American Airlines downgraded us. Can I get the fare difference refunded?

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By Christopher Elliott

American Airlines downgrades Thomas Sennett and his family to economy class on their flights from Boston to Phoenix. Why isn’t it refunding the fare difference?

Question

Last year, my family and I had first-class tickets on American Airlines to fly from Boston to Phoenix. American Airlines delayed that flight and rebooked and downgraded us to coach class on another flight.  

A few days later, I received an email from American Airlines that it had refunded the fare difference between first class and economy class and advised me to contact my travel agent. 

When I returned from our vacation, I contacted the travel agent at AAA, who had arranged our tour through Pleasant Holidays. The AAA travel agent contacted Pleasant Holidays, which had no record of a refund from American Airlines.  

Over the course of a couple of months, I followed up with AAA and Pleasant Holidays on the status of this credit, to no avail.

Finally, I reached out to one of the American Airlines executives that you list on your consumer advocacy site. The airline contacted me a day later and referred me to a website to check the status of the refund. That website indicated that a refund had been completed.

I still don’t have our refund. Can you help me? — Thomas Sennett, West Hartford, Conn.

Answer

If you get bumped from first class to economy — that’s called an involuntary downgrade — you should get a prompt and full refund of the fare difference. Looking at your case, I can see the problem — and a possible complication.

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The complication is the fare difference. Airlines often calculate the fare difference in a way that is advantageous to them. I like to call it airline math. So, if American were to give you a refund, it would be based on the difference between a first-class ticket and an expensive walk-up fare in economy class instead of the less expensive advance-purchase fare. That way, it wouldn’t have to refund you much — or anything at all. (Related: Worst upgrade ever — how about a refund?)

The second issue is that you have a tour operator and an agent involved. A good travel agent can fight for your refund. But the bureaucracy of getting the money from the airline to the tour operator to the travel advisor and finally to you — well, that’s probably why it’s taking so long. (Related: After a hurricane threatens her destination wedding, are these American Airline tickets worthless?)

When I asked you to send me the paper trail between you, American, AAA and Pleasant Holidays, you complied. I’m so impressed that you stayed off the phone and did everything by email. You had a thorough and very helpful paper trail that made this case relatively easy to resolve.

I see you also availed yourself of the company contacts for American Airlines that I publish on my consumer advocacy site, Elliott.org. Nice work! I also have contacts for AAA in case you ever need them. (The American Airlines captain’s announcement about a mechanical delay jolted passengers awake.)

My advocacy team contacted AAA on your behalf to find out the status of your refund. It reached out to Pleasant Holidays. The company found your money and returned it to you. And best of all, American Airlines didn’t try any funny airline math. You received a check for $1,611 from the carrier.

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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 Panamá City.

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