Downgraded on my flight, but charged more

By | March 18th, 2016

United Airlines charges Myrna Lippman more money for a downgraded seat on her flight from Venice to Miami. Can it do that?

Question: I have a dispute with United Airlines that I hope you can help me with. I recently flew from Venice, Italy, to Miami in business class. I paid for my ticket with mileage rewards.

The day before I was to leave Venice, I learned of a better itinerary, which I was able to switch to, but in Economy Plus.

United billed me a change fee of $100 and an upgrade fee of $129. It definitely was not an upgrade; in fact, it was a downgrade from the business-class tickets I had.

I’ve asked United for a refund of both fees, but it refuses. I would appreciate any assistance you can give me to resolve this complaint. — Myrna Lippman, Boca Raton, Fla.

Answer: United Airlines is absolutely correct. The average passenger may look at tickets going to the same destination as you do, which is to say, the business-class ticket is more valuable, and if you accept a downgrade, you’re entitled to a refund. But United categorizes its tickets differently.

Generally, award tickets like the one you booked are classified as tickets that would have gone unsold, and therefore have no value. While the new seat also might have been an award seat, United classified the upgrade from its too-small economy-class seats to its slightly larger Economy Plus seats as a paid upgrade. It also imposed a change fee, which is something it discloses on its website.

That’s something airline insiders understand, but that doesn’t make sense to the average air traveler. And that’s OK. No one ever claimed that this was reasonable. United’s responsibility to you wasn’t to refund the money, but to explain why you had to pay extra. And “because we say so” is not good enough.

Related story:   No refund on the Seven Seas

I list the names, numbers and emails of United’s customer-service managers on my consumer-advocacy website. A brief, polite email to one of them might have yielded a more plausible explanation.

I contacted United on your behalf. A representative called you and explained the fare difference. United also offered you a $150 certificate, which you accepted. Next time, you might want to keep your original flight.

  • sirwired

    I could totally see an airline treating an Economy Plus seat on a packed flight as more valuable than a Business seat on a deserted flight, so an upgrade fee is totally reasonable. It’s not about the actual physical thing you sit in, it’s about how valuable the seat is to the airline. If the itinerary is better for you, it’s not unlikely it’s better for a bunch of other people too.

    And certainly if a change fee makes sense for anybody, a $100 fee the day before the flight does.

    It was nice of United to offer up a voucher for the upgrade fee, but as long as both fees were clearly disclosed, both seem legit.

  • Jeff W.

    United could have explained it better, but was correct.

    Odds are that the original itinerary was booked using the saver rates and when she rebooked, the saver rates were not available for new flight and she was booked at the full rate. Not sure of redemption rates for Europe, but for domestic flights, a saver business rate is equal to a full economy. (25K one way for full, 12.5k for saver)

    There is a limited supply of saver rates and the cost is usually 1/2 that of the full. And if she has no status, the United is going to charge for Economy Plus. That does not come free when you redeem — doesn’t matter how many miles one redeems.

  • taxed2themax

    This is an area where I think a lot of companies do themselves, and their customers a disservice.. Not really taking the time to explain stuff… the good as well as the not-so-good/bad.. I think you can explain the “bad” and do so in a manner that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker too.. and I think taking that time to do so (and I cede that this take time, which has a labour cost and training cost as well) actually is a net benefit to the business in the medium to longer term.
    I agree that the charges themselves are correct in terms of application, and I also agree that perhaps a better initial explanation of that would have staved off this issue to begin with.

  • flutiefan

    I’m honestly confused as to why she thinks she shouldn’t have been charged their change fee. They charge a fee when you change your ticket. She changed her ticket. Where’s the validity of her complaint?

  • Actually, I think the headline is misleading. “Downgraded on my flight..” makes it sound like the airline downgraded her … then charged her a fee to bump back to Economy Plus.

    But she downgraded herself. So the headline doesn’t make any sense. It should say “Downgraded my flight ….” I think most airline “in-the-know” folks would recognize any change as requiring a change fee.

  • Michael__K

    United’s award change fee has nothing to do with how valuable the seats were or how relatively packed the two flights were. Under the terms, they would charge her the same amount if she was switching from a packed flight to a deserted flight.

    Not sure if her original award was a Standard Award or a Saver Award, but if there was an economy Award seat on her return flight (which there was, per the article), then that means she spent more miles than one normally spends for the seat she received. And then they charged her an upgrade fee….

  • Michael__K

    Odds are that the original itinerary was booked using the saver rates and when she rebooked, the saver rates were not available for new flight and she was booked at the full rate.

    If she booked at the business class saver rate (70,000 miles one way), and she ended up on the most costly economy class [standard] award type (65,000 miles one way), then United kept 5,000 extra miles, besides charging her an upgrade fee…

  • Michael__K

    What’s the justification for the upgrade fee?

  • just me

    United is incorrect and all the wonderful specialists are as incorrect condoning it. The whole change fee scheme has nothing to do with any service or value and it is a scheme to extract money from our pockets without providing anything of value or incurring costs. In old days such changes were made without any fees because it was cost-less and made the client happier. Highway robbery will always be a robbery and approving it the way your experts do is unacceptable. Just because they can rob us does not make it right.

  • Fishplate

    I think the key words are “better itinerary”…as we all know, the cost of an airline seat is based on many things, but prime among them is scarcity or desirability.

  • Gary K

    Two comments.
    1) Nowhere does Ms. Lippman mention mileage regarding the change transaction. Therefore, I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about whether or not United kept mileage due her.
    2) It is possible, if the over-water portion is on UA, to get Saver Business for 57.5K miles (clearly shown on their award chart and I was just able to price an itinerary). So, it is actually possible that she went from Saver Business (57.5K) to Standard Economy (65K) and had to fork over an additional 7500 miles (which would be a good reason that she didn’t mention mileage). If that’s the case, and she has no status, then the “upgrade” fee, though not the clearest description of the fee, would certainly apply to her in this case when assigned a seat in E+. It’s also a bit off the mark to suggest that the alternate award was in E+, because that’s not the way it works. The awards are for Economy regardless of where you sit, and those with status can get E+ seating for free, those without pay.

  • judyserienagy

    I see this as a problem that arose when the passenger agreed to the changes that she wanted. She should have understood the charges at that time. She agreed to the fees to change her itinerary to one she liked better. Coming back later to complain about the fees doesn’t make much sense.

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