web Musings of The Global Traveller

Friday, January 09, 2009

Involuntary downgrade

My 2008 travel year ended on a sour note with many flights being involuntary downgraded from business class to economy class or premium economy class.

British Airways' subsidiary Comair downgraded my flights Johannesburg to Windhoek and return to economy class only. For the flight to Windhoek I was given a voucher for a token amount denominated in Rand. The voucher can only be used through a BA contact centre. Last time I had one, the flights cost considerably more than the same flights bookable online or via other airlines with the difference exceeding the value of this voucher. Thus the voucher is close to worthless to me. For the return flight I received no compensation at all.

Late last year LAN removed business class from all of their intra-South American flights except those operated with 767 aircraft, and replaced it with premium economy. I had lots of A320 flights booked. LAN had reseated me in economy rather than premium economy and didn't contact me about this at all, but as I regularly check my itineraries using tools such as CheckMyTrip (see also blog entries on checking and on the various itinerary tools) I discovered this for myself. On calling LAN I was able to be put into premium economy class, but they claimed no compensation is due for the downgrades.

This rankles me. In many countries there are consumer protection laws to address the imbalance when suppliers do not provide the good or service that was paid for. For example, the EU regulation 261/2004 article 10 covering all EU-based airlines as well as all other flights from EU requires a minimum refund for downgrades, with the refund percentage based on distance. Yet some airlines think they can simply not offer the class of service that was paid for. Okay it is not as bad as an involuntary denied boarding. I still flew the flights I had booked. However, based on the logic of these airlines, this means any first or business class ticket, which may cost many thousands more than economy class, gives no assurance of any extra comfort or service beyond that offered in economy class. That doesn't feel right.

By the way, there is another form of "downgrade" where an airline has markedly different products and switches from a better one to a worse one after you've bought the ticket. In this case I think the only compensation due is any fare difference (eg Singapore Airlines generally charges more to fly in first or business class on their A380). Of course, if Air NZ offers something for changing my upcoming Japan flight from 777 (business premier with private fully flat suites) to 767 (old business class narrow cradle seats), then I won't complain. But I don't expect anything because I am still flying in business class.


Alexander said...

Upon a "downgrade" from the planned XM 763 to an old 763 on AC, I was given an apology, but informed thus:

'Carrier undertakes to use its best efforts to carry the passenger and baggage with reasonable dispatch. Times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. Carrier may without notice substitute alternate carriers or aircraft and may alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket in case of necessity. Schedules are subject to change without notice. Carrier assumes no responsibility for making connections.'

The Global Traveller said...

Hi @Alexander

That sounds similar to my recent case of a change from 777 to 767 on Air New Zealand.

As long as they are providing the same class of travel then it is not a downgrade.

However, if you paid more for a flight with a better product than another alternative on the same routing, and can easily prove it, then you may be eligible for a partial refund. In practice this is very difficult to prove unless there was an explicit fare or mileage award surcharge.

Alexander said...

Well... in the case of AC, they seem to have three 763s left with the old configuration. Everything was pointing to the new configuration right up until I checked in online. It was only at the gate that I saw that the aircraft had been switched sometime in the last 24 hours. Not much you can do about it.

On AC, I suppose you're also lucky to get the international J configuration on transcontinental flights (or even YUL-YYZ, for example), and have to treat that as a bonus rather than expecting it to happen.