Should I add involuntary downgrade cases to my “do not mediate” list?

I‘m considering an outright ban on certain cases, and maybe you can help me make a decision. I already have an informal moratorium on recovering missing frequent flier miles and mediating expired-passport problems, although every now and then, I’ll let one slip in.

Walter Miller brings us another kind of trouble today: the involuntary downgrade/insufficient refund conundrum. After I tell you his story, I’ll explain why I think his type of problem may deserve to be blacklisted.

Miller had booked two discounted first-class seats from Philadelphia to Brussels last fall, and after a gate change, the airline gave him some bad news.

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We were advised that our 767 aircraft had mechanical problems and that it would be necessary to downsize to a 757.

When I reached the check-in counter, I was advised that my wife’s seat was available but there was no space left on the plane for me in Envoy Class.

Miller ended up flying to Brussels in coach while his wife sat up front. (What a nice guy!) The airline offered him a $100 voucher on the spot, as an apology for sticking him in one of the cheap seats.

He decided to take up the matter of a refund with US Airways when he returned. Having spent $2,361 per ticket, he expected to get at least half the money back. But he didn’t. US Airways refunded him only $160.

Miller appealed the decision, but US Airways wouldn’t be swayed. In an email to him it explained why:

The fare purchased for travel is a discounted first class fare. The standard first class fare for this itinerary was F6.

The amount of your refund was calculated using the pro-rated value of the segment you were seated in coach.

In other words, he was only downgraded for part of his overall itinerary, and in determining the amount of the refund, US Airways calculated the fare difference between the discounted first class seat he had and what appears to be a full-fare coach seat, or something close to it. That difference is minimal.

“I do not think that the refund is fair,” says Miller.

I deal with involuntary downgrades all the time. Here’s a case in September and here’s one from June. They’ve always ended the same way — the airline math prevails and the customer walks away unhappy.

I’m not saying that cases like Miller’s have no merit. Actually, they often do. It’s that the airline position on these involuntary downgrades is clear. They determine how much of a refund you get, and if you don’t like it, tough luck.

Personally, I think some of the airline math is suspect. Try reversing the equation. If I see an empty seat in first class on my international flight and offer to pay a flight attendant $160 (plus a promissory note that I’ll buy a US Airways ticket within a year if I find a good deal) what do you think would happen?

That’s right, the attendant would have a good laugh and send me back to economy class.

So why shouldn’t we have the same reaction when the opposite happens?

I’m happy to keep fighting this, but I doubt the airline industry’s answer, absurd as it may be, is going to change any time soon.

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