He paid for a first-class seat, but it didn’t last all the way to Portland

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By Christopher Elliott

“We feel like we were taken advantage of,” says Mike Sevier, who recently flew from Tucson, Ariz., to Portland on US Airways. “Scammed at worst.”

Why is Sevier so upset? He paid for a last-minute upgrade and he received an upgrade. But it wasn’t the upgrade he thought he’d get.

Sevier’s complaint is today’s Can This Trip Be Saved? case, where I take a completely unvetted reader complaint and ask you if I should help.

A day before his departure, Sevier received an email from US Airways inviting him to upgrade to first class on his trip for $170.

“That sounded like a great deal and we took it,” he says.

But when he arrived at the airport, he was in for a surprise.

“The upgrade was only for the 26-minute commuter flight from Tucson to Phoenix,” he says. “We asked to be downgraded, but the flight was full. We had to either use the first class ticket or not go. Really not a choice at all.”

Sevier says he should have read the offer more carefully. That goes without saying, of course.

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“Who would pay $170 for a 26-minute flight?” he asks. “There was no food service, no cocktails. I incorrectly assumed the offered upgrade was the Phoenix to Portland leg. Which is my fault. I remain incredulous that the offer was made.”

I’m incredulous, too

Although I don’t have the original offer, or any of the screenshots, I can see myself making the same mistake. While I don’t think US Airways tried to hide the terms, I think it’s also safe to say it didn’t go out of its way to say “THIS UPGRADE IS FOR THE SHORT FLIGHT TO PHOENIX.”

If it had done so, Sevier wouldn’t have paid for it. No one would have.

He says US Airways could have handled this differently when he showed up at the airport and realized he’d been duped. Like, offering a frequent flier an upgrade to first class and eating the $170? (Here is our ultimate guide to travel loyalty programs.)

“Better to make a friend than an enemy,” he says.

If nothing else, this story illustrates how desperate air travelers have become for a little dignity. It also suggests that the airline industry’s mantra that people only want cheap fares is not uniformly true. Sevier was willing to pay extra for a little legroom and creature comforts.

You can probably guess how US Airways responded

I understand you are requesting a refund of the upgrade fee. Our records indicate the charge is correct as you utilized this upgrade by sitting in first class. We are therefore unable to honor your request for a refund.

I apologize for any misunderstanding. Please let us know if we can be of further assistance.

This form response doesn’t come off as being sorry for anything. It just restates the obvious and then offers a flat denial. What a surprise.

The problem is, US Airways’ offer is believable to the average air traveler. We’re programmed to believe there is such a thing as a $170 upgrade to Portland, even a “free” upgrade if you participate in the airline’s habit-forming frequent flier program. All totally untrue, of course. Someone is paying for those big seats — either you, with mindless manufactured spending on a mileage-earning credit card or your unlucky employer. (Related: The dinging didn’t stop until we landed in Venice.)

Sevier wants my advocacy team and me to get involved. He wants me to hunt down someone at US Airways and force them to disgorge these ill-gotten profits. I would like to, but I suspect it will tell me the same thing: You got what you paid for. Have a nice day.

I would love for a travel company to say this, just for once: “Yeah, we tried to fool you. Our bad. We’ve clarified our offers and it won’t happen again.” But in the travel industry, where deception fuels profits, why would any company do that?

Should I mediate Mike Sevier's case with US Airways?

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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. He is based in São Paulo.

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