It's no secret that airlines try to get passengers to spend more money. Sometimes the trade-off - like extra leg room - is worth paying a premium for. But what happens when an airline doesn't actually fulfil its promise?
Last week, former NBA player for the Golden State Warriors, Festus Ezeli, tweeted his experience on an Alaska Airlines flight — when the airline apparently overpromised on his upgraded ticket.
According to Ezeli, he had opted to upgrade to a first-class ticket for extra legroom, only to find out there was no first-class seating available on his flight, leaving the six-foot-eleven Ezeli in a coach seat (and closely bracing the seat in front of him).
As you can already guess, chances are there was some major miscommunication between the airline and the passenger in question. We don't know the exact aircraft he travelled on, but judging by the photos of the plane’s seating arrangement, Ezeli likely flew on a tiny Q400 turboprop plane. (Here’s how the plane’s seating map looks on SeatGuru.)
Unfortunately for him, a Q400 is the only aircraft without any form of business or first-class seating among this particular airline’s fleet. The most likely explanation is that an airline attendant was either uninformed about the aircraft and mistakenly offered an upgrade, or, perhaps, offered Ezeli a seat closer to the front of the aircraft as an offer for a “better” seat. (Still, it’s not a “premium” or “first-class” seat and legroom is the same in every row of this particular aircraft.)
First time flying Alaska Airlines today and YALL DID ME WRONG!!!
Bought first class tickets (for legroom) and they didn’t even have first class on the plane. Can i get my money back pls?? @AlaskaAir pic.twitter.com/mNwomxbFBp
— Festus Ezeli (@festus) December 9, 2019
But this does bring up a good question: Given that involuntary bumping happens from time-to-time, is it possible to be bumped from first-class to economy (AKA downgraded), despite paying for your seat? As it turns out, yes, it’s possible and it might happen to you.
Why you might be downgraded
Over on the Flyer Talk forums, one traveller wrote about his experience being bumped from first-class on two different Alaska Airlines flights; in both instances, the airline attributed his bumping to an “error.”
“At the gate, I was called up last minute and told I’d been bumped back to coach and ‘We’re sorry we didn’t see the error sooner,’” gdam22 writes. “I’m suspicious that Alaska is simply overselling on purpose to someone paying more than me at a later date.”
Unfortunately, being “downgraded” from first-class can happen for any number of reasons and is ultimately at the sole discretion of the airline. (As Ben Schlappig writes for One Mile at a Time, a travel site, your designated seat assignment is never a guarantee, no matter how much you spend.) The most common reason you might anticipate being downgraded is if your aircraft changes from one with more first-class or business seats to one with less; now, the airline must downgrade some passengers, assuming the first-class and business sections were fully occupied to begin with.
What you’re entitled to
If you do end up getting downgraded, you are entitled to a refund. Your rights to a refund may also be spelled out in your airline’s contract of carriage. For example, according to Qantas' Seat Selection Conditions, if your seat is changed by Qantas due to a flight disruption or "operational, safety or security reasons", you can apply for a refund after departure.
But here’s the (bleak) truth, even if you might be entitled to a refund, that doesn’t mean it’s a fair one. While you might expect a refund in the form of the price of the upgrade you purchased minus the fare for the seat you ended up with, it’s slightly more complicated than that. In a story for Travellers United, Christopher Elliot of Elliot Advocacy described the issue in detail. Airlines mark up the price of the seat you end up with by calculating its fare based on how much you would have paid had you bought the seat that day — which would probably be really, really expensive and means you might be entitled to nothing if that seat is now more expensive than your original upgrade. (Ridiculous, right?)
Still, it’s worth a shot to try and get a refund, anyway. You should look up your airline’s contract of carriage for any language that pertains to downgrades and provide that to the airline by email or phone.
“I would recommend seeing if you can find the cost difference between the economy and business class flight difference on the day you booked it and request that difference as a refund,” u/zurkritikdergewalt recommended on a recent Reddit thread. “Escalate up the service line and document this. If they won’t refund you, do a chargeback through the credit card you booked it on, citing failure to deliver services, with the proof that you tried to reach out to them.”
In other words, never take “no” for an answer.