When a flight delay results in an involuntary downgrade, is a refund due?

Kavita Burra’s mother purchases round-trip business class tickets from India to the U.S. but a misses a connecting flight from the U.S. to India. This causes her to be rebooked in an economy seat. Can we help Burra receive reimbursement for the difference in fare?

Question: My mother, a physically ailing, wheelchair-bound passenger, had purchased a business class round-trip ticket on Etihad Airways from India to the U.S. for which she paid approximately $4,000. However, on her return journey to India from the U.S., [because of] a flight delay and missed connection, she was rebooked and carelessly downgraded by the code-share carrier, American Airlines, on two consecutive segments — from Tampa to Chicago and from Chicago to Abu Dhabi.

American initially accused me of falsely claiming that my mother had an economy ticket. When I provided proof that the ticket was for business class, they sent me back to Etihad, saying that since the ticket was issued by Etihad, they would need to review the case.   Finally, American said that it cannot refund unless Etihad ratifies both refund requests.

Etihad responded that American rebooked my mother on a higher fare class than her original business class ticket, however, my mother was assigned economy seats in both segments.

Can you help obtain a refund for my mother for the difference in fares between her original business class ticket and the downgraded economy ticket? Kavita Burra, Cupertino, Calif.

Answer: I’m very sorry that your mother was not booked in a comparable business class seat when she missed her connection to India. We reviewed the correspondence between you and both airlines and concluded that neither airline would take responsibility.

The correspondence you provided showed that although both acknowledged that this was an inconvenience, neither was originally willing to provide reimbursement. American Airlines said that you would need to contact Etihad for the refund and offered you a small voucher as a goodwill gesture, which you did not accept.

You then contacted our advocates for help. Although these cases are difficult to advocate because of the way airlines determine fares for discounted business or first class fares. Our advocate contacted both American Airlines and Etihad Airways, and learned that although your mother purchased a business class ticket, often flights or and cabins are overbooked. When delays of this sort occur, seats in the class purchased are not always available on the next flight and your mother was booked in the next available seat to India.

In addition, it appears that the travel agency that your mother used to book the reservation did not enter the reservation correctly in the American Airlines system. American notified the agency of a “fare class mismatch,” which means that it did not reserve the appropriate space for the fare class.

The electronic ticket that you provided was a Z (JB) class fare. A Z class fare is normally the same price as a full economy fare. This is why the airline said that the cost of the new seat in economy was more than the one originally purchased.

Airline math is a bit funny. Although your mother paid approximately $4,000 for her business class ticket, Etihad told you that because the actual seat provided was a higher-priced economy seat, you weren’t due any refund.

In the end, after contact with our advocate, the two airlines worked together to provide your mother a refund of approximately $900, and you were pleased with the results.

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