A refund for my downgraded airline seat?

Question: We bought two first-class airline tickets to Peru on TACA through Cheaptickets.com. But we soon found out they were economy-class seats.

We’ve asked the airline for a $1,100 refund — the price difference between first-class and economy-class tickets — but it won’t budge. Cheaptickets.com sent a $400 voucher that we don’t want.

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We’ve disputed the ticket charges with American Express, but it has denied our claim. It’s obvious to us we didn’t receive what we paid for.

We’ve never sued anyone and I would rather not have to go there. Do you have any other suggestions? — Virginia Pozo, San Francisco

Answer: If you didn’t get a first-class seat, you shouldn’t have to pay for one.

TACA owes you a refund of the fare difference between the two classes. And your online travel agency, Cheaptickets.com, should help you. At the very least, you would expect American Express to take your side in a dispute.

So what happened?

From what I can tell, you booked what you thought was a first-class ticket through your online agent. But the airline only delivered a seat in economy class. In fact, it never treated this as a first-class reservation in the first place. Was there a miscommunication between the agent and the airline? Or between your agent and you? Maybe.

As far as I can tell, Cheaptickets doesn’t have a service guarantee comparable to the other big online travel agencies, which promises everything about your trip will be perfect. But it’s reasonable to expect that the products it sells will be on the up-and-up, and that if there’s something wrong, it will fix it.

Cheaptickets’ $400 voucher was a nice gesture, but not enough. Why? Two reasons: First, it requires you to buy another ticket or hotel room, and second, it doesn’t come close to making up the price difference between the two tickets.

As I read your letter, it seems as if you spent some time on the phone with Cheaptickets and TACA. Writing to the two companies might have yielded a more favorable result. This is one of the rare times when you should have considered sending either a paper letter that included your confirmation and your boarding pass, or, if you’re good with a PC and a scanner, an email with documents attached.

Receipts are important to resolving this dispute. You need to prove you didn’t get what you paid for.

Since you were doing business with an American company — Cheaptickets — American Express should have sided with you. Invoking the Fair Credit Billing Act, the federal law that protects you from charges for goods and services you didn’t accept or weren’t delivered as agreed, might have encouraged American Express to see things your way.

I think TACA, Cheaptickets and American Express failed to meet their customer-service obligations.

But who’s responsible for your refund? The correct answer is: The online travel agent who took your money and acted as an intermediary for the transaction.

I contacted Cheaptickets on your behalf. A representative contacted you and said the company reviewed its phone transcripts and determined that it was at fault. The online agency refunded you $1,100 and let you keep the $400 voucher for the trouble.

(Photo: caribb/Flickr Creative Commons)