Why am I roughing it in business class?

When Arthur Manfredi and his wife booked their trip to Africa, they wanted to travel in comfort, but their business class seats on South African Airways didn’t cut it. Can our advocates help them get a refund?

Question: My wife and I booked an African luxury safari through Abercrombie & Kent, a high-end travel agency. Our safari included round-trip business class tickets on South African Airways from Washington-Dulles Airport to Johannesburg.

After we boarded, we learned that our seats had no power. We were unable to recline our seats or power our portable devices for the entire 18-hour flight. Cabin personnel tried valiantly to rectify the problem, but to no avail. They promised that “engineers” would board at our stop in Dakar to fix the problem, but the staffers who boarded could not repair the seats.

To add insult to injury, on our return flight the USB port in one of our seats was damaged and inoperative, and once again, crew members could not rectify the problem.

We find it inexcusable that South African Airways flies aircraft with inoperative systems. From our perspective, we paid for two business class tickets but received an economy class experience. Based on South African Airways’ website, a one-way economy airfare on this flight is $3,589 per person, and one-way business is $9,435 per person, for a difference of $5,846 per person. Therefore, we hereby request reimbursement of $11,692.

The captain and other on-board personnel assured us that they would report the problem we had to the airline, which would be in contact with us regarding compensation. We have yet to hear from any airline personnel about the power outage in our seats. Can you help us get the price differential between our business class and economy class tickets refunded to us? — Arthur Manfredi, Gainesville, Va.

Answer: I’m sorry you had so much trouble with your airplane seats. If I had paid more than $16,000 for business class seats that didn’t work, I would be disappointed too — especially if the crew promised to fix the seats and didn’t.

South African Airways’ website and general conditions of carriage don’t contain any language that explicitly guarantee that business class bookings will include the ability to recline seats or use USB power ports, but it’s not unreasonable to expect to be able to utilize any perks that appear to be available with your seats.

After your trip, you sent a letter to South African Airways requesting a refund of the price differential between business and economy class seats. Unfortunately, when the airline didn’t immediately respond, you followed up with emails containing strong language, which was inappropriate when requesting help from a business with a complaint, and which would not have moved South African Airways’ personnel to expedite a reimbursement for you or offer you other assistance.

While you might have used our executive contacts for South African Airways to escalate our complaint, you contacted our advocacy team for assistance. We noted that as you had booked your safari, including your flights on South African Airways, through Abercrombie & Kent, you should have asked them to advocate for you with the airline.

An agent of South African Airways apologized for the malfunctioning seats and indicated that the appropriate department of South African Airways has been notified of the problem so that they can fix it. She further noted that:

The airfare you purchased was based on a contracted rate that [Abercrombie & Kent] has established with South African Airways. The airfare you purchased was not based on published airfares, but at a special contracted rate.

Tour companies often have contracted rates with airlines to provide their customers. Any difference in fare is due to the agency pricing of the airfares, which they are entitled to establish as they wish.

As a goodwill gesture, South African Airways agreed to refund you the difference in fare between business class and economy class of $2,034 per ticket for the Washington-Johannesburg portion of your trip, “based on … contracted rates with [Abercrombie & Kent].” You have indicated to us that you find this resolution “eminently fair.”

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