the “Hold” method for complying with the DOT’s 24 hour rule, so all paid reservations are immediately non-refundable.

    If the customer asked for a refund within minutes of payment because they made a mistake, would Air Berlin provide it?

    Just earlier this week, we saw a case here involving Turkish Airlines (which also uses the “Hold” method) where a customer tried to cancel a reservation within minutes, and Turkish Airlines denied that request.

  • John Baker

    The hold method isn’t relevant to the discussion. Air Berlin realized they couldn’t provide what they promised and offered a full refund. He was free to go find any other flight at that point. He opted not to. It was done quickly enough that there should have effectively been 0 impact on his ability to make the purchase somewhere else… If you contract for lunch for your office and the restaurant can provide it fro any reason, they only owe you your money back.

  • Michael__K

    They sold a non-refundable reservation for consideration. So is this a two-way contract, or just a one-way contract?
    If this wasn’t an airline with special federal exemptions from local laws and common law, I think this would be pretty clear cut.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Okay, I see your point. I hadn’t thought of it that way. That does make sense. (Although so many rules that would apply to “normal business” don’t apply to airlines…but I hear ya.)

    I still think something is fishy here. It doesn’t make sense to me that he seems to have specifically booked business class for the entire trip, on planes that HAVE business class, and only after he purchased the ticket he learned that it wasn’t all business class.

    Something doesn’t smell right.

  • John Baker

    They could if they sold fare buckets and there weren’t any fares left in the bucket they sold you… If they sold you steak and all they had left was prime rib, you can take the refund because they can’t provide steak or pay more for the prime rib. While normally people see a first class seat is a first class seat, airlines don’t. They sell fares not seats. His fare wasn’t available. He was offered a refund.

  • John Baker

    I’m thinking its a fare class issue. Their system showed that AA had certain fares available and they didn’t. Its happened to me before with UA and its partners.

  • Michael__K

    But you already bought the live inventory and the contract is consummated.
    They’re not saying they can’t provide steak. They’re saying they regret they didn’t charge you a higher price for it.

  • Alan Gore

    Good on LW for saving screenshots. After the trip is over these will assist his Small Claims case.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Okay, thanks. Yeah, that too makes sense – just because the plane has business class doesn’t mean there are seats available in that class.

    Seems to me this really highlights yet another huge problem with this damn codesharing – the airline that you buy the ticket from apparently doesn’t know if there are actual seats available in the class they are selling you, when you buy them!

    While it’s good they offered a full refund, what bothers me is that they SOLD it to him as a full business class trip, but he would have just been given an economy seat without any compensation if he hadn’t happened to notice! That seems very very wrong to me.

  • Don Spilky

    I wonder if there is more here than meets the eye? I have a feeling that PAX somehow received a complimentary upgrade that was then rescinded.

    I find a few things interesting in this story.

    First, in every other “involuntary downgrade” story I have read, the opening begins with something like: “Pax purchased a business class round trip etc”. In this case, it simply says a “round trip ticket” was purchased – the fare class was omitted. Did PAX NOT purchase a business or first class tix?

    Next: PAX “expecting to be seated in first or business class on each flight ” Why either? PAX should expect to be seated in the class of fare purchased.

    Story doesn’t even discuss the airline refunding the difference in prices, again something that every other story addresses.

    Nowhere in this story does it state that PAX purchased either a business or first class ticket – something every other story states.

  • cscasi

    Especially since he stated he has screen shots of everything.

  • cscasi

    “Koch purchased a round-trip ticket from Orlando, Fla., to Hamburg, Germany, via New York and Düsseldorf, Germany. Four of the flights were on Airberlin in business class, while the Orlando-to-New York and New York-to-Orlando legs were both on Airberlin’s code-share partner, American Airlines, in first class. The itinerary Koch chose indicated that he could check two pieces of luggage “free of charge” on each leg.”
    The above seems to indicate the class of service he purchased for all his legs,
    As for seating on American Airlines, it only has first/business class and economy on most of its aircraft (with some exceptions for a three class aircraft and for premium economy).

  • Don Spilky

    Nothing you quoted address my point that “I have a feeling that PAX somehow received a complimentary upgrade that was then rescinded.”

  • cscasi

    Possibly, but I cannot make an assumption that is not evident. Again, I accept what you infer, but is is just a perhaps.

  • Don Spilky

    agreed :)

  • El Dorado Hills

    Shop for prices through online travel agencies, make your reservation (buy) direct from the airline (or hotel). Or, if you have or know a good, dependable local travel agent you can meet with in person, use that person.

  • Daddydo

    Because Lars was purchasing a ticket departing from the US on American, he could and should have easily invoked the “24” hour refund rule and started over again. It appears that he knew reasonably immediately that there was an issue. Travel agents…travel agents…travel agents! We are good, we are not computers, we are held liable for our errors and sales, and we know who offers true business class services and who massively discounts such services. These are not found on-line easily.on the internet. Qantas wanted 9K to Sydney from Pittsburgh and we got it for 4500.00, same seat. I suspect that Lars will get what he got, but if he thought that it was deceptive, then why did he not cancel?

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.