Does this “disgusted” passenger deserve a full refund?

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By Christopher Elliott

Airlines often speak from both sides of their mouth.

They say their seats are unique products, and loathe the idea of “commoditization” which says all seats are basically the same. At the same time, they’re unwilling to promise these amazing seats in writing. (In fact, most contracts won’t even guarantee your flight will run on schedule or even you’ll be offered transportation.) And they’re more than willing to overlook their uniqueness to sell you a codeshare ticket on another airline.

All of which brings us to Sandra Dekoj and her case against Hainan Airlines. She asserts that her travel agent sold her a seat on a spanking new Hainan 787, but that she ended up flying on a dilapidated Airbus instead. And that package, which included a one-night hotel stay in Beijing, did not meet her expectations.

She wants a full refund, and she wants my advocacy team and me to help her get it.

Let me give her the floor for a minute. Her adventure started when she boarded an aging A340-600 aircraft from Chicago to Beijing.

“It was an old aircraft with worn-out seating,” she says. “My aisle seat was broken, as the seat wouldn’t recline to its final point.”

Dekoj was seated near the lavatory. She enclosed pictures of the toilets. They speak for themselves.

“It was vile,” she says of the bathroom’s condition. “The toilet had rust and cracks. They heavily taped the ‘push to flush’ button on the wall, as well as the cabinet sink, which looked absolutely terrible.”

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Oh, and the flight attendants were rude. “They shoved and kicked garbage bags in the lavatory. One of them didn’t even say ‘excuse me’ when he bumped into me. It was very unprofessional and rude,” she says.

But that kind of goes with the territory when you’re flying on any airline, doesn’t it? Disgusting things happen on airlines all the time.

When she arrived in Beijing for her layover, Dekoj realized she didn’t even know the name of her hotel.

“I asked if I need a voucher or something for this hotel, and the agent said yes and then walked away,” she says. “This is an example of poor operational service and lack of customer service.”

The hotel was awful. When she checked in, a large cockroach crossed the floor. The staff was indifferent. She checked out earlier than she needed to and waited for her next flight to Thailand. (Here’s our guide on finding the best hotel.)

Hainan bills itself as a five-star airline, but Dekoj alleges she received one-star service.

“I am requesting a full refund on this ticket,” she says. “Had I known what I would be paying for in advance, I would have surely shifted my business to a real airline.”

Here’s how Hainan responded to her request:

When Hainan Airlines initially announced its intent to fly non-stop from Chicago to Beijing, we were excited to be able to accomplish this with the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

The delays in production and delivery of this new aircraft left us with the decision to either operate with alternate aircraft or to delay our start date.

We decided to begin service with the Airbus 340, which was the only aircraft in our fleet capable of flying this route.

Regarding the hotel service, we will revisit our agreements and expectations with each property we have under contract to express the concerns.

Please accept our sincerest apology for the trouble this had caused to you. Being a Skytrax five-star airline, we strive to provide the best service possible to our passengers.

Hmm, Hainan seems to be blaming Boeing for its bad service. It’s turning down her request for a refund and offering her nothing. Is that how a five-star airline responds to the concerns of a customer?

In fairness to Hainan, some of Dekoj’s requests were what you might call “laundry list” grievances. For example, she gripes that the Chinese employees only spoke Chinese (how dare they?) and she repeatedly threatens to take the airline to the court of public opinion, including a smear campaign on social media. Also, she fails to mention one important fact, uncovered by my eagle-eyed editors: Dekoj is listed as an employee of a Hainan competitor.

I know there will be “rules-are-rules” readers who say that 1) Hainan safely transported her to Beijing; and 2) It gave her a hotel. What more could she want?

If Hainan had presented itself as basic transportation, then I’d be inclined to agree. But it didn’t. Instead, it promises a cherished experience. I think we can all agree that she didn’t have one.

Some of you will insist Dekoj should pay attention to the Hainan Airlines General Conditions of International Carriage for Passengers and Baggage, which is the legal agreement between the airline and its passengers. But I think the promises it makes outside of its contract (which no one bothers to read, by the way) are equally important.

Maybe Dekoj doesn’t deserve a full refund, but the empty apology she received from the airline is pretty meaningless. Then again, maybe she ruined her chances of getting anything more by asking for too much. Or did she?

Should I mediate Sandra Dekoj's case?

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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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