Why can’t I get a refund for my involuntary downgrade?

Leah and John Tall book code-shared business class flights on British Airways. But their itinerary doesn’t provide the minimum connection time required during their return trip. They find themselves seated in economy class, and the airlines involved won’t refund their involuntary downgrade. Can our advocate help the Talls get their money back?

Question

My husband and I booked a cruise on Celebrity Cruises and air reservations from Dublin to Miami via Toronto through ChoiceAir. British Airways sold us tickets for code-shared flights on Aer Lingus and American Airlines.

We arrived in Toronto on time, but American Airlines would not allow us to board our flight to Miami. Our itinerary provided for a connection time of one hour and 44 minutes. We needed to retrieve our bags, go through customs and security procedures, recheck our bags and board the flight. This required us to wait on long lines and cross the terminal from one end to the other. By the time we reached the American Airlines counter, the AA agent told us that we were too late to check our bags. At that point, less than an hour remained before the flight departed. This forced us to spend the night in Toronto.

British Airways rebooked us on the same American Airlines flight the following day. No business class seats were available, and we were seated in economy class. We have asked each of the three airlines and ChoiceAir for a refund of the price differential between business and economy class. Unfortunately, each of the airlines and ChoiceAir claims that one of the other parties is responsible for the refund. Can you help us get our involuntary downgrade refunded? — Leah Tall, Aventura, Fla.

Answer

You certainly received a runaround in trying to get somebody — anybody — with whom you dealt to take responsibility for your involuntary downgrade.

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Sadly, situations like yours are not uncommon in code-share situations that don’t go smoothly. As you discovered the hard way, code-sharing allows airlines to duck responsibility to their passengers by pointing fingers at each other. And when international flights are involved, the potential for problems goes up exponentially. As I note below, your travel agent also seems to have mislabeled your flight arrangement as a “code-share.”

A code-share gone wrong leads to finger-pointing

British Airways told you that the operating airlines were responsible for issuing your refund. American Airlines claimed that British Airways was responsible because ChoiceAir printed your tickets on British Airways’ paper stock. Meanwhile, you went back and forth for two weeks before you asked our advocate for help. (Our website features executive contact information for British Airways, American Airlines, Aer Lingus and Celebrity Cruises, which owns ChoiceAir.) Fortunately, in your communications with each party, you adhered to the three P’s of consumer advocacy: patience, persistence, and politeness.

Couldn’t make this connection within the minimum connection time

Code-sharing wasn’t the only problem with your booking. You had an itinerary that didn’t allow you enough time to make your connection.

Your itinerary required you to change planes at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Making connections to American destinations at Pearson requires passengers to clear Canadian customs as well as pre-clear U.S. customs. You had to do the following to make your connection:

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One hour and 44 minutes between flights wasn’t nearly enough time to do all this.

Misrepresentation from the Celebrity travel agent

Our advocate, Dwayne Coward, reached out to American Airlines on your behalf. Our American Airlines contact suggested that your travel agent at ChoiceAir booked your flights incorrectly and misrepresented them as a “code-share” arrangement.

Code-sharing means that the airlines involved are partners in an airline alliance such as the Oneworld Alliance, with interline agreements. Multiple flights on one itinerary can be ticketed together, and luggage checked in on one airline can be automatically transferred to the next.

But while British Airways and American Airlines are both members of the Oneworld Alliance, Aer Lingus is not. And Aer Lingus does not have an interline agreement with American Airlines. Your flights had British Airways flight numbers, but weren’t really “code-shared.” This compounded the confusion over which party owed you the refund for your involuntary upgrade.

Our American Airlines contact reviewed your itinerary and sent copies of your tickets to British Airways. Meanwhile, Dwayne experimented with the sites of these airlines and Expedia to see if he could replicate your itinerary. When he discovered that this was impossible, he brought this to ChoiceAir’s attention and asked them to comment.

Our actions on your behalf met with success. You have notified us that Celebrity agreed to credit you $444 for the involuntary downgrade.

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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