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Downgraded without a refund

  • Story Highlights
  • Passenger's flight was cancelled and he was rebooked on another airline
  • He did not receive a seat in the same class of service on the new flight
  • He received little explanation about the downgrade
  • The original airline eventually credited his frequent flier account
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By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- When Virgin Atlantic Airways cancels James Simon's flight from New York to London -- and rebooks him on a British Airways flight -- he's downgraded from premium economy to economy class. But his requests for a fare refund go unanswered. Is he entitled to any money back?

Q: I'm having a problem with an involuntary downgrade. I bought a ticket on Virgin Atlantic Airways last March to fly from New York to London in premium economy class. When I arrived at the airport, Virgin canceled my flight but rebooked me on the next flight out on British Airways.

When I was issued my new ticket, it was in economy class. I tried to explain I should've been booked in the same class -- in this case, World Traveller Plus -- but British Airways wanted to charge me extra for it.

I've complained to Virgin that I should've at least been issued a partial refund, but haven't heard anything. Any insight you have would be greatly appreciated.

-- James Simon, New York

A: Virgin should have either put you in the British Airways equivalent of premium economy class or refunded the price difference between the tickets.

But that's easier said than done. Even though Virgin's premium economy and British Airways' World Traveller are essentially the same products -- they have roughly the same amenities and services, including in-flight entertainment, meals and seats with about the same amount of space -- the airlines treat the products differently in their reservations system.

It turns out you were holding a discounted ticket for Virgin Atlantic's premium cabin. When the time came to transfer your ticket to British Airways, the airline bought you a seat in the equivalent class for that fare -- which was economy class.

That's understandable from an airline's perspective, but I think someone should have taken the time to explain why you were being downgraded. Virgin Atlantic could have also found a way of making this up to you, either by crediting miles to your frequent flier account or by offering you a flight voucher.

Instead, you were unceremoniously sent to the back of the plane. And when you asked for compensation, you were ignored.

How could you have prevented this? I think the ideal time to resolve a problem like this is at the ticket counter, not after you land. When you saw the involuntary downgrade, you should have protested the seat reassignment politely, but firmly. As far as I can tell, Virgin's customer contract doesn't specifically address a downgrade such as the one you encountered. However, the fine print seems to suggest that you should be sitting in the class of service for which you paid.

I contacted Virgin on your behalf, and a representative promised to offer you $250 in ticket vouchers or 25,000 miles. It also assured me your frequent flier account would be credited with the miles, as if you had flown on Virgin instead of British Airways.

Too bad the story doesn't end there. A month later, you had received nothing. I contacted Virgin again. It didn't respond. So you threatened to take the company to small claims court.

Finally, the airline sent you a belated apology, depositing the promised 25,000 miles into your account and crediting you with the miles for the flights. Better late than never.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

Copyright 2009 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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