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If an airline downgrades your ticket, you have recourse

August 07, 2011|By Catharine Hamm | Los Angeles Times Travel editor
  • On the Spot: Downgraded? Stand up
On the Spot: Downgraded? Stand up (Reuben Munoz / Los Angeles…)

Question: I was astounded to read in the July 24 "On the Spot" column ["Enjoy Your New Seat"] that an airline can reassign a confirmed seat to allow passengers with children to sit together. Suppose I have booked a seat in business class because I can't physically fly in coach. If there's an equipment change and there are fewer seats in business class, can airlines downgrade me to coach and refuse to refund my purchase?

Mary-Lynne Fisher

La Crescenta

Answer: Yes, airlines can downgrade your seat, but they should refund the difference between the cost of the original seat and the new one.

But I was astounded to hear Jonathan Harriman, an attorney with Anolik Law Corp., a Bay Area company that specializes in travel law, say this: "You don't have a seat till you're sitting on it on the plane." So who really has the upper hand?

Advantage: airlines.

But you do have some "friends" who can come to your rescue if you're unseated.

First is the airline's contract of carriage, which says what the airline can and cannot do. Quickly now, answer this: If there's a snowstorm in Chicago and you miss your connection there on a United flight, does the airline have to find a hotel for you? If you have the contract of carriage handy, you'll know that. You can read it ahead of time, print it out or download an app. (A new app, The Plane Rules, from contracts expert Terry Trippler, is helpful. Here's what it says in answer to that question: The "rule reads that United's only liability for delay, cancellation or misconnection [in case of weather] is to refund the unused portion of your ticket." (Good luck finding a place to sleep.)

Advantage: consumers. Sort of.

Second is 49 United States Code 41712, the "Unfair and deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition" law, which says: "On the initiative of the secretary of Transportation or the complaint of an air carrier, foreign air carrier, or ticket agent, and if the secretary considers it is in the public interest, the secretary may investigate and decide whether an air carrier, foreign air carrier, or ticket agent has been or is engaged in an unfair or deceptive practice or an unfair method of competition in air transportation or the sale of air transportation. If the secretary … finds that an air carrier, foreign air carrier or ticket agent is engaged in an unfair or deceptive practice or unfair method of competition, the secretary shall order the air carrier, foreign air carrier, or ticket agent to stop the practice or method."

Advantage: consumers who know the law.

Third is the Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the Department of Transportation. If you think the airline is not adhering to rules and regulations, you also can file a complaint with the DOT. Call (202) 366-2220 or go to record or file a complaint online, respectively. Note that the recorded message at the start of the hotline says that airlines are really in the best position to resolve service issues. (Right. Everybody who believes that, stand on your head.)

Advantage: consumers who know how to complain effectively.

In many of these cases, intent may be key, Harriman says. Let's say you have that business-class ticket and you paid $3,000 for that seat — the last one. The plane is sold out. But here comes a guy who will pay $5,000 for the ticket, so the airline decides to dump you. The airline "shouldn't be doing this as a way to screw people out of their money to make a little bit more money…. That's a wrongful act," Harriman says.

Advantage: consumers, although the passenger really would not have a way to find this out. Still, the passenger should be given the difference between his fare and the coach fare, if he's downgraded. And, Harriman says, you need to be told that you can get cash for this, not just vouchers. (Airlines love to give vouchers, which, if you're angry enough, you'll probably never use.)

And what if you've bought a coach ticket that can be upgraded and you use miles to buy a business- or first-class seat but you get moved back to coach? Isn't that deceptive?

No, Harriman says. On most airlines' websites, those kinds of purchases don't come with guarantees. Here's what American says about its awards flight upgrade: "You will have a confirmed seat, as long as award seats are still available for the award you are using when you make your reservation. However, all accommodations are subject to availability at the time reservations are made." Which means they can take them away whenever they wish.

Advantage: airlines.

If you do lose your upgrade, "You should get your miles back and you should battle for bonus miles," says Trippler, who spent part of his career working for the airlines. Sometimes, he says, airlines will give you miles to go away and quit complaining.

Advantage: annoying consumers, which many airlines consider most of us to be.

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