Downgraded on my American Airlines flight to New Zealand — do I get a refund?

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By Christopher Elliott

After American Airlines downgrades Margarethe Hoenig on her flight from Dallas to Auckland, New Zealand, the airline promises her a partial refund. Then it says it can’t. What’s going on?

Question

I bought two business class tickets through Chatdeal to fly from Dallas to Auckland on American Airlines. The airline downgraded us to Economy Plus and told us at the gate we would automatically receive a refund from the airline for the price difference within seven days. We also received a $600 voucher from American Airlines for our inconvenience. 

When we returned to the U.S., I called American Airlines several times to inquire about our refund. Initially, a representative told us we had to wait seven days after the completion of the whole flight. Then a representative said they could not find our flight information because it was a codeshare flight with Qantas.

Finally, an American Airlines agent said the airline wasn’t responsible for the refund because our tickets were on Qantas, and American was just the operating carrier from Dallas to Auckland. 

 I have contacted Qantas several times. I also contacted Chatdeal because I bought the tickets through them, but so far, they have not been able to resolve the issue. So far, no one is willing to take responsibility for our refund. It is obvious that they are passing the buck. It’s been almost three months since our flight. Can you help? — Margarethe Hoenig, Cave Creek, Ariz.

Answer

American Airlines should have quickly refunded the difference between Economy Plus and Business Class.

The 16-hour flight from Dallas to Auckland is a slog in business class. But in economy “plus”? You couldn’t pay me enough to do it. And don’t get me wrong, I love Auckland, but getting there from the States is the worst part. So let me be clear about this: Downgrading you to Economy Plus was a big deal. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

But is a downgrade refundable?

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Can I get a refund for a flight downgrade on American Airlines?

Yes, the airline is required to give you a full refund when it downgrades you.

Specifically:

  • If American Airlines downgrades you and can’t reseat you in a similar seat.
  • If the airline cancels your flight or causes you to miss a connection, and can’t accommodate you in your class of service.
  • If American Airlines denies you boarding on an oversold flight and can’t seat you in a similar seat.

To obtain your reservation, here’s what to do:

Contact American Airlines reservations

The best way to reach the airline is by email using official channels provided by American Airlines. (I’ll share the executive contacts in a minute.) Briefly tell the airline what happened and your desired resolution. Include your flight number and confirmation number. (Related: Help! American Airlines changed my flight, but it won’t give me a refund!)

Beware of airline math

Airlines often calculate refunds for downgrades based on the walk-up economy class fare. That’s the most expensive economy fare. You may get a lot less than you expected. This is a negotiation. You may need to run the numbers yourself — and push back. (Related: “Easily the worst airline experience I’ve ever had” — but can American Airlines fix this code-share problem?)

Be patient

Refunds for downgrades should only take seven business days, but practically speaking, it can take weeks or months. If you haven’t heard back from American Airlines within two weeks, you may need to contact it again to ask about your money. (Related: Billed by American Airlines — and then billed again.)

Don’t give up. The system is designed to wear you down and make you walk away. With a little persistence, you can get your refund from American Airlines.

What happened to your refund?

The problem is that you booked a ticket through Qantas, and technically, the American Airlines portion was a code-share flight. So the American Airlines agent who promised you a refund was really speaking out of turn.

You were not an American Airlines passenger; you belonged to Qantas.

It doesn’t matter, though. If an airline promises you a refund, then all the back-room code-share arrangements it has do not matter. You should get your refund, which you calculated to be about $6,500.

Your case got confusing. Here’s what should have happened: You should have contacted your online travel agent (Chatdeal) and asked it to escalate this to Qantas. Instead, you believed the word of an American Airlines representative who promised you American would refund your ticket. 

And just to make things interesting, American issued a $600 voucher as an apology, which made it look like you accepted a ticket credit instead of a refund for the downgrade.

By the way, I list the executive contacts for American Airlines and Qantas on my consumer advocacy site, Elliott.org. I think a brief, polite appeal to one of them might have gotten things moving along.

You contacted my advocacy team for help. I reached out to Chatdeal on your behalf. A representative agreed to contact Qantas. A few weeks later, you contacted my advocacy team with an update.

“Just wanted to let you know that we did get the refund,” you said. “Many thanks for your help!”

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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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