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.