Is an involuntary downgrade worth just $70?

How much is an involuntary downgrade from a first or business class airline seat to coach worth? It depends on the route and the entire ticket value.

Ann Dwyer has been asking this question since her recent experience on American Airlines, when she returned home from a trip to Ireland. Dwyer’s story raises the issue of whether downgrades on domestic flights are worth the same as on international flights – as well as whether passengers ever come out ahead when airlines do the math.

Dwyer had booked seats in business class for both legs of her flight from Dublin to Daytona Beach, Fla., via Charlotte, N.C. As she was boarding her connecting flight on American Eagle in Charlotte, a gate agent told her that she would not be able to sit in her originally booked seat because some seats in business class were broken. Yet, as she waited for a new boarding pass, another passenger was seated in the business class seat she originally had booked. Dwyer was given a boarding pass for a seat in coach.

When Dwyer asked why she couldn’t sit in her original seat if it worked, she was told that the airline had “a priority list” for the business class seats and Dwyer wasn’t on it.

Had the downgrade occurred on the Dublin-to-Charlotte leg of her flight, she could have sought the protection of EU 261, which prescribes compensation of 30 to 75 percent of the ticket price when an involuntary downgrade occurs.

But there’s no corresponding legislation in the U.S. for involuntary downgrades. It’s up to each airline to provide compensation for the price differential between reserved seats and used seats.

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American’s contract of carriage provides that

If you are denied boarding involuntarily, you are entitled to a payment of ‘‘denied boarding compensation’’ from the airline unless …
You are offered accommodations in a section of the aircraft other than specified in your ticket, at no extra charge (a passenger seated in a section for which a lower fare is charged must be given an appropriate refund).

So Dwyer was entitled to an “appropriate refund” for the price difference between the cost of her business class seat and the coach seat she was reassigned.

American Airlines issued Dwyer a $70 credit for the downgrade. But Dwyer felt that this wasn’t enough, because she claims to have observed a $200 price difference between business class and coach seats with round-trip tickets purchased six months in advance of the flights.

Dwyer might have escalated her case to higher-ranking American Airlines executives using the contact information on our website, but she asked our advocates whether she should pursue additional compensation.

Our advocate responded that

When you buy an international flight the domestic flight is just a tiny portion of the cost of your flight — the airline basically wraps it into the cost of the long-haul. Based on all the cases I have handled, I can tell you that $70 for a downgrade on an hour-long flight on American Eagle is what could be expected. …

I have priced out that flight on many dates and the difference between first class and main cabin is consistently $100 if the ticket is purchased as a standalone. It also has no special service in first class. Based on everything, I believe this is a reasonable compensation.

As tiny as a $70 credit is, our advocates think it’s an “appropriate refund” for Dwyer’s downgrade on American Eagle. Do our readers agree?

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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 Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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