Downgraded on Air France, but where’s their refund?

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By Christopher Elliott

Lisa and Wayne Roccaforte felt lucky to have premium economy class seats on their recent Air France flight from Paris to Houston.

With good reason: The seats have 38 inches of “pitch” and are 19 inches wide, a sharp contrast to the medieval 32 inches of legroom and 17 inches of seat space in economy class. (Seriously, folks, that should be illegal.)

But try as hard as they might, the Roccafortes couldn’t avoid Torture Class on their transatlantic flight.

“We arrived at Charles de Gaulle three hours before our flight to check in and were told that the flight was very full,” remembers Lisa Roccaforte. “The woman that checked us in told us we may be moved to business class.”

That didn’t happen.

She explains what happened next

At the gate as we were walking on the plane, they took our boarding passes away from us and gave us new ones that had my husband and sister-in-law moved to economy seats. They left my seat in premium economy.

When we tried to tell them no, we bought those seats months ago and chose the seats months ago, they told us we had no choice and to speak to Houston about a refund. We were in shock.

Seeking fair compensation

Who wouldn’t be? After a ticket agent promises you a possible upgrade to business class, which has a civil amount of legroom and reasonably good service, two members of her party were being sent to steerage to feed the rats. (And on Air France, no less — sacre bleu!)

Now, we can all agree that the right way to handle this is as follows: An insincere form letter (is there any other kind?) and a prompt refund of the difference between premium economy and the back-of-the-plane fare.

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But that would be too easy.

The family did receive the form apology and two $200 vouchers, and eventually an $840 refund, which represents the upgrade fee for two tickets.

But Roccaforte looked up the rules for involuntary downgrades. EU regulations entitle her to a 75 percent refund. She also requested a refund for her seat, even though she voluntarily downgraded herself to economy class to sit with her party.

“I paid $1,805 for each of the seats,” she says. “The 75 percent refund should be $1,354 for each seat.”

After several emails and phone calls, they found themselves talking with Delta, Air France’s codeshare partner in the United States.

Every person I talk to tells me to do something else. The EU Regulation rules state we are entitled to a refund, and that Air France should have let us know before we were walking on the plane that we were being downgraded.

They should have also informed us of our rights. They were also supposed to refund our money within 7 days. I can’t find anyone to tell me the process to receive a refund.

I recommended that the Roccafortes contact Euro Flight Delays, which specializes in EU 261 complaints, and is also an underwriter of this site. But I also asked Delta about her case.

Here’s what it said:

When the Roccafortes were moved from Premium Economy to regular economy they simply were not provided an amenity they had purchased. They were not, however, downgraded as she asserts from one booking class to another, i.e. business class to coach.

From her note, I see they were issued vouchers as a goodwill gesture and refunded the “premium economy” fee they had previously paid.

There is a fixed price compensation for those who pay for but are not seated in the Premium Economy section of the plane after paying for it. That amount must be $420 per person as verified by the refunds department when she called. Lisa Roccaforte, understandably, moved on her own volition when her husband wanted to be seated near her.

They are not due the EU compensation referenced or the 75 percent refund because they were not downgraded from business to coach, or, as AF designates it, La Premiere to Voyageur.

An airline compensation dilemma

In other words, premium economy and economy technically aren’t separate classes, at least for EU regulation purposes. (Related: Air France canceled my flight, so where is my refund?)

“They were presented as different classes when we bought the tickets,” says Roccaforte. “I believe Air France is trying to get out of paying compensation. There are distinct classes of seats on the website when one purchases tickets. How can this not be a downgrade?” (Here’s how to use your airline flight credit.)

I share her frustration. I don’t think she would be complaining as loudly if Air France’s economy class seats were truly uncomfortable, as most economy class seats are. Delta’s response would add insult to injury. But at least it didn’t pocket her upgrade fee, as I’ve seen some airlines do.

Did Lisa and Wayne Roccaforte get enough compensation for their downgrades?

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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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