Hey American Airlines, is a downgrade to economy class really only worth $100?

When Taylor Helsel’s flight is canceled because of bad weather, she’s rebooked and downgraded to economy class. Is she owed a refund?

Question: I booked a flight on British Airways (code-shared through American Airlines) from Boston to India, that included a connecting flight in London. I paid a hefty fee to upgrade to business class.

The morning of my return date, I was notified that the second leg of my flight from London to Boston was canceled because of a snowstorm in Boston.

I contacted British Airways and was informed that the only flights available were on American Airlines, but I would have to be downgraded from business to economy. The alternative was to delay my return by a day or two until a flight with business class seats was available. I opted to fly on American.

I asked customer service about a refund for the downgrade, and they stated that refund requests are only granted after the flight is completed. The airport staff were very accommodating and let me use the business class lounge, and I was given priority boarding.

I submitted a refund request online to American Airlines. It has been 23 days, and the status of my refund is still pending.

I am getting frustrated. Normally I’m very frugal, but I made an exception for this trip and splurged on business class. I believe I should be reimbursed for the downgrade.

Can you help me get a refund? Taylor Helsel, Boston

Answer: I understand your frustration. You paid for an upgrade to business class, and a refund of $500 is a fair request.

I’m glad you reached out to our advocacy team. After their initial contact with American, you were given a refund of $116. When you asked how American came up with this figure, its representative explained, “To calculate the refund amount, we use the mileage and the fare rules of your ticket and compare it to the service you actually received. The refund amount is the difference between the two.”

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Sounds like a formula they don’t want you to figure out.

If American wanted to be transparent, it would show you the actual figures that were used to determine your refund. Instead, it came up with an arbitrary figure that was much lower than the difference you actually paid to upgrade.

Since your flight on British Airways from London to Boston was canceled, it falls under the European Commission Regulation 261/2004 (EU 261). This regulation applies to any airline that either departs from a European Union airport, or a European Union airline that arrives at an EU airport. When airlines follow the proper protocol, passengers that are downgraded to a lesser class of service have the following rights:

If you are downgraded, your airline must reimburse you within seven days. The amount you receive is calculated as a percentage of what you paid for your ticket, and depends on the length of your flight:

  • For short-haul flights of less than 1,500 km, you will receive 30% of the price of the flight.
  • For medium-haul flights of 1,500 km – 3,500 km, or flights within the EU of more than 1,500 km, you will receive 50% of the price of the flight.
  • For long haul flights of more than 3,500 km, you will receive 75% of the price of the flight.

It is likely you will only receive a refund for the portion of your journey that was downgraded.

For more details on passenger rights, visit United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority website. You can also check out our frequently asked questions about EU 261.

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The EU 261 also mandates that airlines compensate passengers when their flight is canceled for reasons within the airline’s control. Since your flight was canceled because of adverse weather conditions, you would not qualify for monetary compensation. However, there are entitlements that the airline is required to uphold.

The airline should care for you as a passenger by providing meals or accommodations while you wait for your new flight. It should also extend the following options: Offer a refund on the full or remaining portion of the ticket, rebook you on the earliest alternative transportation, or allow you to book your ticket for a later date.

British Airways followed through by booking you on a codeshare flight with American Airlines later that day.

By understanding the rights that have been granted to you as a passenger, you can turn a difficult situation into one that is more beneficial. The airlines will not always present you with the alternatives available — they leave it up to you to ask.

Our advocates were able to negotiate with American Airlines, and it increased your refund to $417. Even though this is less than you requested, you informed us that you were pleased with the outcome. Your determination paid off.

Stephanie Patterson

Stephanie is a published book author and travel columnist with a focus on preparation and protocol. She is committed to helping travelers be informed and avoid potential problems while traveling. Stephanie's most recent book is "Know Before You Go: Traveling the U.S. and Abroad". For travel insight when planning your trip, visit Know Before You Go Travel. Along with writing, Stephanie does interior designing.

  • Bill___A

    Good job getting it increased. The airlines should be required to sell first class upgrades for the amount they claim they are worth at refund time. That would solve this problem I think.

  • Travelnut

    “Sounds like a formula they don’t want you to figure out.” Exactly. I had a similar situation where United downgraded me, and I never got a straight answer out of them for how they calculated my refund. It was basically “trust us, it’s right.” I need to get in the habit when I book of screenshotting both my own fare and the economy fare for the same flight & class, so I will have some numbers to work with when I negotiate with the airline.

  • MarkKelling

    A more realistic rule, in my opinion, would be you get back exactly what you paid for the upgrade if you are not seated in the section you upgraded to. So if you pay $500 for a business upgrade and you get put in standard economy, you get a $500 credit to our card used to pay for it. If you paid miles, you get the exact amount of miles back. And so on.

    At least this is better than some airlines try and do where as a “convenience” to you they rebook you in economy on another flight and then bill the rebooked flight at full fare walk up and then try and tell you they are doing you a favor by not charging you the higher fare for the last minute booking.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Yergh. The fact that it was a paid upgrade certainly makes this a much more complex process.

  • MarkKelling

    Many years ago United (Continental at that time) moved me to a different flight and downgraded me on a full fare 1st ticket (not upgrade or miles or any of that). Then they were upgrading other economy ticketed frequent flyers to 1st instead of placing me there. The only offer I got when I questioned the change and the upgrades was the gate agent offered to have the police escort me out of the airport if I was not happy with the change. After contacting customer service later, their response was “What are you upset about, we got you there didn’t we?” I got nothing.

  • James

    My guess — the original poster paid $X for the upgrade on four flights. Thing is, two legs are 3265 miles, and two lags are 4487 miles. How do you divide the $X? By four? Or by miles?

  • AAGK

    What does a trip to London have to do with the EU?

    Also, why didn’t he receive a refund of the exact amount he paid to upgrade?

  • AAGK

    I feel like this is a fail. He should get back the money he paid for the service he didn’t receive. I understand there are rules and airline rationalizations against this but it is simply not fair.

  • Johng

    Hi AAGK – Taylor was flying from Boston – India via London. The Airline downgraded Taylor for one leg of the journey – the return from London to Boston, so they have compensated for what they think that leg is worth. Not saying I agree with the value but of course not each leg will be for the same distance and hence you can’t just split the fare difference in this case by 4.

    In terms what London has to do with it there is an EU law – EU (or EC) 261 that applies, as set about above, because Taylor was departing from an EU airport. EU 261 provides for compensation for delayed, cancelled or downgraded flights.


  • David Youngquist

    “I asked customer service about a refund for the downgrade, and they stated that refund requests are only granted after the flight is completed.” Sounds to me like that BA employee wanted to push this problem off on someone else. Different circumstances, but had one of their employees in Copenhagen lie to us when we were denied boarding on a flight. It would be helpful if passengers knew when refunds or compensation was due so that they could stand their ground at the point where they have the most leverage.

  • Rebecca

    You divide them by the length of time the flight takes. If the first flight takes 4 hours and the second takes 6 hours, that’s 20 hours total (I made up arbitrary, easy numbers – I know flights aren’t the same length of time in opposite directions). So you take the percentage of hours flown per leg of the total. So if 1 6 hour leg is downgraded, you get 30% (6/20 = .30 = 30%).

    At least that seems the most fair way to me.

  • Rebecca

    I have actually done that the few times I’ve booked business class tickets to Europe for my husband for work and once for myself. It took 30 seconds and it was a direct result of stories I read here because it’s a lot of money, even if you’re being reimbursed.

  • Travelnut

    Nice. Continental was usually more decent than that, I thought. Although at that time when Continental still existed I was more of an economy class girl.

  • Alan Gore

    Never buy F or J with your own money ahead of time, because if for any reason the booked class cannot be accommodated, you will get the same screw job this LW did when the compensation is calculated. The way to do it is to book Economy, and then jump on any unsold seats in your desired class that are offered at boarding. In this way you could be pleasantly surprised, and at a much lower price, but you can’t be unpleasantly surprised.

  • BubbaJoe123

    You are aware that London is in the UK, which is part of the EU (at least for the moment), right?

  • BubbaJoe123

    Or, you could recognize that the circumstances described above are very rare, and the opportunity to upgrade at checkin is also something you can’t rely upon.

  • Lindabator

    not how it is calculated – as that is NOT how you are actually charged

  • Lindabator

    Actually – those fares are listed with the FAA, so they follow they same terms and conditions each time – folks just always want more, not really realizing that portion may not have cost that much in the first place — I would say the majority of the cost was on the India to London portion, with a small amount on the balance (how it is usually done)

  • Lindabator

    no – goes by full fares each way, because they cannot just “guess” what fare may have been left in cheap seats when you booked

  • Lindabator

    because he FLEW from Indian to London – not entitled to anything in that case — and that is where the bulk of the cost of the ticket went

  • Lindabator

    that is actually the truth – they do not do those at the counter

  • Michael__K

    If they cared what the fare was when you booked then they could check what fares they sold at the relevant date/time and/or they could capture this information at the time of original booking.

    They use full fares instead because this is the self-serving choice that means either a tiny refund or that you owe them money for downgrading you.

  • LonnieC

    Are you saying you paid for 1st and got economy, with not a dime refund??? Holy cow!

  • David Youngquist

    Clarification on this would be important for consumers. We spoke with three different agents in London and all said that the compensation should have been handled in Copenhagen.

  • Alan Gore

    There is no need for the carrier to “guess” anything. The currently available Y for that itinerary should be stored in the PNR at the time any J or F reservation is made. This would then be the calculation basis for reimbursement in case of a downgrade.

  • AAGK

    Obv I wasn’t aware of the, “for the moment part” and thought It happened already. :) Hopefully this has been obscured by the travel expert commenters who raise other issues with the entitlement.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, the 1st class ticket was a fully paid 1st class F ticket.

  • LonnieC

    There simply must be a way of getting back most of the difference in a refund….

  • MarkKelling

    Oh I tried. Went as far as a chargeback on my credit card which was denied. But Continental told me that they were doing me a favor because the new flight cost more than the flight I was on and they were not charging me the difference. Their math because the 1st class ticket was advance purchase and the flight I ended up on was a walk up fare, the walk up economy fare was more than the original ticket.

    I have gotten over it, but I will never forget it. And since Continental officially doesn’t exist anymore, not anything I could pursue now anyway.

  • LonnieC

    Wow. That is one of the most unfair things I’ve read on Elliott. You have my sympathy.

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