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.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners. Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

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.

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

  1. You’re in an untenable position here, Chris. Why keep beating your head against a brick wall even though the consumer is getting a massively raw deal? Instead of a refund, do the airlines ever offer an upgrade voucher for a future trip? I think I’d take that over the measly $160. (What a good husband, btw. I think I would’ve made my wife switch seats at EXACTLY halfway thru the flight… haha)

    My favorite posts are ones where the traveler has done everything right and still got shafted. Or got blindsided by a problem that any of us could potentially face. It’s interesting to keep abreast of what recourse is available to the average traveler (and what is reasonable to ask for). We can’t always be lucky enough to have your personal help, but we can be armed with the tools needed to fight for ourselves! Teach a man to fish and all that good stuff… Keep up the great work!

    1. Your suggestion is excellent – an upgrade coupon.  If they can downgrade, then they can upgrade.  What’s fair is fair.

      By the way, this happened to us on Continental and we decided to go to Small Claims.  About two days after getting served, Continental paid us what was fair (including the filing costs)

  2. I don’t think you should blacklist the category entirely, but maybe put it near the bottom of the stack.  The traveler clearly got a raw deal – in this case, I think he should have gotten the difference between the discounted first class fare, and the cheapest available coach fare at the time of original purchase.  That may be difficult for the airline to reconstruct in hindsight, but it would be fairer as that’s likely what this passenger would have purchased if he had chosen to go economy.  Maybe another option that he might go for is a guaranteed upgrade voucher for a future flight – e.g. a voucher than would actually get him a confirmed seat in business if he buys an economy seat (not a cheapo upgrade voucher that competes with umpteen million frequent fliers).  Either of those options I would accept in such circumstances.

    1. Jeremy, the one time I got involuntarily downgraded on a US Airways flight, I was given a one-way, unrestricted, systemwide, one-class upgrade as compensation. Then again, this was several years, when some CSR agents at the airlines were empowered to apply common sense. Not sure if the same outcomes can be achieved now, but it would be more fair than a refund of fair difference.

  3. How about fighting this through the credit card? The airline did not provide the service that he paid for so his cc should refund him.  This is a breach of contract, how can the airlines get away with this?  

    1.  If you actually read the contract, it’s all there regarding involuntary downgrades due to aircraft change – the contract gets you from A to B, not A to B on these specific flights in this specific class. The contract was never breached, but rather some fine print was invoked.

      1. People rarely pay full fare for coach, or economy, fares these days. However, when something happens, they always want the max in a refund. The airline responded much like stores do when faced with a refund of merchandise a consumer bought on sale; they refund the discounted, prorated portion only.

    2. They flew him A-Z.  IF he wanted to, he could have been refunded for that portion of the flight, but then he’d have had to book another ticket – hmmm… the difference being the $160!

  4. This is a system that needs to be fixed.   The refunded amount based on the date of purchase and the average coach fare for that date.   They refund the passanger the difference between the two fares.

  5. To be honest, I’d rather you mediate ten of these than one laundry-list, heartstring-tugging, drama-filled, overblown, entitled traveler seeking to capitalize on what is usually nothing more than bad luck.

    An involuntary downgrade would get most people’s blood boiling. What if it was a “passenger of size” or tall person or disabled person who – rather than book economy and then complain about the space allocated – took it upon themselves to book a seat in First, only to be given this raw deal at the last minute? That’s not to say that only these circumstances deserve attention, just that this is truly a situation in which the passenger gets screwed.

    It doesn’t make for interesting reading like a crazy lunatic on a cruise ship accusing the staff of theft, or someone who wants a refund of an entire apartment stay because the water didn’t work for an hour….but it is with exactly these types of circumstances that I think you can really make a difference.

    1. I want to like this more than 1000 times.

      More of cases like this, less of the “broke ass bride” who claims she was “sexually assaulted” on a flight but didn’t do jack about it except try and get traffic for her crappy blog.

    2.  I’m also sure that there are other cases than both of these categories that are worth mediating, if Chris truly thinks that these cases get nowhere (as they usually seem to).

    3. While I agree with the posters here (especially Finance Tony and Raven, always Raven) it doesn’t seem the airlines budge an inch on these.  They have their math, passengers have their math and then there’s real math and none of them come up with the same number.

      I believe the OP does have a point, though.  He paid for First Class and didn’t get it.  He’s pretty much getting shafted and the airline couldn’t care less.

  6. Instead of blacklisting these cases, how about using them as evidence in the new FAA bill that is suppose to give the consumer some rights.  Use them to show how unfairly the airlines are treating the consumers.  It seems there are far more cases of the traveler being screwed over by the airlines by this action than there is the extremely long tarmac delays.

  7. I voted no on this one. It’s only going to get worse now that airlines are charging for “extra legroom seats” which, after the PAX pays money for, can be arbitrarily reassigned.

    I saw this a few weeks ago at IAH. A woman was arguing with the gate agent because she had been plucked from the bulkhead and sent to a middle seat in the back of the plane. She was saying, “I want my $59 back!”

    The gate agent shrugged and said nothing she could do, write a complaint.

    The woman was moved because a wheelchair pax needed the seat.

    So, if an airline can sell something they can’t deliver and then give you the run around for a refund…isn’t that pretty darn close to fraud?

    As it’s been pointed out on this blog, regulations state those seats must be reserved for handicap seating. So…why is the airline allowed to sell them as “extra legroom” far in advance? 

    Another issue sort of similar issue…I was on a flight last month (Delta, yuck) with a family of three–two people in their 60s and their **clearly** mentally challenged daughter in her 40s. They occupied the exit row. The FA expressed some concern when the daughter kept babbling about how “Harry Potter was at home in her closet” but they were allowed to remain there. So…obviously this woman could not handle the obligation to assist the flight crew, but I guess they decided it wasn’t worth the fight to reseat her!??!?

  8. “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.”

    Can we get the facts? A discounted first class fare may still be unrestricted, only subject to availability in a particular first class fare bucket. 

    Perhaps the proper calculation is the difference between the fare paid and the lowest available unrestricted coach ticket at the time of purchase.

  9. Chris. It’s your blog so mediate what you want to. Obviously there’s little chance for a win here. I guess the OP should just go through their credit card company and claim that the airline failed to deliver what they paid for. Should get them a refund of more than $160.

    I’ve never understood how the airline is allowed to choose different dates to determine fare amounts in cases like these. It should either be the difference on the date they bought the fare or the difference in the two walk ups. Not the difference between the walk up fare and what you paid 6 month ago.  As you put it, if I can’t upgrade for it I shouldn’t be refunded it.

  10. Chris, mediate cases based on merit, not based on anticipated outcomes. I understand that you have to occasionally throw in some outrageous cases (ie the railroad lost my great grandmother’s luggage 100 years ago), but if you blacklist legitimate cases based on perceived fixed outcomes, then you lose credibility as a consumer advocate.

    The airline’s stance may not change, but you can make a difference for the screwed passenger. Has anyone approached US Airways about offering Miller a “systemwide upgrade certificate?” There are alternative solutions besides a refund for the fare difference which is a joke.  

  11. Unfortunately, all the terms are laid out in the contract (whether you like them or not) saying that involuntary downgrades can happen with this sort of compensation, so it’s very hard to argue on legal grounds, unlike many other cases.
    What is for certain is that it is much easier/better to sort this out before you get on the plane rather than afterwards. OP should have demanded more before he boarded. Also, if flying in First/Business class is that important, OP could have waited until the next flight when it was available (I have never heard of gate agents saying no, although people don’t often want to do this).

      1. But fight how?  The credit card companies will not back you up, or they are in violation (believe me, its come up), and since they (airlines) have a CoC in black and white, you buy the ticket you agree to the terms.  To cry foul afterwords doesn’t give you a leg to stand on.  He should have gotten the desk to reaccommadte them both on another flight in first class – they could and WOULD have done so if he preferred.

      2.  You can certainly fight and argue if you want, but the issue is whether it’s breaking a contract (it’s not) and whether it’s a waste of time (probably).
        But if you do a little research and don’t let yourself get pushed around before it’s too late, you will get much better results. It’s worth fighting, but not after the fact.

  12. Don’t blacklist it.  This is one of those fights that is worth fighting, so keep fighting it.  Walter Miller should sue in small claims court because there’s no way he could have upgraded for $160, so that offer is an insult.

  13. I voted No. This is what really bothers me about these cases, and I think they should be mediated, and pressure should be put on the airlines to stop this horrible practice.
    These numbers are just an example.
    Advanced Purchase:
    First Class: $2,200
    Economy: $600
    Full Fare:
    First Class $4,000
    Economy $2,000
    Customer purchases advanced discount first class.  At the airport, the airline downgrades the passenger, and only refunds the difference between the advanced First Class, and the Walk Up Economy.  I really believe the airline should refund the difference between the Advanced Purchase Price of First and Economy, as that was when the customer made the purchase.
    I sadly got shafted the same way once on United.  I paid for a discount first class seat in advance (domestic) and due to my first segment getting canceled; I was re-routed all in coach.  They did not want to refund anything as “They got me to my destination within 2 hours of my originally scheduled arrival.”
    I know this may draw heat, but I think government regulators should step in and stop this practice; I think this is worse than the not-so-hidden baggage fees where the government did decide to regulate things.

    1. BTW, in my United Case I looked up itineraries on-line when the flight got canceled so I could call in and tell them how I wanted to be re-routed.  The day of, there was still discount economy.  I printed the on-line itinerary to help me when I called United to get re-routed after my first flight was canceled.  This came in handy later after united refused to refund the difference.  I ended up disputing the credit card charge showing my original receipt for 1-Way discount F at $688, and my day of on-line not yet purchased offer price of $320. The Credit Card company did give me the difference.  I know this won’t work in most cases where the person is already at the airport and they don’t have any discount walkup fare available.

      1. Absolutely!  After the fact the CC Companies are in violation of the terms of agreement if they back you up – in this case you were more than prepared – of course, they could always claim weather and bump you!  🙂

    2. The Europeans have a simple formula. They don’t care about the difference in fares between the 2 classes. Downgraded passengers are paid a percentage of their ticket price depending on the DISTANCE of the flight. How much more simple can it be?

      1. Do you have an example?  Are you saying the percentage refund is greater for a more expensive ticket? Edit: never mind; I see it below.

        1. It is a percentage of the ticket price.
          The percentage is based on the distance of the flight your were downgraded on.
          So the farther the flight, the higher the percentage.
          The compensation is paid in MONEY and not stupid points!

  14. While I absolutely have an issue with the fuzzy math of the airlines and think this is a worthy issue.  I don’t think it’s an issue that you’ll make much progress with on a case by case basis.  I would prefer to see you focus on other problems individually and maybe take this on in a different way.

  15. No Chris, these people are not just a bunch on whiners. They are upset because they paid a lot of their hard earned money (not just points) and did not get what they paid for. Also, to many decent people, the funny math used by the airlines looks rather unfair.

    There is an easy solution to this problem. All we need to do is look across the pond. In the EU, the directive EC261/2004 has a clear provision for Involuntary Downgrades:

    Article 10
    Upgrading and downgrading
    1. If an operating air carrier places a passenger in a class higher than that for which the ticket was purchased, it may not request any supplementary payment.
    2. If an operating air carrier places a passenger in a class lower than that for which the ticket was purchased, it shall within seven days, by the means provided for in Article 7(3), reimburse
    (a) 30 % of the price of the ticket for all flights of 1500 kilometres or less, or
    (b) 50 % of the price of the ticket for all intra-Community flights of more than 1500 kilometres, except flights between the European territory of the Member States and the French overseas departments, and for all other flights between 1500 and 3500 kilometres, or
    (c) 75 % of the price of the ticket for all flights not falling under (a) or (b), including flights between the European territory of the Member States and the French overseas departments.

    Note: The great circle distance between PHL and BRU is 6052 km.
    Had Miller been downgraded on the opposite direction [BRU-PHL] by USAir, the airline would have had to refund him 75% of his ticket price.

    Admittedly, I am a big fan of EC261 and REAL Consumer Protection laws that compensate passengers. I don’t understand why the US Congress and the DOT just can’t copy what Europe has done. Maybe they are too proud that this good stuff wasn’t invented here.

    I voted for you NOT to blacklist involuntary downgrade complaints. In fact, I suggest you lead a coalition of consumer advocates to petition Congress for an EC261 law here in America.

    1. Until then…. if I purchase a First Class seat or other upgraded seat, I need to print out a copy of the cost of an economy seat pricing of the same time, and be ready to fight.

      1. If you want conclusive proof of what an economy class ticket would have cost at the time you booked your first or business class ticket, I recommend you do this –

        Take advantage of the new 24 hour hold law. And, make a booking on the same flights on economy class. The booking will include the price of the ticket (and usually print the fare construction). Print the whole thing to a pdf file AND to paper. Then Cancel the booking immediately.

        So just in case you are involuntarily downgraded to economy later on, you have complete information on how the AIRLINE ITSELF constructed a ticket price for that economy class. Take it to small claims court with you. Good luck.

    2. In my books, EU regulations applied to flights with origin and/or destination in the EU. If that’s still true, the pax could complain to the European Commission and get US Airways to pay on this basis (if they refuse, they could get a huge fine).

      1. Unfortunately, you have the wrong interpretation of the law since USAir is NOT an airline belonging to a member state of the EU.

        The flight MUST DEPART from the E.U.  if you are flying a US carrier. Sorry.

        Article 3


        1. This Regulation shall apply:

        (a) to passengers departing from an airport located in the territory of a Member State to which the Treaty applies;

        (b) to passengers departing from an airport located in a third country to an airport situated in the territory of a Member State to which the Treaty applies, unless they received benefits or compensation and were given assistance in that third country, if the operating air carrier of the flight concerned is a Community carrier.

  16. I voted no because there might be cases that are deserving of your attention. I trust that your judgement is sufficient to determine which ones these are. If you announce that you will no longer mediate certain types of case it could drive people away. Perhaps you have reached the point where you need an assistant or two to handle less complicated cases on your behalf?

  17. Isn’t advocacy about helping consumers prevail over bad rules?  TO read about an advocate imposing “an outright ban on certain cases” seems so wrong on so many levels.

  18. No, you shouldn’t, because regardless of what the airline claims, it’s a screw job of the passengers with these pittances of ‘refunds’ and ‘reimbursements’ by the airlines.

  19. I don’t have a problem with you publicising these, Chris. Readers aren’t bored about someone legitimately getting ripped off by an airline. People get annoyed when a passenger goes after something they don’t deserve, and that seems more the case in times when people are the “victims” of their own mistakes.

  20. Their claim are much more legitimate than most of your columns. They are the few ones who make the living of this ailing legacy airlines. Their only error is using US Airways. Plenty of European and Middle-East Airlines on transatlantic routes will treat them much better. I travel American Airlines and United on C and J class on Trans-Atlantic and never get a downgrade, only upgrade. They must feel insulted by US Airways. I understand that.

  21. By giving up on those cases, the airlines have won.  Don’t give up on this classification of airline bs, passengers need your help. 

    Also, got to say I love JamesinPhnomPenh’s statement that he’d make his wife switch exactly at halfway point, lol.  

  22. Chris,  This is a situation where the airlines are WRONG.  If the passenger bought a ticket in economy at that time rather than his first class upgrade, the fare probably would have been much less than full fare.  The airline should refund the difference between that fare and what he paid PLUS something for the inconvenience associated with travel in a different class.  Perhaps there should be a stronger penalty when an airline overbooks rather than changes equipment.

    The airlines are not reimbursing their fair share and that is a situation where an ADVOCATE should both mediate and publicize this inequity.  This is the type of complaint where an advocate can make a policy difference and it should be pursued.

  23. Just because you can’t win, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mediate. This is a practice akin to fraud and as a consumer advocate, I think you should be screaming this one from the rooftops.

    This case has real merit. This guy paid extra so he wouldn’t have to be folded into coach for a multi-hour flight. Had he wanted to fly coach, I assume he could have paid a lot less than $160 below his ticket price.

    US Airways stole his money as sure as if they beat him up in an alley. It’s akin to fraud, and he should be calling the attorney general.

    I agree with the other readers. A case like this is much more worthy of your time than some whiner who wants his entire hotel bill refunded because there was a spot of dirt on the bedspread.

  24. $100??  What a joke, overseas first class tickets typically cost thousands more, a 50% refund like he asked for seems more than fair.

  25. I’m going to have to take issue with the use of the term “blacklist”. If you look up the definition, you will find “a list of persons under suspicion, disfavor, censure, etc.”, “a list … containing the names of persons to be barred from employment because of untrustworthiness or for holding opinions considered undesirable”, and “a list containing the names of employers to be boycotted for unfair labor practices.” Mirriam-Webster says “a list of persons who are disapproved of or are to be punished or boycotted.” I also see it applied to spam and spamming sites. Yes, you do see this misuse of the term in the media, as we also see terms like “literally”, “could care less”, and other errors in common misuse.

    I’m also a bit concerned about effectively throwing in the towel on an injustice just because it appears to be a hopeless cause. Battles such as this often require a critical mass of attention before progress is made and surrendering will never advance the cause.

  26.  “… in order for their schemes to work, we must be convinced that nothing we do matters — indeed, that all of this is inevitable.”

    I’d hope that you’re not giving in to scams as inevitable now, Chris.

  27. Chris, you’re a consumer advocate — you absolutely shouldn’t stop mediating a category of issues where the consumer is in the right and needs help.  And these are often much more clear-cut (in terms of fairness, not in terms of the airline being willing to do so) than some of the “I forgot my passport” ones.

    To me it should be pretty clear — if you have a choice of A or upgrading to B, and in the end are only delivered A, the refund due is the difference between what you paid for B and what you would have paid for A, *at purchase time*.  I understand that some tickets have more flexibility etc, but if the consumer didn’t take or plan to take advantage of that, that isn’t really a defense in my mind.  At the very least, future consumers should be aware that it may not be worth paying for B, since you may not get it anyway.

    I’ve been known to take screenshots of the non-upgrade option pricing (when booking a convertible rental car, for example; if they didn’t have any I would have insisted on a compact car for the discounted compact car price I could have otherwise booked at the time).

  28. Not all cases of involuntary downgrading should be blacklisted.  Each case should be considered on its own merits, i.e. the circumstances leading to and surrounding the downgrade as well as the airline’s response to the consumer’s complaint.  The cases that show negligence or greed on the consumer’s part should not be pursued unless, in your judgment, there is some redeeming quality.

    The airlines should not be allowed to get away with what they did to this OP.  Some of the well-researched and well-worded responses offered here give excellent reasons.  The ball is in the FAA’s court as they have the power to do away with this injusitce.  The EU has it right in this regard.

    BTW apart from expanding knowledge and learning lessons from the experiences of others, this blog has sharpened my ability to judge  tremendously.  For one thing, no longer do I see every story as coming from a true victim.  

  29. Definitely keep publishing these cases, there is a real issue here as others have noted. The suggestions given here are a worthwhile find for others that may find themselves in a similar situation. Small claims court, noting the actual cost of economy on date of purchase, and to ask for a system wide upgrade certificate are great ideas and potentially only found by seeing issues like this taken on by an advocate.

  30. I voted no, since every case is a little bit different.  In the case of the OP here, I think US Airways should have refunded the difference between what he paid for his 1st class seat and the coach fare in effect at the time he booked his ticket, not the difference between his fare and a walk-up coach fare, which appears to be what they did.  But I guess since it’s US Airways, we shouldn’t be surprised.

  31. Keep up helping those who do have a case that are NOT frivolous (like getting ham when they should have known he was Muslim and we should look out for ourselves when it comes to special needs).

    Sometimes, you are the only person who tries and is successful at helping travelers fight the huge airline and hotel industry.

    Why stop doing that?

  32. I certainly understand the dilemma.  Advanced-purchase first class and advanced-purchase economy differ by a lot.  However, I do understand that it can be difficult to calculate the fare difference given that the prices change all the time.

    I’ve booked economy fares separately on the same flight via the same airline online ticketing system.  I’ve seen cases where the price changed the next day or even right after completing a purchase.  It may be difficult to figure out what would have been the equivalent fare because there are often limits on the number of fares available at a certain price.  I’ve seen cases where I’m sure that my purchase was either the last or among the last available at a particular price before the price was bumped up.

  33. If feasible, I’d suggest that you continue to review these situations and, if one seems unusual, or involves particularly egregious behavior on the part of the airline, write about it.

    As a travel writer and blog publisher, I always have more story ideas than I can ever find time to bring to fruition.  I’m sure you find yourself in the same boat/plane/train, editorial-wise. 

    At some point, all news stories become so repetitive that they are no longer “news.”  Downgrading, particularly on part of an itinerary, may be one of those types of stories.

    And as a highly visible travel consumer advocate, you should be focusing your energy and talents on problems that can be solved, not ones that probably are going to continue to plague travelers no matter what you do to attempt to stop them from occurring in the future.

  34. @Christoper Elliott:  I regard these kinds of cases to be outright theft on the part of the airlines.  If knowledgeable TAs like @TonyA can reconstruct an itinerary or a fare (as he has done with other cases), so too can the airlines.  I also realize that being a consumer advocate isn’t profitable and that your time is limited. 

    How about you tell *us* what we can do?  On your TSA article on Saturday, you suggested the power of the ballot box.  What if your loyal readers contacted the agency or organization that could most help in cases such as this?  Heck, Ralph Nader is plenty p-oed at the airlines right now; I’m sure he’d be on board with this.  Tell us who and tell us what rule needs to be targeted.  It’s better than the alternative, which is to sit on our thumbs and do nothing.  Wasn’t that the message of Scammed?

    1. Jeanne, while a travel agent can easily retrieve the fares that were active (historical fares look back period up to one year); they cannot tell the seat inventory that was available at that time. That said, the passenger must really take a snapshot of what an equivalent economy class ticket would have cost for the same flights at the time they bought the business or first class tickets.

      But I want to point out something else. Airlines make so much money from their first and business class passengers. It makes no sense to screw them. But then again, that is how stupid some airlines can be. The last thing an airline wants is for these high paying customers to leave.

      I wish we have those EU like passenger compensation rules. They will make Chris Elliott’s life a little easier.

  35. Last month I flew on United from Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, to Dulles. The flight was nearly empty, and the flight attendants announced that you could upgrade from Economy to Economy Plus for “only $175”. If they are charging $175 for 4 inches of extra legroom, than a downgrade from First to Economy should be worth a whole hell of a lot more than $160. 

  36. I’m surprised it was only 70/30.  I would have thought “mediate” would have been much higher.

    This is another example of how the airlines will stick it to us, but when the reverse happens they always make it to their favor. In other words, “stick it to us again”.

    Since it is almost impossible for us to “win” this fight, someone like Elliott is needed.

    I wonder what would happen if these cases were taken to small claims court. 

    Any lawyers out there?

  37. It seems if the airline cannot furnish him a first class seat then the airline should first refund him what he paid for the first class ticket and sell him the economy ticket at the price he would have paid at the time he purchased the 1st class ticket.

    1. The problem with trying to do that is that it’s difficult to determine that exact amount.  I’ve seen where the prices changed as soon as I purchased a ticket.  Sometimes the airlines list (last at this price or only two at this price).  Even the travel agents who say they can find the price histories indicate that they can’t exactly pin down the amount by date or time.

      I also remember purchasing a ticket one, and trying different options, including the most restricted (cheapest), partially restricted, full-fare, and first-class.  The prices were all different.

  38. You need to keep mediating because the only way the airlines will ever change their minds is if we continue to complain. Squeaky wheel gets the grease?

  39. I strongly feel that you should not give up on involuntary downgrade cases. Echoing other commenters here, I’d argue that they are close to the most open-and-shut cases you’ll ever see in terms of determining what is fair for the passenger. If you’ll try to help people who feel that their 3.5 star hotel should have been a 4, or who want a partial refund because their room wasn’t clean enough for their standards, then I don’t see why you would turn your back on someone who was essentially defrauded by the airlines.

    All that said, I understand that these are cases where your mediation usually doesn’t help much, but I’d argue that’s all the more reason for you to get involved and maybe bring more attention to what is IMHO one of the most reprehensible airline ticketing practices, and one that I’ve almost never heard discussed in the media.

    As far as what airlines should be doing in these cases, I like what others have suggested: if it’s too complex to determine what a fair refund would be, issue a voucher for a first class seat at the price of an economy fare; as long as the voucher was valid for a reasonable amount of time (say, 2 years), I think this is a rare case where I’m okay with compensation being in the form of a voucher rather than money.

  40. The way to vote with your feet is to never pay for first class.

    (Which leaves first class to the flyers who use upgrade privileges and in turn fewer dollars into the airlines’ coffers.)

    For me there is no point in passing up discount coach for paid first class when the airline reserves the right to substitute full fare coach.

    The right way to handle the situation is for the airline to refund more than the difference between the amount paid and the lowest discount fare for the seat the passenger got. (The “more than” is “for insult”.) If nobody purchased first class maybe the airlines would do things the right way.

  41. To calculate the value of a refund is absolute. Take what was used, subtract from the total and that is the refund. Discounts, super savers, full fare matters not. If a per flies full fare Pittsburgh, Chicago, LAX for a contract signing at $2336.00 misses their flight in Chicago and returns home the airline will charge PIT CHI PIT at full fare of $1605.00 and subtract the difference for refund of $731.00.  It always is in the airlines favor, if people read the small print that is given with every “Travel agent ” ticket, they would quit complaining and prepare for the rip off! You rarely can beat the airlines on this one.

  42. There is another factor to consider in these involuntary downgrade cases and that is temporary loss of frequent flyer privileges for the flight in question (e.g. the ability to pre-select the best available seats at the time of booking in the ticketed cabin). Contrary to popular opinion, top tier frequent flyers can and have been subjected to involuntary downgrades.

    Let’s say, for example, a top tier frequent pays for a discounted business class ticket at $7,000 (in this example a full fare flexible economy ticket is $6,000 and a discounted economy ticket is $2,000) and is downgraded to economy class by the airline. The airline places the downgraded passenger in one of the worst seats in the economy cabin e.g. back row middle seat as that is all that was available.

    In this example the airline offers the passenger $1,000 refund as they have used the difference between the most expensive fully flexible economy fare and the heavily discounted business class fare. This does not take into account that the passenger may well have purchased the cheapest economy class ticket had he decided to travel in that cabin, and furthermore he would have been able to select the best seats at the time of booking.

    I believe the airline should in the above example offer a refund that consists of the difference between his heavily discounted business class fare and the cheapest economy fare at the time of booking i.e $5,000 in this case. In addition the airline should offer frequent flyer miles or vouchers as compensation for the temporary loss of frequent flyer benefits for that flight.

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