The dinging didn’t stop until we landed in Venice

Wayan Vota/Flickr Creative Commons
The first-class seats on US Airways flight 714 from Philadelphia to Venice on Sept. 18 looked like ordinary first class seats. They felt like ordinary first class seats. But they were anything but ordinary.

“Shortly after takeoff, something started dinging,” says Sally Hitomi. “ We were sitting in the first row. After a while, I asked the flight attendant what the dinging was. He said it was the flight attendant call button malfunctioning and that they were in contact with the maintenance crew on the ground to try to figure out how to fix it.”

Hitomi and her husband, Alan Duran, had paid $1,400 to upgrade to the Envoy-class seats. They expected the problem to be fixed before they went to sleep on their way to Italy.

They were wrong.

“There was a lot of activity in the front attendant area, but the dinging continued,” she says. “After a couple of hours, I asked what was happening. [A flight attendant] apologized and said the maintenance crew was still trying to figure it out. He said it was driving him nuts, too.”

The dinging would not stop for seven hours.

We tried to sleep by putting pillows over our heads, putting on headphones and pulling blankets over our heads. Nothing would block out the dinging.

Shortly before landing, the dinging stopped for about 10 or 15 minutes and then started up again. By the time we landed, our nerves were on edge and we were exhausted.

As a result, her first day of vacation in Venice was “ruined” and when she returned to the States, she contacted US Airways to request a refund of the $1,400 upgrade fee. The airline sent her a form apology but refused to offer her anything as compensation. In its view, she had received all of the benefits of an Envoy seat – the in-flight entertainment, the upgrade food and beverages, the wider, more comfortable seat – and wasn’t entitled to any money back.

Hitomi disagreed, and decided to push her case.

I asked how to escalate the issue since I was not satisfied with their response. The following day I received a telephone call from another US Airways representative, also denying my request.

She said that previously they were able to compensate customers with refunds, free upgrades on subsequent flights or vouchers, etc., but those items were no longer allowed.

No longer allowed, huh?

I can certainly see US Airways’ point. But the seat, entertainment and meals are only part of the Envoy experience. You’re also being sold a quieter flying experience, since you’re in the front of the cabin, with less engine noise. Since it’s an overnight flight, you can reasonably expect an absence of dinging.

A simple apology is not enough.

I contacted US Airways on her behalf. A representative contacted her again and made another offer.

“They again apologized and offered a $150 travel voucher for each of us,” she told me. “I still think they should refund the $1,400 we spent for the Envoy class upgrade, but don’t think I have any other options.”

Two $150 vouchers are better than nothing. I’m not really sure if I can push for more than that. I wonder if you could apply the same reasoning to an economy-class seat, which isn’t selling comfort, but affordability. Would someone who experienced seven hours of nonstop dinging be able to argue for a partial fare refund?

First-class problems like this are not unusual. I like to refer to them as, “You call that first class?” cases. They include issues with in-flight entertainment, seats not reclining, inadequate meal choices and other annoyances like noise or seatmates with poor hygiene. And they are among the most difficult to resolve.

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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  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    I think the vouchers are fair, albeit on the low side, and should’ve been offered immediately. If the alternative was presented to the OP: Take the flight or be grounded while maintenance fixes it, they probably would’ve gone ahead. For me, irritating is irritating, no matter where you’re sitting. Not sure that first class seats deserve any more compensation than had they been sitting in coach. But maybe that’s just the jealousy talking…

  • john4868

    This one is tough… It’s an overnight flight so the odds are they upgraded to get better sleep on the way over. The dinging would have limited that. On the other hand, they did eat the upgraded meal, enjoyed the airport benefits (like free bags) and better entertainment so they received some benefit from their upgrade. I think the vouchers are the correct option here although a little low in value. This was a service failure and the vouchers are for service recovery. Too bad US Air didn’t do it when they landed to avoid the bad press.

  • Adam1222

    $1400 to upgrade to lie-flat Envoy on a transatlantic flight? For 2 people? Thats a bargain! Picking random summer 2013 dates, that flight is $1300 in coach, and $5503 in Business.

  • Frequentfliermom

    Unless the travel vouchers are for a free first grade upgrade with no black out dates, they are useless. These travelers paid an extra $1,400 for a good night’s sleep, and did not get it. They should definitely have a full money refund.

  • Alan Gore

    They paid for the first class experience, and didn’t get it. They deserve more than a worthless voucher and a nasty little e-mail.

  • emanon256

    I lost all sympathy when I read this: “As a result, her first day of vacation in Venice was “ruined”” After all, had they not been offered the upgrade, would their first day have also been ruined?

    Yes, there was dinging, but there are so many other noise on planes too. Would they have complained if a baby was crying? Would they have complained if someones headphones were too loud, if the pilot made too many announcements? I noticed they also complained about the activity in the galley. I honestly think she is just easily annoyed. Sorry if I sound rude or snarky, but she got a much nicer seat, nicer entertainment, nicer food, and fee bags all for an amazing deal; if I were her I would be thankful. Also, when those call buttons ding you can hear them everywhere. When I am halfway back in coach, I still hear them ding up in First Class, so is the whole plane entitled to a refund? I always use headphones, but I guess she just latched onto this and let it annoy her and dwelled on it until it ruined her first day and she wanted a refund.

    I probably would not have spent the money on the upgrade since I am cheap, but if I did, I would have been thankful for all the better amenities at the great price and made the most of it. I might have complained just to see if they did anything, but I would not have expected anything and would have let it go if they didn’t offer anything. If she had asked to me moved to coach, and the ding was quiet back there, and she flew in coach, then I would fully support her getting a 100% refund.

  • emanon256

    Are the $1,300 and $5,503 for 2 people, or per person? Either way they got a great deal!

  • JenniferFinger

    I voted yes, but that’s because there wasn’t a “yes and no” option.

    Offering two vouchers does seem fair-they did avail themselves of the other amenities of Envoy class and that the dinging “ruined” their vacation day really isn’t something I think US Airways can be expected to compensate them for.

    But I can understand that a nonstop ding from a seat that was purchased presumably to avoid that kind of hassle, is annoying too, and at first US Airways blew them off with a form apology and unwillingness to offer anything. It wasn’t until you contacted them, Chris, that they offered anything more than a form apology.

    I don’t know that this case in particular should have been pursued any further, but form apologies really just don’t make customers feel appreciated and listened to. Why the airlines don’t get that I’ll never understand.

  • cjr001

    The vouchers are simply adding insult to injury.

  • Timothy Woody

    Simple – they should have been awarded the difference between first class and economy class since they didn’t get a first class experience.

  • Mel65

    I don’t think they deserve a full refund, but $150 vouchers (and we all know how useless those vouchers really are) isn’t enough. Some cash, maybe. I can only imagine how annoying and frustrating that dinging would be after hours of it. I’m an extremely light sleeper, even with earplugs in, so putting myself in their shoes, I’d have probably needed sedation by the time I landed! We once had a beeping in our house that we couldn’t track down for hours and it made me a litlte crazy before we finally found one of the kids electronic robot toys under a bed. It wasn’t that loud but once you hear it, you can’t tune it out like you can a steady drone or or the thrumming of the engines. I do sympathize with them and while they did overdramatize their trauma a little bit, they should have gotten more than a couple of essentially worthless tokens.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I agree with you on the “ruined” line. That was over-the-top. But a baby crying or another passenger’s headphones aren’t mechanical problems with the airplane. (The guy next to you could end up having horrible BO, but that doesn’t mean it’d be acceptable for the cabin to smell of grease and jet fuel.) And the way I read it they weren’t complaining about the activity in the galley, they were noting the attendants were trying to do something to fix the problem, though that ended up being unsuccessful.

    I agree there is plenty of other noise on an airplane, but those chimes are meant to catch the attendants’ attention even when they’re at the other end of the cabin. They’re fairly loud and having them go off non-stop for an entire flight would certainly not be pleasant. I can’t decide exactly how much they should be given back (a full refund is way too much but a voucher for $150 is pretty much a joke, imo) but I certainly don’t fault them for wanting something.

  • Barry Moss

    If I pay for a first or business class upgrade on a long flight so I can get some sleep and an airplane maintenance issue introduces enough noise to prevent sleep, I would expect at least a 50% refund of the upgrade fee.

  • Christina Conte

    The constant dinging from the call button for 7 hours would constitute torture to me. I cannot even imagine how incredibly frustrating that would be (I currently have a malfunctioning washing machine that decides to continuously beep whenever it wants and I seriously want to take a sledge hammer to it!) I voted “no” as this to me is a no-brainer, however, my empathy for the OP took a serious nosedive when I read her first day of vacation was “ruined.” I think US Airways at least owes them $1400 in a travel voucher.

  • JoeRock

    How about just disputing the $1400 charge on the credit card for failure to render agreed to service?

  • mbods

    Wow, US Airways really dropped the ball on this one. In essence, they are telling all their first class customers, who pay premium dollar, they really aren’t special to them. Why would anyone want to fly first class with US Air?

  • DavidYoung2

    Agree – This isn’t first class. And not because something was annoying. They choose first class because they wanted to sleep and ‘jump right into’ their vacation. That’s one of the key ‘benefits’ of first class – far easier to get sleep on a transatlantic flight. If you can’t sleep, that’s a huge issue. $1,400 for free bags and better food is not reasonable. They bought first class and got coach (or, in my view, worse), so they should get first class upgrade vouchers. Or have the upgrade fee refunded. It’s the right thing to do.

  • @ftribaldos

    They should have just offered her 2 Upgrade vouchers (SWU). That way the airline is not out any money and you incentivize the customer to try again.

  • Shannon Stout

    Seven hours of dinging while trying to sleep counts as torture in my book.

  • J Barnes

    To clarify; Envoy is business class not First Class. The seat in Envoy lean pretty far back but do not lie flat.

    I’m inclined to agree with John baker…they did receive a benefits. But….continual dinging would have driven me crazy. I think US Airways should offer a little more but not anywhere near what they are asking.

  • Daddydo

    USAir does have the ability to offer another 1st class upgrade should they choose. It may be a standby type certificate, but far better than $150.00. It takes knowing whom to talk to. I would just call my sales team assigned to my travel agency, and file the complaint. All good ASTA travel agent have sales reps to assist them. Have Sally work with the agency that booked the vacation. Going to you, in this case is going to get a $150.00 that USAir throws around like candy.

  • reuvenavram

    They should get a first class upgrade.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I have one thing to say to this: EAR PLUGS!

    I cannot believe the number of complaints I read about noisy hotel rooms, noisy cruise cabins, noisy flights (crying babies usually) etc. I NEVER travel without several pairs of high-quality ear plugs. It’s amazing, the noises they can cancel out. I once flew from LAX to Rome with a crying baby two seats behind me – I slept like (you guessed it) a baby. While everyone else around me looked exhausted and irritable upon arrival, I felt rested and sprightly!

    Ear plugs are cheap, readily available, and highly effective. I simply cannot fathom why more people don’t travel with them. You just cannot guarantee that, when you are traveling, any place you choose to sleep will be quiet enough to do so. I’ve had expensive hotel rooms that turned out to be bordering a freeway with loud trucks passing by all night long, or with a rowdy nightclub right outside the window raging until the wee hours. I once had a cruise cabin right below the pool deck…at 5am every morning, workers started dragging around pool chairs. I heard my cabin neighbors complaining they were woken up every morning by what sounded like thunderstorms above their heads. I never heard it.

    I think this is the perfect situation for vouchers. A refund is, as they correctly point out, inappropriate as they did get all of the benefits, albeit they were less enjoyable with that infernal dinging. But $150 was too low. Should have been at least $300 each, maybe $500. Certainly enough to cover a box of ear plugs!

  • Charles

    Here’s the real problem I have with this case and others like it: There were more than a dozen people in First Class on that flight who all had to deal with the same dinging as these customers did. This couple complains, then escalates to a consumer advocate, and gets travel vouchers. No matter if you feel the vouchers are enough or not, is it fair that they get something and the rest of the passengers, particularly those who are not complainers, do not?

    We spent a long evening in Orlando with three small children due to problems with a Spirit Airlines flight. We sat there quietly and waited as they told us lots of interesting lies for about 9 hours (another plane on the way, only 20 minutes away, crew on the way, etc.). Meanwhile, several passengers were quite angry and spent a lot of time yelling at the attendants, some loudly threatening to sue. I noticed after a while that Spirit was handing out food vouchers to these people to calm them down. I finally went up and spoke to the attendant and expressed how unfair it was that the people who were the most unruly (and I would have ejected some of them from the airport) got vouchers, while those of us who did exactly what we were told and did not complain got nothing. To their credit, they did then decide to offer equal vouchers to everyone, which we were thankful for. But, too often the people who gripe get special treatment and the rest of us get ignored.

    I’m not saying that people should not complain when the service is bad, but I wish incidents like this were treated fairly with all passengers effected getting the same compensation rather than those who gripe the loudest getting all of the spoils. I should note that I have several times gotten travel vouchers or bonus miles unsolicited from airlines with a note saying “we’re sorry your flight was delayed”. As someone who rarely complains, I appreciate that they cared about all passengers, not just the loud ones.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I think this case hinges on the loudness of the “dinging”. Seems weird that they couldn’t sleep with headphones/ear plugs … FA call buttons aren’t that loud in the whole scheme of things … how loud was it?
    I’m assumming that it was very loud and right over their heads. While I wouldn’t expect a refund of my upgrade fee, I would expect a voucher for comp upgrades on my next flight to be offerred immediately … and maybe half the coach fare also, after the runaround they gave her. It’s ridiculous that USAir would torture someone like this … I’ve flown up front with a dead reading light, with an uncomfortable seat … these things “happen”. It would cost USAir very little to compensate this passenger and polish their image instead of trashing it..

  • Adam1222

    Those are per person.

  • Adam1222

    Actually, thats not exactly true. Envoy seats on A330s and A320s lie flat. Dont know what equipment the complainer flew.

  • Adam1222

    What service is that? Silence?

  • Dutchess

    Seems like they enjoyed some of the benefits from a higher class of service but not all of them. A full refund is a little bit ridiculous. I think when you go in with a demand for a full refund like this you’re going to get written off pretty fast. The gap between where you think you should be and where the airline thinks you should be is pretty wide.

  • pauletteb

    Would Hitomi like some cheese with her whine? She lost my sympathy with her, to my, unreasonable request.

  • emanon256

    Wow, so they got a $4,203 fare difference for $700, that was a great deal!

  • Grant Ritchie

    I second that… EAR PLUGS. And, if I may, COUGH DROPS for the idiots who sit there and hack through a 10-hour flight.

  • Chris Johnson

    She probably does deserve more than the vouchers she was given (as do the other passengers in first class, who may have also put forth complaints, we just didn’t hear about them) but knowing USAirways, she won’t get anything else out of them and at some point it will become not worth the effort anymore.

  • jpp42

    Do you have any recommendations for ear plugs? I have tried the waxy silicone kind, which are the fanciest ones available at my local drugstore, and while they do help reduce some background noise, they would be no match against a crying baby (and I’m not a light sleeper). It’s also a huge struggle to put them in – takes many minutes of trying, then removing and reforming before they’ll finally stay in place (this could be my own ear canal dimensions, I realize people are different in this regard). Has anyone gotten custom earplugs made? I know these are available for people working in industrial settings – might be worth it for frequent flyers?

  • jpp42

    On some airlines (not sure about US Airways), upgrades are available at the last minute for vastly discounted rates compared to buying the business class tickets from the start. This may also be partially why US Airways isn’t treating them very well, if they consider this heavily discounted travel. I wonder if they wouldn’t get different treatment if they were an elite frequent flyer who had paid $5503.

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    A few years ago, I got noise-canceling headphones, the kind that go over your ears. I’m pretty tolerant and can wear them for 10 hrs straight. Great for planes or buses, although I don’t think I’d wear them overnight…

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    In a way, it is fair. Every person is similarly situated and each person has the option to complain or not complain. Perhaps it bothered the OP more than someone else

  • LeeAnneClark

    I just use the basic foam ones you can pick up at the pharmacy. They work great for me! I find the waxy silicone ones to be a pain. The foam ones are easy – just roll ’em between your fingers and stick ’em in, and they pop back into shape in seconds, and I can barely feel them. But not everyone has as much success with those – I happen to have pretty large ear tubes. My husband, on the other hand, has very narrow tubes. He likes to wear ear plugs when he’s riding his motorcycle, so he went to the doctor and got custom-made prescription ones. If the standard over-the-counter ones don’t work for you, I’d go talk to your doctor and get custom-made ones. They were not expensive.

  • LeeAnneClark

    LOL this down-arrow thing sure does give us some entertainment! I would love to know who gave this post a down arrow, and why. Maybe someone had a really negative experience with someone wearing noise-canceling headphones? ;-)

  • LadyLightTravel

    From the US Airways website
    “There’s no place like Envoy, our international business class. With more space and personalized service, you’ll arrive refreshed, relaxed and ready to do business.”
    Also, under comfort:
    “Remarkably comfortable, peaceful and private, Envoy will change the way you travel. Your seat will range from a near lie-flat seat to a fully flat bed (depending on the aircraft).”
    Looks like they didn’t provide the service they advertised. Certainly not “peaceful” I would say that a 50% refund of the upgrade is fair. The vouchers are not. I also think it might be worth while to dispute on the CC if possible.

  • LadyLightTravel

    Yes, because a “peaceful” flying experience is what is advertised on the Envoy web page.

  • Adam1222

    I see. I also did a chargeback at Burger King because the burger wasn’t my way *right* away.

  • disqus_A6K3VBf8Zn

    Noise. Did she walk to economy section & see if the noise was heard there? In any mode of transportation, problems like this can arise. If not willing too put up with them, drive or (take a ship). The airplane crew did not cause the noise.

  • Asiansm Dan

    US Air must refund the total upgrade cost. The main reason people fly First Class is the serenity, silent and less noisy environment. By the way, First Class on US Air is a joke. I flew only once in my life with US Air and on First Class Domestic, it was a total deception (It’s a rerouting by Air Canada because of equipment problem).

  • thetruthhurts

    Crummy airline. I had similar experience with US Air on a flight from Philadelphia to Rome. Heaven help American if they merge with this bunch of clowns.

  • DQ

    The airline should offer them an equal upgrade on a future flight. With constant noise, there is no way they could “arrive refreshed, relaxed and ready to do business.” The airline did not provide the service advertised.

  • Alec McLure Tengler

    [Moderators – I checked w/ Christopher and asked for permission to post this link and he was fine w/ it].

    So, to those looking for earplugs – what worked really well for me was to buy an assortment from the Earplug Superstore – in particular I like this “Just the Highest NRR” (Noise Reduction Rating) assortment

    For under $8.00 (plus a bit of shipping) you get 20 pairs of foam plugs of different size/ stiffness and can try them all until you find the best fit/ sound reduction. You can then order more of just those. (Personally I sleep with ear plugs almost every night and came up w/ 2 or 3 favorites – always have a bunch in my travel bag).

    I have no association with them – just a very satisfied customer for several years – good service and fast shipping.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Useful link. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Decent American

    Next time do as I do, take a foreign carrier on International flights.

  • Simon De Lao

    You actually admit to flying Spirit? I’m surprised they didn’t call the cops, have everyone arrested and then stole all your luggage while you were jail.