Booked in business class — confirmed in economy

When Lars Koch checked his flight confirmation, he discovered something troubling. He had expected to be seated in business class on each leg of his round-trip flight on Airberlin to Germany. But the confirmation showed that he was to be seated in the back of the plane for two legs of his trip.

What had gone wrong with Airberlin’s reservation process — and why wouldn’t Airberlin help him get seats in business class?

Koch’s story is a stark reminder that there are no guarantees when purchasing air tickets, especially when online booking and code-sharing are involved.

Koch purchased a round-trip ticket from Orlando, Fla., to Hamburg, Germany, via New York and Düsseldorf, Germany. Four of the flights were on Airberlin in business class, while the Orlando-to-New York and New York-to-Orlando legs were both on Airberlin’s code-share partner, American Airlines, in first class. The itinerary Koch chose indicated that he could check two pieces of luggage “free of charge” on each leg.

Before completing the purchase, Koch took screenshots of all the relevant information, expecting to be seated in first or business class on each flight. But when he received his confirmation a few minutes later, not only was he seated in economy class on the Düsseldorf-to-Hamburg and New York-to-Orlando flights, but he was now limited to one “free” bag on the return flights.

Koch called Airberlin’s customer service, hoping that the airline would correct the seating and place him in first or business class on the Düsseldorf-to-Hamburg and New York-to-Orlando flights. But Airberlin was not helpful:

I called the Airberlin customer service four times, but no satisfactory solution was offered.

Their attitude was: It is what it is. Supervisors claimed not to be available.

I was offered an upgrade for the flight from New York to Orlando (and a second bag for the way back) for an additional charge of $2,700. Needless to say, I declined.

As Koch’s flights were scheduled to depart in seven days, he emailed his request for business class seats and his screenshots to Airberlin’s customer service agents indicated that they had an email backlog of five to seven days.

He received the following response to his email:

Thank you for your email.

Please be informed that … our colleagues from Service Center already communicated to you the only options available that we have to offer to you for the moment are either a cancellation and a full refund for this reservation or keeping the flights that you currently have and filling in a complaint on our website.

Please fill [in the] online form available at the following link:

After your complaint will be processed, you will receive an answer regarding your query in an email.

We would kindly ask you for your patience because the complaints are processed by incoming date.

Please accept our sincere apologies for this inconvenience.

If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact our team at any time again.

Koch might have escalated his complaint to Airberlin executives using our contact information, but he asked our advocates for assistance instead. His desired resolution was to be booked in business class on the Airberlin flight from Düsseldorf to Hamburg and in first class on the American Airlines flight from New York to Orlando, with two free bags on each flight.

Unfortunately for Koch, Airberlin’s terms and conditions of carriage for Airberlin flights to and from the U.S. and Canada provide that “Carrier does not guarantee allocation of any particular space in the aircraft.”

Regardless of what is listed in Koch’s screenshots and what he paid for his flights, he never had a guarantee from Airberlin that he would be seated in business or first class.

This provision notwithstanding, our advocates felt that Airberlin owed Koch an explanation of the reason it was not providing him with the seating he had paid for on two legs of his flight, and that good customer service indicated that the airline should either uphold its implied promise of available seating during those flights or to refund those legs of his flight that were confirmed in economy class.

As Koch needed to arrive in Hamburg on the day his existing flight was scheduled to land there, he chose to keep his reservations. Airberlin provided no explanation as to why he was seated in economy class for two legs of his flight rather than business or first class. Koch decided to file a complaint with Airberlin using the link in its email. He mentioned that he was considering a partial chargeback for the seats in economy class, but our advocates advised him that Airberlin was likely to cancel his entire reservation if he pursued a chargeback for those seats.

Was Airberlin’s offer to Lars Koch of a cancellation and full refund adequate compensation?

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