Case dismissed: They downgraded Dad and now they’re ignoring me

Sriram Singa paid $929 for a business class ticket from Chennai to Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines.

It’s not that Singa demands first-class treatment. The ticket was for his father, who suffers from back problems, and on the 1,615-mile flight, he needed the room.

But he didn’t get it.

“On the return leg, my father was downgraded to economy due to an equipment change,” says Singa. “The agent at the airport wouldn’t give my father a refund or any compensation for the downgrade, instead telling him to contact his travel agent.”

That would be Expedia.

And what did Expedia do? Not much.

Expedia, of course, told us that Malaysia Airlines would have to issue a refund, but they did try to contact them on our behalf.

After making several calls (and having to make them between 9 to 5 Malaysia time), Malaysia Airlines was unresponsive, and the best answer they would give was to visit their ticket office in Kuala Lumpur.

Since we live near Dallas, this wasn’t very feasible. Emails to their customer support went unanswered.

Looks like Malaysia Airlines would keep Singa’s $929, even though he only sat in economy class. But he wasn’t about to give up.

I finally tracked down Malaysia Airlines’ Los Angeles ticket office, and after having to physically mail in a downgrade printout (I don’t understand why they couldn’t have verified things using their computers), and waiting about three months, we were refunded a grand total of $81.

Needless to say, I feel that this is rather inadequate. Their justification for the amount is that it is the difference between the fare we paid, and the fare they would charge for a one-way business class ticket with an economy return.

It’s true that airlines often recalculate fares in a way that is most favorable to them when they owe a refund for an involuntary downgrade. I’ve seen it again and again. In this instance, the economy-class return is a walk-up fare, which is the only one that can be combined withe a business-class fare in the airline’s reservation system.

How convenient.

Singa calculates he’s owed more like $369, which doesn’t include any compensation for downgrading Dad.

He didn’t accept the $81 refund and complained to the Better Business Bureau and the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement Division. After that, Malaysia Airlines offering him another $190 as “a gesture of goodwill.”

“I reject any goodwill in this offer as this is a refund that is owed to me, and also still less than the minimum that I feel is due,” told me.

I agree with him. I think Malaysia’s calculations are wrong, and I think his online travel agency should help him recover the money. So I contacted Expedia on his behalf.

Here’s Expedia’s response:

The roundtrip ticket you purchased was to include business class seating on the return portion of your flight. Our customer service representatives contacted Malaysia Airlines to advocate on your behalf for a partial refund due to the equipment downgrade.

Malaysia Airlines confirmed an equipment downgrade occurred on that date, and advised they processed a refund of $81 due to the change in seating class provided.

Additionally, Malaysia Airlines has informed us the value of your return flight was $361. As the airline had issued a refund of $81 and offered an additional refund of $190; a total refund of $271 covered the additional cost paid for your initial upgrade to business class.

In other words, Expedia is going with Malaysia Airlines’ math.

Today I reluctantly move Singa’s problem into the “case dismissed” file, even though he’s probably not out of options. He can still take Expedia or Malaysia Airlines to small claims court, although it might not be worth the effort to recover the money.

Funny, I thought travel agents — online and otherwise — were there to advocate for you, not the airline.

Photo: fox 2mike/Flickr Creative Commons

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Guest

    Then you’ll have to decide which is more important: signing those legal documents and get the additional “goodwill gesture” refund, or just simply take the $81, chalk it up to experience, spread your story as much as you want to, and move on.

  • Guest

    “Funny, I thought travel agents — online and otherwise — were there to advocate for you, not the airline.”

    That probably depends how one defines “advocate for you”, Chris. Does that mean working to resolve an issue to both parties’ satisfaction? Getting a desired result for somebody no matter what, even if it’s subjectively and arguably wrong? What precisely?

    If your travel provider made an arguably sincere and exhaustive effort to look after your interests, but sadly didn’t get any subjectively satisfactory solution for you, then that’s NOT advocating either? Because if that isn’t, then how about those people you intervened for with their respective issues that didn’t pan out?

    Then again, in fairness, you’re not exactly a travel agent either. You just happen to know and write about this aspect of travel. :)

  • Tony A.

    His father actually made the flight, albeit on a different section of the aircraft. The previous section 10.4 clearly allows the carrier to substitute aircraft (which may or may not have the same business class configuration). Note that Singa’s father did not make the assertion that his seat was given up to other passengers (he wasn’t bumped from the flight). He just got a cheaper seat and is due a refund of the difference in fares.

    The issue is the valuation of the difference in fares. The original valuation was scandalous – $81; and the behavior of the airline (giving Singa the runaround) was abysmal. But by using a consumer advocate (Elliott), the passenger was able to get a settlement agreement for an additional $190. They key word(s) is settlement agreement – and that usually requires a quit and final claim waiver.

    I tried (above) to value the maximum difference (one way) between a D class Restricted Business Class Fare and the lowest possible economy class fare. It turned out to be $223.40. But as we all know, when schedules get screwed up, airlines simply reissue a ticket using the least restrictive (expensive) class and leave the passenger to argue later. The reason they give is that they just want to get the passenger to their destination as quickly as possible.

    I guess (note just guess) that Mr. Singa’s father was rebooked at U class ($160 difference in roundtrip fare), hence the first refund of $81 (for the difference in one-way fares). So technically the airline believes it is correct – Singa’s Dad was rebooked at an expensive economy class. However, this refund does not seem fair since it was possible that a lower economy class seat could have been available at the time of the original booking. Hence this point (amount of refund) was the basis of Elliott’s entry to this case.

    So now the airline is offering $190 to settle the dispute if the customer signs what appears to be a quit claim (settlement agreement). Elliott has done his work. But the customer is still not happy and is rejecting the agreement. Yes, there will be paperwork in a settlement agreement.  Too bad for the customer he does not understand legalese. Also he wants more money! He says he could have bought a cheaper ticket in Air Asia (coach) if he knew that his father would have been “downgraded”. He further asserts that Malaysian Airlines knowingly overbooks in Business Class and then
    “downgrades” the passengers. In other words, the airlines “plans” to pocket the difference is fares (sounds like fraud to me).  Okay, I think most of us here has had enough of this. There is a difference between being ignored and being ignorant.

  • emanon256

    Sometimes things happen, a plane breaks, there is weather.  According to the Air Traffic Controls website there are 30,000 flights each day in the US alone.  That is some serious chorography to make everything perfect, and like all other businesses, nothing will ever be perfect. There will always be a few problems here and there, and it feels like everyone expects the airlines to always be 100% perfect.  I started reading Elliott because I was upset with the airlines, and reading everyone’s comments and how much they hate airlines makes me suddenly appreciate the airlines for all of their hard work and how well they do most of the time.
     
    Their contract of carriage says that if they are unable to fly him in the class, they will issue a refund of the difference.  So I don’t see any breach occurring. I do think the airline was wrong in their initial refund, and I too think they sometimes jerk people around.  However I really don’t think it’s as bad as people make it sound.  They probably provided proper service to thousands of passengers, and just had a very small few who were disservice.
     
    I never said bus or boat would be okay.  However if a plane breaks and a passenger gets stuck over night and is put on a flight the next day, it’s still faster than driving.  I am okay with that.
     
    Did the offer Mr. Singas father the opportunity to wait for another flight with Business?  That has been my experience.  Several times while I was flying and had used miles to upgrade to fist class the same thing happened.  When I got to the airport they told me that they are very sorry, the plane had to go to service, and it was substituted with a plane with fewer first class seats.  Each time they gave me a choice to fly coach, or wait for a later flight that had seats in first class.  One time I waited, the other times I took the coach seat and was refunded my upgrade miles.

  • emanon256

    Yes their rules are very one sided, but again, if someone chooses to fly, they are choosing to agree to those rules.  I just read my new virus scan software terms and conditions and found it to be just as one sided. 
     
    Airlines in the US are barely making any money at all, and it’s these rules that are preventing them from going bankrupt again.  We can choose to fly and agree, or we can choose not to.  But I don’t see why people should be complaining when they are agreeing to such rules.  I can only afford discount tickets, so I know full well that there are fees if I change, and no refunds.  That’s a risk I agree to take when I fly.
     
    If airline profits were soaring, and they were rolling in our money, I could see much more justification for these complaints.  But as long as people keep demanding super discounted tickets, and the airlines are willing to keep providing service with such a narrow margin, things are going to stay the way they are.

  • cjr001

    “Sometimes things happen, a plane breaks, there is weather.”

    Sometimes things happen, a car breaks down, a child falls ill.

    Yet, we’re not afforded the same leverage, because the contract is entirely one-sided in favor of the airline. And that is a problem.

  • Michael K

    I suppose you are another person who would not object if the next time you purchased something, the merchant unilaterally substituted an inferior product you didn’t ask for?  And it wouldn’t even bother you if the merchant charged more for the inferior product than any of their competitors?

  • Michael K

    The problem is that the passenger effectively experienced a bait and a switch.  I doubt there was any fraudulent intent by the airline (w.r.t. the equipment change), but that’s irrelevant.  The merchant shouldn’t be rewarded as a result of that scenario.

    Furthermore, as you’ve acknowledged, the airline repeatedly failed to interpret it’s own contract of carriage (which is already heavily tilted in it’s favor) in a reasonable fashion.  And they still won’t honor their contract of carriage unequivocally– they want to attach additional strings.  You might think signing legal papers is no big deal, but there is no contractual basis to demand that the passenger do so.

    And it would be a slightly different situation if they offered the passenger a $271 refund on the spot, but they did not.  They deferred him to the travel agent, ignored him, and later demanded that he travel halfway around the world to visit their central office in person to solve the problem.

  • bodega

    I find it quite telling that Mr Singa has not address the question, which has been presented to him more than once, regarding the type of aircraft change.  Based on that, my guess is that there were less seats in biz class to reaccommodate everyone and if the father was not a frequent flyer of the carrier, he had less seniority/priority or his ticket was purchased later than others, since various means can be used to place passengers, and the father was moved to coach. No bait and swtich as someone suggested. He should take the money offered and move on.

  • Michael K

    How many people remember the exact model of aircraft they flew on, and why does it matter?He purchased a ticket for a confirmed seat in business class and he did not receive the product he paid for.  He did not buy a raffle ticket where odds are subject to the number of entrants.

  • bodega

    It makes a difference in this case Michael.  If they had to bring in a new plane and it could not hold the same numbers in biz as before, they have to downgrade some of the passengers.  They don’t necessarily has similar aircraft available, but if they do, they would have brought it in and the father would have had his biz class seat.  Been there with both scenarios.  I think this missing detail is important.

  • Michael K

    Irrelevant– this is the airline’s internal operational problem.

    It doesn’t mean they can unilaterally deny customers what they paid for and dictate unreasonable “take it or leave it” terms.

    One of the things they could have (and probably should have) done is asked for volunteers to be downgraded and made it worth those passengers’ while.

  • Guest

    “Yet, we’re not afforded the same leverage, because the contract is entirely one-sided in favor of the airline. And that is a problem.”

    Actually if you look around, many providers’ contracts essentially put them in a stronger position over their customers. Web site hosting, ISPs, merchant services, you name it.

  • bodega

    This is an international carrier operating outside of the US.  Your rights and how they may operate can be different than what you get here in the US. Normally, the carrier will ask, but if no one give up their seats, then they get to decide how to deal with it.  The bottom line is, if there were less seats, someone was going to be moved.  Remember that often in other countries, flights don’t operate daily like they do here.  Sometimes you have to take what is provided or wait days.

  • flutiefan

    what in the world does that have to do with this case? he bought a Malaysia ticket, he should be comparing Malaysia prices.
    seems you are still a bit stung over that other post i made…

  • flutiefan

    there are 2 sides to the “contract” when you’re ticketed by an airline. one is the airline’s side, the other is yours.  they have an obligation to get you from Point A to Point B, as stated above.  there are contingencies in place if they are unable to do so, including denied boarding compensation, full refunds on a cancelled flight, and differences in fare class when you’re downgraded.  the passenger’s side of the contract states they will take this flight at this time from this city to that city, for an a
    greed upon set price, takin
    g alon
    g a pre-determined maximum amount of items, described in # of suitcases and wei
    ght of said pieces.

  • flutiefan

    (sorry, inadvertently posted too soon)

    there are 2 sides to the “contract” when you’re ticketed by an airline. one is the airline’s side, the other is yours. 

    they have an obligation to get you from Point A to Point B, as stated above.  there are contingencies in place if they are unable to do so, including denied boarding compensation, full refunds on a cancelled flight, and differences in fare class when you’re downgraded.  these are the compensations given to the passenger when “things happen”.

    the passenger’s side of the contract states the designated person

    will take this flight at this time from this city to that city, for an agreed upon set price, taking along a pre-determined maximum amount of items, described in # of suitcases and weight of said pieces. if the passenger fails to adhere to their side of the contract, contingencies are again in place: paying a fare difference and change fee to go on a different flight, losing the monetary value of the ticket for no-shows, altering the name of the traveler.

    why should the airline pay when “things happen” to the customer?  in these instances, they are upholding their end of the deal, ready to fly that customer to their destination. it’s not their fault a kid is sick or you got a flat tire.  they already pay when “things happen” to them, as stated above. you’ll get a refund on your weather-cancelled flight. they lost money on that then you’ll ever know.

    I’m tired of explaining things to people who only have a narrow view of the world, and can’t see the forest for the trees.

  • flutiefan

    contrary to your belief, most of us do not call the cops just because someone is “talking back” to us. if that were the case, i’d have them on speed dial, or attached to my hip.

  • Michael K

    We have a pretty good idea that they didn’t extend any offers because they offered this passenger $0 at the time and told him to take a hike and contact his travel agent.If you’re suggesting that under Malaysian or Indian law, a merchant may be able to impose an inferior product unilaterally without consequence, then the burden should be on you to demonstrate that this is actually the case.  (BTW, Expedia’s involvement might mean that US law has some bearing here).

  • flutiefan

    you and Tony A are the ones making the most sense on here. thank goodness for you both!

  • Tony A.

    Michael, where is the bait and switch? This is an IROPS, an unforeseeable event – equipment change. The only issue here is HOW MUCH SHOULD BE REFUNDED since Mr. Singa’s father did not get to fly on Business Class as a result of the equipment change. The airline first refunded him $81. [To me that didn’t look fair. I made the computations and posted it here (read above). But that is only my opinion.] So Singa disputes the refund amount and gets an ombudsman. The airline offers another $190 but wants a release (I assume it is a release since I have not read the document). Singa does not want to sign the release. So now the parties are deadlocked. Next step for Singa is to try to get a court judgement since the parties cannot settle.  I don’t understand what the big deal is releasing the airline for more responsibility if Singa can get more than the difference of business class and economy ticket? What other responsibility does the airline still have? There’s always 2 sides in a dispute and if they cannot agree then so be it. You can read it as bad faith on behalf of the airline. Some can read it as hardheadedness by Singa. Let the judge decide.

    BTW, I’m not even sure where the venue would be. Can you go to small claims court in Texas for a ticket bought for travel between India and Malaysia where the passenger is not even in the USA (I think his father is in India)? Maybe Judge Judy’s court will be better.

  • Michael K

    “what in the world does that have to do with this case?”Everything.  Can you explain how this is different from a restaurant saying: “Sorry, we’re out of a filet mignon.  But here’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead.  What?  You say that you would rather have gotten a peanut butter jelly sandwich across the street where they charge half as much as we do?  Not our problem.”

  • cjr001

    “these are the compensations given to the passenger when “things happen”.”

    Apparently not as often as they should be, considering Elliott’s line of work and this article in particular.

  • Michael K

    “Michael, where is the bait and switch? ”

    Consumer purchased X (from merchant that offered the best price for X) and instead received Y (from merchant that offered the worst price for Y).

  • flutiefan

    yes, out of the 30,000 flights that are operated each DAY, the 3 stories Chris prints a week are SOOOOO telling.

  • flutiefan

    you’re laughable.

  • Guest

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t bait and switch where you purchase W at price X, W isn’t actually available, then they try to sell you similar W or Y but at a higher price Z?

  • MeanMeosh

    “Did the offer Mr. Singas father the opportunity to wait for another flight with Business?  That has been my experience.”

    Doesn’t really work on flights to and from India, because often the flights don’t operate daily.  The flight from MAA to KUL used to only run 3x or 4x/week (not sure if that’s still the case), so depending on when his original flight was, he might have been stuck in Kuala Lumpur for a few days to wait for another biz class flight.

  • cjr001

    If you’re naive enough to believe that these are the only 3 situations a week that occur… But they’re not.

    And it’s been evident for a long time that the airlines have no interest in fixing things on their end.

  • flutiefan

    i am not “naive”, and i realize there are more than 3 people who contact Chris per week.  however, out of the hundreds of thousands of passengers who fly every week, even getting 50 complaints a week is miniscule. this is NOT a widespread problem.

    furthermore, would you people please stop saying “THE AIRLINES”?!?!  they are NOT one company or conglomerate. do you say “the department stores have this policy”? or “the car dealerships like to do that”? no, of course not.  these are all separate entities. Southwest does not operate like American.  United does not have the same rules as Delta. JetBlue is different from Virgin America.
    this “the airlines” crap has got to stop!

  • cjr001

    No, it doesn’t have to stop, and it won’t stop. “The airlines” is an industry.

    And when, as an industry, they all react to each other with matching price increases, or fuel surcharges, or baggage fees, then they deserve to be lumped together. When they all have one-sided contracts with customers that are entirely in the airline’s favor, then they act as one.

  • flutiefan

    WELCOME TO CAPITALISM.
    don’t like the contract? don’t agree to it.

  • Michael K

    That’s a more common version of it but not the only one.

    Here’s the description on Wikepedia:The goal of the bait-and-switch is to persuade buyers to purchase the substitute goods as a means of avoiding disappointment over not getting the bait, or as a way to recover sunk costs expended to try to obtain the bait. It suggests that the seller will not show the original product or service advertised but instead will demonstrate a more expensive product or a similar product with a higher margin.

  • http://www.caitlinfitzsimmons.com/ Caitlin Fitzsimmons

    Carver is correct.

  • Really?

    Flutiefan

    I can clearly see the similarity. The example is a perfect one and totally relevant.

  • Really?

    You are laughable.

    Are you really that dense, er, skeptical? Wait, you must have worked too many days at the “gate”. All your comments and position makes sense now…

    (harmless giggle. Tehehehehe…). Tutiefan. Lightenup.

  • Really?

    Not surprised principle means nothing to you. you also probably think Rodeny King should have been happy with the band-aid the cops gave him. They did after all eventually take him to the hospital didn’t they. So why should he Complain. Take the band-aid and run rodney I’m sure is your position.