Worst upgrade ever — how about a refund?

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By Christopher Elliott

It’s a six-hour flight from Honolulu to Phoenix, so when a US Airways agent offered Blair Fell an upgrade to first class for just $350, he jumped at the opportunity.

“The agent convinced me by saying, ‘Wouldn’t you like to lie back and sleep?” he remembers.

But once he boarded the aircraft, he was surprised by what he found. “Not only was it a no-reclining seat,” he says, “but the first class was decidedly not present.”

The first class that wasn’t

Fell asked for a refund, but US Airways said “no.” Then he turned to me, sending me his correspondence and a few photos of the conditions on the plane. Here’s a picture of his seat (above). Clearly not a lie-flat seat — but it is in the front of the plane.

Fell says the flight fell short of a first-class experience.

The amenities were laughable. They offered me a basket to choose whether I wanted vending machine packaged cookies or potato chips. And then there was the breakfast: a box of stale granola, a few pieces of cut fruit (the only prepared food I was offered), skim milk. Period. That was the food.

The blanket and pillow? Same as you get in coach. A thin tissue of a blanket, and the cabin was freezing.

Fell says the only way for him to rest was to lie down on the floor. I’ll let him explain how he did that in a minute.

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The grievance process left something to be desired, too.

“When their customer service person called me finally today, she was beyond rude, and basically told me, ‘You sat in the seat so we owe you nothing,'” he told me. “And when I asked to speak to a manager she said ‘Managers don’t answer complaints.'” (Related: What does US Airways owe me for “ruining” my vacation?)

No doubt, Fell had a disappointing experience on US Airways. But I thought I’d check with the airline for its perspective. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

False advertising?

US Airways’ records show Fell was traveling on a Travelocity reservation and phoned the airline the night before his return trip to the mainland to request an upgrade.

This is a 757 and a night flight so there is no scheduled meal service and no Envoy Class service.

All of our seats recline in first class and he does not state the seat was broken, which if it only reclined as far as shown in the picture might indicate it wasn’t functioning properly. We did not get a report of a broken seat and he does not indicate that he reported it as such, so we have to assume it was fully functional but did not lie flat like an envoy seat would.

Not sure where he found the room to lie down on the floor, as there is only room to do that in the aisle and galley (or by the boarding door).

Our agents called him and did apologize for not meeting his expectations but there is really no compensation due as he flew in first class on the return leg.

We think his expectation was that he would have Envoy seating and an international meal service, but we do not have an envoy cabin on any of our Hawaii flights. He does not indicate that he was told, in error, that Envoy Class was available (it isn’t on this route) so I think he made some assumptions that proved incorrect.

Again, we apologized for not meeting his expectation.

My advocacy team and I circled back with Fell and showed them US Airways’ response. Here’s what he had to say:

I did not “call” to upgrade to first class. First class was sold to me aggressively when I called to check on my flight.

I first refused since I really shouldn’t be paying $350, but when I thought about what the sales agent said — that I could “lie down and sleep” on the leg to Phoenix — I called back.

The seat in the photo is in full recline and I tried a second seat. Same thing.

Per lying down on the floor, I did that in the bulkhead of the seats in front of me. There were only three passengers in “first class” and I’m only 5’7″.

They act as if we’re supposed to know that one sort of first class is crapier than the other.

They sold it as a “lie down” experience and I was not able to lie down except on the floor. Period.

US Airways won’t return Fell’s $350, but his experience offers some valuable lessons for the rest of us. Airline employees are aggressively trying to “upsell” all kinds of products, from affinity cards to business class upgrades. You need to ask a few hard questions before saying “yes.”

The product might be worth the extra money — or not.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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