Kids, don’t try this shortcut to an airline upgrade at home

By | July 19th, 2010

Attention frequent fliers: If you can’t get a confirmed upgrade on your next flight, don’t do what Jim Downey did.

He put a “hold” on two business class seats, in an effort to secure a better seat on an American Airlines flight to Paris — something that’s against the rules — and he got caught.

But did the airline overreact? Perhaps.

He says American punished him by blocking his account and then confiscating some of his miles. But the punishment may not have fit the crime.

Downey explains,

I had an itinerary to Paris booked beginning March 27th. The 10 days prior to the trip I watched the same 7 to 8 business class seats sit in inventory, while my upgrade wasn’t being granted.

Because of my age, traveling that distance in coach is a hardship, and I rely on VIP upgrades for long haul trips. I canceled a vacation for two to Paris in June because the upgrades didn’t come through until the day of departure.

Frustrated, I put a 24-hour hold on two seats, Thursday the 25th, two days prior to departure.

Again, this is a no-no. You’re taking two seats out of inventory in order to increase your chances of an upgrade.

AA’s security department found these and canceled them by noon Friday. At the departure gate for Paris, the agent told me business class was oversold, 28 passengers for 27 places, and that I had no chance of an upgrade. Clearly, because the seats were sold, there was no damage caused by what I did.

Nevertheless, what I did was wrong. I apologize. It won’t happen again.

American blamed him for “inventory shrinkage” and blocked his AAdvantage account, apparently stripping him of 800,000 miles and eight unused VIP upgrades.

I’ve seen this kind of thing before.

Downey didn’t have a strong case. American Airlines can pretty much do whatever it wants to with your miles, including deleting all of them, if it wants to.

I recommended sending a brief, polite and apologetic letter to American. He did.

A month later, he called.

They were on the cusp of sending me a demand letter, giving me a choice of paying $22,000 for their perceived “inventory spoilage” or forfeit 100,000 miles. I took the miles ding, but will complain again in writing, since they had sold all the seats by departure anyway.

Meanwhile, United did a status match, so AA has lost me as a flyer. Since they put a hold on my account, it’s cost them over $5,000 of real lost revenue. And United’s Economy Plus is so much better that coach on AA, if I don’t get an upgrade.

So the lesson here, of course, is: Don’t break the rules. But did American react too harshly by demanding he pay $22,000 or 100,000 miles?

I think so. That’s not to say what Downey did wasn’t wrong. It’s just that he’s also a customer — a very good customer. And now, a former customer.

(Photo: boeing dream scape/Flickr Creative Commons)

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